2017 Grateful 2

Some of us have defining Christmas moments, that exact time when we realise that it’s Christmas. It can be shopping on Christmas Eve, the first eggnog, the first piece of Turkey. Perhaps it’s not till Christmas morning that the penny drops or maybe it’s the office party. It could be the arrival of the first Christmas card or the opening of the first box of Cadbury’s Roses. For me, it’s when I hear Fairytale of New York for the first time. The original version by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl.

I have memories from years back of SN, home from NY, getting up on the couch and belting it out in Northbrook. I have memories of AMcC doing something similar. I have mental images of stopping still in London as it came over the airwaves or giving it gusto, turning the CD up full blast as I drove the Richardson Highway in Alaska. But until this year, I never knew the story behind it. The bet behind it.

Over annual Christmas pints with old friends from the Bank, DS explained that Elvis Costello had bet Shane McGowan that he couldn’t write a Christmas duet to sing with Cait O’Riordan (Costello’s future wife and then bass player with The Pogues), a song that didn’t mention Santa Claus or presents or Christmas trees – or any of the usual stuff that goes into Christmas hits. That’s the version I like (and the one Shane McGowan tells too). But there’s another version. Accordion player James Fearnley says that back in the day, manager Frank Murray suggested that The Pogues do a cover version of Christmas Must Be Tonight. But, he said: “It was an awful song. We probably said, fuck that, we can do our own.” I prefer McGowan’s story.

This year, I heard Ed Sheeran’s attempt to cover the song with Anne-Marie – and I cried. It was tantamount to blasphemy. And he rewrote the line ‘you cheap lousy faggot’ to ‘you cheap lousy blaggard’. When Ronan Keating and Maire Brennan mangled their version, they changed the line to ‘you’re cheap and you’re haggard’. Why? Why? Why? If I could give a present to the world this year, it would be context. Forget sanitizing or rewriting history – it was what it was in the time that it was. Let it be – just don’t forget the context.

Released for Christmas 1987, and billed as ‘an unreal fantasy of 1940s New York dreamed up in 1980s London’, this classic makes my Christmas. BBC Arts did a number on it last week and I learned that the title is nicked from JP Donleavy’s novel A Fairytale of New York. I hadn’t realised that Christy Moore had covered it, on his own, too, in the 1990s. And that version, apparently, Shane likes.

But for all the times I’ve heard it, for all the times I’ve sung along, I’ve never quite realised how sad it is… and perhaps that’s what appeals to me. A little bit of realism at a time when the world is caught up in the commercialism of it all, the TV version of Christmas.

“Fairytale Of New York”

It was Christmas Eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me,
Won’t see another one
And then he sang a song
The Rare Old Mountain Dew
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you
Got on a lucky one
Came in eighteen to one
I’ve got a feeling
This year’s for me and you
So happy Christmas
I love you baby
I can see a better time
When all our dreams come true
They’ve got cars
Big as bars
They’ve got rivers of gold
But the wind goes right through you
It’s no place for the oldWhen you first took my hand
On a cold Christmas Eve
You promised me
Broadway was waiting for meYou were handsome
You were pretty
Queen of New York City
When the band finished playing
They howled out for more
Sinatra was swinging
All the drunks they were singing
We kissed on the corner
Then danced through the night

The boys of the NYPD choir
Were singing ‘Galway Bay’
And the bells are ringing
Out for Christmas day

You’re a bum
You’re a punk
You’re an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead
On a drip in that bed

You scumbag
You maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God
It’s our last

The boys of the NYPD choir
Still singing ‘Galway Bay’
And the bells are ringing
Out for Christmas day

I could have been someone
Well, so could anyone
You took my dreams
From me when I first found you
I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can’t make it all alone
I’ve built my dreams around you

The boys of the NYPD choir
Still singing ‘Galway Bay’
And the bells are ringing
Out for Christmas day

That last verse gets me every time.

Christmas 2017 dawned for me on Thursday night, in the Shakespeare in Dublin, when the song came over the air and the company embraced it. There might have been 40+ years in the age span from old to young, but nobody noticed. And while I might have been grateful the next day had someone pointed out that I’m not as young as I think I am, I wouldn’t have thanked them on the night. ‘Tis good to know that when the occasion calls for it, I can still find the wherewithal to keep pace. And for that I’m grateful. And that I don’t have to make it alone… well, that’s another reason to keep singing.


