Grateful 36

One of the nicest things in life is home-cooking. And of all the home-cooking there is, Sunday lunch is probably the most special. That time when two, three or four generations come to the table and stay a little longer than usual, talking about the week just gone and the one about to unfold. In Ireland, when I’m home, we have roast lamb (my mother spoils me). In Hungary, when I cook Sunday lunch, I, too, have roast lamb (if I’ve been lucky enough to find some). Last Sunday, for the first time, I ate rooster.

The poor thing can rest in peace knowing that his every last morsel  was cooked and eaten – from his comb to his feet to his balls – nothing was wasted. Many moons ago, an eco-friendly cook urged me to buy whole poultry and not just legs and breasts and thighs – she pointed out the wanton waste involved in piecemealing chickens and geese and ducks. And it never really hit home to me until I saw this rooster, in his entirety, sitting atop a bed of boiled carrots, parsnips, celariac, and swede. He was the basis for the soup, which we put together ourselves by adding some noodles, some veg, some meat, and then covering it all with broth and a tiny piece of hot paprika.

Next up was the pörkölt – with yet some more of our friendly rooster, served with homemade noodles and pickled vegetables, cucumber salads, and beets. Everything from the garden – including the homemade horseradish (the best I’ve ever tasted).  I’ve seen the effort that goes into making these noodles and I’ve suffered the resultant pains from trying (once!) to make them myself. Respect Mrs Sz. Respect. I bet if I’d sneaked a look in the kitchen bin last Sunday, there’d have been nothing much to see in the way of packaging. I could literally taste the freshness.

At this stage I was wondering where it would all fit. I toyed with the idea of a quick jog up the street to make room for more, but it was raining. So I suffered blissfully through the rántott hús (breaded meat) flattened to within a centimetre of its life (poor chicken). Served alongside delicious shredded potato cakes and a gorgeous salad with eggs straight from the chickens in the yard – possibly even from the same chicken! Look at how yellow those yolks are.  I could have quite contentedly plopped myself on the couch with this bowl on my lap and whiled away the afternoon idly contemplating the meaning of life between scoops. But I’d seen the heaped plates covered in tinfoil that Annus néni had brought with her and I had a sneaking suspicion that dessert lay just ahead.

And I was right. Coconut squares and apple tart.  Coconut is somewhat of a novelty here in the pastry business (as in this is only the second time I’ve come across it: there’s a pastry shop in District VIII that is quite famous for its coconut somethings). But it was the apple pie that made me think I’d died and gone to heaven. For once I was glad that Hungarians add tejföl to everything. Now, my pidgeon Hungarian meant that my direct questioning of the cooks was limited to listing out the ingredients I recognised, and then adding a stray és (and) and looking quizzical when I needed some blanks filling in. It worked. I have the recipes. What I don’t have is access to their back yard and garden.

This week, I’m grateful for the fact that even though I’m 1894 kilometres from my mother’s Sunday lunch table, there are those in Hungary willing to open their homes and invite me to pull up a seat to join them at theirs. Ezer köszönöm.

[Note: Post Grateful 52 explains the Grateful concept]

Changing gears

My kind of woman
I am convinced I was a rally driver in a previous life. Give me winding country roads, no traffic, and a car with a manual gear stick, and I am in my element. Slowing down coming into bends; speeding up as I exit. Changing gears smoothly as I climb hills, enjoying the constant drone of the engine as it ratchets up and down on cue. Eyes everywhere looking not just straight ahead but also keeping watch for stray animals that might pick the wrong moment to see what’s on the other side of the road. Senses on high alert constantly judging the distance from my wing mirror to the hedge. Speedometer rising and falling, adrenalin remaining constant. Simply heaven. When I was in school, others in my class looked up to pop stars and actors. I was hooked on Rosemary Smith – a dress-designer turned rally driver from Dublin. Her mantra:  ‘Driving is all psychological; you can overcome any difficulty if you set your mind to it.’ My kind of woman.

Not my kind of man
There are those who make their careers from driving and there are those who simply take some lessons, pass a test, and get a license to terrify. I’ve heard first-hand of someone who was having trouble mastering the art of driving in Budapest and lubricating his pass mark with a bottle of palinka. I live on Üllői út, a long, straight road, punctuated with myriad traffic lights that many boy-racers confuse for a race track. Revving up at the lights, waiting for the imaginary starter’s flag to drop, their impatience is palpable. Focused on making as much noise as possible, their sole intention appears to be to draw attention to their car, which has somehow become an extension of themselves. From zero to 60 in five seconds flat. Weaving in and out of traffic at high speed, they have little regard for other drivers. On wet days, when such antics are even more dangerous, dousing pedestrians by driving at speed through standing water becomes a sport of Olympic proportions. Definitely not my kind of man.

