2015 Grateful 44

Last count, I’d reinvented myself eight times. Eight times, I’ve started over, begun a new life, moved to a new city or country where no one knew me for much longer than I’d been there. I could be whomever  or whatever I chose to be.

I didn’t invent a past that I couldn’t legitimately lay claim to. I didn’t invent stories of past achievements or gloss over ones of pain and loss. I didn’t change my principles and beliefs. I simply made a conscious choice of what I would share and with whom and perhaps more importantly, how I would live my life.

Most of the time, this was quite freeing. To be able to wipe the slate clean and start anew, learning from past mistakes, that’s a gift to be treasured. Eight times, I resolved to do things differently:  to be more selective about the company I kept, to be more deliberate in the work I chose to do, to be more conscious about how I lived my life. I wasn’t always successful, but I tried.

But some times, it was quite limiting. Those days when I was so fed up with explaining myself that I longed for someone who could identify with the litany of neuroses that come with being Irish. I craved an ear that would listen to my woes and then fix it all with a sympathetic shrug and a call for another pint.  I wanted to be able to sit in company and say nothing and still have everything understood.

There have been times during these eight reinventions when I’ve lost sight of what I wanted to be. Times when I was so caught up in day-to-day living that any grander plan I might have had took a back seat.  And then there were times when life stood still and the realisation that no one within driving distance knew me, really knew me, suffused me in the grey light of loneliness.

There’s something comforting about being with old friends, people who have known me for years, and years, and years. The easy way that conversation flows across the table, evoking memories of times past, and even bringing to light things that had never before been part of the common lore. Sitting around a table in the local, focusing on those present and not on incoming texts or who is coming through the door. We weren’t expecting anyone. We were all there. And then after last call, the suggestion to head into town to Bruxelles taken up by three of us in whom the weakness was very strong. Unplanned. Spontaneous. Living the moment.

20150227_022039_resized20150227_022006_resizedBruxelles has a few things going for it, other than the fact that it opens late. It’s age appropriate. The music is recognisable. And it doesn’t matter where you dance. Or with whom. A cracking night on the tiles in Dublin and one that didn’t take a lot of recovering from.

Then down home to see the inimitable SF, a classmate from the Class of ’83, trip the light fantastic in a Strictly Come Dancing fundraiser. Eighteen couples took to the stage, having been coached by professional dancers. They’d been practicing for weeks, a practice that showed in some more than others. But the courage to get up there, don the glad rags, and strut their stuff in front of 600 or so friends and neighbours and colleagues. Amazing.

If I had to pick one national characteristic that makes me proud to be Irish, it’s the sense of community volunteerism. From local GAA clubs to Parent/Teacher associations to Tidy Towns committees, unpaid volunteers hold up their hands and step forward. Others agree to put their reputations on the line and take to the stage to raise money for some worthy cause. And the crowds come out, en masse, to support them. Rumours of €50 000 being made from tickets sales, raffle tickets, and sponsorship appear to be well founded. And that’s for one night (albeit the culmination of weeks of work on the part of so many). Remarkable.

Up until a couple of years ago, I’d lost touch with the class but did those silent 30 years matter? Not a whit. And it comes back to that shared background, those shared experiences, the shared memories. And while we might have taken different paths and chosen different lives, we all started from the same village school and that starting point is a fixture that is one of the many North Stars that guide my life.

As decisions are made and new paths unfold, I’m grateful for the structure and the security that old friends provide. For their advice and their wisdom, and for the learning their experiences provide.

PS C’mon the boys in green!!!






Rubbing the magic lamp

Being branded an expat in a foreign city comes with many labels and tags. At first meeting, many assumptions are made and the usual litany of questions is asked. Being a woman, there’s the assumption that I’m here because of my husband. When that gets a shake of the head, it’s assumed that I’m here because of my job. When that gets another shake of the head, the words ‘independently wealthy’ flutter around the conversation, remaining unspoken, while the question every expat has had to answer more than once is finally issued. What are you doing in Budapest?

There are all sorts of answers to that, depending on the day. I dislike being tagged an expat, although I’ve long since resigned myself to the fact that it is something I will always be, as long as I choose to live in Budapest. What amuses me though, is the mistaken assumption that because I’m foreign, I have money. And, unfortunately, when you’re not on an expat package, or didn’t come over in the early 1990s and set up business then, it’s rarely the case.

This monetary divide splits the expat community into two: those who have the wherewithal to attend the many worthy big-ticket charity dinners and balls that go on in the city and those who simply don’t. But that shouldn’t exclude us from contributing in some form or fashion to the countless hundreds of charity initiatives that form part of the social conscience of the city we have chosen to call home.

Last week, I met the Patzauers, Éva and Gábor, the husband-and-wife team who founded Csodalámpa Alapítvány (the Magic Lamp Foundation). They lost their young daughter, Dóri, back in 2003. She was just eight and a half when she died and had been sick for eighteen months. During that time, this remarkable couple realised that children like Dóri, grappling with a terminal illness, need a special kind of emotional support to help them through. Their young lives, so often cut far too short, need a special ray of hope; they deserve to have their wishes come true.