2015 Grateful 2

Tradition is a wonderful thing. It lends a certainty to uncertain times, anchors us in times of change, and wraps us in the comfort of familiarity. Every year, the party at Craigford brings together a bunch of usual suspects, some of whom I won’t have seen all year. But even if a year has passed, it seems more like weeks than months since we were all together last.

Every year, those of us who are free, show up in the afternoon to transform the house from December to Christmas. One of my jobs is to hang the Christmas cards. Another is to iron. A third is to  help out in the kitchen. This year we were ahead of schedule, and ready a full five minutes before the first guests arrived. It’s nothing if not hectic.

The inimitable DD has a tradition of his own that he brings along. Each year, we get one of his hand turned wooden Christmas ornaments, collectibles that everyone looks forward to. A souvenir of the year that has passed, something to help us remember the year that was.

Gin me2 (480x640)GF’s mince pies and sausage rolls and LN’s beetroot roulade are staples around which the table is set. An open fire is a must as PM needs somewhere to heat the wine. This year, a new tradition was inaugurated: the Christmas G&T garnished with halved cranberries and springs of rosemary served in a large wine glass. And an old tradition let go: the annual Kris kindle.

For years now, the Craigford party has been my Christmas marker, the night that starts the Holiday festivities.  A real Christmas tonic that brings to mind that classic poem  by Edgar Guest:

A man is at his finest towards the finish of the year;
He is almost what he should be when the Christmas season’s here;
Then he’s thinking more of others than he’s thought the months before,
And the laughter of his children is a joy worth toiling for.
He is less a selfish creature than at any other time;
When the Christmas spirit rules him he comes close to the sublime.
When it’s Christmas man is bigger and is better in his part;
He is keener for the service that is prompted by the heart.
All the petty thoughts and narrow seem to vanish for awhile
And the true reward he’s seeking is the glory of a smile.
Then for others he is toiling and somehow it seems to me
That at Christmas he is almost what God wanted him to be.
If I had to paint a picture of a man I think I’d wait
Till he’d fought his selfish battles and had put aside his hate.
I’d not catch him at his labors when his thoughts are all of pelf,
On the long days and the dreary when he’s striving for himself.
I’d not take him when he’s sneering, when he’s scornful or depressed,
But I’d look for him at Christmas when he’s shining at his best.
Man is ever in a struggle and he’s oft misunderstood;
There are days the worst that’s in him is the master of the good,
But at Christmas kindness rules him and he puts himself aside
And his petty hates are vanquished and his heart is opened wide.
Oh, I don’t know how to say it, but somehow it seems to me
That at Christmas man is almost what God sent him here to be.

Now that Christmas has officially started, I’m grateful for the wonderful bedfellows – friendship and tradition. And I’m thankful, too, to be able to add to my gin repertoire. Here’s to you all…


My wish this Christmas

The world is in a mess, a terrible mess. Decisions being made in the hallowed halls of power in one country are affecting the lives of ordinary people in another. Natural disasters are occurring all too regularly, depriving many of their homes, their jobs, their livelihoods. Unnatural disasters like mass shootings have become so frequent as to warrant little more than a raised eyebrow and a tut-tut from those not affected. Our morals are skewed and our values warped. We have relinquished control of our lives, lives that are now dictated by a constant search for success, be it material, fame, or power.

I can do nothing to change the world at large. I can’t stop the wars. I can’t reverse climate change. I can’t eradicate poverty. And much as I would like to, I can’t turn the clock back to an era where family and friends came before work and progress on our list of priorities. But that doesn’t stop me wishing it would all get better, that we would find a way to live together in peace and harmony, to share our resources, and to look out for our fellow man. Yet where would we start?

I’m writing this from India. I’ve been here for a week now and have been struck, once again, by the hospitality of the people, the pride they take in a job well done, and their constant good humour. When they smile their infectious smile, it’s as if someone switches on a light inside them. They’re quick to laugh, and seem to take genuine pleasure out of ordinary, simple interactions.

Take the service industry as a case in point. Nothing is too much trouble. Everyone is so obliging. And the attention to detail is meticulous. Whether it’s the auto-rickshaw driver or the hotel chauffeur, the concierge or the officer janitor, the shop assistant or the restaurant manager – each one seems to want to do what they can to make my life better. And the more I express my gratitude ‒ a simple thank you, an acknowledgement of what they’ve done ‒ the better it gets.

