A mutual love

Being Irish, I have an abiding sense of tragedy that sustains me through temporary periods of joy. I wish I could claim those words as my own but I can’t. They are why I fell in love with WB Yeats – Irish Nobel laureate, poet, playwright, politician, and romantic. They are also why the Internet me calls herself ‘stolenchild’ after the most beautiful of all his poems, one that speaks to the Irish worry that a child’s mind might be stolen by the fairies. I’ve been told repeatedly that I’m often away with the fairies – a poetic way of saying that my grip on reality can be tenuous at times.

That my love of Yeats might be shared by half of Ireland is no surprise. That my love of Yeats might be shared by a tranche of people in Hungary, though, is quite remarkable. I came across the newly formed Hungarian Yeats Society recently, an enterprise conceived by a young student, Melinda Szűts, who was so enchanted by Yeats’s poetry, drama, and literature that she wanted to bring his work to the attention of other Hungarians. They have big plans for next year, when the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth will see events in Debrecen, Pecs, Győr, and Budapest.

Damien Brennan, President of the Yeats Society of Sligo, the mothership of the Magyar Yeats Társaság, was in Budapest last weekend to give a talk at the Irish Ambassador’s residence on the life of Yeats. Hosted by HE Kevin Dowling, the early evening soirée gathered about 40 enthusiasts in search of something more than the usual dry biography such evenings often entail. Damien didn’t disappoint. He brought the man to life, sharing with us the details of his work that for many (ok, maybe just me!) had heretofore gone unremarked.

MGyeatsI was enthralled. I didn’t know that when Yeats first laid eyes on Maud Gonne, a woman he would love for nigh on 30 years, he remembered the moment as when  ‘the troubling’ of his life began, for Maud would never love him back. In fact, she didn’t want to love him because she ‘could never love him enough’. They did get together once, in Paris, in 1908, when, as another love put it, ‘the long years of fidelity were  rewarded at last’. Yet it was not to be.

But it is more than a love of Yeats that connects Ireland and Hungary. About 1000 Irish live here, the majority in Budapest. The Irish Hungarian Business Circle, with its legendary First Fridays, a social gathering that takes place in the city’s only Irish pub – Jack Doyle’s – on the first Friday of every month, attracts not just Irish and Hungarians but a host of other nationalities, too.

The annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations see thousands take to the streets wearing the green. While Szombathely, the homeplace of Leopold Bloom’s father, celebrates Bloomsday every year, Budapest has a Belated Bloomsday coinciding with Museums’ Night, when Joycean devotees gather to celebrate the life and work of another great Irish writer. And the Leopold Bloom Award, a contemporary art award established by an Irish logistics business with a Budapest presence, is given biannually to a young Hungarian artist.

Our most recent Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, was commemorated in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences earlier this year when Irish poet Medbh McGuckian came from Belfast to read his poems. And over in Győr, Irish pilgrims visit the Basilica to admire the famous weeping Madonna painting, donated by Bishop Walsh, from Ireland, who was given refuge there in the late seventeenth century.

Author James Michener once described Hungarians as the Irish of Eastern Europe. Is it any wonder that I feel so at home here?

First published in the Budapest Times 14 November 2014

Water into wine

Am sure that wine puritans come out in a rash at the thoughts of adding water to wine, but in Hungary, it’s almost de riguer in the summer. Far from being a ‘girly’ drink, the various forms of wine spritzers are imbibed by men and women and boys and girls alike.

I remember my first breakfast in America when, on asking for a fried egg, I was presented with a list of choices including over easy, basted, broken, and sunny side up. When the Starbucks craze took root and coffee choice was no longer limited to black or white, I was just as mithered. And when I first came to Budapest, asking for a wine and soda landed me in the same bed of confusion.

There’s a science involved and getting the measures right is all about mood and circumstances.

