11:11 on the 11th

Before moving to Hungary, I thought I was pretty well-versed in my Catholic feast days. I knew enough to be a tad peeved when the Holy See decided to allow Bishops to move most Holy Days of Obligation (those days other than Sunday on which Catholics are obliged to go to mass) to the nearest Sunday. They said it was to accommodate our increasingly busy lifestyles. I’m still struggling to get my head around Ascension Thursday being on Sunday.

marton3In the past few years, 11 November has become one of my new favourite feast days – that of St Martin or Márton nap as it’s known in Hungary. Of course, it’s not exclusive to Hungary but I’m quite taken with how it’s celebrated here. The idea of having to eat goose at 11.11 a.m. on 11 November to avoid going hungry for a year is one I can live with. What I hadn’t realised though, is that it’s also a day for tasting new wines – those just opened after the grape harvest. What a perfect pairing.

What I also hadn’t realised is that St Martin, the son of a Roman tribune, was born centuries ago in Savaria, which is near Szombathely, Hungary (famous in my mind for being the birthplace of Leopold Bloom’s father in James Joyce’s Ulysses). Anyway, as the story goes, one night when Martin was soldiering for the Roman emperor in France, he saw a homeless guy and offered him half his cloak to keep warm. That night, in his dreams, Jesus appeared to him dressed in his cloak, thus sealing Martin’s faith and future. He left the army and turned instead to serve God. His good deeds earned him a reputation for compassion towards the poor. As his popularity grew, the powers that be decided to make him Bishop of Tours. Now, Martin wasn’t at all keen on the idea so hid in a barn full of geese when they came to collect him. But the traitorous geese gave him up which is why we eat them. And in 371 AD, Martin became Bishop of Tours.

There are lots of stories doing the rounds about geese on Márton nap. Geese once saved Rome from attack and were known to Romans as the sacred bird of Mars – and it’s not a goose step from that to Martin’s bird. Or, perhaps a more sensible explanation is that it falls at the end of the harvest season when workers received their annual wages (imagine that!) plus a goose (as a bonus).

marton4His goose connection having been safely established, St Martin as the appointed ‘judge of new wine’ is a later belief, and perhaps has more to do with timing than taste buds. Still, to his credit, the man has been busy and is now considered Patron Saint of France, horses, riders, soldiers, geese, and vintners.

Goose is a year-round staple on the Hungarian menu and my particular favourite place to eat it is a little restaurant called Huszár Étterem up near Második János Pál pápa tér. I go there reasonably often and the only time I don’t have the goose leg is when they’re out of it. And then I pout.

I’m a creature of cravings and when I crave goose, I want roasted goose leg with steamed red cabbage and roast potatoes. There are even days when goose crackling wins over chocolate.

But perhaps this year, we should look to Martin’s selflessness in sharing his cloak with a beggar. As well as thinking about how to avoid going hungry ourselves, we could think about sharing what we have with those who don’t have as much. Winter is coming and for many, life on the streets is about to get a lot worse. Just a thought.

First published in the Budapest Times 6 November 2015

Moving to the Balaton

I have an aversion to debt. The thoughts of having a mortgage brings me out in a cold sweat. And I know that if I ever move, I’ll need one, which in and of itself is enough reason to stay where I am. I’d love to live beside some water – preferably the sea, but I’d settle for a lake. I’d like to look out on some large expanse of water, with maybe a few sailboats bobbing along the horizon. I’d like to wake up to the sound of seagulls and the smell of salt air.

The few times I’ve been to the Balaton or Palić lake in Serbia, I’ve spent hours looking at what’s for sale in the way of apartments and houses. I’ve daydreamed about living there – off-season of course, as the tourists would do my head in.

Siofok9siofok10I was in Siófok yesterday, visiting friends. Their villa looks out on to the lake. It’s been in the family for generations. And I had a real dose of house envy. I could walk out their front door, cross the road, and be in the water in less than two minutes. I could sit on the terrace, drink a cold wine, and look out at the sailboats. And if the mood took me, I could walk the ten minutes it would take to get into town and enjoy the best of what Siófok has to offer.

