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Grateful 2

IMG_6919 (800x593)I’ve been in Ireland since Wednesday and have been on an emotional rollercoaster for most of it. This has been my longest absence in years – four and a half months. In the usual run-up to Christmas, people are in a reflective mood and for the most part these reflections make for depressing hearing. Tales of foreclosures, untimely deaths, theft, suicide, and barely making ends meet are rampant. In the villages of Ireland, isolated incidences vault to the top of the list of evidence of why the country is going to the dogs. In Clane, three girls stole four dresses from the local boutique (one each for them and a fourth for the getaway driver). Another girl had her handbag nicked when she was stopped by a man in a car asking directions. His job – to distract her. His partner’s job – to leap out grab the bag and jump back in. And then just last week, the tyres on ten cars were slashed – randomly. And this is just our village.

Taxi drivers in Dublin warn me of the simmering racial angst that is just waiting to explode. They tell me of the drunken mess that Dublin turns into after 2am. They explain the cheap shots and cocktails that have tempted less seasoned drinkers away from the stable fare of beer and wine and have turned our youth into a vomiting mass of blowdried hair teetering on six-inch heels. Add to that heady mix the rumours filtering through that things are kicking off again up North.

For me, Christmas in Ireland is a time of tradition. I’ve been meeting the same three lads every year I’ve been home since I left in 1994. We’ve all aged. And the Bank we used to work in has disappeared, both in spirit and in substance. But Christmas wouldn’t be the same without this annual homage to times gone by. And every year since God knows when, the Nugent-Manning’s have had a Christmas party where people who might not see each other from one end of the year to the next catch up on what’s going on and the morning after is filled with ‘Did you know….’ At home, we say the rosary, sit around, drink tea and catch up on who’s dead or dying. Every Christmas Eve, after mass, our neighbours come in for a drink or three and the whole country is put to rights as opinions abound and experiences are shared.

IMG_6921 (800x567)When I balance the two – tradition and reality – I worry about Ireland’s future. I worry about Hungary, too, but that’s a different sort of concern. For Ireland, I worry about her people. For centuries, we’ve been the toast of the world – everyone wanted us to visit. But now, Australia and the USA are having second thoughts because the type of people we are sending are not of the same calibre. There’s a latent agression – a feeling that the world owes them something – a hardness and a meanness that was never there before. The landscape, too, has changed. Modern architecture sits in subdued silence with the Georgian buildings of old and I can’t help but compare old and new.

I took the bus to Dublin one morning and as I sat, ears ringing from the chorus of disillusion I’d met with the night before, I watched the bus driver. He was a Dub, in his early fifties. He had a word for everyone. The return fare was €9.20 and those that hadn’t the 20 cent were forgiven. He helped people on and off with their bags and wished everyone a Happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year. His good humour never faltered, despite the manic traffic and dangerous drivers. He stopped before a bus stop to pick up a couple making a mad dash for the bus. He stopped beyond one to shorten one woman’s walk in the rain. He sang along to the radio and over the 20 miles slowly restored my faith in Irish nature.

I had a box of Hungarian chocolates in my bag, intended for another home. When we got to Busáras, I was last off. I gave him the chocolates and told him that since I’d been home, I’d heard/seen nothing to give me hope that Ireland would right herself. And then I’d seen him in action. It was shortly after 11am on a Thursday morning in the Central Bus Station in Dublin. The two of us were hugging like long-lost mates, both of us close to tears.

At the end of this penultimate week of 2012, I’m grateful that I got to travel on this man’s bus and see for myself that the spirt of Irishness for which we are famous, is still alive.

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

Grateful 10

I’m quite partial to a good speech and regularly complain about those who preside over religious ceremonies and fail to deliver, fail to captivate, fail to engage their congregations. And it’s not just in churches and temples that we see podiums. Politicians, too, have their moments – and their speeches get far more playtime than your average orator. One of my all time favourites is a speech given by Daniel Hannan MEP in 2009 when he calls Gordon Browne the devalued prime minister of a devalued government. I don’t know the man from Adam, and know even less about his politics, but I like the way he talks.

