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2018 Grateful 41

Charles (Chuck) Swindoll is a pastor, author, educator, and radio preacher. He’s 83. He used to stutter. I still stammer. He was a member of his school’s marching band. I was a member of mine, too. He has a radio program – Insight for Living – that is broadcast on more than 2,000 stations around the world in 15 languages. I’d like one of those. I dabbled briefly in it one year in with a series of podcasts called Hotline to Heaven. And it’s on my list to do again. Occasionally, I get posts in my inbox that mention him. A few weeks back, I got this one on the Giving Tree.

‘When the boy was young he swung from the tree’s branches, ate her apples, and slept in her shade…But as he grew up he spent less and less time with the tree. “Come on, let’s play,” said the tree. But the young man was only interested in money. “Then take all my apples and sell them,” said the tree. The man did, and the tree was happy. He didn’t return for a long time, but the tree smiled when he passed by one day. “Come on, let’s play!” But the man, older and tired of the world, wanted to get away from it all. “Cut me down. Take my trunk, make a boat, then you can sail away,” said the tree. The man did, and the tree was happy. Many seasons passed – and the tree waited. Finally the man returned, too old to play, or pursue riches, or sail the seas. “I have a pretty good stump left. Sit down here and rest,” said the tree. The man did, and the tree was happy.’

Swindoll likens the tree to the many people who gave of themselves so that ‘he might grow, accomplish his goals, and find wholeness and satisfaction.’ And, indeed, there were times he was a giving tree himself. I was reminded of this earlier this week as I went about my business in Budapest. I had resolved some time ago that if I were approached on the street by someone asking for money, I’d give. Something, anything. My various pockets all have at least a 500 ft note in them, ready for the off. And when it comes to doling out the forints, I try not to discriminate. I read this verse on FB a few years back and it’s stuck in my head. It’s made me want to work on not being judgmental but it’s hard. It’s as if I’m preprogrammed to make snap decisions that catapult me into the role of judge and jury. So to avoid this, I try to give regardless.

But I still judge. And this means that after I’ve walked by an outstretched hand having judged it too well manicured to be in need, or after I’ve stepped over legs shod in designer-brand shoes that I can’t afford myself, I have this internal debate that could last second or minutes. After 12 months solid practice, 8 out of 10 times I’ll double back. But I’m still not there. I’m a work in progress.

Sadly, it seems like the asks are getting more and more plentiful. The number of people of all ages on the streets of Budapest asking for help is heartbreaking. And yes, perhaps for a sizeable number of them it’s a mafia-run day job. But what of the others, those in real need? Am I to be the one to judge? Perhaps, if I were smarter or more streetwise, I could. But I’m not. So I give. I’m aiming for 100%, but I’m not there yet.

I’m grateful for all the trees in my life – you know who you are. With thanks.

Shutting up

westI’ve been overdosing on West Wing, the old TV series starring Martin Sheen as President of America that ran from 1999 to 2006. The writing is clever, the dialogue witty, the characters eminently likeable. I’m addicted. We can go through anywhere from 4 to 7 episodes a night. Two episodes into series 2 and it’s not lost on me what perfect timing this viewing is. I look at Jed Bartlet and I look at the soon-to-be US President, and three words come to mind: Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot. And no, I’m not an idiot. I know that Jed Bartlet is a fictional character born of the pen of Aaron Sorkin. I haven’t lost the plot completely. And I know that the staff he has surrounded himself with, those who serve at the pleasure of the President, play a huge role in keeping this fictional America straight. And the more episodes I watch, the more I despair at what January 20th will bring.

During the week, I reposted a video by GQ on Facebook – I didn’t know the chap speaking but I could identify with his message. He spoke not of policies or mandates or great plans – but of the man himself. He showed tweets penned by DT that begged the question – Is this guy really all there?  I doubt there’s a writer in Hollywood who could come up with a presidential character quite like him and expect the series to be a success.

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I had two messages of note in reaction to my post. One pointed out there’s nothing that can be said that will change people’s minds. Like abortion and blood sports, both democrats and republicans have come down hard on one side and are intractable. My friend said that posting such videos would just lose me friends. And,  when I checked, they were right. I’m not nearly as popular on FB as I was pre-DT.  Ah well.