I made a lot of comparisons with Hungary and Ireland over the first couple of days, mostly unfavourable ones. If I could wave a magic wand, I would arrange for customer service everywhere to be like it is in India. It’s so refreshing not to see miserable faces, not to have to deal with recalcitrant attitudes, not to be dragged down by bad moods and foul humours.

And it’s not just the service industry. I’ve met a lot of different people in different cities and circumstances, people from all over India. And each one delights in the ordinary. It’s contagious. It’s hard to complain when all around you are actively looking for the best in everything. It’s hard to be negative when those with so little can still smile. It’s hard to be unhappy when everyone you meet finds joy in simply being alive.

None of this is new. As far back as the fourteenth century, Amir Khusro, poet-courtier-soldier-chronicler-linguist, nailed it:

How exhilarating is the atmosphere of India!
There cannot be a better teacher than the way of life of its people.
If any foreigner comes by, he will have to ask for nothing
Because they treat him as their own,
Play an excellent host and win his heart,
And show him how to smile like a flower.

My Christmas wish is that we might be infected by the spirit of India and learn to take delight in the ordinary, to appreciate those around us, and to count our blessings rather than our burdens.

Nollaig shona daoibh go léir.

First published in the Budapest Times 11 December 2015

Wrapping the intangible

There’s something in the air that smells remarkably like goodwill mixed with the heady fumes of mulled wine and grog. I’ve noticed a subtle change in the general level of niceness floating around as people jostle good-naturedly through the Christmas markets without complaint. I’d nearly go so far as to say that we’re all a little bit better disposed towards our fellow man.


It’s a time for reminiscing, remembering those who have gone before us and others who won’t make it home this year. A Hungarian friend recently told me a story that both saddened me and restored my faith in love and life.

christ3She has a friend in his early nineties who survived the concentration camps of WWII. He returned to Budapest after the war to find strangers living in his house. His family were dead. He had nothing, no one. He spent some time in the States before eventually moving back to Hungary. Today, he’s in hospital, where he has been for a month now; when he does get out it will be to a sanatorium. He’s fortunate that, as a Holocaust survivor, he has the support of a Jewish foundation that ensures he has a nurse visit him twice daily. Without her visits, and those of my friend, it is doubtful that he would have survived his time in hospital where things are bleak at best; food is left on bedside lockers untouched if the patient hasn’t the wherewithal to feed themselves, or hasn’t a friend or relative to do it for them.

His wife of 48 years would be there if she could, but she can’t. She is at home, bedridden, in a full-leg cast, with a broken knee. She is in her sixties, far younger than him. They have no family. This is the longest they have been apart. When they married, she was just 19. People thought her mad – he’d soon be old and then where would she be? She said that if she had ten good years with the man she loved, it would be worth it. They’ve had much more.

They communicate by phone, separated as they are by circumstance and their respective disabilities. They miss each other terribly. They are the light of each others life and want nothing more than to be together. And they’re not.

In the coming weeks, our skies and roads will be full of people travelling home for the holidays – some because they want to, others because of familial duty and obligation. Families will be reunited. Grandchildren will be hugged for the first time. Lovers, separated by economic necessity, will cram a month of living into a few days. Children will split their time between divorced and separated parents. Many will spend the holidays in hospital or at home alone. The fortunate amongst us – those with friends and family we can be with – are in danger of taking it all for granted, forgetting to count our blessings and give thanks, instead losing ourselves in the commercial mania that is Christmas.

We will be scavenging christthe shops and markets in an effort to fulfill other people’s expectations of want. I’m no exception. But as is my wont at this time of year, I am revisiting the list made by novelist Oren Arnold (1900–1980) when asked for suggestions as to what to give for Christmas:

To your enemy, forgiveness.
To an opponent, tolerance.
To a friend, your heart.
To a customer, service.
To all, charity.
To every child, a good example.
To yourself, respect.

Now if only I could figure out how I might wrap them …

Wherever you are this Christmas, my wish for you is that you are at peace with yourself. Nollaig shona daoibh go léir.

First published in the Budapest Times 12 December 2014

A change of heart

The last time I was in Zurich, some random individual (male) got on the tram and started whaling on me with a rolled-up magazine. It hurt. Okay, so I had been staring mindlessly out the window and he got caught in my crosshairs. I hadn’t actually been looking at him – it was more like he got in the way of my stare.

