2017 Grateful 51

You don’t have to look very far on Facebook and other social media to see people’s reaction to the current cold front that is sweeping Europe. It’s bloody freezing. Perishing. Mind-numbingly cold. And for those of us who have homes to go to, we can bitch and moan to our hearts’ content knowing that our discomfort is temporary. Fleeting, even. We can even opt to stay at home and not stir outside until the weather starts cooperating. But for hundreds if not thousands of others in cities like Budapest, life is a tad different.

They have no homes to go to. And perhaps for some who do, they’re faced with the heat or eat dilemma. Money is tight and people have to make decisions based on need. One homeless activist told of how he personally had taken ten dead people from their homes last winter – they’d died of hyperthermia, in situ, having chosen to eat.

There’s been a homeless chap camped under an archway on our street for the last few months. I’ve never seen him drunk or belligerent. He keeps his stuff tidy. And he always looks neat and relatively clean. He can leave his stash and it’s left undisturbed. No one bothers him. He seems to hold himself apart. When we’ve had occasion to interact, he is pleasant and sweet. A nice lad who could be anything from late 30s to early 50s. It’s difficult to tell.

When the cold spell hit, we were worried as he was showing no move to go to a shelter. We talked of inviting him home but this brought up a litany of concerns mostly stemming from the fact that our Hungarian and his English were nowhere close to facilitating a conversation that didn’t run the risk of being misunderstood. What if he was mentally unstable? What if he threw a fit? What if he was allergic to nuts? What if, what if, what if…

But the biggest what if was what if he died during the night and we had done nothing? In the UK you can call a number to report where someone homeless is camping out so that those working to help can come and do their thing. We rang a Hungarian friend to see if there was a  local equivalent. When we explained what was going on, she offered to come with us to talk to him and see what he wanted to do. He didn’t want to go to a shelter, even though one locally would have taken him in. He was adamant. It was dangerous in there. He preferred to take his chances on the street. He was working down on Mester utca during the day so only needed to get through the night. He could slip the night watchman a few forints and he’d let him sleep inside the building he was camped outside. We bought him dinner; she gave him money, and the next day he was alive. That was Thursday.

On Friday, as I was walking by, two policemen were talking to him. From what I could gather without loitering with intent, it seemed that he was still refusing to go a shelter. When they’d gone, I went back and slipped him some money for his bribe, feeling his hands to make sure he was warm. An hour later, a visiting friend told me she’d seen the cops there and she’d thought he had died. But I think they made him go inside, because he was back the next morning.

Respecting his right to decide, we brought him food and blankets to make the decision a little easier, and added money to facilitate his choice. Our conversation is always pleasant and he seems quite okay. But around the city, in the underpasses, other homeless are not coping as well. Cheap booze is fueling what often seems like a death wish. It’s hard to watch.

Budapest Bike Mafia and other activist groups are collecting blankets and food donations to distribute around the city. And when one of the city’s most socially conscious pub – The Caledonia – stepped up to help, we didn’t need to be asked twice. On Sunday morning, we went shopping for ingredients to make 200 portions of goulash soup to be distributed throughout Sunday night and 200 portions of a healthy tomato soup for Monday. We retired to The Caledonia and sliced and diced and cooked it all up. Kilos and kilos of fresh veg and meat. It was distributed that evening by volunteers from the Age of Hope Foundation who stepped in to help out those from Menedèk. Job done. Conscience appeased. And it felt good, damn good, to do something constructive. Giving money is easy, but when it comes to getting bang for your buck, using the money you could donate to buy ingredients and then help prep and cook is far more rewarding.

caleAkós from Age of Hope has said that they’d be happy to distribute more this week, if there is food to distribute. The shopping list, when it comes to feeding 400, is expensive. So we thought – why not ask others to contribute… and to help. Chopping onions, when done in volume, is a Zen-like experience. Ditto for peeling carrots. It can be very meditative.

What’s needed:

  • Onions
  • Celeraic
  • Fresh paprikas (the TV sort, I think they call them)
  • Carrots
  • Potatoes
  • Tomatoes (fresh and tinned)
  • Garlic
  • Gulyas meat
  • Paper bowls/cups for hot soup with lids (Metro has them :-))

You can drop off all donations to the Caledonia, Budapest, Mozsár u. 9, 1066. They’re open from 2pm. And sure when you’re there, stay and have a drink and chop some veg. Restorative therapy has never been so cheap. You can make a difference. I am grateful to have had the experience. Thanks to Zsuzsa & Co. for making it happen.