The Patzauers set up Csodalámpa and in their first year, granted wishes to two children. In 2013, ten years later, they granted 287. Remarkable. Nine-year-old Csaba who dreamed of being a goalkeeper got to play with the Hungarian National Football team. Milla (10), Fanni (15), and Melissa (16) went to Rome to play with the dolphins. Harry Potter fans Vivien (9) and Marci (6) spent the day at Hogwarts.

That night, I also met Réka, a beautiful young woman who radiates hope and joy. Her wish was to meet her hero Johnny Depp. I shook the hand that had held the hand of Johnny D. Some six months after meeting him (they’re still in touch, by the way), Réka got the all-clear. A miracle.

1586_Daniel_ 017 (800x600)To raise funds, Csodalámpa organises fashion shows, concerts, and comedy nights. They run cookery classes – the Wish Kitchen – where supporters take classes from top chefs in town. In cooperation with Libri booksellers, actors in five cities regularly sing and read to kids in Csodalámpa reading corners. No wish is too big or too small. Whether it’s a box of Lego (Dániel, 4, pictured) or a visit with the Pope, the Foundation finds a way to make it happen.

There is room for all kinds of support and all are welcome. Check their website for how you can contribute. And if time is a luxury, think about contributing to their crowdfunding campaign. Every forint helps. Five minutes of your time and a few forints can make a big difference to some young person’s life. It’s not much to ask. Not much at all.

First published in the Budapest Times on 27 February 2015.



We used to build civilisations…

I’m addlepated, confounded, confused, mixed-up, muddle-headed, perplexed, turbid, and downright megrökönyödött (startled). Are we not in a recession? Are we not experiencing a spate of global financial crises? Are we not feeling the pinch?  Out there, in the real world, economies are shrinking, and unemployment is growing. A significant number of Hungarians are faced with increasing foreign currency mortgage repayments from forint salaries that are barely keeping up with inflation. People are finding it hard to keep their heads above water and are looking forward to the heat of the summer as a welcome respite to winter-high gas bills. Brown envelopes continue to deprive the revenue collector of his dues and the black economy is expanding in line with a growing national cynicism. No one, it would seem, has any extra money to throw around. Wants have definitely taken a backseat to needs. Belts are being tightened, cloths are being cut to measure, and frugality is coming back into fashion.

Now we build shopping centres…

If average household consumption is falling in Hungary (down 2.1% last year), who then will keep the newly opened 5300 m2 Europeum shopping centre afloat? What does its target market look like? Surely not pensioners, who are hard pushed to manage on their 60,000 forint per month stipend? (€225,$325).  And another two shopping centres are scheduled to open their tills to the masses later this year: KÖKI at Kobanya-Kispest and Váci I in downtown Budapest. These follow hot on the heels of Corvin sétány in District VIII and supplement the already ample cohort of Allee, Arena, Árkád, Budagyöngye, Campona, Duna Plaza, Europark, Lurdy Ház, Mammut I, Mammut II, MOM Park, Pólus Centre, WestEnd… just how many shopping centres do we have in Budapest and, bearing in mind that the city’s population is on a downward trajectory, just how many more do we really need?

Back in the days of ancient Greece, business, trade, and government convened at the agora. In the Orient, bazaars added a social element. Closer to home, farmers went to the market to mingle, barter, and catch up with what was going on. The onset of the Industrial Revolution, and the mass transit from countryside to city, heralded the birth of a larger middle class…and these middle class folk had money. Work started to interfere with social lives and shops began to stay open seven days a week to cater for the growing needs of an increasingly affluent society. Shopping on market days was no longer an eagerly anticipated social event; if anything it became a chore. Nineteenth-century arcades morphed into the shopping centres we have today. But are people really spending enough money to keep these behemoths awash in profits, or have these centres, built with economics and profit in mind, simply become ‘safe’ places for people to hang out, drink coffee, meet friends, and shelter from the elements, be they hot or cold!

Try this one on for size…

While all these brand new shopping centres are launching themselves at a less-than-affluent public, Budapest’s finest are swimming towards the second-hand British clothes shops that are breaking waves all over the city. According to the economic daily Napi Gazdaság, in 2009, the number of used clothes shops in Budapest tripled. With so many in dire straits because of those unfortunate foreign currency mortgages, and our growing collective environmental conscience, second-hand clothes are one stroke ahead of high-street fashion.

Earlier this year, an article in the British newspaper, The Guardian, confirmed what I’d suspected for years. Ever since I took a trip up Bartók Béla utca early one morning and saw white vans offloading what looked suspiciously like the charity sacks I remember so well from the UK, I’ve wondered whether the unsuspecting British public knows where its glad-rags are ending up.  They donate to charities such as the Salvation Army, thinking that all the profits go towards doing some good, somewhere in the world. They don’t suspect for a minute that these charities then turn and sign private sector deals to recycle their cast-off clothes, netting private individuals millions in profits. One second-generation textiles trader alone is reputed to have earned £10 million in just five years! Apparently, the Salvation Army sells hundreds of tonnes of donated clothes each year to Hungary alone.

One could argue that it doesn’t really matter who else benefits as long as the charity gets a significant portion of the profits, but I beg to differ. I like my decisions to be informed. The Fundraising Standards Board in the UK, as if hearing my cry for transparency, is now demanding clearer labelling of house-to-house collections and clothes banks.

But I digress… back to those shopping centres… are they simply overpriced mansions for the plázacicak?

First published in the Budapest Times 18 April 2011.