  • Nagyfröccs (large spritzer) 2 dl wine and 1 dl soda water (probably the most common of all)
  • Kisfröccs (small spritzer) 1 dl wine and 1 dl soda water (as above but on a budget)
  • Hosszúlépés (a long step) 1 dl wine and 2 dl soda water (my usual)
  • Házmester (a janitor) 3 dl wine and 2 dl soda water (good for when the bar is packed and the queues are long or the waiters are ignoring you)
  • Viceházmester or háziúr (an assistant janitor or landlord) 2 dl wine and 3 dl soda water (a polite nod to sobriety)
  • Kisházmester (a little janitor) 1 dl wine and 4 dl soda water (great for a long night)
  • Polgármester (a mayor) 6 dl wine and 4 dl soda water (only if the walk to the bar takes more than 10 minutes)
  • Alpolgármester (a deputy mayor) 4 dl wine and 6 dl soda water (as above, but you’re being careful)
  • Mafla (sheepish) 5 dl wine and 5 dl soda water(and so you would be, if you publicly demonstrated this amount of gluttony)
  • Sóher fröccs (a stingy) 1 dl wine and 9 dl soda water (why bother?)
  • Lófasz (a horse prick 0.5 dl wine and 4.5 dl of soda water (adding injury to insult)

And it’s not all about wine and soda. Add the juice of a pickle and you’ll have újházy fröccs. Use red wine, soda, and raspberry syrup and you’ll have a macifröccs (aka a teddy-bear spritzer). (By the way, for those of you still in metric denial, 1 dl is about 3.5 ounces.)

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Collectively these are known as fröccs and Austria and Hungary both claim the rights to this particular phenomenon. I was in Győr a few weeks ago wandering around on a summer Saturday that was doing an excellent job of pretending it was still stuck in February. We came across what might well be indisputable proof that the whole fröccs thing did indeed originate in Hungary – a commemorative fountain with a very, very large soda water bottle in the middle. The engraved legend says that a chap by the name of Jedlik invented soda water, ‘a cult drink in Hungary’.

Mind you, an Internet search says thatBritish clergyman Joseph Priestley invented carbonated water in 1767. Interestingly Ányos István Jedlik was also in the church – he was a monk – although not born until 1800, well after Priestly first infused water with carbon dioxide. And more trivia: the first company to sell soda water was Thwaites’ Soda Water in Dublin, set up in 1799.

What to believe? Whom to believe? Perhaps there are variations of carbonated water that each could lay claim to. Perhaps Jedlik discovered it having never known Priestly had gotten there before him. Who knows? And who cares? Suffice to say that the fröccs phenomenon makes summers in Budapest bearable.

First published in the Budapest Times 13 June 2014

Forgive? Forget?

Sometimes when we least expect it, the universe conspires to remind us of stuff that should never be forgotten. I can see the merits of forgiving and forgetting – and perhaps nine times out of ten, I would be all for it. But there are times that, whatever about forgiving, forgetting is simply wrong.

I’ve read a lot about the Holocaust. I’ve visited the sites of many WWII camps. Some might say I have a morbid fascination with the subject. And perhaps I do. But there’s a part of me that thinks it could all happen again if people simply forget. The signs are there.

IMG_2224 (800x600)I come across reminders of what went on in the most unexpected places. In Győr the other week, VO took us to see the old synagogue. The site on which it is built was purchased in 1866 for just 6000 forint.  The cornerstone was laid in 1868 and the building was dedicated in 1870. Built in neo-Romanesque style, it has an octagonal plan which served as pattern for a number of significant European synagogues around that time – apparently  Károly Benkö’s design is the first realization of the movement of neological synagogues.

IMG_2194 (800x600)IMG_2198 (800x600)In 1910, the Jewish community numbered 5583 people. Of the 5700 people deported in the 1940s, only around 780 returned. And for them, it was far too big.  Hungary bought the synagogue from the Jewish community in 1969. It subsequently housed a grain company’s offices, was a furniture storage for a while, and then the Ferenc Liszt conservatory was tasked with converting space to a concert hall.  It’s now a cultural centre, operated by the University of István Széchenyi, and mainly used by the university and the municipal art museum. It also houses the collection of János Vasilescu’s twentieth century art.

IMG_2212 (800x600)IMG_2210 (800x596)The detail is amazing; the restoration simply beautiful. One has to be thankful that it wasn’t left to go to rack and ruin but instead has found a new life that the whole community can enjoy. But the building itself, beautiful as it is, is not what was the most significant for me.

IMG_2178 (600x800)In the courtyard out front stands a memorial on which are etched the names of the children who were deported. The youngest, Péter Feldmar,  was only 2 weeks old.  Over 1.5 million children perished in the Holocaust. It’s too big a number to get my head around. The numbers from Győr were all too manageable, made even more real by names and years, months, and days of life. Today, they provide food for thought and ample reason for reflection. They should not be forgotten.