Keeping up with the flow
I failed my test the first time I took it. I ran a red light. It didn’t help when I tried to excuse myself by saying that I hadn’t seen it. That I passed the second time probably had something to do with my driving instructor running out of patience. When I went to the States, I had to take another test – but this time in an automatic (can driving an automatic really be considered driving?) I passed and was told that the key to freeway driving was to ‘keep up with the flow of traffic’. To me, that amounted to permission to go as fast as the car ahead of me, if I had the horsepower to do so. Easy. Forget the speed signs. Just keep his taillights in sight and all would be well.

In Malta, chaos reigns supreme at the roundabouts. Driving on the island is not for the timid. Forget about polite civility – it’s every man for himself. Forge ahead and occupy your space. A little like India without the noise and the colour. Yet every driver in the country knows where the speed cameras are. Viewed from overhead, I suspect that driving in Malta could be choreographed and set to music.

Driving on the motorways in Ireland, the key is to stay left and use the right lane to overtake only, careful not to give the impression of leapfrogging. There’s no quicker way to attract the attention of the traffic corps than to make like a frog. In Hungary though, I can’t find any logic. On the motorways, everyone seems to be in a huge hurry, travelling as if their very lives depend on them getting to their destination on time. In the cities, they turn off the speed switch and seem content to sit in traffic for hours, as the trams and buses sail blithely by. I don’t understand where this need for speed disappear to.

Carrots not sticks
Back in 2010, a chap from San Francisco – Kevin Richardson – won a competition (the Fun Theory) to solve the social challenge presented by speeding. His idea was quite simple. Speeding motorists would continue to be fined and a portion of these fines would be ring fenced as a lottery fund. Using speed camera technology, Richardson suggested a speed camera that would capture cars whose drivers were adhering to the speed limit. These drivers would then be eligible to win the speed lottery. This was tested in Stockholm over three days on a multilane street. The average speed of 32 km dropped to 25 km. Seems like a winner.  I wonder what it would take to pilot it on Üllői?

First published in the Budapest Times 30 March 2012

The power of words

‘Knowledge, it has been said, is power. And rhetoric is what gives words power. So a knowledge of rhetoric equips [me], as a citizen, both to exercise power and to resist it.’ So says Sam Leith, author of You Talking to Me?

Exercising power

Those who do not appreciate the finer nuances of language often underestimate the power of words; they think them merely words. No more, no less. Certainly, words are what we use to convey our meaning, but it is how we use them that matters: how we sew them together; how we weave them into an eloquent pattern; how we deliver them. Give two people the same text and see how one can use voice, tone, rhythm, volume, speed, and inflection to turn the text into a weapon while the other robs it of all but its essential meaning.

Coleridge supposedly defined language as ‘the armory of the human mind, and at once contains the trophies of its past and the weapons of its future conquests’. Rhetoric, the art of using language, of structuring it, is what gives words their power, what arms them. From alliteration to zeugma, rhetorical devices can be employed to persuade and influence. The influence of anadiplosis should not be understated, or epanalepsis decried for lack of influence.

Telling stories

History is littered with great orators; men and women who have taken the stage and waxed lyrical about their passions and in so doing, ignited a passion in their listeners: John F. Kennedy, Adolf Hitler, Sojourner Truth, Winston Churchill, Emmeline Pankhurst, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King…need I go on? More recently, US President Barack Obama is credited with bringing back the art of storytelling to the public domain, although there are those who think that his storytelling doesn’t have the requisite heroes and villains to which we are predisposed and is much weaker for it. If we stop for a moment and think about it, our civilisation is, in fact, one big story. We have our history (stories of the past), our news (stories of the present), and our dreams (stories of our future) and those who have the ability to spin a good yarn or tell a good tale are the ones who, for better or worse, get our attention, wield power, and effect change.

Leaving an impression

It is ‘a truth universally acknowledged’ that opening lines of great novels linger in our memory long after we lay them down. This imprint is equally visible in a simple survey of our daily chatter, which reveals how much power those who excel at rhetoric have – I was talked into it; I was swayed by his words; she touched a chord; that resonated with me; I could listen to her for hours; I wish I’d said that. Yes, those who know how, those who know rhetoric, certainly wield great power.

Resisting power

But to those who know the rules, to those who understand the game, to those who themselves revel in rhetoric, this power is resistible. Those who understand hypotaxis know that they ask questions because they are curious; those who engage in parataxis may hear the words and recognise their meaning and remain steadfast in their opinion.

Simplifying matters

Our language teachers tell us to pronounce a word, syllable by syllable, and then to sum up the parts and create a magical whole. Once we know how magicians work their magic, we then admire their skill rather than claim it is impossible. And we can achieve the seemingly impossible by taking one small step after the other. The key lies in knowing, in knowledge. As Sir Francis Bacon claimed back in 1597, ‘knowledge is power’. We are frightened of what we do not understand; we fear what we do not know. Our gullibility and impressionability turn us into putty in the hands of eloquent potters who know how to shape and mould our thoughts and coax us gently into submission. And yet if we know what to expect, we can resist. If we know what is around the corner, we can prepare.

