2015 Grateful 19

Sometimes things just ain’t what they seem. Sometimes our expectations let us down. Sometimes, though,  we can be pleasantly surprised. So much of it depends on patience …

Cluj-Napoca (known to Hungarians as Koloszvár) has been on my list of places to visit for a number of years. And yet I never once thought to read up on it, check it out, or do any sort of research at all. I was just fascinated by the name and by the fact that it’s in Transylvania in Romania.

IMG_0402 (800x600)IMG_0397 (800x600)Some 7.5 hours by train from Budapest, the journey itself doesn’t help much. As we passed over the Hungarian-Romanian border, I woke periodically (it was a 5.30 am train) to see it alternate between heavy industry, rural poverty, and urban richness. I was particularly fascinated by the ornate tin roofs on some of the houses. Quite surreal. A little Vegas’y without the ding ding of the casinos. It all added to the mix of expectations that were being raised and dashed and dashed and raised to the point that I IMG_0403 (800x585)gave up and stopped wondering at all.

The city, which sits in Central Romania, is home to some 340 000 people and has been inhabited since 200 BC. Okay, so I was sort of expecting an old town wonderland – perhaps the best bits of Prague and Budapest combined – but when we arrived outside the train station, it was like stepping  into a  construction site. The first thing that struck me were the cables and the wires. Everywhere. It’s like the whole city is plugged into one socket. Mad. The juxtaposition of old and new is something I’ve come to expect so it didn’t phase me. But the lack of footpaths did. And the crazy driving.

IMG_0416 (800x600)We stayed in the Hotel Belvedere, a leftover from the days of Communism when the hoi polloi would stay on the hill overlooking the city. The 253-step climb  took some practice but we eventually got it down to 7 minutes. The hotel itself, a *** venue, was a delight. So like the Kyviec in Bratislava IMG_0481 (800x600)IMG_0411 (800x600)(or how it was before the renovation – I’ve not been back to see it since). The marble-floored massive open plan lobby complete with the regulatory six clocks showing various time zones over the elevators and the mad chandeliers just needed Brezhnev or one of the boys to walk across it to complete the feel. Wedding guests passing through decked in gold bow ties, purple suits and pink loafers (and that was just the men) lent it a move-set feel. And all for the princely sum of €45  a night, including breakfast.

IMG_0442 (600x800)We wandered downtown that evening, just to have a look-see, as you do. And once we’d navigated the rubble and made our way into the heart of the city itself, I was surprised. Shop windows had stuff I’d come back and buy. Bars were inviting. Menus were creative. And the Jazz Club was dead cool. The city has style.  Hearing Hungarian so widely spoken and yet being somewhere that is so not Hungarian was a little odd. Budapest has its charm but the bar/restaurant scene has a certain sameness once you get used to it. Cluj has variety. I was seriously impressed. So impressed that it now warrants a full weekend on its own instead of just one night. I’d need at least two lunches and three dinners to do it justice, there were that many places I wanted to visit.

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There are plenty of churches so I lit my share of candles and made my litany of wishes. There was a bit of a faff  back in 2013 about the number of new Orthodox churches being built (something like 10 a month) given how relatively poor the country is. And they’re still going up.

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IMG_0508 (600x800)My vote went to  the Reformed Church and its magnificent organ made all the more special by the simplicity of the Gothic interior. So far removed from the gilt and gold of the Cathedral or the iconic innards of the Orthodox Church. It is a lovely, lovely space. And, I wondered, as I’ve wondered before, how many more prayers are said without the distractions. I had to look up the religion though as I didn’t realise that Reformed mean Calvinist. Seems like I learn something new every day.

IMG_0437 (800x600)Outside sits the somewhat famous statue of St George killing the Dragon. I came across something similar in a painting in Bulgaria a couple of weeks go – and this after years of never happening upon the boy at all. Am just waiting for him to show up a third time sometime soon.

We ate, we saw, we wandered. The wine isn’t much to write home about, but if that’s the sum total of my whinge, it’s not half bad. Will definitely be back.

This week, I’m grateful for so many things. For new beginnings, new discoveries, and new experiences. What’s not to like about my world?

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Ask my fan…

Move over Facebook, make room for the humble fan.

