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Being walked by a dog

Hammer 2I’ve never professed to being an animal lover. Perhaps it has something to do with losing a succession of pets as child to poison and cars. I learned from an early age not to get too attached to anything on four legs.

I did dog sit a couple of dogs for a week once in Alaska and quite enjoyed the experience. It was nice to have someone rush to the door to meet me each evening and these lads were too old and too lazy to need much in the way of exercise.

I recently toyed with the idea of getting a pup but then realised quite quickly that they would be on their own more often than not and as I struggle to keep my plants alive, I wouldn’t be too optimistic about my pet’s longevity.

Working from a mate’s house in Dublin today, I was asked to take the dog, Hammer, for a walk. I like him. As dogs go, he’s intelligent and funny and very handsome. They said that he’d let me know when he was ready. About 12.15. And on the nose, he jumped up on the chair behind me and gently began to push me off. I got the message.

I took some poop bags, having been instructed that if he pooped on the path I was to pick it up. He mightn’t, they said. But then again he might. And he did. Four times. Four separate occasions. And I lost all but one bag along the way so it was quite the chore. Me walking the streets of Dublin with a tiny plastic bag full of dogshit is something might not have captured the interest of the paparazzis even had there been any about, but I felt as if I were on parade.

And then he peed. At least ten times. It seemed as if he was answering messages left for him along the way because make no mistake, he was walking me, not the other way around.

Many lifetimes ago, when I was visiting from Alaska with my then boyfriend, we stayed with the same friends. He got up one morning and went for a walk before breakfast under instruction to be back within half an hour. An hour later no sign. We’d warned him that the streets of Dublin had evolved without much planning. All the houses on one street look the same and rarely do those streets run in straight lines. This was back in the days before mobile phones so we had to set out in groups to see if we could find him. I was left to stand guard at the front window in case he should pass back this way. Which he did. Two hours later. And, in typical male form, denied ever being lost.

Today, I walked those same streets and got just as lost. I have no sense of direction at the best of times and hadn’t a clue where I was. I was conscious that I had a speech to write and work to do and that time was ticking by. I was getting anxious. And Hammer knew it. He looked at me with something approaching despair and said ok, ok, I’ll take you home. And he did. Amazing.  I’m left wondering which one of us is the smarter being.

 

What you find when you go looking for cider vinegar

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI travel. Quite a bit. And I’m no stranger to unusual ‘bring back’ requests, but this was the first time I’d been asked to bring back cider vinegar from Ireland. And not just Ireland, but from a specific market in Dublin. I could quite easily have said a) I couldn’t find it or b) I didn’t make it to that part of town or c) I couldn’t be arsed – but I didn’t. And I didn’t in part because I was curious to see where they were sending me. And also what they were sending me for. Llewellyn’s Cider Vinegar no less… I’d never heard of it. Among other things, apparently ‘cider vinegar has long been considered beneficial to horses, but it is only recently that scientific evidence has emerged that it seems to improve milk quality in milking cows.’ Imagine that.

It’s been quite a while since I had a Saturday morning to roam around Dublin – so long in fact that the place has changed immeasurably. The whole Temple Bar evolution passed me by as I (quite wrongly, as it turns out) felt that that part of town was strictly tourist territory, to be avoided at all costs.

My destination was the Temple Bar Food Market in Meeting House Square. Thankfully, I had a local guide as I’m not sure I was in possession of the faculties needed to find the place on my own, given that it was the morning after the night before. As we strolled through the cobblestoned streets, I had flashbacks to nights spent in Bad Bobs and the Oliver St John Gogarty.  I noted with surprise the diversity of shops and the distinct lack of twee-ness about their wares. Has the tourist tat been barred from the Bar?

IMG_4732 (800x600)IMG_4731 (600x800)The market itself was impressive. Lots of freshly baked breads and scones and cakes with fresh smoothies and even an oyster bar. I was impressed by the burgers and wishing I was on carb day. There was an international flavour to it all with French crepes and an Asian noodle bar which all sat nicely with the home-grown  fruit and veg (bloody massive turnips!) and the hand-turned cheeses. Yes, were I living in Dublin, I could well see myself dropping in here quite regularly on a Saturday morning to pick up a few things – including a bottle of cider vinegar! How ever did I live my life without it?