On the movie screen, my vote goes to Jack Nicholson’s 1992 speech in a Few Good Men. My young orator award goes to  12-year-old  Severn Suzuki’s 1992 speech to the United Nations. And for those that will stand the test of time, there’s Vaclav Havel’s New Year’s address in 1990 or  one I’ve interpreted myself (and enjoyed doing so immensely) – Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s 1868 speech The Destructive Male.

In Hungary this week, speakers of all sorts took to their podiums to commemorate the 56th anniversary of the 1956 uprising. While all were in Hungarian and I’m relying on translations, my vote goes to Gordon Bajnai. His speech is one that I hope will mark a change in direction: he frankly admitted that he had said before he was not a politician – but times have changed. He used the familiar with the people, and he recognised from the outset the key element of any country’s future – its young people: we don’t want a country to which our emigrated children will perhaps be willing to return one day – instead, we want a country they will have no reason to leave in the first place.

I’m used to politics where there is no discernible difference between the parties – every one of them being slightly left or right of centre. In Hungary, there are extremes – extremes that have me worried. This week, the Alliance of European National Movements (AENM) met in Hédervár. Jobbik, the British National Party (BNP), Italy’s Tricolour Flame, Sweden’s National Democrats, Belgium’s National Front and others sat around a table. Speaking (rather poorly) at the conference, Jack Buckby outlined his plans to rebrand nationalism as national culturism (opposite to multiculturalism) –  and thereby to defy accusations from the Left of being racist. This speech won’t be making my list of favourites any time soon.

In a week which saw the Israeli flag  burned outside the synagogue on Dohány utca; a week that heard Jobbik repeating its call for a special ‘gendarmerie’ to keep order in the countryside (i.e. police the Roma); and a week where party activists allegedly bussed in supporters from other countries to swell the ranks of the PM’s audience, I am grateful that at least one voice of reason could be heard. 2014 and the general election are a long way away – it’s good to see some opposition finally mobilising and the helm being taken by someone who seems to have at least an element of nous and the ability to relate to the people. Methinks that Gordan Bajnai’s speech of 23 October 2012 will mark the turning point in this country’s history. Fundamentally, we must ascertain that patriotism and progress – upholding national traditions and rejuvenating the country – are not contradictory, nor mutually exclusive terms.

Eva Balogh, in her blog post, notes that a politician was born… and I, for one, am grateful.

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

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Still rolling at 86

I’d just finished a rather graphic account of my recent foray into colonic hydrotherapy when he turned to me and asked – ‘Do you like strudel?’ Completely missing the connection, I said…um… yes. The sharp right turn explained the non sequitur. Read more

Grateful 17

I’m beside myself this week at what has happened with the Armenia/Azerbaijan/Hungary fiasco. For those of you who haven’t been following it, let me give my rather simple synopsis. Azeri kills Armenian in Hungary with an axe. Azeri tried and sentence to life imprisonment. After some years served, Hungary ships Azeri back to Baku on the understanding that he will serve at least 25 years before being paroled. Instead, he is given a hero’s welcome, eight years back pay, a new flat, and a promotion – all for killing an Armenian.

In the meantime, the Hungarian government, having failed to secure funding from China and Saudi Arabia, and not wanting to be any more indebted to the IMF or the EU, is considering a bond buy from Azerbaijan to the tune of 2-3 billion euro. Coincidence? Perhaps.

I visited Baku last year around the anniversary of the 1992 massacre and was horrified to find that school kids are being taught, in school and at home, to hate Armenians. They write essays about growing up and killing Armenians. What hope do both countries have of ever settling their differences if this is the legacy that’s being handed down generation after generation.

I don’t for a minute profess to fully understand the situation. I’m eons away from being able to talk about it with any degree of insight. But surely there comes a time when we need to move on. This is not about the past – and I don’t know enough to take sides anyway. This is right now. I can’t for the life of me see how any government, in this day and age, could so publicly reward a cold-blooded murderer and still expect to participate in global politics and policy-making.

The Internet Governance Forum is scheduled for Baku in November this year. Apparently Armenia will follow remotely but will not come to Baku for the proceedings. I’m wondering how many other countries will do the same?