But there’d be the damn mortgage. And my aversion to debt.

Siofok1 (800x533)Siofok3 (800x533)The house is set in two separate two-bedroom apartments, each with its own kitchen and bathroom. There’s a smaller, 40 sq m house at the back that also has the same, so plenty of space to live, and plenty of space to rent.  And there’s parking for 2-3 cars and a lovely back yard. And did I mention how close it is to the water?  My imagination was having a field-day. I could do the whole B&B thing. Long-term lets during the mad summer days when Budapest empties and everyone goes to the Balaton. And I could live there off-season with a few select weekend guests for candlelit suppers and walks by the lake. Maybe take in a writer or artist in need of solitary sustenance and the occasional after-dinner chat.

And then reality set in . What I want to do is travel, not settle. My pied-à-terre in Budapest will do me nicely as I plan where to next.  I’m not quite ready for that house on the water. Give me another ten years or so though and things might change.

In the meantime, my friends are selling their place. The asking price is a little too good to be true (I think they’re short-changing themselves, but then again, what I know about real estate could be written on an aspirin). But it is true. I trust them. If you’re interested, check it out at . If you buy it, don’t forget to invite me down for an off-season weekend or three.



Friendly faces when they’re most needed

In a world where politics polarises people, where contrary opinions can ruin friendships, where ideological differences can result in being ostracised, it’s easy to forget that we’re all human. We all have feelings. We all bleed red.

Whether you’re in favour of the new fence going up between Hungary and Serbia or whether you’re against it doesn’t take from the fact that thousands of those it’s designed to keep out are already here. And more are coming by the day.

Where are the churches? Those pastoral institutions that purport to have the care of humanity at their core? Surely it can’t be true that they are sitting idly by and doing nothing? Admittedly the problem is so huge that it’s difficult to know where to start, but thankfully there are groups of motivated individuals out there who are banding together to make a difference.

maid2People like Zsuzsa and Patrick at the Caledonia Pub on Moszár utca who have offered their pub as a drop-off / pick-up point for volunteers going to meet the trains of incoming migrants arriving from the border towns. They’re in need of items like baby food, personal hygiene products, medicine, and food. They have cold storage facilities for fresh fruit and sandwiches and a network of distributors. Volunteers can meet there to plan and discuss who is doing what and what needs to be done next. Check out their Facebook page Caledonia Social Bite for details.

maidAnother group, Migration AID, has set up sub-groups to man each of the main stations so that those arriving see some friendly faces doing what they can to help. Volunteers give juice to the kids, toiletries to the parents. Many need plasters for their blisters, cream for their sunburn, and lots and lots of water. Some need medical assistance, or help finding missing family members. And through their social media networks, these volunteers put out the word and find someone who can help.

I can’t begin to imagine what it might be like to have walked for hundreds of miles, for weeks on end, from Iraq, Syria and even Somalia, in search of a better life, leaving everything I own behind me, and then to finally arrive and not see a friendly face. In some circumstances, a plaster and a bottle of water must seem like manna from heaven.

Reports say that about 1000 people cross the Hungarian border every day. Those who don’t slip through unbeknownst to the border officials are fingerprinted as they request asylum. They’re given entry papers and 48 hours to make it to their reception centre. If they don’t, and they’re caught with expired papers, they face jail. When they disembark in Budapest, the station staff shepherd them outside. So they head to the parks, where the police come and move them on. They’re left to roam the streets, waiting for their next train out. There’s no coordination, no infrastructure, no system in place to cope.

But the people have rallied. Hundreds of volunteers are readily giving up their time to help in a situation that is getting more nightmarish by the day. They accept the fact that for whatever reason these people are here and they need help. Each one has a story to tell, stories which many of us, accustomed to a life of relative plenty might find it difficult to empathise with.

And while it is important to debate the politics of it all, to find a policy solution that will stem the tide, we would do well to imagine ourselves in their shoes and think of how we’d like to be treated if, tomorrow, we found ourselves homeless, blistered, and hungry in a strange country, knowing that going home wasn’t an option.