Anyway, he took offence, came aboard, and started on me. Rolled-up magazines are formidable weapons. They hurt. But what hurt most was that I was in law-abiding Switzerland and no one came to my aid. Whatever invectives he was shouting act me must have given our general audience cause to believe that we were embroiled in some sort of domestic dispute, so they kept their distance. In fact, they did more: they got up and moved away. He calmed down and sat down, and I stayed seated, rooted to the spot, hoping he’d get off at the next stop because I wasn’t capable of thinking enough to safely put one foot in front of the other. But he didn’t. When he stood, it was to turn on me … again.

Fast forward 20 years and I find myself with an invite from good friends to visit them in Zurich. Understandably, I have no great love for the city. What sights there were back then had been swallowed whole by the memory of Mr Magazine. But it wasn’t Zurich I was going to see.

My mother is fond of reminding me of the beatitude – blessed is she who expects nothing for she shall never be disappointed – and I can add to that now… expect nothing and you might even be pleasantly surprised.

IMG_9276 (800x600) (800x600)IMG_9333 (590x800)Zurich at Christmas is delightful. The Bahnhofstrasse is lit up by  lights they have named ‘Lucy’. Strings of lights are suspended across the street creating an illusions of falling stars. It’s amazing. So simple and yet the effect is one that makes you stop, repeatedly, and wonder. Shop windows epitomise a style that is uniquely Swiss: a little sharper than neighbouring France and a lot less harsh than bordering Germany. The sales boasted hefty discounts, but even with 70% off, the prices were still just that little bit out of reach. Zurich is many things – but it ain’t cheap.

Nicely mellowed by the gluwein and wrapped against the elements, I rediscovered the art of rediscovering. I had a change of heart. Yer man’s face, with the three vertical cuts on his forehead, is a vision that has been superimposed by one of magic and wonder.


Grateful 2

IMG_6919 (800x593)I’ve been in Ireland since Wednesday and have been on an emotional rollercoaster for most of it. This has been my longest absence in years – four and a half months. In the usual run-up to Christmas, people are in a reflective mood and for the most part these reflections make for depressing hearing. Tales of foreclosures, untimely deaths, theft, suicide, and barely making ends meet are rampant. In the villages of Ireland, isolated incidences vault to the top of the list of evidence of why the country is going to the dogs. In Clane, three girls stole four dresses from the local boutique (one each for them and a fourth for the getaway driver). Another girl had her handbag nicked when she was stopped by a man in a car asking directions. His job – to distract her. His partner’s job – to leap out grab the bag and jump back in. And then just last week, the tyres on ten cars were slashed – randomly. And this is just our village.

Taxi drivers in Dublin warn me of the simmering racial angst that is just waiting to explode. They tell me of the drunken mess that Dublin turns into after 2am. They explain the cheap shots and cocktails that have tempted less seasoned drinkers away from the stable fare of beer and wine and have turned our youth into a vomiting mass of blowdried hair teetering on six-inch heels. Add to that heady mix the rumours filtering through that things are kicking off again up North.

For me, Christmas in Ireland is a time of tradition. I’ve been meeting the same three lads every year I’ve been home since I left in 1994. We’ve all aged. And the Bank we used to work in has disappeared, both in spirit and in substance. But Christmas wouldn’t be the same without this annual homage to times gone by. And every year since God knows when, the Nugent-Manning’s have had a Christmas party where people who might not see each other from one end of the year to the next catch up on what’s going on and the morning after is filled with ‘Did you know….’ At home, we say the rosary, sit around, drink tea and catch up on who’s dead or dying. Every Christmas Eve, after mass, our neighbours come in for a drink or three and the whole country is put to rights as opinions abound and experiences are shared.

IMG_6921 (800x567)When I balance the two – tradition and reality – I worry about Ireland’s future. I worry about Hungary, too, but that’s a different sort of concern. For Ireland, I worry about her people. For centuries, we’ve been the toast of the world – everyone wanted us to visit. But now, Australia and the USA are having second thoughts because the type of people we are sending are not of the same calibre. There’s a latent agression – a feeling that the world owes them something – a hardness and a meanness that was never there before. The landscape, too, has changed. Modern architecture sits in subdued silence with the Georgian buildings of old and I can’t help but compare old and new.

