I love a good roadtrip. Especially when it involves dropping in on friends I’ve not seen in the longest of times. From LA to Palm Desert and Palm Springs, to Scottsdale, Maricopa, and Tucson, to San Diego and back to LA, the 2000+ miles went all the quicker because of the reconnections made along the way. It’s says something about the strength of friendships ewhen I can drop an email to someone I’ve not seen since I last worked with them in 1992, tell them I’m going to be in town, and they immediately issue an invite to stay.
It’s Sunday night. I’m sitting at the table in the Jungle Mansion. One of their 13 friendly local raccoons is messing around outside. It’s dark. It’s cold. It’s an unseasonable California. The talented SRP is playing the piano. She’d asked what my favourite piece was. I didn’t have to think. Panis Angelicus. She’d not heard it before, but went online, downloaded the sheet music, and played it. Beautifully. Such unpretentious talent is humbling. Read more
Many, many moons ago, in an effort to cure myself of the habit of buying touristy tat when I travelled, I hit on the idea of a travel tree (along the lines of my travel bracelet). Before I can buy anything else, I have to buy a silver charm and a Christmas tree ornament (a challenge in non-Christian countries). The search for both usually uses up all of my shopping energy and takes care of that on-holiday-need-to-buy affliction that hits when the plane lands or the train draws into the station.
I’ve been doing this for years but have never gotten around to getting said Christmas tree, the thoughts of taking it down always a lot worse, on balance, that the idea of putting it up. The one year I seriously flitted with the idea, BZs showed up for breakfast sans car and put paid to that. The closest I’ve come is a white metal stand with hooks for ornaments that resembles a tree. But it doesn’t smell.
This year, though, with visitors due mid-holiday and himself the antithesis of my do-I-have-to-be-happier-just-because-it’s-Christmas Scrooginess, we got a tree. A real, live tree (well, now dying but you get the gist). And it comes from our part of the countryside, too. I hadn’t realised that there are so many different kinds but thankfully, it was cold, I was in pain, I didn’t have time to dither. I picked the first one that spoke to me. A tad ungainly but it has character.
I dug out my boxes of ornaments, all carefully catalogued over the years, and began to relive my travels. I had to think on some of them, finding it hard to remember whom I was with and why I was there and what had taken me to Smithfield, Virginia in the first place. But as we dressed the tree and swapped stories, it came alive. Admittedly, thoughts of the hassle I was going to have repacking everything threatened to intrude and ruin the moment, but I managed to get through it.
One of my all time favourite ornaments though, was one I got when I was in San Francisco shortly after my bestie Lori died. That brought back a wealth of memories. The day after I got the news, I’d planted a tree in her name at an orphanage outside Budapest. It all seemed somewhat fitting. As I revisited the trips I’d taken and the places I’d been, I was at home with thoughts of friendship and travel – two of a long list of what I value in life.
Life changes – all the time. Things simply don’t stay the same. Managing that change and making the most of what we’re dealt is our challenge. Putting up a tree – that’s a start.
There’s a saying in Turkey that a cup of coffee commits you to 40 years of friendship. That’s some commitment.
I grew up with instant coffee, granules that you add to boiling water and then add milk (white coffee) or don’t (black coffee). A simple choice – black or white. When I first went to America a couple of lifetimes ago, I was completely bemused by the differentiation between filtered coffee or instant coffee, and completely confused when I went a second time to find that ordering a coffee now took serious thought. The styles: latte, espresso, frappé, cappuccino. The substance: skinny, decaf, leaded.
Today, it is even more complicated. I can have a long or short espresso (depends on how much water I add). I can add some steamed milk and upgrade to an espresso macchiato. Or I can top with whipped cream for an espresso con panna. And if I add some booze (e.g. sambuca or cognac) I can have an espresso corretto. And that’s just an espresso…
I had my first Turkish coffee in Sarajevo. It’s definitely an acquired taste. I prefer mine with a little milk, which borders on sacrilegious, and is not so much frowned up as simply not understood. Why would anyone want to add milk to Turkish coffee? The apologetic, wheedling smile that accompanied my request worked most of the time in Istanbul, but not always. One chap simply refused point blank. Another turned a deaf ear and ignored the milk part. A third explained to me that it just wasn’t done. Fair enough. When in Rome and all that, I thought…but it didn’t stop me asking.