Another friend pointed out that the chap in the view was a ‘sports commenter and failed political commenter from a network that can not generate enough viewership to keep him in his time slot,’ branding him ‘an extremist on the liberal side of American politics’.  In public speaking, this is known as ad hominem  – an argument/reaction directed against a person rather than the position they are maintaining. But then, so was the GQ piece, although it was clearly positioned as such, perhaps for lack of a position to attack? Yep – intractable.

Anyway, I’ve decided that as my tuppence ha’penny isn’t going to sway public opinion, I will watch the unfolding drama with an interest born in fiction. I can’t think of it as anything else and find myself seeing the whole thing as a plot line, wondering which way it will go. And in an effort to compare like with like, I will use Jed Bartlet as my yardstick, because comparing DT to Barack Obama would be like comparing oranges and apples. [A shout-out to my US friends who are feeling the pain – thoughts and prayers with you as you battle to  make sense of it all.]

And, in the meantime, while the world continues to go off kilter, I will concentrate on what’s going on closer to home. While I’ve been down the country with my geese, Zsuzsa and the crew at the Caledonia and Ákos and his team at Age of Hope have been busy doing stuff that matters. Another 300 portions of soup have made it to the homeless. Ingredients are coming in. And people are turning up with their potato peelers to help out. Tomorrow, Friday, at 2pm, more help is needed to prep for the weekend. If you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and work, drop by and help out. This is a time when you can really make a difference to the lives of others.

cale1cale4 Cale3

2017 Grateful 51

You don’t have to look very far on Facebook and other social media to see people’s reaction to the current cold front that is sweeping Europe. It’s bloody freezing. Perishing. Mind-numbingly cold. And for those of us who have homes to go to, we can bitch and moan to our hearts’ content knowing that our discomfort is temporary. Fleeting, even. We can even opt to stay at home and not stir outside until the weather starts cooperating. But for hundreds if not thousands of others in cities like Budapest, life is a tad different.

They have no homes to go to. And perhaps for some who do, they’re faced with the heat or eat dilemma. Money is tight and people have to make decisions based on need. One homeless activist told of how he personally had taken ten dead people from their homes last winter – they’d died of hyperthermia, in situ, having chosen to eat.

There’s been a homeless chap camped under an archway on our street for the last few months. I’ve never seen him drunk or belligerent. He keeps his stuff tidy. And he always looks neat and relatively clean. He can leave his stash and it’s left undisturbed. No one bothers him. He seems to hold himself apart. When we’ve had occasion to interact, he is pleasant and sweet. A nice lad who could be anything from late 30s to early 50s. It’s difficult to tell.

When the cold spell hit, we were worried as he was showing no move to go to a shelter. We talked of inviting him home but this brought up a litany of concerns mostly stemming from the fact that our Hungarian and his English were nowhere close to facilitating a conversation that didn’t run the risk of being misunderstood. What if he was mentally unstable? What if he threw a fit? What if he was allergic to nuts? What if, what if, what if…

But the biggest what if was what if he died during the night and we had done nothing? In the UK you can call a number to report where someone homeless is camping out so that those working to help can come and do their thing. We rang a Hungarian friend to see if there was a  local equivalent. When we explained what was going on, she offered to come with us to talk to him and see what he wanted to do. He didn’t want to go to a shelter, even though one locally would have taken him in. He was adamant. It was dangerous in there. He preferred to take his chances on the street. He was working down on Mester utca during the day so only needed to get through the night. He could slip the night watchman a few forints and he’d let him sleep inside the building he was camped outside. We bought him dinner; she gave him money, and the next day he was alive. That was Thursday.

On Friday, as I was walking by, two policemen were talking to him. From what I could gather without loitering with intent, it seemed that he was still refusing to go a shelter. When they’d gone, I went back and slipped him some money for his bribe, feeling his hands to make sure he was warm. An hour later, a visiting friend told me she’d seen the cops there and she’d thought he had died. But I think they made him go inside, because he was back the next morning.

Respecting his right to decide, we brought him food and blankets to make the decision a little easier, and added money to facilitate his choice. Our conversation is always pleasant and he seems quite okay. But around the city, in the underpasses, other homeless are not coping as well. Cheap booze is fueling what often seems like a death wish. It’s hard to watch.