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…



The magic flautist

The first time I set foot in Hungary, back in 2003, I recognised the affinity that is peculiar to the Hungarians and the Irish. It goes beyond literature and art, beyond folklore and tradition. It’s something that resides deep in the souls of both peoples, something intangible.

Of course, literature and art have their space. Bloomsday celebrations of Joyce’s work are huge in Szombathely. The Weeping Madonna at Győr – who apparently cried tears of blood on 17 March 1697 after the Irish Parliament voted in favour of the Banishment Act to rid the country of its clergy – is further testament to an age-old connection between the two countries, this one based in a shared sense of Catholicism. And a retired diplomat I met recently told me of 400-page treatise written by a Hungarian scholar on the similarities between the two languages – Gaelic and Hungarian.

But it is in the Hungarian adoption of Irish music that I find the most inspiring. In Kobuci kert recently I first heard Paddy and the Rats. Hailing from Miskolc, the lads bill their genre as Pub ‘n’ Roll, Celtic Punk, and Sailor Punk. Between the six of them, their energy could keep Budapest in lights for a day. Paddy himself had the audience in the palm of his hand, in true Irish story-telling form. I was blown away.

IMG_7393And yet, good and all as they are, my heart is with Firkin who played an hour-long gig at the recent Sparking Wine Festival in Budafok.  Although it had been a while since I’d seen them live, they hadn’t lost their magic. There’s something quite surreal in hearing old Irish songs belted out in Hungarian. And, in fact, on more than one occasion, I could have sworn the lads were singing in Gaelic. Perhaps there is a connection between the languages after all.

IMG_7403 (600x800)Were I to be totally honest, I’d admit to being a little enthralled by their flautist. There’s something magical about János Péter; it was as if he’d sprung from the netherworld of the sidhe (the fairy folk), brimming with mischief and life. I can’t help thinking that had we more of his energy, we might manage to lift ourselves from the political doldrums that currently ensnare us.

First published in the Budapest Times 13 September 2013

Humanizing Hungarians

IMG_0538 (800x594)I knew little, if anything, about Hungary before I moved here. Gradually, as I met more and more people, my list of places to visit grew longer. It’s still growing. PM was the first to mention the Benedictine Monastery at Pannonhalma to me but it took a while to make my way to  the town in western Hungary, in Győr-Moson-Sopron county, about 20 km from Győr, home of the famous painting of Our Lady that allegedly cried tears of blood.

IMG_0516 (600x800)History tells us that the first Benedictine monks (who had arrived from Italy and Germany) settled here in 996. They have a series of firsts to their bow: the first to convert the Hungarians to Christianity, the first to found a school, and in 1055, the first to write a document in Hungarian. It’s been in continuous use for more than 1000 years – no mean feat given today’s disposable society.

When the monks arrived, the locals were Bavarian and Slav farmers, who had settled here in the wake of Charlemagne’s armies. The monks apparently came to help Prince Geza and his son Stephen I, the first king of Hungary, in their efforts to humanize the Hungarians, who were terrorizing the settled peoples of Europe and sacking the towns and monasteries of northern Italy, Bavaria, and Franconia. I read this on the Unesco site and stopped to wonder at the translation. Humanizing Hungarians seems such an odd term to use.

IMG_0515 (800x576)Pannonhalma is also the smallest, but oldest wine-making region in the country – the monks did more than teach and convert. They, too, had their hobbies. Today, they’re cashing in on the tourist dollar and the gift shops are full of  lavender, chocolate liqueurs, soaps and creams, natural remedies, herbal teas, wine and liqueurs. If you’re interested in taking a virtual tour, Petern66 has an excellent blog post that’s worth a read.

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We made it in time for mass. And while part of me had been really looking forward to this, I came away disappointed. Is it right to be disappointed in a mass? The church was beautiful – the singing exquisite – but the reverence was missing. I found myself comparing it to mass at the Abbey of Timadeuc, in France, and found it sorely lacking. It seemed to me that the celebrants were more interested in who was in the congregation than in offering up the mass.

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IMG_0530 (800x600)IMG_0520 (600x800)Tourism seemed to have usurped the religious rite, the distraction it offers proving too strong. Yes, there were screaming babies, and kids running around, and cameras going off – enough to distract Job himself – but still!