What I didn’t know though was that Turkish coffee (the culture of it rather than the actual stuff itself) is inscribed in 2013 (8.COM) on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity:
Turkish coffee combines special preparation and brewing techniques with a rich communal traditional culture. The freshly roasted beans are ground to a fine powder; then the ground coffee, cold water and sugar are added to a coffee pot and brewed slowly on a stove to produce the desired foam. The beverage is served in small cups, accompanied by a glass of water, and is mainly drunk in coffee-houses where people meet to converse, share news and read books. The tradition itself is a symbol of hospitality, friendship, refinement and entertainment that permeates all walks of life. An invitation for coffee among friends provides an opportunity for intimate talk and the sharing of daily concerns. Turkish coffee also plays an important role on social occasions such as engagement ceremonies and holidays; its knowledge and rituals are transmitted informally by family members through observation and participation. The grounds left in the empty cup are often used to tell a person’s fortune. Turkish coffee is regarded as part of Turkish cultural heritage: it is celebrated in literature and songs, and is an indispensable part of ceremonial occasions.
Had I known that the grounds left in the empty cup could have been used to tell my fortune, I might be viewing the world in a whole different light today.
At the end of a week that had days I thought would never end and days that I thought ended far too soon, I’m in need of a Turkish coffee or three. I’m knackered. So much is going on that it’s hard to keep track of it all. I want to scream at the world to stop, so that I can get off for a while and disappear. But that ain’t going to happen. And while I know that it’s sleep and not stimulants that I need, this week I am grateful for the restorative power of coffee. For the rituals that it comes packaged in. And for the conversation it encourages.
To the Sufi monks in Yemen – you have my undying gratitude.
I nearly didn’t recognise her. The short crop was gone, replaced by a pinned up 1940’s bob. I hadn’t seen my mate MC in way too long. Despite the best of intentions, work and lives had interfered. Schedules had clashed and best efforts to get together had come to nowt. It had been nearly two years since we’d seen each other – by far the longest time we’ve gone with out setting the world to rights in our own inimitable way.
We did the train-station theatrics in Bath with minimum fuss but the right amount of understated excitement at being together again. And then we went for lunch. One hour morphed into two, three, four. The bottle of wine long-since gone, we had just one Italian spritzer (limoncello and prosecco) which turned into two and then three. Nearly a full eight hours later we had caught up on personal stuff, discussed Putin’s bout of sabre rattling, bandied around the possible consequences of China’s debt bubble busting, debated the current rise of antisemitism in Europe, wondered at the whole gay rights vs human rights, and expressed our liking for the current pope. Back home to hers and the conversation continued. That night, I marvelled, not for the first time, at the enduring power of real friendship and thanked my God for blessing me with some fabulously interesting friends.
The night before, I’d been to a reception in Bahamas House in London. The current Governor General of the Bahamas was retiring. As he spoke, he mentioned that at 84, it was time to retire. He didn’t look a day over 70. There, I caught up with old friends from the Bahamas and Jersey, met some new friends from South Africa, and again, marvelled at the diversity of opinions, perspectives, and lifestyles that the world has to offer.
The day before that, I’d been in Bern, Switzerland, and had had dinner with a mate of mine from school whom I hadn’t seen since 1983. I recognised AR immediately, partly through a recent connection on LinkedIn but mainly because she really hadn’t changed that much. We sat for a couple of hours in the shadow of the Swiss Parliament and caught up on 30 years, mostly trading experiences of where we had lived and what we’d been doing in our intervening lifetimes. We swapped news about classmates whom we’d been in contact with recently, try to put names to their collective faces, and reminisced about school days and the green uniforms that were indelibly etched on our fashion consciousness.