I took the bus to Dublin one morning and as I sat, ears ringing from the chorus of disillusion I’d met with the night before, I watched the bus driver. He was a Dub, in his early fifties. He had a word for everyone. The return fare was €9.20 and those that hadn’t the 20 cent were forgiven. He helped people on and off with their bags and wished everyone a Happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year. His good humour never faltered, despite the manic traffic and dangerous drivers. He stopped before a bus stop to pick up a couple making a mad dash for the bus. He stopped beyond one to shorten one woman’s walk in the rain. He sang along to the radio and over the 20 miles slowly restored my faith in Irish nature.

I had a box of Hungarian chocolates in my bag, intended for another home. When we got to Busáras, I was last off. I gave him the chocolates and told him that since I’d been home, I’d heard/seen nothing to give me hope that Ireland would right herself. And then I’d seen him in action. It was shortly after 11am on a Thursday morning in the Central Bus Station in Dublin. The two of us were hugging like long-lost mates, both of us close to tears.

At the end of this penultimate week of 2012, I’m grateful that I got to travel on this man’s bus and see for myself that the spirt of Irishness for which we are famous, is still alive.

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

From the archives

IMG_1244 (800x600)I first visited Budapest in December 2003. Shortly afterwards, I wrote this letter about my impressions. The inimitable DLW, who hoards her correspondence, dug it out of her archives for me. It was fascinating for me to read nearly ten years later, to see how much and how little has changed.

9 December 2003

Hi ya’ll,

Trust you’re all well and truly over Thanksgiving and ready to take on Christmas and the New Year.

I spent the last few days in Budapest – lovely city. We stayed on a boat on the Danube on the Pest side of the river (yes, Buda and Pest are two cities linked by a series of nine bridges across the Danube.) Our boat was moored just by Margrit Bridge, off Margrit Island. Very picturesque altogether and definitely had one up on your normal budget hotel. I had half expected to be lulled asleep by strains of the Blue Danube wafting across the river but never heard it once…

Pest is a lovely city, easy to negotiate, and hard to get lost in. Even with lots of underpasses, it’s surprisingly safe. I’d be hard pushed to wander down an underpass in London late at night but didn’t feel in the least bit threatened while wandering underneath the city. The metro and tram systems are wonderful…trains and trams every 3-4 minutes. Just as well really ’cause it was bitterly cold. It’s got some amazing buildings – Parliament in particular – and you have to wonder how it survived the wars. When you think that in 1919, Hungary was a rather big country gradually annexed off, piece by piece, until it’s now one of the smallest European countries… it sort of explains the sense of purpose that’s evident everywhere – something akin to “You ain’t getting any more, mate!”. People don’t stroll…they’re going somewhere. Life is planned; it has purpose. Queues are orderly, even in the biting cold. The pubs seem to have a secret shift order worked out – Afternoon shift making way for the evening shift making way for the night (pre-dinner) shift etc. (And yes, we did sit through most shifts one evening…)

Considering that communism was alive and kicking as recently as 1990, the locals are happier looking than their Prague counterparts. Again, in contrast, the church was packed to the rafters on Sunday – not as overtly Catholic as Poland, but definitely a healthy proportion still practicing. The House of Terror museum is excellent, depicting life in Hungary through both wars and the revolution. It’s right up there with the Resistance Museum in Amsterdam. very well done. Quite disturbing to walk through a corridor made from bars of Jewish soap…

Most of the major statue relics of communism have been removed from the city to Statue Park in south Buda. We got the bus out there and it was quite depressing. Again, like Prague and the outskirts of Warsaw, the old communist block buildings are dismal. Makes you wonder how conditioned we’ve gotten to our aesthetic lives…. where functionality just isn’t enough. things have to be prettied too. It’s quite something wandering around these giant statues; brings to mind how the Lilliputians felt when Gulliver dropped in.

The highlight of it all though was meeting Dr. Sardis. A volunteer at the Jewish Museum, she survived Birkenau…hearing her speak of her time as a 14-year old in the camps was sobering. She was in the chamber, with other young women, waiting to be gassed, when the order came to ship them out to Germany to work in a munitions factory. Liberated from there in 1945, she  told us of being in a shop as seeing the same Jewish soap on sale…made from real Jewish fat. She’s quite concerned now at the so-called liberating effects of democracy where fascism is viewed as another opinion in a world where everyone is entitled to their opinion. She told us of young neo-nazi groups meeting in the villages outside Budapest; the rising popularity of fascism amongst young people; and her fear that it could all happen again. Add this to the young Polish people talking of how Jews had totally assimilated into Polish society… and you wonder… could it all happen again?