First published in the Budapest Times 17 July 2015

Ageing to the sound of music

I’ve just discovered that I have onychorrhexis. For months now, I’ve been telling myself that I should go see my doctor but I never found the time. So I did what any semi-digital native might do – I checked my symptoms online. And there’s no doubt. I have onychorrhexis – vertical ridges on my fingernails. And the main cause of this condition? Ageing.

I’m lucky. Had the ridges been horizontal, they’d be known as Beau’s lines. These, apparently, are caused by ‘diseases that affect the entire body, including malnutrition, heart attack (myocardial infarction), severe infections, and metabolic disturbances, including poorly controlled diabetes’. Whew. I only have to deal with ageing. I just love a bit of perspective.

I am getting older, though. And this fact was brought home to me earlier this week as I walked the streets of Budapest catching up with what’s going on. I make it a habit to take a walk and read the billboards, the posters, the tram-stop advertisements, just to see what’s happening in the city. And with summer within sneezing distance and the shoes and socks already discarded in favour of sandals, the festival season is almost upon us.

dropkickThis year’s Sziget (Island of Freedom Festival 10-17 August) line-up has left me cold, even colder than last year. I don’t recognise any of the acts, apart from Robbie Williams and the Dropkick Murphys (and in truth, it might be the Murphy part I’m relating to – I couldn’t begin to tell you what they sound like but I’d hazard a guess that it’s some type of Celtic rock). Florence and the Machine? Marina and the Diamonds? Gentlemen and the Evolution? Who are these people?

vayaLast year, I missed out on VeszprémFest (this year happening from 15-18 July). I was raging. Too late I saw the posters for Katie Melua (I could sing you at least two of her songs … offkey of course). Too late I saw the posters for Vaya Con Dios (Dani Klein would go on to play her last concert in October last year and that I missed the opportunity to hear her live still makes me mad). And too late I saw the posters for Youssou Ndour – it’s a personal ambition to be able to dance well to his music. I could have gone for the whole five days and felt at home. So this year, I was on the ball. But who have they playing: Kool and the Gang and Roger someone who used to be with Supertramp. I was hoping for Leonard Cohen and Imelda May and the Beautiful South. But no joy.

When I looked at the line-up for Balaton Sound (9‒12 July), I despaired. Hardwell, Nicky Romero, Afrojack, DVBBS, Showtek? I’d never even heard of this lot – but then I realised that they’re DJs. I’m excused. That last time I was at a disco, the Parish Priest was passing through the hall making sure we all had our arms fully extended during the slow set.

motorheadThe Volt Festival in Sopron (1‒4 July) brings me out in hives stressing about how uncool and out-of-touch I am. In fairness, I have heard of Motorhead and enjoyed an interview I heard recently with Fat Boy Slim, but neither of them would aerate my Aperol Spritz.

palomaI was charging my ignorance of all things modernly musical up to me getting older but then remembered that a friend in her seventies had turned me on to George Ezra and another one tipping eighty is mad about Paloma Faith. Wait! I saw that name on a poster somewhere. That’s all I need: my septuagenarian friends bopping away at Sziget while I sit at home, educating myself on YouTube. Ridges on my nails? Onychorrhexis? That’s the least of my worries.

First published in the Budapest Times 8 May 2015

Life lessons from the kitchen

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris in January, Hungary made the news as the PM shared his belief with the world that economic migration is endangering Europeans and should be stopped. He called for a Hungary for Hungarians. Fast forward to March, when Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Irish Minister of State for New Communities, Culture and Equality, addressed a Budapest gathering on St Patrick’s Day speaking of the necessity of embracing migration as a key part of global living. Two rather diverse opinions there for the taking.

Governments and their representatives know how to talk. Very often that talk, however motivating, is simply talk. It’s those on the ground, dealing with the daily pressures of life on a fixed income that can fall short of covering basic necessities, they’re the people who make the difference, with their attitudes, their openness, their initiatives.