IMG_4737 (800x600)With time to spare before our brunch date (sounds posh but we were on the Southside and one simply must do as one does!) we ambled up to Cow’s Lane to the Designer Market  and again, I was impressed by the quality of what was on offer and the reasonable prices. Some of these Irish artists are quite clever! Had they taken credit cards, I could have done some damage. Does the cash-strapped purse so peculiar to the morning after the night before sound familiar?

The sign exhorting me to take a new look at the old city hit its mark. I was looking and I was impressed (how many times can I use that word in one blog?). On our way to Cow’s Lane, we passed an outdoor exhibition space – which really was just a fence with a load of posters on it. On closer inspection though, it gave me plenty to think about. The recent scandals in Ireland about the mother and baby homes was quite heart-breaking and seeing these old photos posterised (is that even a word?) drove it home. The homes and the Magdalen Laundries were a bleak part of Irish history.

IMG_4733 (800x600)IMG_4735 (800x600)It’s mission is to ‘dignify and return individuality to people who were victimised by harsh and unforgiving institutions’. It said that ‘Irish society also needs to take responsibility for the silence and the indifference which allowed such horrors to be perpetrated in plain sight in so many villages, towns  and cities throughout the country’. Sobering thoughts indeed for a Saturday. IMG_4739 (800x600)Seeing as we were up that way anyway, we detoured to see where Handel first performed his Messiah back in 1742 (did you know he composed it in just 24 days?). I had some vague recollection of seeing the organ on which he played many moons ago on a school tour but I didn’t remember walking down Fishamble Street. I felt some vague stirrings of pride that were  amplified when, some time later, I looked down to see a series of brass plaques in the ground commemorating some of our more famous writers. And to think I’d only come out looking for a bottle of vinegar!

IMG_4741 (800x600)I can highly recommend being a tourist in your home town – you never know what you might come across. So, next time I go to Ireland, who wants what? Now, be specific please…

 

 

Laughing and crying at lunchtime in Dublin

I love having you home, but I couldn’t afford it if you moved home permanently. So said a mate of mine as we spent a leisurely Saturday in Dublin recently rediscovering one of the city’s hidden gems.

Upstairs in the iconic Bewley’s Café on Grafton Street, there’s a small theatre that seats about 50 people. Here, at lunchtimes, starting at 1pm, you can have your bowl of soup and your brown bread while watching some of the best of Irish talent on stage in one-(wo)man shows. If I’m lucky, and I time it right, trips home can include a crossover so I can catch two shows. I was lucky this time.

Last Saturday, it was the brilliant Phelim Drew starring in a stage adaptation of George Orwell’s first book Down and out in Paris and London. With nothing on stage except a table and a chair, Drew (son of the late great Ronnie Drew) played his heart out over the course of an hour bringing to life a host of characters, none more credible than the character’s ex-girlfriend. Any actor who can make me believe I’m listening to or watching a woman just by a change of voice, posture, and tone is impressive. When I go to the theatre, I expect both to suspend my belief and still believe in everything I see and hear. No wonder I’ve been known to drive people to drink with my expectations.

As is usual for Orwell, Drew’s character is never named but we get a sense of who and what he’s like through his narrative. He was so credible that being an ‘everyman’ didn’t matter. For once I didn’t need name, rank, and serial number. I was completely absorbed and for an hour, genuinely believed that he was real.

HFThen on Tuesday, we went to see the inimitable Hilda Fay in My name is Alice Devine, a play by Shay Linehan about ‘one woman’s struggle to cope with everything post-boom Ireland can throw at her’. Hilda Fay is better known for her role as Tracey McGuigan on the long-running Irish soap, Fair City. I saw her years ago in Roddy Doyle’s The Woman who Walked into Doors and was impressed. So impressed that I changed plans and made sure I had this opportunity to see her again.

