The signs are there

A day off for me is one on which I don’t have to make any decisions. Tell me where to go, what to do, when to eat and I’ll thank you for it. Not every day mind you, but every now and then, I will thank you for it. Honestly.

One of the best holidays I’ve been on was to South Africa a number of years ago when I literally went with the flow. No decisions were needed on my part. In fact, I don’t think I had a say in anything for nearly two weeks. Bliss. Add to that I had travel companions who knew where we were going and had the history of everywhere we went down pat. Sure, there’s probably an app for my Android that would have as much information, but it wouldn’t have the personal anecdotes or the ability to filter out what bores me and only do the stuff I’d find interesting.

IMG_2278 (800x600)A couple of weeks ago, I had a mini-vacation. The lovely VO took us to her hometown of Győr and toured us around. She has a program and she knew her stuff. No decisions were required.

I’d been to Győr a few years ago in the middle of winter. I vaguely remember a square with a Christmas market. It didn’t leave much of an impression. But this time was different. The city was established by the Celts back in the fifth century BC. The first King of Hungary built a basilica there in 900 AD. Napoleon occupied the castle in 1809. It sits at the confluence of three rivers: the Danube, the Rába, and the Rábca. It’s been razed and pillaged and rebuilt and destroyed and built again. Currently its oldest buildings are a thirteenth-century dwelling tower and a fifteenth century Gothic Dóczy chapel. But buildings aside (and there are some impressive ones), it was the trade signage that caught my attention.

IMG_2267 (800x600)IMG_2280 (600x800)They were used in years gone by to identify what each shop sold, tributes to a time when craftsmen were indeed skilled workers, practising a trade passed down from father to son. The golden ship is probably the most famous one in the city, made in 1938 by Schima Bandi. He was one of the metal teachers from a trade school in Bratislava who fled to Hungary when the occupation began.  He also fashioned a bird’s nest sign but that I need to go back and find.

IMG_2265 (800x600)My particular favourite is this fishmonger’s sign. If anything does what it says on the tin, this does. Given a choice between one of these over my door and a modern neon flash, I know which I’d pick. I think the more miles we travel along the road of modernity, the less classier we get. Or perhaps I’m just living in the wrong century.

IMG_2272 (800x600)IMG_2276 (600x800)There’s a pharmacy in Győr that’s still as it was way back when but it was closed on this particular Saturday afternoon. The sign outside could do with a little cleaning but is still quite something. And it’s worth going back for.

Outside what was once a shoemaker’s, there an old tree trunk studded with nails. It’s said that every apprentice who got his papers nailed a stud in the tree on graduation. And it’s still there, testament to the many who learned their trade under the guidance of a man who knew his. I prefer that story to another I’ve read: that every passing craftsman had to hammer a nail in the tree at N°4 of Széchenyi tér. Where the celebration in that? Vastuskós Ház  (house of the iron tree stump) is now home to the collection of  journalist Imre Patkó an includes work by twentieth-century Hungarian artists, that lines the walls beside work by Chagall, Rouault, Braque, and Picasso.

It was bloody freezing – even though it was supposed to be summer. No doubt we’d have found some more had the weather been more cooperative. But then again, it ain’t going anywhere…



From the Danube to the desert – a church on the move

Before the aura reader told me that I should visit the solar plexus vortex, I’d already been. I can’t say I was strangely drawn to it for any reason out of the ordinary. It’s at the site of a church and I’m drawn to churches. Solar plexus or no solar plexus. And this church is a little more unusual than most in that the plans were drawn up long before the site was found and it was originally meant to be built in Budapest. Small world.

IMG_6077 (600x800)Way back in 1932,  a woman by the name of  Marguerite Brunswig Staude was looking at the Empire State Building in New York. Somewhere, in this edifice, she saw a cross. And from this got the idea of building a church that would also have a cross as its core. She showed her design to Llyod Wright and he worked on it with her to further develop it. In 1937, they were ready, and the Chapel of the Holy Cross was to be built in Budapest, Hungary, overlooking the Danube.