In the north Dublin suburb of Finglas sits Coláiste Íde, a college specialising in life-long-learning programmes that equip students with the skills they need to pursue paid employed in the catering, tourism and business sectors. Deputy Principal Ms Lisa Bohan has been instrumental in developing three such programmes, overseeing projects for Art students in Florence, Italy, and Travel and Tourism students in Valletta, Malta. Since 2007, students from this Irish college have been coming to Hungary to complete the 15-day work-experience segment of the Professional Cookery course in Hungarian hotels and restaurants under the guidance of Mr Derek Flynn. The course is designed to equip them with the relevant knowledge, skills, and competence to work autonomously using a range of specialised skills in a professional kitchen. They’ve done their time at the Radisson Blu Béke, the Best Western Hotel Hungaria, Thermal Hotel  Viségrad, La Perle Noire, Mamaison Hotel Andrassy, the Arcadia Hotel, and various restaurants in Budapest and Szentendre.

RUS_1259But these are not just Irish students. This year, the 17-strong contingent aged 18‒38 included students from Malaysia, Moldova, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Hungary – all now living in Ireland. Melinda Novak (second row left), a former midwife from Szombathely, has been in Dublin for four years. She’s retraining to be a baker and this year she got to come home to Hungary as part of the Coláiste Íde group from Ireland.

The students learn more than their trade. They get a taste of how to deal with a foreign culture, and a language that no one but Melinda had ever heard before. They stay in Szentendre and make the daily commute to the city. The work is intense and slacking off isn’t an option, not that any of those I met would take it, even if it had been.

The food they prepared for a reception hosted by Irish Ambassador to Hungary, Kevin Dowling, had all the hints of great things to come, with a couple of future culinary stars in their midst. They showcased various Irish speciality cheeses, including a porter cheese that looked too much like chocolate to be real. We had the traditional smoked salmon, an Irish stew, and smoked Irish duck with Guinness marmalade. With a nod to the host country, Baileys cheesecake found competition in Hungarian desserts that the students had perfected during their training.

Culinary legend James Beard maintained that ‘food is our common ground, a universal experience’. This Erasmus+ programme shows that to be true. This six-nationality team are living proof that migration isn’t necessarily the threat it’s seen by some to be. Our common goal is survival, to live the life we’ve been given as best we can, working together, learning from each other. Thank you, lads and ladies. A timely lesson indeed.

First published in the Budapest Times 10 April 2015

In need of watering

The first Easter I spent in my flat in Budapest, the doorbell rang on Easter Monday morning. I was a tad taken aback as I wasn’t expecting visitors. In the year I’d been living in the city I’d come to realise that, unlike Ireland, no one dropped by without calling first. For some reason, it’s simply not done.

When I opened the door to two Hungarian friends, they started to recite a poem that suggested I was a withered blue violet in need of watering (?!) – Zöld erdőben jártam, kék ibolyát láttam, el akart hervadni, szabad-e locsolni? and then proceeded to sprinkle me with perfume. I was surprised. Not because of the poem and the perfume ‒ I’d heard of locsolkodás (the sprinkling) ‒ but because my friend had brought his girlfriend along to do the deed. I had thought than that this was something boys did to show their interest in a girl. I thought wrong.

sprikleIt all dates back to the days when young farmworkers would throw a bucket of cold water over young women of marriageable age. This gradually evolved to include all ages, be they marriageable or married, of interest or not. Cold water has since been replaced by perfume, mainly in the cities, but there are still places in the country where the Easter Monday drenching holds fast, places where it still has some significance for the marriageable. Mind you, it would be rather disheartening to doll yourself up and then wait for the arrival of an admirer for him never to appear. Or, worse still, when he had appeared, recited his poem, sprinkled his perfume and received his painted egg, his homemade cakes, and his beverage of choice, for him to skip along next door to the next girl in line and leave you sitting pretty.