As an actor, she took us to the edge so many times in one hour that I lost track. We laughed, we cried, we hated, we loved. Like Drew, she too brought a cast of characters to life so vividly that I could picture what they looked like. Crying into my soup on a Tuesday lunchtime in Dublin wasn’t quite what I’d planned for my day (and little did I know that I’d be crying again later that evening – that’s another story though). I was reminded of the lines from Rod McKuen

However wretchedly I feel,
I feel.

I can be emotional, I admit. But had you told me that I could feel (really feel) so many emotions in 60 minutes, I wouldn’t have believed you. This really is theatre at its best. If you are in Dublin, it runs till 11 October. Go see it.

 

 

2014 Grateful 38

His name was McCarthy. Stephen, I think. Or was it Patrick? No matter. It was definitely McCarthy. And he was definitely Irish. Considering I was in Dublin, this in itself isn’t perhaps so remarkable. But when I think that the last eight taxis I’ve taken in Dublin had been driven by men with names like Abioye, Kwanza, Mohammed, Nuru, and such, getting an Irish Irish taxi driver is becoming something to remark upon. It’s a reflection of the changing face of Irish society – no more, no less.

taxiIrish taxi drivers are famed for their verbosity. A read of Donal Ruane’s Tales in a rearview mirror – his account of driving a taxi in Dublin for a year – will tell you as much. But Mr McCarthy was different. He didn’t say a thing except to ask me whether I wanted to go to the front or the back of the station. That, and thank me for the tip he so well deserved.

He had picked me up on the North Strand. I was heading to Heuston Station. I could have taken a bus and then the Luas but for just a few bob more, a taxi was perfectly justifiable. Although I had plenty of time (no surprise there) I was a little antsy. I was in pain, tired, and somewhat cranky and had I been driving myself, my clutching would have reflected the same.

I’m used to stop-start driving in the city, to zipping in and out through gaps in the parallel lanes, to racing the amber lights. That sense of making haste at all costs is all too familiar. The urgency created by an open space ahead of me that screams to be occupied is hard to resist. The very thought of sitting in one lane while the other flows freely borders on sacrilege.

But Mr McCarthy was in no rush. He literally floated along, judging each light to perfection, completely ignoring his clutch. As we coasted through the city to the station, I started to think about my reaction in the third person.

By the time we’d reached Connolly Station, I was ready to jump out and get the Luas. He was going way too slowly for my liking. I was chomping at the bit. But a look at the meter told me that it would be a silly thing to do. So I stuck it out.  As we crossed Talbot Bridged and turned on to the Quays I was beside myself with nerves. I wanted to remind him of the speed limit but as he’d not spoken, I didn’t feel that I had permission to break what was fast-becoming an almost reverent silence.

hapennyWhen we hit O’Connell Bridge, I decided, somewhat belatedly, that I had a choice. I could continue to fret or calm down and enjoy the ride. I clocked a red VW Golf accelerating beside us, the driver on edge and frantic. For a minute, I wanted to be in that car – doing something, making a visible effort. But back I sat as we literally glided up the Quays, passing the Ha’penny Bridge, the Millennium Bridge, the Grattan Bridge, O’Donovan Rossa Bridge, what used to be Guinness, and Collins Barracks. I felt like I was in a time bubble, completely separated from the rest of the world, cocooned in a calmness that I’ve never before associated with city driving.

This week’s been busy with plenty going on. I’ve been chasing my tail for most of it, trying to fit way too much in to way too short a time, snatching computer minutes between planes, trains, and automobiles, bank appointments and hospital visits. I’ve had a couple of self-indulgent wallows and made a few resolutions not to let life get out of hand. I need to better manage both my time and my expectations. Thanks to Mr McCarthy and the inner peace he radiated, I’ve had yet another reminder that slowing down doesn’t necessarily mean getting less done. I got to where I was going in plenty of time  and it was much more relaxed journey. In fact, that same red VW Golf drove by us as we pulled in across from the station, its driver still looking a little keyed up.

So I’m grateful for this life lesson and if the moment stays with me long enough, I might even try working it into my routine.