Earlier in the week, I’d managed to inject some life into a rather lethargic Geneva in the company of some new friends from the Cook Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, and Samoa (our Solomon Islands friend had gone in search of shoes). As we sat and traded stories, our fluency much enhanced by some semi-decent Swiss wine, we seemed to focus on commonalities. Shared phrases, ones that I’d assumed were quintessentially Irish, like ‘yer man/yer woman’ are alive and kicking and doing the rounds in the Cook Islands. This begs further investigation and one of these days I’m sure we’ll manage it. Traditions, habits, recipes, tales of madness and circumspection travelled to and fro across the table. As I settled into my hotel bed that night, I marvelled at the opportunities and chance encounters thrown up by the universe that have the potential to become enduring friendships, or not, and I thanked my God for sending these people my way.
As CS Lewis is said to have said: ‘Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.’
I don’t have a television in my flat and I don’t have a fireplace. And because I don’t have either of these focal points, my centre points are my tables – my kitchen table and my dining room table. Around these two pieces of furniture (one a modern glass/chrome construction, the other a 1920s art deco piece), the world has been set to rights on numerous occasions. Conversations have been parsed and analysed. Lives have been rebuilt. Attitudes readjusted. Perspectives changed.
One of the great joys in my life is food, and it shows 🙂 I find cooking therapeutic. I cook every day, even if it’s just for me. I make an effort not to eat on the run but to sit and enjoy. It’s relaxing. It grounds me. I’m even learning to eat more slowly. To savour. To pay more attention and be in the moment. I don’t always manage the recommended 25 chews per mouthful but trying has become a new form of meditation.
Way back in the 1980s, when the fondue craze hit Ireland, I was there. I loved the communal cooking. Sitting around a table and trying this and that, all the while chatting and debating and even at times arguing to a backdrop of tantalising smells.
I’m coming in on the end of the raclette craze, having just discovered the concept while in Zurich late last year – but better late than never. Raclette is a semi-hard cheese made on both sides of the French/Swiss Alps. Individual pans sit underneath a grill where you can grill to your hearts content whatever combination of cheese and vegetables you like. The plate above is reserved for larger meats and vegetables. All the host has to do is supply the raw ingredients and then everyone else does the work.
This evening was my first raclette dinner, prompted by the cheese I’d stocked up on at Christmas nearing its use-by date. I hustled up five friends who were willing to join the experiment. My instruction book helpfully came in Dutch, Hungarian, Italian, and Slovenian so it was trial by picture – a little like looking at the picture on a jigsaw box and having some vague notion of how the finished product was supposed to look.
They came. They saw. We ate. And the world was set to rights…again. Around the table sat America, Australia, England, Hungary, and Ireland. I wonder how successful international negotiations would be if they were held around a dinner table.
This week, with the sounds of the Mediterranean still rattling around my head, I am grateful that I have friends who will come sit around my table and freely share their thoughts and opinions on everything from Ireland’s legendary performance against Wales yesterday to the merits (?) of the annual February 11th commemorative walk of the 700 in Budapest. They come with questions and leave with answers (or more questions!). That’s one of the joys of being an expat in a city that has so much to offer. The variety of backgrounds and the diversity of cultures that meet and form lasting friendships make eating together much more than simply fun – it’s also an education.
It’s been a long week and so many things happened to be grateful for. The success of the Gift of the Gab and the money that was raised for the orphanage. The wonderful rendition of Marie Jones Stones in his pockets by the boys from Madhouse. The fantastic turnout for the St Patrick’s Day parade, a day that culminated in the Gala Dinner. It all wrapped up with the Irish Film Festival’s showing of the Irish SciFi 100 mornings. I had two friends in for the week and saw many’s the sunrise over the course of those few days, staying up till the wee hours sitting around my kitchen table putting the world to rights over a pot of tea and a few cosmopolitans. And for all the friendship and the craic, I am grateful indeed.
But what struck me most over the past week, a week where the Irish were out en masse and the masses were on form, is the sheer versatility of the English language – when it’s in our hands!