This week, I’m really grateful that I can still get upset about what is going on around me. I’m grateful that I can still recognise an injustice when I see one. And I’m particularly grateful that I’m not one of the apathetic masses,  divorced  from what is happening in the world to the point that voting in elections has become an inconvenience and protesting a wrong has become someone else’s job.

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

No ‘i’ in Parlament

A long threatening came at last. For five years now, I’ve been walking by the line of tourists queuing up for a tour of the Parlament Building and each time I’ve made a mental note to self to do it. One day. Needless to say, I never got around to making the required reservation and left it to the inimitable MI to surprise me one Friday.

I’d heard from SJ that the place was amazing and even though I know this particular North American not to be given to wanton bouts of exaggeration, I wasn’t at all prepared for the sheer grandeur of the place. We were deluged with the facts and figures that these types of tours depend on for their sustenance. The only one that stuck in my brain (and is probably somewhat indicative of the type of brain my head houses) is that this particular chandelier has 205 light bulbs and to change one, technicians have to enter from the outside through the roof.

Constructed between 1884 and 1904, the building was designed in mock Gothic style has has many similarities to the Palace of Westminster, in London. It’s the third largest parliament building in the world. It has 691 rooms (200 of which are offices) and so plenty of room for a guest or two. About 1000 people were involved in the construction, which used 40 million bricks, half a million precious stones and 40 kg (81 lb) of gold. Perhaps shaving some of the wallpaper might help reduce the national debt. Just an idea. And I can’t say that I wasn’t tempted.

One of the oddities of the place (and there had to be a least one) is the numbered cigar holders outside the voting chamber. Delegates would go inside to vote and leave their cigars outside, taking note of their numbered slot. Should the speech go on so long that their cigar burned out, it was said to have been ‘worth a havana’. I wonder how many political speeches these days would even be worth a Marlboro?
It truly is a magnificent building and well worth the 45 minutes it takes to tour it. Holders of an EU passport are allowed free entry. All others need to cough up a hefty 3500 huf ($15 / €12). The system outside is a little crazy but then what bureaucratic system in Hungary doesn’t have ‘mental’ somewhere in its descriptive. You book online and print your reservation – then you skip the first queue and go inside to get your ticket. Then you come back out and join the second queue for your tour – French, English, German – whatever is on offer. One to be added to the ‘what to do with visitors’ programme.

Big brother… and big sister… are watching

I have been known to get a little paranoid at times. Not too often, mind you, but enough to make me question my reality on occasion. It’s particularly strong if I’ve had a week of reading back-to-back spy novels or watching old movies featuring the great conspiracies of our time. But I’m nowhere near Chicago comic, Emo Phillips who ‘was walking home one night and a guy hammering on a roof called [him] a paranoid little weirdo. In morse code.’

I consider myself to be a rational, intelligent human being with a healthy inquisitive nature and a mind that’s open to exploring all sides of a debate before taking a stance. I know first-hand what it’s like to be judged; I’ve been on the receiving end of bigotry and racism; and I know the harm a lemming mentality can do.

Anti-justice

As I write, I’m in shock. My heart is thumping and my knees are shaking. I am taking deep breaths and trying to convince myself that this country, my adopted home, is not going to hell in the proverbial handbasket.

I’ve just heard about the flashmob that convened outside László Csatáry’s home last week (I’m a little behind the times not having a TV – if it even made the TV). I’ve watched some of the videos shot that day and it seems to have been a peaceful protest against the crimes of man who was allegedly instrumental in sending 300 so-called alien Jews to their death in Kamenetz-Podolsk in Ukraine in 1941. A long time ago, admittedly, but as William Shakespeare put it so succinctly, time is the justice that examines all offenders.

Apparently, Csatáry has lived in Hungary for the last 15 years, and for the latter 6, with the knowledge of the Hungarian government. That scares me. Justice is one of the cornerstones of democracy and if the government (our elected guardians) turns a blind eye, what hope have we? But on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being slightly disturbed and 10 being terrified to the extreme, I rated a 3 in this instance. I’ve become used to this government and although upsetting, it didn’t surprise me that they knew he was here and chose to do nothing about it.