Budapest Bike Mafia and other activist groups are collecting blankets and food donations to distribute around the city. And when one of the city’s most socially conscious pub – The Caledonia – stepped up to help, we didn’t need to be asked twice. On Sunday morning, we went shopping for ingredients to make 200 portions of goulash soup to be distributed throughout Sunday night and 200 portions of a healthy tomato soup for Monday. We retired to The Caledonia and sliced and diced and cooked it all up. Kilos and kilos of fresh veg and meat. It was distributed that evening by volunteers from the Age of Hope Foundation who stepped in to help out those from Menedèk. Job done. Conscience appeased. And it felt good, damn good, to do something constructive. Giving money is easy, but when it comes to getting bang for your buck, using the money you could donate to buy ingredients and then help prep and cook is far more rewarding.

caleAkós from Age of Hope has said that they’d be happy to distribute more this week, if there is food to distribute. The shopping list, when it comes to feeding 400, is expensive. So we thought – why not ask others to contribute… and to help. Chopping onions, when done in volume, is a Zen-like experience. Ditto for peeling carrots. It can be very meditative.

What’s needed:

  • Onions
  • Celeraic
  • Fresh paprikas (the TV sort, I think they call them)
  • Carrots
  • Potatoes
  • Tomatoes (fresh and tinned)
  • Garlic
  • Gulyas meat
  • Paper bowls/cups for hot soup with lids (Metro has them :-))

You can drop off all donations to the Caledonia, Budapest, Mozsár u. 9, 1066. They’re open from 2pm. And sure when you’re there, stay and have a drink and chop some veg. Restorative therapy has never been so cheap. You can make a difference. I am grateful to have had the experience. Thanks to Zsuzsa & Co. for making it happen.

Tip – Suck on a teaspoon while you’re chopping the onions and you won’t cry. It works.

 

2014 Grateful 26

‘If we don’t push the homeless people out, we will end up being pushed out by them.’ This quotation, attributed to the Mayor of Budapest’s VIII district, Máté Kocsis (the district in which I live), is the basis for an art installation in Budapest by Finnish artist, Jani Leinonen.

HK4HK5For three weeks, Leinonen’s fake fast food restaurant – Hunger King – has highlighted the government’s treatment of the homeless in the capital. It gave out burger boxes to homeless people, filled with 3400 forints (€11, £7, $15) which amounts to the daily minimum wage. Those who had money got to use the red carpet and buy pieces of art. Quite a heady juxtaposition of the poverty and wealth that divides Budapest and many cities around the world.

HK3HK2The menu was cleverly designed to showcase the differences in what the government offers to rich and poor. It’s nothing I didn’t know already, but seeing it portrayed as a fast-food menu struck home. It made it all the more real. What exactly that’s indicative of, I’m not quite sure – perhaps a reality that only becomes real when transmitted in advertising slogans and 140-character tweets? I hope not.

The specials board gave pause for thought. Leinonen writes that the Hungarian economy is worse today that it was in socialist times with 12% of the population living below the poverty line. More than 1 million cannot afford to heat their homes, and in winter, the number of cold-related deaths is 10 times higher than in other developed countries. What does this say about those of us living here, about the government elect?

HK1He talks of parasites, or more particularly of those who label the homeless as parasites who feed off the system. And he points out that a really successful parasite is one that feeds off the host without the host knowing. The host doesn’t even know that the parasite is there. Take a walk down practically any street in the country’s capital  and you’ll see evidence of homelessness, be it mattresses in doorways or  inert shoeless bodies sleeping in an underpass or on a park bench. The homeless are far from being parasites.

hk6On another wall, Leinonen has taken signs written by homeless people and framed them. I was reminded of one I’d seen in London last week – Parents murdered by ninjas; need money for karate lessons – but these I couldn’t see the humour in, most likely because the humour wasn’t there. I can’t in my wildest dreams begin to imagine what life would be like without a key to my front door.

This week, finally back in Budapest after a lengthy absence, I’m grateful that I have a bed to sleep in each night. I’m grateful that I have a home here in the VIIIth, and not only here, but in many homes around the world in which I’m always welcome. I’m grateful, too, for artists like Jani Leinonen, who force us to look at reality and question the part we play in it.