The English language brings out the best in the Irish. They court it like a beautiful woman. They make it bray with donkey laughter. They hurl it at the sky like a paint pot full of rainbows, and then make it chant a dirge for man’s fate and man’s follies that is as mournful as misty spring rain crying over the fallow earth. ~ T E Kalem – On Brendan Behan’s 1958 play Borstal Boy, quoted in a Time advertisement, NY Times 17 Mar 1979
There were some classics:
On nervousness: It’s not as if we’re putting hearts in babies – or taking them out! On preaching: You’re not on your high horse now; you’re just on a tall donkey! On Lent: I can’t have sex – it’s lent. Okay so. Let me know when you get it back. On death: He’d gotten very small but he looked very well in the coffin.
On fashion: Sure their skirts are higher than their handbags.
On drink: The weakness in me is very strong.
On meanness: He’d mind mice at a crossroads.
On inquistiveness: She asked it all – breed, creed, and generation.
On beauty: She had calves only a cow could love.
On nerve: He’s not at all backward in coming forward.
On weight: She’s the full of his arms of Irish love.
Note to self: start carrying a notebook.
Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see. So said the inimitable CS Lewis and until this week, I would have had to admit to paying lip service to the word ‘miracle’ which for me, was 80% cliché and 20% faith. And to use a term that has been bandied around a lot this week with the death of Davy Jones (RIP), I’m a believer.
Sometime in January I had a phone call from a mate of mine in America to say she was going to come to Budapest to visit and wanted to see Prague, Vienna, and anywhere else I might fancy taking her. We agreed on February 11 – 29 and I booked hotels, trains, and restaurants, mapping out an itinerary that would keep her busy! I hadn’t seen her since we last met up in Hawaii and was really looking forward to it. We go way back. We’v been through all sorts of trouble and adventures in California and have lived to tell the tale. I’ve grown with her and learned so much from her – she taught me to say the words ‘I love you’ without embarassment. We mightn’t see each other from one end of the year to the next or even talk on the phone that often, but ours is a friendship that just picks up from where it left off without need for apologies or explanations. She is one of my truest friends.
On February 9, she called to say that she couldn’t come. Her doctor had advised her not to travel. She wasn’t feeling well and needed some tests done but she was still hoping to travel to North Carolina for her step-dad’s retirement in a couple of weeks. We spoke daily. Then she was in hospital. Her liver had failed. They were hoping for a transplant and had a possibility lined up when two hours later, her body gave way. Her kidneys failed, her liver stopped working and she flatlined. We were supposed to be in Prague and instead she was dead and I was on the other side of the world.
They resuscitated her and brought her back, wondering all the while if they’d made the right decision. She spent a week or more in an induced coma, living through machines. The outlook was bleak. Even were a liver to be found, she wouldn’t qualify. She’d always said she’d be the last one standing and part of me just couldn’t accept that she’d give in but I had to be pragmatic. I told friends about her and asked for them to pray to whatever or whomever they had as their god. From Venezuela to Malta, from Brussels to Hawaii, from California to all corners of Ireland, friends of mine who had met her and those who’d just heard the stories, sent their invocations to their gods, made their intercessions, all the time cautioning that a miracle was needed.
I thought about going to see her, talking myself in and out of it a dozen times. Selfishly, I didn’t want my last memory of her to be on her deathbed. She couldn’t hear me – I couldn’t talk to her – and vain as she is, I knew she wouldn’t want me to see her like that. We’d agreed when she first went into hospital that I wouldn’t go until she asked me to come. I had to respect that. Last Thursday, when we were supposed to be in Vienna, I went anyway. With the lovely MI, we lit candles in what churches we could find and said our prayers to our respective gods. And hoped for that miracle.
At the weekend, I spoke to her husband. She was awake. She’d had her third successful dialysis, and while she still had difficulty talking, she was able to communicate with facial gestures. She’s gotten stronger day by day and tonight I finally get to talk to her – to see when I can go visit.
It’s been a manic three weeks of up and downs. That elusive thing we call hope has ebbed and flowed. Oceans of tears were shed around the world as thousands of forints were spent on phone calls that turned into trips down memory lane. The general consensus about the lesson to be learned is that you truly never know the day nor the hour…
This week, I am grateful for the power of friendship – that ephemeral thing that brings people together and unites them in a cause. It is with the power of collective consciousness (call it prayer or whatever) that miracles are wrought.
Thank you all. You know who you are.