In cities like Budapest though, modernity has won out. I’ve never seen any of my neighbours being sprinkled; I myself have not had a drenching since. And somewhat irrationally, I find that very sad. I’m partial to a good tradition, one that stands the test of time, no matter how uncool it might seem to some to be. I’m particularly partial to the Hungarian tradition of taking a basket of food to mass on Nagyszombat (Holy Saturday) to have it blessed by the priest. It’s quite the spectacle to see baskets filled with kalács (traditional Easter braided bread), red eggs and salt lining the altar steps.

eggsAnother favourite of mine this time of year in Hungary is the decorated egg and the nénis (older ladies) from the countryside who come to the city to sell them. Some are painted, some are engraved, some are embroidered, some are beaded, and perhaps the rarest are decorated with tiny metal horseshoes (if you ever find one of these, get me one, too – thanks). All are beautiful.

Chocolate eggs didn’t come to Hungary until the beginning of the nineteenth century and even now, most are handcrafted artisan pieces rather than the mass-produced ones that overflow the supermarket shelves in the UK and Ireland.

A tradition I’m a tad leery of, though, is the sibálás. On Palm Sunday, older boys weave sibas (whips) which can be up to a metre long. In Pázmánd, for example, on Easter Monday, when the rest of the country is contemplating perfume, the boys visit the girls’ houses and after reciting the obligatory poem urging them to be fresher in a year and not as lazy as they are now (?!) ‒ Esztend‘re frissebb légy Ne olyan lusta, mint most! ‒ start to whip them. Mmmm … not so sure about that one, lads.

First published in the Budapest Times 3 April 2015

At the edge of a tradition (1)

‘It’s perfect weather for a killing.’ Not quite the words I expected to hear over a pre-dawn breakfast before we braved the -12 degree cold at the edge of a forest outside of Budapest on a Tuesday morning.

PigHawaiians have their pig roasts; Hungarians (and others in this part of the world) have their pig killings (disznó vágás). And an invitation to one has been high on my list of things to do for the last number of years. Given that I’m liable to faint at the sight of blood and have trouble sitting at a table with a rare steak, I was a little surprised at how fast I’ve held onto this particular bucket-list entry. So when the invitation came, I jumped at it.

The title of Damon Galgut’s memorable book The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs came to mind  unbidden, as I imagined all sorts of guts and gore and vomit-inducing antics. I was prepared for the worst. I struggled with the rights and wrongs of the tradition on the drive down and hadn’t reached any conclusions by the time we arrived. Once there, I didn’t have time to think about anything.

It was a family affair we were gatecrashing. The pig was an annual Christmas present for a couple, married for 37 years. They’d graciously agreed to let us watch.  So I parked my reservations and my righteousness and resolved to make up my mind later – when I had experienced it all first-hand.

pig2Shortly after we arrived, introductions having been made all round, and my foreignness (is that even a word?) noted with amusement, we went to kill the pig. It was all a tad surreal. Naked trees and frost-coated fences glinted pinkishly as the sun rose above the horizon. It could well have been sleep deprivation that had me fancying that the whole of nature was paying tribute to the soon-to-be-slaughtered animal but I swear the colours were strangely porcine.

Caught by the snout with a wire hoop on a handle, the pig was quickly wrestled to the ground and zapped unconscious. The squeals were pig squeals – the same I’d heard for years when filling the troughs in the piggery on my grandfather’s farm. Normal pig squeals. And then nothing. Over in a second. Throat slit, blood drained, pig dead.  Not quite what I’d imagined.

I spent a lot of my childhood playing around a slaughterhouse and while I never saw an animal being put down, I was often knee-deep in the aftermath. I remember playing hide-and-seek in the carcasses of dead cows, blowing up their bladders for footballs, and playing marbles with sheeps’ eyes. Gross. And if that didn’t turn me vegetarian, nothing will.

I don’t agree with the wanton killing of animals for fun – I can’t abide that sort of hunting; but for food, without waste, I can live with. And do live with. Does that mean that I query the origins and mode of death of every pig, cow, lamb, chicken, duck, or goose that I might enjoy? No. My conscious mind doesn’t go there. Perhaps it should. But it doesn’t. I’d like to think that they go quickly and painlessly into the good night but truth be told, I don’t even think that. I simply don’t think. And haven’t thought. Until now.