St Nicholas’s Day is December 6 and all the children put shoes out on the windowsills so that St Nicholas can put presents in them. The Christmas spirit was alive and well and it was all quite magical. The big ice ring; the roasting chestnuts; people clutching cups of mulled wine as they wandered around the open-air craft fairs – if only we’d had snow… Surprisingly, while eating out is very reasonable and local beer, wine and cigarettes quite cheap, fashion goods (how’s that for an economic term dredged from the memory) are on a par with London and Dublin. Definitely no bargains to be found. And the Market Hall with its fruit and veg and dead ducks hanging from the rafters, is quite the experience. Like the indoor market in Modena, it would make you want to live around the corner so that you would never have to set foot in a supermarket again…

While not exactly the ‘new Tuscany’, Budapest is a thriving city that reminds me a lot of where Ireland was before she joined the EC. All predictions are that things will take off there in the next few years and the Hungarians will experience their version of the Celtic Tiger. Half of Ireland is buying apartments in the city… watch this space…

So, on the home front, am chasing a job in Dublin…fingers crossed and good vibes to be sent my way please… I really want this one. Should know more in the next couple of weeks. Lots of serendipity at work…contract here up Jan 4th, lease up Jan 4th, running into GMcD (whose company is hiring); being put in touch with the chap who’s hiring to discover I dated him briefly years ago and knit him a jumper! and the constant appearance of a saying I’d only heard once before, when I was leaving Alaska…’a ship is safe in a harbour, but that’s not what ships are built for.

Hopefully, this will be the turning point…

Going home December 18th… will be in touch in the New Year. Have a wonderful holiday…and have one for me!

Beannachtai na Nollaig dhaoibh



Finally … a decision

BZs came to breakfast. I told myself that if he drove, I’d ask him to take me to get a Christmas tree. One of the first things he said when he arrived was ‘Hey, I took public transport for once!’ The tree gods were telling me something. But still I was hankering. KG offered me hers as they are leaving for the holidays. But along with the hankering was the need for immediate gratification. I couldn’t wait till the weekend. I wanted it now. A quick check on Kika’s website showed me one that would do nicely – only thing was, I couldn’t be sure where it was made. Would I go there only to find it was made in China?

IMG_1281 (768x1024)The tree gods were talking to me again. I went. There was one big one left. On sale. And it was made in Poland. [Tip: If you want the world to look at you, carry a 1.5 metre metal tree on the tram and the metro.]

Going through my boxes of ornaments would have been everything I’d hoped it would be had I not been rushing to get a bus to Belgrade.  With time pressing, it was like a whirlwind tour of my life – with ornaments from all over the USA, from Alaska to Louisiana and beyond: a lobster from Maine, Santa on an alligator from Louisiana, cable cars from San Francisco.  Hungary is well represented too, with quite a collection of hand-painted bells, and cornhusk cribs. I have a miniature violin from Strasbourg, a lemon from Modica, a felt angel from Mongolia, and a gorgeous set of carvings from Bethlehem that I can’t place at all.

IMG_1274 (1024x768)Best of all though, I have been cataloguing these ornaments since 1994 – nearly 20 years! I have a record of where each one came from, where I was, when I was there, who I was with, or who brought it back from somewhere. People I knew (and still know), places I visited, places I have yet to visit , birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, births, deaths, marriages – all represented on my trees (yes, I bought two, little and large).

IMG_1237 (800x588)So what brought about this change of heart and mind? Well, I ‘did the markets’ at the weekend. I tried blood sausage in Obuda and was surprised that what I thought was a cranberry … wasn’t. But I survived. In the company of the lovely BS, we figured the safest course of action was to drown the bugs in mulled wine. It worked. We hit the food fair at Hold utca market where I capped off a wild mushroom soup with a rather expensive macaroon. From there we went for some better cake at the Bedő Ház.  On Sunday, we tried hot beer at WAMP and won’t be doing that again in a hurry.