 

 

A flight of fancy

I can’t ever remember being in Donabate. But then again, given what my memory is like, I’m open to correction. No doubt even more years might have passed had I not been struck by an urge to see the sea when I was in Ireland last weekend and happened across a kind soul who indulged me.

20131011_174843 (800x600)Walking the limestone cliffs between the beach at Donabate and the beach at Portrane was as close to scenic heaven as I’ve been since Oslo.  About 12 miles north-east of Dublin, we couldn’t have been further removed from the sights and sounds of twenty-first century city living. A trinity of elements – crashing waves, a stiff breeze, and an autumn sun – composed a perfect picture.

We passed St Ita’s Hospital, which was once Portrane asylum and is now a home for those with intellectual disabilities or long-term mental illness. Until 1890, it was the largest public contract ever undertaken in Ireland … it’s massive. In its shadow sits a lone round tower. Curious as to its origins, I went searching…

20131011_183133 (800x600)Adjoining the Asylum is a modern round tower, erected on the summit of a rising ground by a former proprietor, Mrs Evans, as a memorial to her husband, whose bust is placed in the interior of the structure. This tower was formerly a very remarkable feature on the peninsula, being about 100 feet high, but is now much dwarfed by the proximity of the extensive buildings of the Asylum. The entrance door is situated, as in the ancient round towers, at such a height from the ground that it can be reached only by a ladder. 

An interesting memorial, it certainly beats your average gravestone. Nice one, Mrs Evans.

Looking across at Lambay Island, I was struck, as I always am, by the force of the sea, particularly given the week that was in it and the number of maritime accidents that had been reported. There was a soulfulness about the place that made me wonder some more. Of course, it might well have been the contemplative mood that I was in, but indulge me in my flight of fancy.

I did some more digging and discovered that back in 1854, on 19 January, the John Tayleur left Liverpool bound for Melbourne. Insufficiently manned with a crew that had only ten real seamen, the others being Chinese who for the most part didn’t speak enough English to understand the captain’s orders, the voyage was doomed from the start. Incapable of carrying out orders to shorten sail in the face of a storm, the crew’s incompetence saw the ship end up just off the Irish coast. The ship struck Lambay Island. Of the 579 on board, 297 drowned in the sea. Of the 250 women and children that had set sail, only three survived. The majority of the emigrants were Irish who had embarked in Liverpool full of hope and anticipation for a future some would never see.

20131011_174940 (800x600) Watching our shadows stretch before us, I was reminded of the transience of time and the impermanence of life as we  know it. And again, I reminded myself that life is far too short to be wasted on regrets. As the sun began to set and its autumnal heat began to wane, we turned for home. Full of resolve to seize the day and replete with faith that all would be provided, tomorrow suddenly took on new meaning. The sea can do that to me.

 

Touching coffins

There are more people buried in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin that are currently alive in the city. I heard that on Saturday and it still hasn’t sunk in: 1.5 million dead vs 1.3 million alive.  A tour of the cemetery has been on my list of things to do for years and finally, thanks to the ever-on-the-ball MN, I got to cross it off my list and may well have changed my life in the process.

IMG_7267 (600x800)Dominated by a large round tower – the tallest in the country – it’s home to many a famous Irish man and woman. The round tower, in fact, is the headstone on Daniel O’Connell’s grave and for those of you who are not familiar with the man Dan, there are those who believe that he discovered Ireland.

IMG_7183 (800x600)We share the same birthday – 6 August – but he was born into aristocracy in 1775 on the opposite side of Ireland, in Cahirciveen, County Kerry. Despite having money, the family’s belief in Catholicism stood against them and denied them the status and influence their bank  balance would normally provide.  After stints in college, Daniel went to Lincoln’s Inn, London, and then to King’s Inn,  Dublin, where he studied for the bar. Qualifying in 1798, he was at this stage   fully committed to religious tolerance, freedom of conscience, democracy and the separation of Church and State.