The cost of not having kids

I was accused once of being rather selfish in my attitude to having children. An ex-boyfriend, who had held the ex prefix for a number of years, told me that it was selfish of me, a woman, not to have kids. He implied that it was my duty in life, my raison d’etre. And, what’s more, he said, it was unfathomable not to want them.

While I don’t ever remember making a conscious decision not to have children, it’s something that simply never happened. Had it happened, I’m sure I’d have been happy. But it didn’t. And there’s no corresponding unhappiness. It’s just the way it is.

I have memories of a conversation I had many years ago when, over a few pints one night, I asserted rather righteously that there were too many children in the world without parents to justify birthing any more. Why didn’t we, collectively, just look after the ones already born? It didn’t go down very well and one friend, who was adopted, took issue with it – and my selfishness. I never quite figured that one out.

But be it circumstance or be it a subconscious choice, the fact is that I am without issue – I have no children. And while I might occasionally envy a friend their precociously cute two-year-old, or their old-man seven-year-old, or their bright and savvy teenager, a life without issue suits me.

Of course, I’ve had the conversation – with myself and with others – about who is going to look after me when I’m old and infirm. The fleeting moment of panic that sets in, quickly dissipates when I remind myself there are plenty of old people who have kids and grandkids and yet live in homes and institutions anyway. I have it sorted, though. I have a few single friends of a similar vantage and vintage and we’ve agreed to pool our resources and set up house, should we ever find we can no longer manage on our own.

pensionBut recent rumblings in Hungary suggest that a life without issue might involve issues of a more monetary kind.

It’s a given that those paying taxes (i.e., those currently working for a wage) support those sectors of society that are retired and pensioned off. Of course, they also support those who are unable to work, for health, legal, or other reasons; but this isn’t what the focus is on. Apparently, there’s a school of thought that if you are a pensioner who doesn’t have children paying into the system that pays your pension, then you are, in effect, freeloading. And these people reckon that it would take two children to make this self-supporting pension plan viable (the baseline), with additional points being given for additional children and points being deducted for fewer or no children at all. The final tally would determine the amount of pension paid.

The holes in this grand scheme are gaping. What about those who can’t have children? Never marry? Or have children who die before they start work? Or have children who can’t find a job, or don’t want a job, or have a job abroad? What then?

Recently, these same people, the Demographic Roundtable (Népesedési Kerekasztal), a group of experts charged with finding a solution to Hungary’s declining birth rate and depleting state pension fund, have put this idea back on the table, albeit in a slightly improved form compared to what was mooted in 2012. But no matter how improved it is, the thought of men or women who remain childless for whatever reason being monetarily penalised for not having kids beggars belief.

First published in the Budapest Times 5 September 2014.

The stuff nightmares are made of

WTF?!*  Had I been doing anything more than a sedate 25 mph on this relatively remote stretch of a very minor Austrian road, I might have left skidmarks. As it was, I braked hard, and stopped dead, not sure where I was or what was I was looking at.

IMG_3273 (600x800)IMG_3274 (800x600) Two sentry boxes were positioned on either side or a narrow country road, each containing a harrowing, life-size wooden carving of an emaciated man. We had seen no signs. No billboards. Nothing to explain what we might be looking at. On closer inspection, each had a small metal plate with the name of what we assumed to be the artist and the title of the piece (in German). We had obviously hit upon some old open-air art installation, one that had weathered the test of time with varying degrees of success. Ahead of us, the road stretched for miles, cutting a straight path to the horizon. It was hot. Very hot. The trees were still, the sunflowers and the corn unmoving, fixed with a rigidity that wasn’t just attributable to the lack of wind. My imagination was already running riot.