IMG_6078 (800x566)But the war came and the dream shattered. But she got to thinking… why not built such a shrine in the USA? Why should Europe have a monopoly on shrines? It would take 24 years for her dream to come true but finally, on a spur 250 feet high that sticks out of a 1000 foot rock wall, Marguerite built her church in Oak Creek, Sedona. Her wish? That the Church might come to light in the souls of men. And so it did, in 1956, the year of the Hungarian revolution.

IMG_6066 (600x800)



Shifting geographical loyalties

Since I first left Ireland back in 1990, I’ve had two homes. ‘Home’ is wherever I happened to be living at a given moment in time; ‘home home’ is Ireland. (This double-word definition is something I use a lot – if you’re sick, you’ll recover, but if you’re sick sick, then the prognosis is a little more serious. If you’re broke, then you’re struggling to find the money for a pint at the weekend; if you’re broke broke, then it’s Raman noodles and water.)

Being Irish is a constant in my life – my North Star. It is the lens through which I see the world. It is the calibrating factor I use to measure my experiences, the people I meet, everything that happens to me. For years, I compared every city I lived in or visited to Ireland, or Dublin, or the village I come from. But this has changed.


On a trip to Moldova back in 2011, I noticed for the first time that I am no longer comparing places to Ireland, but to Hungary – and not just to Hungary, but specifically to Budapest. While I might enjoy occasional bursts of intelligence, at times my dimwittedness surprises even me! It never dawned on me that in comparing, say, Dublin and Budapest, I was dealing in apples and oranges.

Yes, both are capital cities, but apart from literature, religion, and the virtues of their respective national cohort of mothers, it was a little like, well, comparing East and West, back in the days when the divide was more than a line on a map.


This change in geographical loyalty was driven home again last week when I spent a few days in Prague.

When I first visited Prague back in 2001, it compared very favourably to Dublin. Georgian Dublin was no match for the spires of Prague; the narrow streets of Smithfield were no match for Prague’s Old Town; gentrified Dublin was no match for Prague’s more cosmopolitan style. I was impressed. Very impressed.

Yet since living more on than off in Budapest, I now see Prague through a different lens.  On paper, the two cities look fairly alike. In fact, if you picked up a map of both and laid them side by side, it’s quite interesting to see just how similar they are. They’re both divided by a river (Danube/Vltava). Both have an island in the middle (Margaret Island/Slovanský Island). Both have castle districts on the posher side (although Prague has an actual ‘castle’ castle in its district). The food is not dissimilar, the currency is just as foreign, and to my uncultured taste buds, beer is beer.


And yet the two cities are as different as any two cities can be. Scratch the surface and there’s little to compare. To my mind, Budapest is by far the better of the two. No question. I came to this conclusion in the metro of all places.

IMG_2862 (600x800)I’ve heard people visiting Budapest complain that the metro stairs are way too fast to be safe. I think the 2.1 minutes it takes to rise from the bowels of Széll Kálmán tér a little long so I didn’t understand their concerns. But in Prague, I felt myself age each time I took the metro. Its escalators are so slow in comparison. I reckon your average Prague commuter would gain about 10 minutes a day if they had the same commute in Budapest. But I’d doubt they’d be concerned. The city seems to lack that sense of urgency that can pervade Budapest at times. Perhaps it’s because everyone there is, literally, on holiday.

The one thing missing in Prague that you find in abundance in Budapest are locals. Prague seems to be overrun by tourists. Perhaps it’s because the streets are narrower that they seem more obvious, all squashed in together like bunioned feet into tight-fitting shoes.  Mind you, and perhaps as a direct result of this influx of foreign masses, Prague has a fashion sense that Budapest lacks. With a notable absence of second-hand clothes shops, your average woman looks like she’s dressed to go somewhere. Mind you, if said woman is not local, then perhaps I’m back to apples and oranges again.


The city’s most famous son, Franz Kafka, is on record as having said: Prague never lets you go… this dear little mother has sharp claws. And yet for all its style, Prague simply doesn’t do it for me in the way that Budapest does.