At home, he was seen as a bit of  radical and despite his involvement in the United Irishmen, they themselves inspired by the French Revolution, O’Connell believed that the Irish were not sufficiently enlightened to hear the sun of freedom [An aside: when I read this, I remembered a Hungarian friend telling me in before the last elections that Hungary wasn’t ready for democracy – the parallels continue]. He was all for change, but advocated change within and through the system.

Fast forward to 1815 when O’Connell was probably the most successful barrister in the country and leader of the Catholic Emancipation movement. In 1823, he along with a couple of others, started the Catholic Association and had the brainwave to swell its ranks by offering annual membership for just a shilling. Their aim: to have the Act of Union repealed, to bring an end to Irish tithe system, to bring about universal suffrage, and to see a secret ballot for parliamentary elections. Despite being elected to government, O’Connell couldn’t take his seat in London in Parliament because he was Catholic. But he was a crowd-puller. It is thought that three-quarters of a million people gathered on the hill of Tara to hear the man they called the Liberator.

In 1841 he became the first Catholic Lord Mayor of Dublin and continued to fight to have the Act of Union repealed, yet he would die in Genoa in March of 1847 without doing so. On his last trip to Rome, he visited Paris where he was touted as the most successful champion of liberty and democracy in Europe.  He never made it to Rome and on his deathbed is reported to have said My body to Ireland, my heart to Rome, and my soul to Heaven. Whether or not he meant this literally is a mystery but those who heard him decided to grant his wish. His heart was removed and sent to Rome to the Irish College while the rest of him was shipped back to Glasnevin cemetery, the country’s first non-denominational cemetery which he had started back in 1832. Apparently, his heart went missing about 110 years ago…

IMG_7186 (800x583)IMG_7194 (800x600)O’Connell’s coffin sits in a crypt beneath the round tower. Holes in the marble casing allow you to reach in and touch the coffin, which is supposed to bring good luck. (Yet again, I’m fascinated by our ability as a people to conjure good luck out of anything from the combination of a black cat and an ambulance to repeated numbers on a digital clock.) Touch it I did, and more than once. In fact, had the opportunity presented itself and were good luck guaranteed, I’d have gotten into the coffin beside him.

IMG_7188 (800x600)His family and their first born are also entitled to a space in the crypt… in a side room, stacked on top of each other in lead-lined caskets. Lead creates a seal, a vacuum of sorts, that preserves bodies and as hair continues to grow long after we die, one can only imagine the state the family would be in now.  In what might seem as an effort on behalf of history to rewrite itself, O’Connell’s coffin is 9 feet long – while the man himself was reportedly much, much, much shorter.

IMG_7210 (800x600)Even in death, O’Connell still presides over the cemetery where 800 000 bodies lie in unmarked graves. Vast expanses of innocent-looking lawns cover mass graves where bodies were buried regardless of religious or political beliefs. One can imagine the conversations …

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.

Relocating

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.

Revisiting

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.

Re-evaluating

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.

Reconciling

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

 

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

Guess who’s coming to dinnner

I am the first to admit that I will need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the technological 21st century. A toddler picked up my antiquated Nokia phone the other day and couldn’t figure out why the screen wouldn’t change when he brushed it. How far beyond redemption am I when a three-year-old thinks I’m a dinosaur? I knew the day would come when I’d find myself harking back to the good old days, reminiscing about how it used to be… I just didn’t think it would come when I was still this side of 50.

Gone are the days when we might have a quiet dinner together, sorting out the world’s problems or catching up on who’s doing what with whom. Now it’s me, you, and your smart phone – ergo me, you, and all your friends. And your friends, constantly interrupting our conversation with e-mails and texts, seem to get more of your attention than I do. Perhaps I should just give in and get a smart phone.  Or perhaps I should just be more choosey about who I hang out with.

Disconnected

I have a friend in Ireland who doesn’t have a mobile phone. She doesn’t have a Facebook account. She doesn’t Tweet or Blog or have a private email address. And she seems to get along just fine. She’s a well-adjusted, active member of society. She manages to stay connected and not miss out on parties or events. She’s more current on current affairs than many others I know. She’s always on time because she has no way of letting people know that she’ll be late. And what’s more – she has time to do things. Things like decorating, or picking wild mushrooms, or gardening. And when I have dinner with her, I get her undivided attention. And I like it.