‘The fan expresses the caprices of the heart, nay even sometimes speaks’ or so claimed the Grand Magazine published in London in 1760. Fans seem to be making a comeback, especially in churches in Malta and Budapest where no respectable old lady travels without one in the heat of the summer. They’re useful things and once you get over the perceived affectation of using one, they’re handy to have around.

What I didn’t realise though, was that back in the 1700s, fans spoke – or rather their mistresses used them to convey messages to their gentlemen friends. Forget flirting on Facebook… this has a lot more class and I, for one, am all for reviving fanlanguage.

It’s like a semaphore for lovers. Just think what it could do to revolutionise the dating game. A chap would never even have to cross the dance floor had he not been given the come hither! No more poking or liking or friending – just a plain, old-fashioned come-on.

As for that awkward bit at the end of an evening when others are present and you’re doing the old ‘where to’ fandango [MM:couldn’t resist…], think of how much face could be saved by a fan sign.

Mind you, I can already seeing myself getting into trouble. I don’t think I could resist the urge to rest the fan on my lips… I do it with pens and pencils … but would I want you thinking I don’t trust you?  I wear my sunglasses all year round. I’m not fond of sunlight but were I to use my fan to block it out, I’d be telling you that you’re ugly.  And when I’m off in a world of my own, looking at you but not really seeing you, and slowly fanning myself, then you’d have every right to think that I don’t care about you at all.

And then, how would I know that you spoke fanlanguage, too? Or indeed what type of fanlanguage you spoke? Dropping my fan in your presence (depending on where you did your fanstudy, could destin us to a life as platonic friends or as serious lovers. mmmmm…. on second thoughts, I’m not quite sure I’m ready to risk it.

Il-kappella ta’ San Mattew

Legends abound in Malta and the story of San Mattew’s church and the live-in lovers is one of a kind. St Matthew’s is in fact two chapels in one. The smaller one at the back was one of the first to be built after then Arabs were expelled from Malta. The larger one at the front was finished in 1682 and the two are joined by a stairway.

The ground around the church apparently subsided during an earthquake  on  24 November 1343. Legend has it that a number of people who were shacked up (i.e. living in sin)  were suddenly engulfed. According to one legend, only one pious woman escaped – she was in the church at the time but she escaped even though the chapel itself was shorn in two. Another legend has it that the only survivors were nuns.  The surrounding fields stand on two levels and the great divide can still be seen.

When Mr M stopped to ask directions, we found out that there are no fewer than seven chapels in this area. We managed to find three. Some are out in the fields at the bottom of laneways; others are tucked away between the rows of terraced houses that have been built up around them. All share the same simplicity of stone and colour, very much reminiscent of a time when churches had a function in our lives.

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Don’t ever let anyone tell you that there’s nothing to do in Malta once you’ve seen the temples and the hypogeum. I was over there recently and took a half-day to go chapel-chasing. Armed with the book 100 Wayside Chapels in Malta and Gozo and the intrepid and very knowledgeable Mr Micallef as my guide, we set off to see what we could find.

Rumour has it that there are 365 chapels and churches in Malta – one for every day of the year. Mr M reckons this figure tops 400 and I have no trouble at all believing that. Some town squares, like Siggiewi, are framed by three churches: the original small chapel, the newer RC church, and the old chapel of the Knights of Malta. We drove up and down country lanes looking for old chapels with a history or a story to tell. Most have an open window to the left of the main door through which the faithful can see the tabernacle and light their candles. So even if the church is locked, it is open.

Others have signs outside telling would-be criminals that they can forget any ideas of taking refuge in the sanctity of the chapel. This was such a common occurrence in Malta back in the day that many chapels decided to revoke the idea of the church as a refuge and cancel any offers of immunity. I suppose it was one way of separating the righteous.

The earlier churches and chapels that I saw are very simple, very basic, and still retain what I can only describe as that sense of oneness. Places you can go to commune with your god without the distractions of fine art and fancy decor. The bigger RC churches are more ornate and time spent inside is more like spending time in an art gallery. Their beauty is not in doubt; I just question their raison d’etre.

Way back when, I spent some time in Rome and visited the Vatican. I was horrified at the wealth and opulence and began to question an insitution that could amass such fortunes will those in their midst went hungry. Speaking to an aunt of mine in Manchester some time later, she told me of the many magnificent churches built from the pennies of the working-class Irish who lived in the city; families who would just as soon see themselves go hungry that to deny the church its tithe. You have to wonder…