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So … I might have been wrong

For years I’ve been rather mean to the city of Prague. Not because of anything it did to me or because of anything bad that happened while I was there. Yet since I’ve lived more on than off in Budapest, I’ve come to regard Prague as falling short in the beauty stakes in comparison. I’m mad about Budapest. Yes, she can be a cranky cow at times, and she has her drab and dreary days, but for the most part, she’s consistently stunning. Prague, on the other hand, didn’t leave any lasting memories with me other than the Charles Bridge and the difficulty in finding local spots with local people. She didn’t leave much of an impression. And all these years, I’ve been doing her a huge injustice.

IMG_2859 (800x583)Given a clear sky on a cold night, she looks rather well. I’d even go so far as to say that there were a couple of ‘wow’ moments.

IMG_2855 (600x800)I’m the first to admit when I’m wrong (not from any heightened sense of fairness, mind you – I’d simply prefer not to give anyone else the satisfaction of pointing it out to me). So let this be a public confession. To everyone I advised to skip Prague in favour of Budapest, I stand my ground. While the competition might have gotten a little tougher, Budapest still gets my vote. To those to whom I offered Vienna, Bratislava, and Berlin as better alternatives, my apologies. I stand corrected.

IMG_2887 (800x600)The one drawback about the city is still the number of tourists. Even at 8pm on a freezing night in March, the old town was packed to capacity. The eggshells on Charles Bridge were cracking under the weight of the footfall. Walking a straight line was practically impossible. At least this time though, the stag parties were notable by their absence. Back in 2002, Prague might just have been at the peak of its attraction and I’d say she’s relieved that the boys have moved on.

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2013 Grateful 40

I’ve had a series of peculiar things happen lately. In Munich airport last week, I picked up my phone to send an SMS to check on dinner plans that night in Budapest. Before I could type a letter, it beeped with an incoming SMS asking me that very same question. A couple of days later, I again picked up my phone to text a reminder to send contact details I needed. Again, it beeped before I could put finger to button and the message? The phone number I needed.

Fair enough. These things happen. I’ve been known to addle a few minds by answering unspoken questions.  This time though, I was on the receiving end. And both involved the same person. Perhaps I’m being oversensitive or am overexposed. Had it ended there, I’d have thought no more of it except perhaps to suggest he add some basic form of telepathy to an already accomplished list of accomplishments.

teaI went to make a cup of tea during the week and found the tea caddy empty. No Barry’s! All I’d left was a drawer of funny-flavoured teas and I wasn’t quite that desperate. As I was dealing in childlike fashion with my disappointment, the doorbell rang. And there stood the postman, parcel in hand. In it? Some Barry’s Tea from the lovely Messes Stein and Nugent. Timing or what?

In Prague on Thursday, wandering the streets, I wondered fleetingly where O’Ché’s pub might be. I’d heard MH & Co talking about it and was vaguely curious to see it. Not curious enough to look up the address beforehand, mind you, but curious enough, nonetheless.  I turned a corner and there it was, as if manifested by magic.

The lovely LN on her last trip to Budapest had mentioned a ceramic phenomenon called the Prague Ladies. I couldn’t remember where she’d found them or which end of what bridge they were on. On Friday evening,  as I reached the top of the steps to Charles Bridge, I went for my phone to text and ask. Just before I pressed the send button, I looked up into a shop window and there they were…

It seems as if things just keep on happening as I need them to happen. You’ll know, of course, that I am in Prague this weekend for a reason. I scattered Lori’s ashes from the Bridge on Friday and cried myself silly. Then, I got back to the flat we’d rented and logged on to find a host of messages from friends sending me good thoughts (thank you all). In amongst them was an e-mail that said: ‘I feel that Lori wants you to know this …..’ addressed to me as ‘Hey Girl’ – just as she would have done herself.

I wish so much you wouldn’t cry the way you did today
While thinking of the many things we didn’t get to say.
I know how much you love me, as much as I love you,
And each time that you think of me, I know you’ll miss me too.