Anti-neighbour

What has me quaking in my bare feet right now is that the day after the flashmob, the right-wing website kuruc.info enlisted the help of its readers to identify those who exercised their democratic right to protest and to stand up against what they believe to be wrong. Kuruc.info even offered a reward of 100 000 forints (about €350) for the most useable information. Word has it that within just 48 hours, more than 90 000 readers had managed to identify most of the participants, so-called anti-Hungarian Jews, who are now being harassed via phone and Internet. Ye gods – we are turning on each other!

Anti-Irish

Brian Whelan recently did a piece in the Irish Times on the return of anti-Irish prejudice to the UK. Irish emigrants heading to the UK these days differ from those of yore in that they are almost completely unaware of past lives, with no real sense of history. Since the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, more and more young Irish people are seeking their fortune abroad. Reminiscent of the mass exodus of the 1980s, this wave of emigration comes on the back of a relatively stable Ireland, in political terms. The Troubles have, for the most part, been relegated to the distant past and the Protestant-Catholic divide has narrowed to the point where it can be stepped across with relative ease.

Admittedly, according to Whelan, there are signs in the UK of the previous tension: a total stranger might approach you in the pub upon hearing your accent to let you know their relative was killed while serving in the North, as if you were to blame or should apologise. But it was the BBC3 documentary about Irish rappers (who knew!) that drew quite a commentary recently on Twitter.

I read some of the Tweets and found them to be racist, bigoted, and downright nasty. Yet Whelan makes an interesting point: Similar Tweets about any other nationality could potentially get the person arrested or fired from their job, but when the jokes are aimed at the Irish it is written off as ‘banter’. This is, in most part, probably down to our own innate self-deprecation. We like a laugh and we’re well able to laugh at ourselves. Yet the day is dawning when this type of rhetoric needs to stop.

Anti-humanity

Why can’t we all just get along? Why the persecution, the harassment, the singling out of individuals? Why not peace, justice, and freedom for all? At the end of the day, we are all part of the one race – the human race. Or is someone not telling me something?

First published in the Budapest Times 27 July 2012.

A step back in time

I’m a sucker for living history museums. The best I’ve ever seen was near Plymouth, in the USA, where the actors played their parts to the hilt, never wavering, despite the trick questions put to them by the tourists. Here in Szombathely, however, the Vas Museum was not so lively. Like most of the city, what was notable was the absence of people.

Since it opened in 1973, 43 buildings have been transplanted from 27 settlements in the region. Lying on the western bank of one of Szombathely’s fishing lakes, the museum is home to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century porták (farmhouses) that once stood in villages in the Őrség region. As was usual in villages on the western border, the houses are arranged around a semicircular street and include Croatian, German, and fenced houses.

Most of the houses can be visited and the interiors seem quite authentic. It isn’t hard to imagine people eating, sleeping, and cooking in these rooms but what stands out above all is the coolness of the buildings. No airconditioning in sight and yet the interiors feel 15 degrees cooler than the temperatures outside. So much for progress.

The whitewashed walls, daub floors, and wooden furniture are brought into start relief by splashes of colour found in the chimney tiles and  bed linens. It’s a quiet place to wander and quite easy to let yourself be pulled back through the centuries to a time where the community was such an important part of village life – a time where people actually knew each other, met up, and shared experiences in person. A time when life was simple and uncomplicated. I’m reminded of how far we’ve come and ask myself if I would swap my flat and the complexities of my life to go live back in the nineteenth century in one of these farmhouses. The jury is still considering.

According to what I’ve read in Lonely Planet, nettles from a strange plant called kővirózsa (stone rose) growing on the thatch were used to pierce little girls’ ears.

Buildings include wine cellars, a wooden belfry, and a nobleman’s house complete with porch. On St George and St Martin’s day, the place comes alive with folk art and fairs. Open all year round, entrance fee is 800 ft and well worth a gander if  you’re in the neighbourhood.

The Saturday Place

Szombathely translates literally as the Saturday Place and is the oldest and tenth largest city in Hungary. Dating back to 45 AD, Constantine the Great is said to have visited a number of times.  Hungarians finally took up residence in 900 AD after a string of other nationalities had been and gone. Beset by tragedy, the city has had quite a colourful past. In 1710, 2000 people lost their lives in a plague. In 1716 the city was destroyed by a fire, rebuilt and again destroyed in 1817.

