Gabbing on new horizons

I met a woman recently at some birthday drinks or other who, at the time, had been in Budapest for six months. To my shame, I can’t remember which international organisation she worked for, or even where she was from herself. What I do remember though is that the Hungarian friend who was with me was the first Hungarian this woman had met socially. After six months!

Her week was planned around international expat activities, so I couldn’t fault her for being tribal (as I have so many Irish I’ve come across on my travels stateside – those who seem to want little more than to recreate a mini-Ireland around them and in doing so become even more Irish than they ever were at home). She did meet plenty of people from different countries, just not Hungarians.

I was struck by the ludicrousness of this. Here she was, living in Hungary, and rather than getting a sense for how the locals live, what they eat, where they go, what they do (I mean, why else would you move to a country if not to learn and broaden your horizons?), she had opted instead to live within a UN-like cocoon where every nation but Hungary seemed to be represented socially. And yes, I can see the necessity of this in some other countries where expat compounds are de rigueur, but in Budapest?

And it’s not like she was stuck for choice.

EmeseThere is plenty of cross-cultural stuff to do in Budapest. The city is a haven for arts and literature, for music and dance, for speed-dating and pub quizzes. My personal favourite, the Gift of the Gab, is now in its fourth season. It continues its quest to see who in Budapest has that ability to speak easily and confidently in a way that makes people want to listen to and believe them. The audience and competitors are truly international (and include many Hungarians!) with non-native-English speakers giving native-English speakers a run for their money when it comes to entertainment. Every forint donated goes to support an orphanage in Göd. If you’ve not yet met a Hungarian socially, or simply want to expand your horizons, join us on 25 September at the Cotton Club.

First published in the Budapest Times 20 September 2013

2013 Grateful 42

It’s been a tumultuous week. Applause at the GOTG final, my first TV interview, and seeing myself in a short film at a public screening and not having apoplexy at the sight, all made it rather strange indeed. Perhaps I’m getting older or just more accepting or just plain mellowing – or maybe it’s a new attitude that came with the new glasses!

My mates LN and VS are in town and we’ve been having the craic. They were here last year so have met a lot of people already and know as much about my life here in Budapest as most. What’s interesting though, is their take on the people they meet. Perhaps a little coloured by things I’ve mentioned in passing – but that’s to be expected.  But we’re women who know who we like/don’t like and it’s been interesting to see their reactions to people, places, and events – and then to calibrate their opinions with my own. On a superficial first-meet level, I see them react to things I’d never have noticed. What’s more interesting though, is that when we don’t agree – it doesn’t matter. Each of us has strong opinions – and these opinions are very much a product of personal experience. That we can still sit around the table and have a decent conversation despite our differences is what makes us friends.

Years ago  at a conference at MIT, I remember meeting a young economist who was thinking of breaking up with her boyfriend because he worked for an organisation she didn’t approve of. She loved him, but not what he did. I wondered then about unconditional love and am still wondering. People are regularly dismissed because of their politics, their religion, their age. I’m guilty of this myself. And yet, how much does it all matter? If, deep down, someone is innately good, does it matter how they vote or what religion they are? Who am I to judge?  I’m constantly in a state of revision – and when I revise a first impression, I feel the need to explain it to the subject of my new-found wisdom. (‘You know, I used to think you were a plonker, but you’re actually alright!) Perhaps I should stop being so quick off the mark in the first place.

I received this poem in my inbox earlier this week. While it’s done the rounds, it’s a nice reminder of how easy it is to misjudge… and how much better life would be if we looked for that hidden inner value rather than preoccupy ourselves with what’s visible on the outside.

violin‘It was battered and scarred and the auctioneer thought it hardly worth his while to waste much time on the old violin, so he held it up with a smile. “What am I bid for this old violin? Who’ll start the bidding for me? A pound, a pound, who’ll make it two? Two pounds, and who’ll make it three? Three pounds once, three pounds twice, going for three,” but no; from the back of the room a grey- haired man came forward and picked up the bow. Then sweeping the dust from the old violin, and tightening up all the strings, he played a melody pure and sweet, as sweet as the angels sing. The music ceased and the auctioneer, with a voice that was quiet and low, said, “What am I bid for the old violin?” and he held it up with the bow. “A thousand pounds, and who’ll make it two? Two thousand, and who’ll make it three? Three thousand once, three thousand twice, going, and gone,” said he. The people cheered, but some of them said, “We do not quite understand. What changed its worth?” Then came the reply, “The touch of the Master’s hand.” And many a man with his life out of tune, battered and scarred with sin, is auctioned cheap to a thoughtless crowd, much like the old violin. A mess of pottage, a glass of wine, a game, and he shuffles along: going once, going twice, he’s going and almost gone. But the Master comes, and the thoughtless crowd never can quite understand, the worth of the soul, and the change that’s wrought, by the touch of the Master’s hand.’

At the end of a rather hectic week, I’m grateful to those in my life who help calibrate me… thank you.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

The cheapest legal high you can get

(c) Alex Own

Way back in 2000, I graduated from Valdez Community College, affiliated to the University of Alaska. I was asked to give the graduation speech and I said no. I said no because I stammer. I don’t do it all the time and can go for weeks without incident but then come the days when I can’t say my own name. And as I can’t predict when these days will fall, I wasn’t about to get up on stage in front of 600 people …just in case.

The one thing I fear more than public humiliation is that feeling of regret. My e-mail signature contains the quote from Syndey Harris – Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable. So I changed my mind and gave that speech. The audience laughed and cried on cue. And I was hooked. Being able to engage with so many people at the one time was incredible. The adrenalin. The rush. The sense of accomplishment.

Back in 2008, when having lunch one day with GM, and talking about how there are so few opportunities for people to experience this high in Budapest, we began to speculate aloud and the result: The Gift of the Gab. The first series was a learning curve. I ended up funding it as we didn’t draw enough people to make it financially viable. By the time the final came around though, we had quite a following. But getting speakers was a problem. GM moved on and I wasn’t up for doing it on my own. It’s a lot of work. Then at various stages, others talked of doing something similar and I discovered in me a reluctance to see my baby exploited for profit. Quite an irrational thought in this day and age, I will admit. So I agreed to do it again – for charity.

The 2012 GOTG season began last September and has gone from strength to strength. People want to be on stage. People who competed this year and didn’t qualify want to try again next year. People came out and supported the cause, glad to be able to give a little, knowing that it would help a lot. The support was amazing. To those of you who are silently tempted to get on stage next year – but are still questioning your sanity, I say take the chance. Don’t regret not doing it. We’re not putting hearts in babies. No-one is going to die. The worst that can happen is that you bomb but at least you tried. The best that can happen is that it opens up a whole new world for you – and you get to experience, first-hand, the cheapest legal high you can get.