Tip – Suck on a teaspoon while you’re chopping the onions and you won’t cry. It works.


Alcoholics, bar tabs, and bonds

I consider myself reasonably intelligent with a modicum of nous.  I make an effort to keep abreast of what’s going on in the world, particularly in my little corner here in Budapest. I read what I can, when I can. I ask questions. I initiate discussions. I’m not afraid to show my ignorance if I am sure of learning something by doing so. I will even own up to being irritating on occasion – following each pronouncement with a ‘but why?’ would drive any one patient enough to explain things to me to drink.

Above all, I know my limits. I will never, for instance, understand the crazy laws that threatens the closure of the Caledonia, a pub on Mozsár utca. Co-owner and friend, Zsuzsanna Bozo tried to explain it to me (bless her patience) but I just don’t get it. Why is having two bottles of the same booze open in a pub such a no-no? Why is having open bottles of booze in a kitchen when the menu clearly calls for alcohol as an ingredient a non-starter. So rather than waste any more of my limited brain cells in trying to make sense of it all, I turned my attention to less complicated matters: Economics 2012.

I was fortunate enough to meet an antipodean recently who had a handle on the whole thing and he explained it to me like this:

Imagine, Mary, that you own a bar in Budapest or in Dublin. It doesn’t much matter. You realise that virtually all of your customers are unemployed alcoholics and, as such, they can no longer afford to drink in your bar. To solve this problem, you come up with new marketing plan that allows your customers to drink now, but pay later. You keep track of the drinks consumed in a ledger (thereby granting the customers loans).

[‘mmm… what about the Government till’, I ask. He sighs: so your bar is in Dublin then.]

Word gets around about your ‘drink now, pay later’ marketing strategy and, as a result, more and more customers flood into your bar. Soon you have the largest sales volume for any bar in Budapest, sorry, I mean Dublin. You’re packed to the gills seven days/nights a week. Because your customers don’t have to pay immediately, they don’t complain when, at regular intervals, you substantiallyincreases your prices for wine and beer, the most consumed beverages.

[Got it… ]

Consequently, your gross sales volume increases massively. Now a young and dynamic vice-president at the local bank recognises that these customer debts constitute valuable future assets. So he increases your borrowing limit. He sees no reason for any undue concern, since he has the debts of the unemployed alcoholics as collateral. At the bank’s corporate headquarters, expert traders figure a way to make huge commissions, and transform these customer loans into Drinkbonds andAlkibonds.


These securities are then bundled and traded on international security markets. Naïve investors don’t really understand that the securities being sold to them as ‘AAA’ secured bonds are really the debts of unemployed alcoholics. Nevertheless, the bond prices continuously climb, and the securities soon become the hottest-selling items forsome of the nation’s leading brokerage houses.

One day, even though the bond prices are still climbing, a risk manager at your local bank decides that the time has come to demand payment on the debts incurred by the drinkers at your bar and he lets you know. You’ve no option but to demand payment from your alcoholic patrons. But they’re unemployed alcoholics and have no money so can’t pay their bar tabs. Since you can’t fulfil your loan obligations, you’re forced into bankruptcy. Your bar closes and eleven employees lose their jobs.

[Always the way – the employees suffer – same as the Caledonia!]

Overnight, Drinkbonds and Alkibonds drop in price by 90%. The collapsed bond asset value destroys the bank’s liquidity and prevents it from issuing new loans, thus freezing credit and economic activity in the city. Your suppliers had granted you generous payment extensions and had invested their firms’ pension funds in the various Bond securities. They find they are now faced with having to write-off your bad debt and lose over 90% of the presumed value of the bonds. Your wine supplier also claims bankruptcy, closing the doors on a family business that had endured for three generations. Your beer supplier is taken over by a competitor, who immediately closes the local plant and lays off 150 workers.

Fortunately though, the bank, the brokerage houses and their respective executives are saved and bailed out by a multi-billion euro no-strings-attached cash infusion from their cronies in government.The funds required for this bailout are obtained by new taxes levied on employed, middle-class, non-drinkers who have never been in your bar.

‘Do you get it’, he asked, looking at me expectantly. I sighed… nodded… and said ‘I need a drink’.

First published in the Budapest Times 11 October 2012