Synagogue is now a concert hall

After the Treaty of Trianon, the city ceased to be the centre of Western Hungary as it was now just 10 km from the new border with Austria. On three days in July 1944, 4228  Jews were deported by the Hungarian authorities from Szombathely to Auschwitz.

The Iseum, a temple to the Goddess Isis,  also known as the Isis Szentély Romkertje,  is a 2nd century AD Roman temple site dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis. It was excavated in the 1950s. Today, part of the site has been reconstructed and you can still see the the ruins of two temples.

Walking around the town on a Saturday was a little surreal. Perhaps because it was so hot and the weather was keeping the people at bay. With a population of just 85 000 , it’s not exactly a metropolis but I’d have expected to see more bodies.  Like many other towns and cities in Hungary and indeed elsewhere, multinational chains have made their way to the high street but some locally owned boutiques are still clinging on for dear life.

At night, various cafés dot the town’s square and people sit underneath the awnings talking quietly. We ate at the Pannónia Ettérem and Café on Friday night, thankful to find somewhere open and still serving. The food was good, service pleasant, and atmosphere just right. A cocktail afterwards at Paparazzi rounded off the night nicely – and yes, they make a good cosmopolitan.

The next day, coffee at the Café Molo was a joy. Nestled right beside the music school, I enjoyed a morning cappucino to strains of jazz and blues while looking out over the Iseum. A picture perfect morning. The city is a curious mix of old and new and while it has a certain charm – not least the connection to Ireland via the ficticious Leopold Bloom – there is something missing. I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s as if the city is in some sort of parallel universe, untouched by the angst and normacly of twenty-first century living. I felt as if I was walking on a glass floor looking in but never really being allowed inside. Most peculiar.

Grateful 26

Week 26. Half-way through the year. It’s hotter than hades here in Budapest and I’m finding very little to be grateful for this week. The blasted heat. Yes, I know Ireland is cold and wet but what I wouldn’t swap for some of that coldness and wetness. Forty-two degrees yesterday. It is any wonder that I’m slowly losing my will to live.

I was in Szombathely last weekend and who did I run into but the bould Mr Joyce. I’d heard tell that there was a town/city in Budapest that translated into ‘bloom’ and was home to some severe Joycean celebrations each June. But, not for the first time, I got the story a little addled and it turns out that it was Leopold Bloom’s fictional father (him being fictional himself) that supposedly hailed from Hungary – Szombathely – and it’s his name – Virag that translates in to flower or bloom. In his novel, Ulysses, Joyce gives Leopold Bloom’s ancestry as Bloom, only born male transubstantial heir of Rudolf Virag (subsequently Rudolph Bloom) of Szombathely . . .

Bridget Hourican writes in the Irish Times that:

Virag means flower in Hungarian, hence Bloom, but it’s a conceit of Joyce’s that Leopold’s father began life as Rudolf Virag. There were Jews in Szombathely called Blum, but never Virag. Laszlo Najmanyi, writer, musician and organiser of the Hungarian Bloomsday, says: “The Blums were big textile traders in Szombathely and members of the family were posted in Trieste. It’s likely that Joyce met them there.” Trieste was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and Joyce certainly met Hungarians, including Teodoro Mayer, owner of Irredentist newspapers, and one of the models for Bloom. A motif in Ulysses is Arthur Griffith’s Resurrection of Hungary – the history of the struggle for independence from Austria, presented as a model for the Irish. The United Irishman serialised the book from January to June 1904, so of course characters in Ulysses are busy reading it.

Someone took the time to trace the Blum’s old house and erect a plaque over the door that further confuses the Blum/Virág/Bloom issue. I have to keep reminding myself that Leopold Bloom was a figment of Joyce’s imagination and neither he, nor his creator, is likely to be turning in his grave at the apparent inconsistencies. I have no one with whom to share my pain.