Admittedly, Budapest will never be in my blood the way Prague ran through Kafka’s veins. That said, it’s very much in my head and my heart. I’m well past my sell-by date when it comes to having kids and I can’t see myself settling down and living happily ever after with someone whose mother tongue I barely understand, let alone speak fluently: my paranoia that his great-Aunt Dóra would spend family get-togethers talking incessantly about me would kill the relationship before our first pig roast. Anyway, as the blood bank doesn’t want my blood, the whole Budapest-in-blood issue has been nixed. But head and heart are another matter entirely.

First published in the Budapest Times 5 April 2013


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



All aboard

I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to be trapped aboard a ship with the same people for days on end. I’ve never quite understood the attraction of cruises. And I can’t for the life of me see myself ever taking one (at least not when I’m still in possession of all my faculties).  Yet I was dead curious to see the inside of one of the hundreds of boats that sail the Danube.

I’ve been aboard the QEII – the Queen of Cruise Ships – so I know what the top end of the scale has to offer; the Transatlantic kind. What I was interested in seeing was what the river cruises had to offer. Some Aussie mates of mine were disembarking in Budapest en route to Ireland last week and invited me on board for lunch. All my curiosity has been satisfied.

Narrow corridors, lots of blue, and plenty of seating. Some of the cabins have floor-to-ceiling sliding windows and I could see myself passing time sitting by the window watching the world go by. Others have portholes which frame the outside world and make it all look a tad surreal.

The food wasn’t bad. The flowers were fresh. And the staff were extremely friendly and seemed to know everyone by name and cabin number.  Quite an amazing feat, considering. What would drive me to  distraction is the cats chorus of complaints, commentary, and criticisms. Suddenly everyone is an expert and life is not so much about experiencing a port of call but taking photos, buying souvenirs, and then dissecting it all over dinner.

I count Americans amongst my closest friends. I’ve lived there on and off for 10 years. I’m a card-carrying American myself.  Yet I’ve long since thought that Americans who go abroad on holiday are bred for export on some huge ranch in Montana. Never once in ten years did I come across in the States the likes of those I meet on holiday.

Waiting patiently for the lads to pack and disembark, I sat for a while in the lobby and eavesdropped. One particularly annoying woman in her late sixties was stating quite vehemently that she was not getting off here. She didn’t like Budapest. It was dirty. It was dull. And it wasn’t Vienna. Duh. Pressing her compatriots to choose between Vienna, Prague, and Budapest, none were brave enough to disagree. Another couple reckoned that Budapest didn’t have class. More still said that it wasn’t at all impressive. I screamed inside: Hey! Look over your shoulder and see the castle, the parlament, the bridges – what does it take to impress you!

These snap judgements (they’d been on a tour in the morning to the Castle and to Hero Square) based on very little information are so annoying. The high-pitched whine that passed for a voice would drive me to distraction. That authoritative tone that brooks no argument is like a red rag to me. Conversations overheard at lunch led me to believe that those present did not share my politics and  images of daggers at dawn or napkins at noon came to mind. Not because we differed in opinion, mind you, but because the reasons proffered were so asinine.

I learned two things: I have become extremely protective of Budapest and can’t believe that people would rate Vienna or Prague ahead of it (as one lovely American tourist I know put it –  Prague you visit; Budapest you live). And secondly, I just don’t have the mental or emotional stamina to keep my opinions to myself for a whole week. I couldn’t sit by and not comment. I bet that when Dale Carnegie wrote his tome – How to win friends and influence people – he didn’t suggest that people take  a cruise.

I can now cross that one off my list.

Live ducklings and rosary beads

I’m a great fan of markets. I love sorting through other people’s junk in search of a piece of history or something that I can convince myself I simply cannot live without. I like to see other people’s creativity and inventiveness. And I’m fascinated by fresh fruit and veg. (On reflection, perhaps I need to get a life…my own life!) Down in Ráckeve this weekend, the town was buzzing around the riverside market that happens twice a week – Wednesday and Saturdays. Most markets this side of the world have a certain sameness – fruit, veg, preserves, Chinese or Turkish tat, second-hand clothes from the UK and the occasional original painting or handicraft. I’d never come across baby ducks or live chicks before.

