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Having fun with money and strangers

So here we are. Just three weeks into 2011 and already the world’s papers are full of Hungary’s EU presidency, growing concern about the new media law, and the supposed ‘Putinisation’ of the country. In Ireland, the mood is little better. Post-IMF depression has set in, the first public sector pay cheques of the year have shrunk noticeably, and many are getting their first taste of job insecurity. Once again, I’m truly glad that I live in my own little world, where the sky is a lovely shade of orange and those who share my space understand the madness.

And I’m glad, too, that I resolved to make no New Year’s resolutions this year. I have spared myself the pain of the annual self-flagellation that usually takes place around this time. I have opted out of the self-berating litany of wudda, cudda, shudda in which I’m normally mired mid-January. I have renounced the long, dark hours of introspection, where, like a baboon digging nits from its mate’s tail, I studiously pick apart my life until I drive myself to drink.  Instead of getting het up about what the world thinks of the recent shenanigans in Hungary, I am choosing to filter each perspective through the mesh that is my own experience. Instead of castigating the hoi polloi for their hedonistic lifestyles (shame that Opera Ball was cancelled, though), I’m choosing to indulge myself in books, travel, and world cinema. Instead of signing up to the cats chorus lauding the great achievers and their award-worthy achievements in 2011, I’m going to spend my time searching out their weird and whacky and oft-overlooked poor relations. For me, 2011 is going to be about the little things that make life worthwhile and the people that actually ‘do’ doing, instead of simply talking about it.

The random redistribution of wealth…

Some of you might know Victoria Mary Clark as Shane McGowan’s ex (him of ‘The Pogues’ fame). Some of you might have read her books or one of the many interviews she’s published with everyone from the wayward musician Pete Doherty to spiritual teacher Eckart Tolle or Osama Bin Laden’s sister-in-law, Carmen.  And then again, some of you might never have heard of her at all. I know I hadn’t until I happened across an interview with the good lady herself about this new Facebook group she’s set up: The Random Reistribution of Wealth to Total Strangers…Just for Fun!

You know that feeling you get when you put on a coat or jacket or jeans that you haven’t worn in ages and you stick your hand in a pocket and find some money? Or you dig out a handbag from the back of the wardrobe and as you’re tucking your wallet away in the zipped pocket you find some money? Or you’re searching for the pen you lost down the back of the sofa and you find some money? Finding money is one of the simplest pleasures in life: the joy of the unexpected, the element of surprise, the hope that it’s a sign your luck might finally be changing. No matter how much money you have earned, no matter how much you have squirreled away in the bank or beneath the mattress, I defy anyone to deny the pleasure they feel at ‘finding’ money!

…to total strangers

The Random Redistribution of Wealth to Total Strangers…Just for Fun does that it says on the tin – it goes around randomly giving money to total strangers…just for fun. Total strangers, mind you. Not friends, or family, or colleagues. Total strangers. The amount doesn’t matter. Neither does the currency. It can be pennies or pounds, cents or euro, forints or… well… more forints. Its raison d’être is to randomly amuse these total strangers and to make them smile at their good fortune. And the strange thing is, if you get into the spirit of it all, you have fun, too. Trying on a pair of shoes? Leave 200 forints in the toe for the next person to find. Browsing books in a book shop? Stick 500 forints in your favourite read. Spot a flat window ledge? Leave a few coins. Use your imagination.

While the Giving Pledge in the USA invites ‘the wealthiest individuals and families in America to commit to giving the majority of their wealth to the philanthropic causes and charitable organisations of their choice either during their lifetime or after their death’ Victoria Mary’s idea ensures everyone gets an invite to the ball, no matter where you live or how little money you have. Imagine if this caught on in Budapest…people finding money in Joszef Attila’s hat maybe, or stuck to the wall inside the Clark Adam tunnel, or on a seat in a metro station…it might just do something to lift the mood.

First published in the Budapest Times 17 January 2011

From Buda to Pest

IMG_3000I have a fascination with bridges. When I was in college in Dublin, I would take the bus back up to the city on a Sunday evening. As we drove in along the quays on the banks of the Liffey, the Ha’penny Bridge was my landmark. Once I could see it, I knew I was back in the city. It’s still the same today. When I drive in from home, that’s my marker. Passing down the left side of the Liffey, I say a mental goodbye to Dublin as it’s behind me. In London, my marker was Tower Bridge. Oxford had the Bridge of Sighs. Chichester just had bridge clubs! But Budapest has the Chain Bridge (Széchenyi lánchíd). One of the most spectacular night views in the city (for me anyway) is the view of the Gresham Palace (originally built in 1906 as the HQ for the London-based Gresham Insurance Company and now home to the Four Seasons Hotel and owned by some lads from Ireland) as you stand midway on the bridge with your back to the Fisherman’s Bastille.

The bridge itself was the first solid connection between Buda and Pest and was first opened in 1849 (it took 13 years to build). It’s 375 metres long and 16 metres wide and is named after Count Széchenyi, which is only fair really, considering it was his idea to build it in the first place. Mind you, he originally had the idea in December 1820 when he heard that his father had died in Vienna. The pontoon bridge that spanned the Danube at the time was out of action because of the ice floes. Széchenyi was stuck on the Pest side for a few days before he could make it to Vienna for the funeral. No more pontoons for him – he envisioned a solid structure that would be open year round. He still keeps an eye on his baby from his lofty position in Roosevelt tér, next to the ancient acacia tree which is thought to be the oldest tree in Budapest.

The Clark Adam tunnel (remember, Hungarians put the last name first), dug by the Scottish Engineer who oversaw the project, runs for 350 metres through  Castle Hill and connects the bridge to the rest of Buda. In 1989, it was on the Chain Bridge that  Hungarians demonstrated for freedom and independence and, perhaps fittingly, since then the bridge has become a symbol of Hungarian liberty. Clark Adam tér (square) is home to the zero kilometre marker in Budapest – and it’s from here that all distances from the city are measured. IMG_3007

The pair of lions guarding the bridge at either side were added some three years later. Rumour has it that the sculptor forgot to give them tongues and was given such a hard time about his ‘mistake’ that he threw himself into the Danube (he did get out again and lived on for another 40 years or so).  Apparently though, they do have tongues; we just can’t see them from our vantage point – about 3 metres below.

Like all the bridges in Budapest, it was destroyed during the war and had to be rebuilt. Some of the original parts are still housed in the Transport museum. It was reopened on the centenary of its original inauguration, 21 November 1849. Every weekend from July to mid-August, the bridge is ‘pedestrianised’. Craft stalls showcase local art, musicians from the region entertain the crowds, and you can eat as much artery-clogging food as your conscience will allow. Sure ’tis all in a day’s work!