Inconsiderate

By our very nature, we like attention. We like to be the focus of conversation. We like to be heard. Oscar Wilde reportedly said that the only thing worse than being talked about was not being talked about. We fall in love with those who make us feel like we’re the only other person in the room. We are drawn to those who listen to us, who make us feel that we have something to say that’s worth hearing. We choose to spend our time with those who make us feel special. So why then, when we come into possession of a smart phone do we turn into stupid people – rude, inconsiderate, and downright ignorant at times.

Yes, of course, this was happening ever before the smart phone came into inexistence…to a certain extent. But in the last twelve months, it seems to me that it’s spiralled way out of control. And I am sick of it. Last night I had dinner with a mate of mine who was keeping one eye on me, another on the conversation, and a third on the text conversation he was having with a mate of his. I pointed out how rude he was being. He said that his mate was the sort of mate who needed a quick response. I pointed out that I was sitting right there, had asked him a question, and would like a response, too. He said that I could see him but his mate couldn’t. So therefore, his absent mate deserved more attention that the one at the table (me). For all the attention I got, I may as well have been sitting at home at my kitchen table, with dinner for one and a mirror propped in front of the milk jug to create the illusion of company. At least I’d have had a decent conversation.

Obsessed

I had thought that the Hungarian obsession with mobile phones was a lot more intense than the Irish one, but alas, it’s not so. Both nations seem equally damaged. Dinner in Dublin or dinner in Budapest – the only difference is the bottom line on the bill. Both peoples are addicted to staying in touch with those absent and in danger of alienating those present. And what’s worse is that no-one but me seems to have a problem with this behaviour.

What is wrong with the world? Is it too much to ask of you that you show a little respect for the company you’re keeping? I go to great lengths to stock up on amusing anecdotes. I read voraciously to stay current on what’s happening in the world. I live life to the fullest and am happy to make mistakes so that you can benefit from my experience. My goal as a dinner guest is to provide you with witty repartee, insightful comments, and interesting conversation. The least you could do is switch off your phone and pay attention.

First published in the Budapest Times 20 April 2012

23/4/2012 – And fresh from Australia from Biddy

Too little, too late

As cigarettes creep towards a whopping €10 a pack in Dublin, and Budapest begins to get used to the new smoking laws, I’ve only now discovered something I’d love to have known about, were I still smoking.

For the last few days, I’ve been sharing my flat with a painter who has been doing and continues to do trojan work on my wood. He’s a lovely lad who actually knows what masking tape is! He has a body-wracking cough but intends giving up smoking when his second child is born in December. At least, that’s what I think he intends. My Hungarian is being stretched to its limits and it’s not beyonds the bounds of reason that what he’s telling me and what I’m understanding are two completely different things. But then, I can say that about most of my interactions with the opposite sex. I have to admit though, that I’m rather enjoying the experience – having to use my Hungarian, that is. Perhaps I should just take myself off to some tiny village where English has yet to be heard and immerse myself in it all for a week or two. Am sure that by the end of it, all those language lessons I’ve had might actually start to bear some fruit.

But I digress. Back to the fags. I’ve never been able to roll my own. I seem to lack the required dexterity. It’s not that I haven’t tried. I have. And wasted a lot of tobacco and papers in the process. So when me man showed me his set-up, I was well impressed.

The initial outlay for the gadget is less than €5. The bag of baccy is about €8 and the box of ready-rolled cigarette papers with filters is about €1.50. So, once you have the gadget, you can knock up a carton of fags of the price of 20 in Dublin.

It reminded me of making sausages in my grandad’s  butcher shop, many, many moons ago. I’m not really into gadgets but something this nifty would almost make me take up the fags again. Almost, I said! And yes, I know. Someone is going to tell me that this contraption is as old as Methuselah and that I’m sooooo behind the times. So be it. Just think of all the things that are old hat to you that I have yet to discover. Sometimes it pays to be a dinosaur. And sure isn’t it the simple things in life that give the most pleasure.