Introducing the Grateful series

 

 

 

Going back for seconds

Passing through Blaha Lujza tér on my way to have lunch at Jelen, I noticed that the Hare Krishna’s food line had moved from the square itself to just around the corner onto Márkus Emilia utca. Three thoughts hit me in quick succession: the first, a brief ‘how sad’; the second, a short invocation – there but for the grace of God go I; and the third, most telling, the material recognition of the aesthetic improvement to Blaha Lujza tér. Had I been on my own when the magnitude of this final thought hit me, I’d probably have launched headlong into a bout of severe self-loathing at such callousness, but I had company and I was hungry.

The great unwanted

Some days later, I read a piece in the Budapest Times about the city’s homeless – the Great Unwanted – and realised that this move around the corner was a prelude to a second move out to Teleki László Tér, near Kerepesi cemetery. Again, three thoughts flashed into my mind:  the irony of moving one literal step closer to the grave; a vague recollection from my flat-hunting days of Teleki tér not exactly being a choice neighbourhood; and a somewhat self-righteous disgust at the City’s attempt to sweep the problem under the carpet. But it wasn’t my problem. I had other things to worry about: appointments to fix, bills to pay, clients to meet…

The grand delusion

Then just last week, I found myself visiting the Hare Krishnas in Csillaghegy. As I walked across the road from the local Catholic church to the temple, I had a strange sense of crossing a great divide – something far wider than the 20 feet or so of tarmac that separates the two. I was nervous. I was brought up Irish Catholic and had survived convent school with all my prejudices intact. Back in 1980s Ireland, this new-fangled religion that made grown men dress in orange, shave their heads, and spend their days singing in the streets while banging on drums had met with walls of suspicion and fear that Ireland’s young and impressionable might be caught up in the madness and disappear, never to be seen again. It’s funny what you remember and how you remember it. Even thirty years later, some miniscule part of me wondered fleetingly if I’d make that hév back to Budapest. A little nervously, I ventured inside, completely unprepared to have all my delusions shattered.

The global phenomenon

ISKCON (the International Society for Krisha Consciousness) is just one month older than me. In its lifetime, it has developed into a global confederation of some 250,000 devotees. That surprised me. When compared to other religions, it’s not a big number – and yet the effect that just one of the ISKCON programmes is having worldwide, would blow the lid off any religious Richter scale.

In 1972, looking out a window in Mayapur, a small village near Calcutta, His Divine Grace A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada saw a group of children fighting with street dogs over scraps of food. His reaction? The promise that no one within ten miles of a Krishna centre would go hungry. And so began the Food for Life programme, which recognised that starvation isn’t a problem of supply, but rather of fair distribution. Each day, this programme alone feeds over 800,000 people worldwide.  Ételt az életért began in Budapest in 1989, with the occasional distribution of vegetarian food during Christian holidays. In 2001, now officially registered as a non-profit organization, it took up residence in Blaha Lujza tér. From the back of a van, devotees distribute as many as 500 hot meals most days of the week with a further 500 to needy families near the Budapest temple. That’s 1000 meals a day from produce grown on their farm and food donated by the public. Ten years ago, most of their clientele may well have been homeless; today, many have homes to go to but are unemployed, surviving on a meagre pension, or victims of the foreign-currency mortgage fiasco. All are ordinary people, just like me.

The grave truth

The right to human dignity is enshrined in the new Hungarian constitution.  But where’s the dignity in having to stand in line for some hot food? Where’s the dignity in having to parade your poverty in front of strangers? Where’s the dignity in being ignored by so many and helped by so few? Rather than simply relocate the problem, wouldn’t the dignity of the homeless and the needy be better served by providing the Food for Life programme with a permanent home? Surely there’s an unoccupied building, centrally located, that could be put to better use? Sprucing up Blaha Lujza tér is one thing; relocating the in-your-face evidence of the City’s failure to preserve the dignity of its poor is another.

My grandmothers will be turning in their graves as they read this. Not only did I survive my first encounter with the Hare Krishnas, I plan on going back for seconds.

First published in the Budapest Times 10 June 2011