Not for the first time, I wondered at the commercialisation of the church and the pros and cons of places of worship becoming places of attraction. I strongly object to paying to enter a church as a tourist when all I simply want to do is light a candle and say a prayer and yet can see the need for entrance fees to maintain the premises.

In fairness, unless you’re taking a tour, you can wander the grounds freely – which is nice. And nice and all as the grounds are, that lack of reverence left me feeling a little empty. It wasn’t quite the spiritual experience I’d hoped for.

Tears for the Irish

March is one of my favourite months of the year. It has everything I could hope for by way of entertainment: great rugby as the Six Nations tournament continues, great speeches as the final of the Gift of the Gab draws near (Orfeum, March 14), and the St Patrick’s Day parade in Budapest (March 17). It’s a great month to be Irish in Budapest.

Now I’m on record as having little time for the type of expat who surrounds themselves with people from home; the type whose main aim in life is to recreate a mini-Ireland, a mini-England or a mini-wherever, in whatever city they expatriate themselves to. I’m all for moving abroad and embracing the culture of your new country – for however long you might stay. Travel broadens the mind; living amidst the locals gives you a new perspective and very often causes you to question long held and perhaps outmoded beliefs. I’m not for a minute suggesting that we all forget whence we came. But if we take advantage of our newness to ask questions, read up on the history, make an effort to learn the language, and generally mingle with the masses, it’s surprising how many links to home will appear unbidden.

The Hungarian connection

A couple of matches ago (this is how my time is measured in March) I was sitting in Jack Doyle’s delighted with Ireland’s solid win over Italy. I was in the company of two of the most intrepid expats I’ve come across in years. Their curiosity knows no bounds and their eagerness to make the most of their time in Budapest is a stark reminder of how quickly many of us start to take this city for granted. They’d just come back from Győr and asked me if I was aware of the Irish link with the city. I was a little taken aback to find that I didn’t know and a little embarrassed to think that I’ve yet to take the time to stop in the city and not simply train my way through it.

From Galway to Győr

(C) Des Nix

The story starts in 1649 when Oliver Cromwell was busy persecuting Catholics in Ireland. Priests and nuns were hunted down without mercy; many were executed for practicing their religion. The then Bishop of Clonfert, Walter Lynch, one step ahead of Cromwell, fled first to Galway and then to Inishboffin Island from where he was smuggled out of the country to Belgium. With him, he brought a painting of Our Lady praying over the sleeping infant Jesus. Some years later, in 1655, he ended up in Vienna where he met the Bishop of Győr, János Pusky, who offered him as job as pastor of the Cathedral and later appointed him Auxiliary Bishop.

Exit Cromwell; enter Charles II

Just as Bishop Lynch had decided he could end his exile and return safely to Ireland, he died unexpectedly in 1663. In his will, he bequeathed his treasured painting to the city as a thank you for giving him a home. The painting hung without incident for 34 years in the cathedral at Győr. Many came to venerate, sure that Our Lady had interceded on their behalf ensuring victories over the Turks. But while Hungary was enjoying its newfound peace in 1697, Catholicism in Ireland was once again under threat.

On March 16, 1697, the Irish Parliament in Dublin convened. The first order of business was to consider and vote upon the passage of the Banishment Act to rid the country of all bishops, priests, and religious from Ireland. Drastic times, drastic measures.

One day later, on St Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1697, a miracle occurred in Győr. The Madonna in Walter Lynch’s painting began to cry tears of blood. Witnesses from many different religious denominations failed to provide an explanation. Word got out and thousands flocked to see the Weeping Madonna, many leaving their signatures as testament to what they had seen. The linen cloth used to dry the Madonna’s tears is now on display alongside her image.

Irish-Hungarian links

In 1997, to mark the 300-year anniversary of the Madonna’s tears of anguish, the Bishop of Clonfert John Kirby visited Győr. He had this to say: The kindness shown to Bishop Walter Lynch has led to an unusual link between the small Irish rural diocese of Clonfert and the large Hungarian diocese of Győr […] It has shown us the value of friendship and the way that the consideration shown to a refugee can deepen the understanding between peoples who might otherwise never have known each other.

When I think of all the great people, both Irish and Hungarian, whom I never would have met had I not taken that train to Budapest in 2007, I could shed a tear or two myself.

First published in the Budapest Times 9 March 2012