IMG_1249 (800x600)All this wandering about, and seeing the city dressed for the festivities, put a longing on me. I’ve made a note in my diary to stay in Budapest next December for as long as possible. The weather is great – cold dry days with the occasional blue sky. The type of cold that makes me feel alive. [Easy for me to say, I know, when I’m dressed for it – not so nice for those who are not.] It’s that time of year when goodwill abounds – people give to strangers, do good deeds, and generally are a lot nicer to their fellow-man. Dare I say it … I’m getting in the mood! ‘Tis Christmas!!!!

PS: Today is the 12th day of the 12th month in 2012 so at 12 minutes past 12 noon, make a wish.

Grateful 4

Christmas is associated with giving – and unfortunately much of what’s given is unwanted, not needed, and a huge waste of time, effort, and money. Yet the one gift that is most sought after, is also the most difficult to find. Time. Everyone seems to want it and no one seems to have any. It’s all rush, rush, rush, wrap, wrap, wrap. Presents to buy, parties to go to, gifts to give. The mania is well and truly upon us. But we forget, perhaps, that the most meaningful gifts we can give are love, compassion, and  … a hug.

Down at the Topház Speciális Otthon in Göd (a state orphanage) today with a gang of IHBC’s Give a Little campaigners, both time and hugs were in demand. We descended on the place at 10am and then set about entertaining and being entertained. The Lions Club had donated Santa Bags for all the residents and while they danced and sang and recited, we had a tune or two of our own to share.

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It’s impossible to describe what it feels like to have so many hands reaching out to touch you. It’s humbling to know that by simply shaking a hand, or giving a hug, or just letting someone touch your hair, you can make a big difference to their day. The staff are wonderfully caring, supportive, and loving. And to see this in their interaction with the residents is heart-warming. They seem to have endless patience. It takes a very special type of person to be able to do this sort of work, day in, day out. For those like Kristóf, or Norbert, who have visitors maybe once a year, having people like us visit literally makes their day.

In an era when social media is doing its bit to distance us from each other physically and the main experience we have of being tactile is a frighteningly intimate relationship with a smart phone or an iPad, visiting Göd is a sobering reminder of what matters.  As we move closer and closer to Christmas, when thoughts turn to gift-buying and partying, we could do worse than remember that the best gifts we can give are our time and our compassion. We might not be able to wrap a hug, but it’s one gift no one will want to exchange.

As one mad week finishes and another hovers on the horizon, I am grateful for my involvement with the Give a Little campaign, and the orphanage. I certainly get far more than I give.

PS A reminder of what novelist, journalist, and humorist Oren Arnold (1900–1980) had on his suggested gift list:

To your enemy, forgiveness.
To an opponent, tolerance.
To a friend, your heart.
To a customer, service.
To all, charity.
To every child, a good example.
To yourself, respect.

Happy shopping:-)

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

Christmas… again?

Christmas is just around the corner. It’s not long till December and once the 1st of December hits, it’s fast-forward all the way to Christmas Day. My annual internal debate has begun: Do I  put up a Christmas tree or not. I have a collection of ornaments that I’ve purchased (and received as gifts)  in various places over the years (all neatly catalogued as to where I was and who I was with) and they deserve an airing on what I’ve called my ‘travel tree’.

But the question is, can I be bothered? Does the hassle of buying a tree and lugging it home outweigh the excitement of decorating it and the lovely memories that will come flooding back? Being superstitious adds to the complications as it’s ‘up by December 8th and down by January 6th’ with me and I won’t be in town on January 6th. Will that adversely affect my luck for the next year? Is it worth the risk?

I tell myself that if I had children and could make a big deal of the decorating, then I’d be first in the queue to buy a tree. If I had kids I could borrow, I might also be tempted. If I had someone patient enough (and interested enough) to share my reminiscences, then perhaps I’d do more than just consider it. Right now though, the hassle factor is winning out.

And, as I always do when faced with a major decision (major? shows just how complicated my life really is), I seek distraction. It seems that I’m never really on top of what’s happening and each year hear of something or somewhere that I’ve missed out on. So this year, I’ve been doing my homework and reading up on what’s on in Budapest over the holidays. What’s open and what’s closed. When everything is open and closed. Where the markets are. And I found it all in one place – everything from when the Santa train leaves to the times of the Advent Fair in Obuda. Written mostly Anna Sebestyen at, this site is well worth forwarding to any visitors you might have coming in over Christmas, and is also a good point of reference for what’s on in town. It’s certainly solved my problem: with so much going on, I won’t have time to get my tree – let alone decorate it.