IMG_3308 (800x600)IMG_3304 (800x600)We were a couple of miles outside Andau, an Austrian village very near the Hungarian border, trying to find the bridge immortalised in James Michener’s book – The Bridge at Andau. [When I first came to Budapest, three books were recommended to get an insight into what makes the country tick. This one, Tibor Fischer’s Under the Frog, and Julian Rubenstein’s Ballad of the Whiskey Robber, each one worth a read.]

The Bridge at Andau is James A. Michener at his most gripping. His classic nonfiction account of a doomed uprising is as searing and unforgettable as any of his bestselling novels. For five brief, glorious days in the autumn of 1956, the Hungarian revolution gave its people a glimpse at a different kind of future—until, at four o’clock in the morning on a Sunday in November, the citizens of Budapest awoke to the shattering sound of Russian tanks ravaging their streets. The revolution was over. But freedom beckoned in the form of a small footbridge at Andau, on the Austrian border. By an accident of history it became, for a few harrowing weeks, one of the most important crossings in the world, as the soul of a nation fled across its unsteady planks.

It was across this bridge that more than 70 000 Hungarians fled to Austria, days after the failed 1956 Revolution. Once they’d reached the other side, they had a five-mile walk to freedom through the swampy no-man’s land along this road,which back then was little more than a bike path.

At Andau there was a bridge. Could someone reach it, he found the way into freedom. Only an insignificant bridge, neither wide enough for a car nor strong enough for a motorcycle. It’s rickety …..

In 1996, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, the  Austrian and Hungarian armies cooperated to rebuild the Bridge at Andau, witness as it was to such a remarkable happening.

Those generations who had once built this bridge could not, of course, know the role this bridge of simple planks and beams will play one day….

That year, what had become known as the Road to Freedom, was used as an open air exhibition for 90 pieces by artists from both countries entitled The Road of Woes. And it was the remnants of this that we had stumbled across.

IMG_3280 (800x600)As we drove slowly alonIMG_3282 (600x800)g the road, we began to get some sense of what the journey might have been like. The average age of those escaping was 27; many had young children with them. Some 500 students and their university professors made the trip, too. Michener’s account, told from his vantage point on the Austrian side of the border, makes compelling reading. Although it had been a few years since I read it, it all came flooding back, helped in large part by the sometimes very graphic works of art potted along the way. We were on our own. Not another car in sight. I gave quick thanks that we were doing this in daylight. Had I caught the sentries in my headlights, the one sleepless night I had might have been serialised.

They came out of the reeds of the marsh land, from the mud and the dirt, right across the swamps and via the Einser channel, across the bridge with the rickety beams. Yes, that’s the way they came. Then we heard a dull bang, but nothing was to be seen. A refugee, who had kept hidden until then, took his opportunity. Breathless he came running towards us: “They have blown up the bridge!”

IMG_3286 (600x800)The agony was all too visible. I can’t begin to imagine what it might have been like, to have had to pack up my life into one small bag and then make the break, leaving family and friends, and a lifetime of accumulation behind me, knowing that at any minute, I could breathe my last. This, of course, is what hundreds of thousands of fleeing refugees face on a daily basis. [Coincidentally, my book of choice right now is about Mexican illegals feeling across the Texas border into America. The human coyotes they have to deal are just another form of sentry.]

Michener, after witnessing what he had, said that if he ever had to flee, he hoped it could be to Austria, such was the compassion with which the Hungarians were treated.  The humanitarian work accomplished was quite simply amazing – the  schools, the kindergarten, the cinema and all public spaces have been provided for the accommodation of refugees.

IMG_3295 (800x600)The countryside, being what it is, has grown up and over many of the pieces so that they seemed to pop up out of nowhere. Heads swivelling back and forth we went for a fair stretch without seeing anything but so involved were we in the experience that we were imbuing rocks and dead trees with all sorts of stuff that simply wasn’t there.