This week, as the barometers soar and the heat makes irrationality normal, I am grateful for being Irish. I am grateful that our reach is broad and our influence wide. I am grateful that we have left, and continue to leave, our mark on the world. As the lovely Colin Farrell supposedly said: Being Irish is very much a part of who I am. I take it everywhere with me.

PS – a nice gesture from the Mayor of Poznan after the Irish fans’ performance during Euro2012.

Tune in or turn off as soccer hell beckons

A fever is approaching the edge of Europe. Hovering on the outskirts, it is gathering momentum ready to make a full-on assault on 8 June 2012. Experts reckon it will reach its peak on 1 July. Collateral damage is expected to be high. Those who succumb to the fever will be rendered incapable of talking about anything other than what ails them. Those who live with them or work with them face a gruelling four weeks of sleepless nights and inane conversation. Big screens are being erected. Fans are pulling out their colours. And facepaint will be the most sought-after cosmetic on the market. Euro 2012 is about to unleash itself upon the world.

What’s in a name?

The UEFA European Football Championship has played itself out every four years since 1960.  Originally called the UEFA European Nations Cup, it changed to its current name in 1968. And then in 1996, it adopted the more manageable form of Euro 2012 or whichever year is appropriate. But no matter what you choose to call it, if you’re not involved, if you’re not interested, if you’re not a soccer head, you’re in for four weeks of hell. Four weeks where every watering hole this side of the Atlantic will be showing soccer matches. Four weeks during which fashion gives way to team jerseys and national colours. Four weeks in which conversation revolves around the permutations and combinations needed to win. Sheer hell.

And hell is how I remember Euro 2008 in Budapest. It was as if life stood still and all other forms of entertainment were mothballed. It was soccer or ….soccer. I watched one match and I can’t for the life of me remember who was playing. I know Ireland missed out on qualifying by drawing with Germany in front of a home crowd of 67,495 fans in Dublin. What interest I might have had died a death as the final whistle blew.

Jack’s army

When Jack Charlton managed the Irish team and brought us to Italia 1990, I was part of a nation that lived, breathed, and slept with soccer. I was working in Dublin in the Bank of Ireland and remember the government advising employers to supply TVs for their staff to avoid the whole workforce going off sick. Grannies dyed their hair green, white, and orange. Tourists wondered why there were no taxis or buses on the road. During match times, the silence on the streets was punctuated with loud roars from the pubs as people cheered on the boys in green. It was a fantastic time. A nation united. Had Jack Charlton run for President of the country, he’d have been elected (assuming the matter of his holding a British passport could be overlooked). The big question on everyone’s lips was ‘where are we going to watch the match!’ Those who had gone to Italy were writing home for money; quitting their jobs when their bosses wouldn’t sanction additional leave; and pledging their first-born sons to anyone who might fund their extended stay.

But that was then. When Jack left, he took my interest with him. This, too, was around the time I moved to the States and so baseball and basketball took over what little sporting interest I had. When I came back to Ireland, I converted to rugby – a far better class of men. As far as I was concerned, the WAGs could keep their pretty boys and soccer could keep its prima donnas.

An interest reborn

As Euro2012 approaches, though, Ireland has qualified. And what’s more, Ireland is playing a friendly with Hungary, in Budapest, on Monday, June 4th. And the question on my mind: will I go? My deep-rooted sense of patriotic duty would have me on the sidelines of an egg and spoon race were Ireland being represented. But eggs and spoons are interesting. Could I bring myself to watch a soccer match – to sit through a full 90 minutes of theatrics (assuming goals are scored) by metrosexual men who earn millions running around a pitch, occasionally jumping in the air, and hugging their team mates? But it’s Ireland. And it’s Hungary. And I’m in Budapest. And I can get a ticket. So yes, I should go.

In preparation, I watched the highlights of Ireland’s last international at home against Bosnia & Herzegovina. I recognised but one name – Robbie Keane. And the Dublin man is looking as good as ever. But one name? Therein lies a problem. If I’m going to cheer my head off, I will need to at least know their names. So I have to do my homework. I have a few days to get to grips with who’s playing in what position and the friendly at Ferenc Puskás Stadion on Monday will be a good text of my new-found interest. Who knows, it might just last all the way through to 1 July.

First published in the Budapest Times 1 June 2012