Ráckeve ducklings

Ráckeve marketPerhaps though, being on the banks of the Danube makes this market seem a little less tat-like and a little more real. It’s a working market. I was the only tourist in sight – if I don’t count the five German lads who had come to look at the watermill. The regulars had their baskets out and were doing their bi-weekly shop. Everyone seemed to know everyone (not surprising perhaps in a town of 9000 people). The feel of the place was unlike the busier markets I’ve been to in Budapest (probably the one that comes closest is the one in Hyunadi tér).

Ráckeve market

Within the shadow of the Calvinist church, and nestled between a cheese stall and one selling ham hocks, was this one selling rosary beads. Not the old-fashioned beads that the old man in Ecseri sells – the ones that come with a story, a price, and a hook that had once clipped on to the belt of a brown-robed monk. These were new. New plastic for new Catholics? I’ve seen similar in pilgrimage sites – and that’s expected. Somehow, though, the sight of them here, in Ráckeve’s Saturday market, was a little surreal.

Ráckeve StorkRáckeve riversideRáckeve waterside


RáckeveRáckeve - butcher's house

But then, much about the town has that other-worldly quality. The sheer abundance of kerbside flowers makes it different and gives it a parochial feel. The detail in the town is interesting. The flower bed that on closer inspection shows a map of pre-Trianon Hungary. The red-and-white striped flag that is not that flown by Jobbik but just happens to be the colours of the town.The house that used to belong to the village butcher, the one with a pig’s head above each window. The statue of the dancing Huszar and his lady. The stork guarding its chicks, reigning over the town in princely fashion. The myriad community notice boards shaped like the prow of a boat. It’s a fisherman’s paradise. A word of warning though – their interpretation of pizza is a little unusual. Best opt for the fish soup unless you’re feeling particularly adventurous.

Golden hour in Belgrade

I remember as a child being confused by beauty and attractiveness. I’d stumbled upon the world of Mills and Boon while staying with an aunt one year, and all the female characters were either beautiful or attractive but nothing in the text explained the difference. So I asked my mother. She told me that when a woman is beautiful, people look at her and see that beauty. It’s obvious. When a woman is attractive, people look, and then look a second time, and a third time, because they know they’ve missed something. They are fascinated by what they see and yet can’t quite put their finger on what it is that is so appealing. For me, Budapest is beautiful; Belgrade is attractive.

Photographers talk of the golden hour – that last hour before sunset or that first of light in the morning – where photos take on a magic of their own. I’d just had a conversation in the office with NK and was determined to find that time – to see for myself what actually happened. So I took my camera and headed up to the Kalemegdan Fortress. Serbian author Momo Kapor (who died earlier this year) reckoned that viewed from the water, from where the Sava enters the Danube, Belgrade resembles a ship – and its stony prow – Kalemegdan Fortress – cuts the waves of these two rivers.


Where the Danube and the Sava meet

For centuries, Belgrade’s people lived inside the Fortress walls.   Legend has it that Attila the Hun’s grave lies under the Fortress where the two rivers meet.  The name Belgrade (or Beograd, in Serbian),  means a ‘white fortress’. Apparently,  Hungarian King, Béla I, gave the fortress to Serbia in the eleventh century as a wedding gift (his son married Serbian princess Jelena). Much of its history though is rooted in the Ottoman Empire. The name Kalemegdan derives from two Turkish words, kale (fortress) and meydan (battleground) (literally, ‘battlefield fortress’). With such a varied pedigree, it’s little wonder that it hosts the Belgrade Race Through History, an annual 6 km footrace; one way of highlighting the history and culture of the area.

Much of the Fortress is now a city park. And despite its size, it’s very homely – something I don’t get from Varos Liget in Budapest.  People walking dogs, reading, running, chatting, smoking, singing – almost every available bench taken. It’s like a massive, open-air community centre. I didn’t spot many tourists – most of those there seemed to be local: young and old alike, joking, laughing, each one enjoying that magical hour after work or study, before going home to whatever awaited them.

I still haven’t quite figured out what so intrigues me about Belgrade – but I’m sure it’ll be an interesting journey.