At the end of what has been a week of high highs and low lows, I’ve decided to stop questioning why these things are happening. Call it synchronicity or whatever… labels don’t mean as much as they used to.  I prefer to think of it as a guiding hand from heaven. And that thought alone will surely confirm the madness for some 🙂

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Hidden depths

When I was seven, my twenty-year-old cousin was old, which made my forty-year-old aunt very old and my grandmother positively ancient. Age was relative – relative to me. If I were to apply this same logic today, I’d have just passed the ‘very old’ mark and would be making slow but steady progress towards antiquity.

I have an inbuilt ‘carbon-dating’ mechanism when it comes to putting an age on something, or someone. It doesn’t work very well; I’m rarely right. But that doesn’t stop me from attempting to date stamp people, places, and things. I grew up with expressions that lent credence and respect to the aging process and helped somehow to give register to age:  as old as Methuselah, as old as the hills, as old as humanity. The fact that I didn’t know who Methuselah was, or which hills, or when humanity actually began was irrelevant. These expressions gave voice to the sentiment that age could be referenced; it could be put into context without having to know the exact ‘when’.

Age is relative

The concept of age fascinates me, not so much as a labelling device but more as a testimony to endurance. In today’s throw-away society, there’s something very comforting in knowing that some things have been around…well, forever. They have a fixed place in our collective memory, and indeed in the memories of all those who have gone before us.

On my register, Hinduism is the oldest religion; Damascus is the oldest city; and wrestling is the oldest sport. Ireland has the oldest known fields in the world (the céide fields which come complete with original stone walls); Hungary has the second oldest metro system; and Oxford, the third oldest university. It wasn’t until I moved to the USA that I fully appreciated the newness of old. I lived in Longview, Washington, a city the same age as Northern Ireland. The idea of someone planning and building a city as recently as 1921 surprised me. I visited a plantation house in South Carolina with furniture roped off to preserve it because it was so old; that same furniture would have looked at home in my grandmother’s sitting room.

Words like ‘vintage’ and ‘antique’ hold a certain appeal for me. The Hungarian word antikvárium trips off the tongue with the same sprightliness as the English word antiquarian, despite there being a world of difference between second-hand and antique.

Standing the test of time

I’m used to old. I like old. And some days, I feel old. And yet, despite my penchant for all things aged, my first visit to the megalithic Mnajdra temples in Malta left me strangely unmoved. It was perhaps their crudity: post and lintel construction with large slabs of limestone? Yep, about as interesting as a pile of rocks in a field. Ditto with Ħaġar Qim. I learned something new about myself. ‘Old’ has to go hand in hand with ‘interesting’ – age for age’s sake just doesn’t cut it anymore. So when a friend suggested visiting the hypogeum at Ħal-Saflieni, I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit. Malta and her ruins just weren’t registering!

The hypogeum is an underground temple consisting of three floors with a series of interconnecting chambers, the most stunning of which is the ‘Holy of Holies’, a beautifully carved replica of a temple facade. Hewn from rock using stone hammers, chisels, flint blades, and antler picks nearly 5000 years ago, it is a true testament to patience and perserverance. It personifies the best of both words – old and interesting. When it was first discovered, back in 1902, the remains of over 7000 people were found deep in its chambers. But even more amazing still, it’s in the middle of the town of Paola, down a side street, beneath a row of houses!

Eyes to heaven

When I walk, I tend to look up, at gargoyles, at rooftops, at church steeples. But since my visit to the hypogeum, I’ve been thinking a little more about what I might be walking over. Little did I know that all those times I walked across the Charles Bridge in Prague I was actually walking on eggshells. Or that while strolling along Via Appia in Rome, a parallel world of catacombs snaked beneath my feet. Strolling through the old city of Mdina last week I was surprised to hear that there is an old Roman city lying underground.

It’s made me look at Budapest in a new light. So much of what I see in this city is above ground: spectacular buildings, contemporary graffiti, myriad statues. But what lies beneath? Underground? Is there a depth to this city, as is so often found in her people, that remains largely unexplored?

First published in the Budapest Times 27 February 2011