IMG_3288 (590x800)IMG_3289 (600x800)Perhaps the most graphic  was a series of dismembered limbs, hanging on what I assume is a leftover piece of the original Iron Curtain. Another, a woman, hung suspended from the air, her hair falling away from a face contorted in agony. I wondered if this depicted the agony of what she had left behind or something she met along the road. I began to think of mines, and snipers, and all sorts but as I said, it all appeared without warning – I was clueless. Days later, as I write, what’s to be gleaned from the Internet wouldn’t make a bowl of soup. I did find one page though, that leads me to think that there’s more than just the 1956 Revolution being commented upon. It would seem that the pieces symbolise the rejection of violence, intolerance, inhumanity, contempt of humankind and racism. And their state of disrepair stems from the fact that they remain the property of their creators and are not maintained by the municipality.


IMG_3299 (800x600)IMG_3300 (800x600)Even after the Russians blew up the bridge on 21 November, the Hungarian people kept crossing and the Austrian locals in Andau and surrounding villages kept their doors open.  In a world that is going slowly mad, it’s gratifying to think that compassion for the fates of others existed and that people were willing to do their bit. I wonder how many of those who fled have come back to visit? Where are they now? Is that journey just a fleeting memory or has it shaped the lives they live today?

Standing on the Hungarian side, looking across the bridge to Austria, was a sobering moment. The walk across that second time even more so. Yes, the bridge has been renovated, but the wooden planks still groan, footsteps still echo, and that sense of touching down on terra firma and looking back is all too real.

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Bagged, bugged, and boggled

beer matsI thought I was losing my sense of reason. I thought it was because I’ve lived in the one place for so long. I thought I’d bought into blind acceptance and had literally signed my questioning self over to the bureaucrats.

Hungary loves its paperwork. It’s very fond of its forms. It collects signatures like tegestologists collect beer mats or tyrosemiophiles collect cheese labels.

Years ago, when I knew no better, I went to get a pay-as-you-go mobile for my visitors. I had to sign a contract, prove where I lived, and hand over my passport. When I asked why all this was needed, it was explained to me that lots of people who inhabit the criminal world use throw-away phones to do their deals, so this added security was actually for my own good. Apparently, by producing that ID, by proving where I live, and by signing that contract, the powers-that-be would be able to trace me should my phone ever be used to contact a cartel in Columbia or dial up some dope. I was peeved at the implications but I signed.

A supplier once wanted to refund me money when I mistakenly paid a company bill twice. They sent it via the postman. I was out when he called so I had to go in person to the post office to collect it. I brought my passport, my company stamp, registration card, driver’s licence, proof of address, proof of directorship, latest blood results… but it wasn’t enough. There was one piece of paper that I didn’t have that the post office needed to refund me money. I haven’t double-paid anything since.

I find myself volunteering details of what I’ve had for breakfast, if I’m asked, so used am I to giving up personal information to nameless faces. But the other day, I actually stopped and asked why. Why do you need my name and address?

postI was in the post office earlier this week (I love that place). I wanted to post two letters. I didn’t need an afá szamla (invoice). Usually I just get a receipt and go. But I also bought two of their rather lovely Hungarian-motif gift bags. And because I bought something other than a stamp or a scratch card, the lady needed to give me a personalised receipt. I said again I didn’t need an afá szamla. She said it didn’t matter. I was buying something other than a stamp or a scratch card (what part of this did I not understand?) so she needed my name and address. I asked why? And I got that ‘just because’ look. And I folded. I gave it up. I wasn’t brave enough to walk away.

The much underrated comedian Mitch Hedberg came to mind. (King of the one-line non-sequiturs; when he died way before his time the world lost a very funny man.) ‘I bought a doughnut and they gave me a receipt for the doughnut… I don’t need a receipt for the doughnut. I give you money and you give me the doughnut, end of transaction. We don’t need to bring ink and paper into this. I can’t imagine a scenario that I would have to prove that I bought a doughnut. To some skeptical friend, ‘Don’t even act like I didn’t get that doughnut, I’ve got the documentation right here… It’s in my file at home. …Under “D”.’

Now that I’m on record as having purchased two Hungarian-motif gift bags, I wonder what will come of it? Will my recklessness come back to haunt me? Next time I’ll just go to the papír iroda (stationery office) – they don’t ask questions.

First published in the Budapest Times 20 June 2014