The sum of all our choices

Ok – so it’s not an American breakfast, but it’s all I had on film!

When I first went to the USA, choices in Ireland still came in pairs: tea or coffee, catholic or protestant, married or single, cash or cheque. Sitting down to my first all-American breakfast in New York, I was ill-prepared for the verbal onslaught. The harried waitress delivered my options like an AK-47 spewing bullets.  Coffee – black or white, regular or decaf, milk or creamer? Eggs – fried, poached, scrambled, over well, over easy, over medium, sunny side up? Toast – white, wheat, wholemeal, rye, sourdough, granary? It was too much then, yet 20 years later, these options seem quite limited. Have you read a coffee menu lately? Could it be any more complicated? As for bread…I can list 15 different types beginning with the letter B!

Making choices is hard work. The April 2008 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology cites research who found that were are more fatigued and less productive when faced with myriad choices. Life was a lot simpler then a cup of tea and a slice of toast were the order of the day.

Northside or Southside?

It stands to reason that the choices we made yesterday pretty much determine where we are today. And it seems like yesterday that, having decided to move to Hungary, I faced the potentially life-shaping choice between living in Buda or in Pest. Dublin is also a city of two parts, although the Northside and the Southside are colloquial geographical expressions rather than official administrative areas. Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, lived on the Northside; Bono and the lads from U2 went to school there; and that hunk of Irish attitude, Colin Farrell, was born there. The Southside boasts the literary greats James Joyce and Oscar Wilde and the fictional Ross O’Carroll Kelly. Rivalry abounds and the jokes fly both ways: What do you call a Northsider in a suit? The defendant. How does a Southsider get a week off work? He phones his mother!  We talk about having to get a visa to cross the Liffey and ironically, I feel the same way about crossing the Danube.

Eastside or Westside?

I’m a Northside girl who leans towards the west. So, when I first arrived in Budapest, it was only natural that I looked towards Buda. I asked around. I consulted those in the know (locals, estate agents, long-term expats) and the consensus was that if I could afford it, I’d be better off living in Buda. It was more salubrious, they said; a better investment.  It was leafier, greener, and the air was better. And there were fewer Roma (yes, shockingly, that was an actual sales pitch!). But I wanted grit, diversity, earthiness, and attitude. I wanted to live, not retire. So I settled on the Eastside, in Pest.

Begrudgingly, as I was flying in the face of conventional wisdom, they spoke to me of districts. They told me not to buy in district VIII (aka ‘the ghetto’), as that was where the majority of the minorities lived, along with the hookers and miscellaneous petty criminals. They said that V was lovely, but I probably couldn’t afford it. They said that XIII was nice, too, but that heirs apparent were camped on doorsteps waiting to move in once their elderly relatives moved on.  They said that VI was almost as good as V but less expensive. Ditto moving down the line to VII; even the pastel-painted IX ranked up there as having some potential. I should buy anywhere but district VIII. So 57 flat-views later, I bought…in district VIII.

Style or substance?

Baglyas Gyuri (Beyond Budapest Sightseeing) was quoted in the New York Times recently. He rightly described district VIII as ‘the city’s best part: a laboratory of diversity, art, music and architecture’. If it’s salubrious you want, check out Keleti pályaudvar and step back in time when you step into its gorgeous old ticket hall; visit the ‘little Basilica of Esztergom’ on Rezső tér; and sit a while in the Golden Salon of the Public Library on Szabó Ervin tér. For green and leafy, there’s the Botanical Gardens on Illés utca, Orczy kert (behind the old Ludovica Military Academy) or the wonderful Kerepesi cemetery. Diversity is the key to unlocking the hidden gems of district VIII…gems like the new African Buffet at Bérkocsis utca 21 or the beautifully bricked music mecca, Grund Hostel, on Nagytemplom utca 30.

Given the 23 districts I had to choose from, I picked well. District VIII is where it’s happening. It has both style and substance and a personality all of its own. If Albert Camus is to be believed, and life is the sum of all our choices, then living in the ghetto definitely adds up!

First published in the Budapest Times 7 June 2010