When we understand rhetoric, and are skilled at using it ourselves; when we fully realise the affect it has on others; and when we learn to appreciate the beauty of words while consciously navigating their message, then we can also see the affect that rhetoric can have on us. We can, as Leith says, both exercise power and resist it.

So, if I understand all this, why am I finding it so difficult to decipher what I’m reading in the news about Hungary? Why is it so hard to figure out what the real story actually is? Why are so many credible sources apparently contradicting each other? Will the real Hungary please stand up!

First published in the Budapest Times  26 January 2012

A stuffed dog and the baby Jesus

Years and years and years ago, my Christmas revolved around the annual visit with my my aunt and grandaunt to the moving crib on Parnell Square in Dublin. I would wander goggle-eyed through the fourteen scenes from the bible, each depicted by moving characters. Eve tempting Adam with the apple and him feebly shaking his head. Noah and his family building the ark. Daniel in the lion’s den. The angel appearing to Mary. Joseph and herself being refused at the inn. All the characters move in some way and the combination of bible scenes and the real stuffed dog who saved three people from drowning is slightly peculiar if not a tad surreal.

The background paintings for each of the 14 scenes depicted are the work of Dublin artist Cormac Larkin. I took my nephews there this week and although it wasn’t nearly as big as I remember, it still has that certain something that makes it part of Christmas. It’s been on the go for years and yet so many people have never heard of it or visited it. And it’s free! So if you’re in or around 42 Parnell Square, you might drop by and have a look for yourself. It’s worth it.

Maybe it’s age – but this Christmas I find myself wanting to do the traditional stuff – the visit to the zoo, the crib, and out with the Wren boys on Stephen’s Day. I wonder what’s driving this? Perhaps the fact that there’s so much misery and sadness in this country and from what I’m reading in the papers, and hearing on Irish radio, things aren’t much better in Hungary. Here’s hoping that 2012 brings back some sanity to our world and that we learn to recapture that childish wonder and appreciation for the simple pleasures of life.

To you and yours, wherever you are. May this Christmas be the start of something wonderful and the New Year bring with it peace and prosperity for all.

Hijacking harmony

A good friend of mine, someone I’ve known and grown to love in the last four years has committed herself to a relationship with someone I don’t really care for at all. I know she’s not stupid. I know that she knows that he doesn’t treat his kids very well. That he is dictatorial, censorious, and hungry for power.  I know that she knows he’s desperately short of natural resources. That he has a habit of burying history. That he is a little indiscriminate in his choice of bedfellows. So, what do I do?

Blowing in the wind

For three years now, I’ve been reading the labels on everything I buy. Apart from the tools of my trade – my laptop, my printer, and my mobile – practically nothing else I’ve bought in the last three years has been made in China. And I’ve saved millions of forints because it’s nigh on impossible to find anything these days that isn’t made in China. One day, we will wake up and find we have no choice left at all. Feel free to laugh. Others have. I’m sure that China hasn’t even noticed what I’m doing. It’s not as if my few forints are going to affect its balance of trade. I might not be achieving anything other than peace of mind, but that, to me, is priceless.

Keeping troublemakers at bay

China’s history of human rights abuse is well known, particularly with regard to Tibet. Just last month, documented, registered Tibetans were ‘summoned’ to the Hungarian immigration office (BÁH) and kept there until after midnight in case they felt the need to take to the streets to express their concerns at the visit of Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Am I the only one who is deeply upset by this complete disregard for the basic right of freedom of assembly? So the government had Hungary’s interests at heart and was apparently driven to such actions to protect the interests of the state. But just as my pathetic boycott of Chinese products is, and always will be, completely ineffective, did the government really believe that China would have hurried back home without putting pen to paper twelve times had there been a demonstration or three? And if so, what does that say about the rather precarious nature of this relationship? When one party is desperately afraid of upsetting the other, surely things will never quite be equal? My friend, my friend, just what are you letting yourself in for?

Arresting a harmonious society

While publishing colleagues assure me that China’s censors are still wielding their black markers on paper texts, the recent popularity of the Internet is creating a host of new problems. In a thought-provoking article for the International Herald Tribune magazine recently, author Yu Hua talks about the phenomenon of May 35th. For the rest of the world, the date does not exist, but in China, May 35th really means June 4, 1989. When people want to talk about the unmentionable Tiananmen Square ‘incident’, they refer to it as May 35th. So long is the list of words blacklisted from the Internet, that May 35th has come to describe a style of writing.  To circumvent the censors, Internet users have developed a code of sorts. For example, with the Chinese government so anxious to promote a ‘harmonious society’, being ‘harmonized’ is code for getting shut down or arrested. Of course the government knows what’s going on – they’re aware of the barbed meaning but were they to ban it, they would, in effect, be banning the harmonious society they are so earnestly advocating. As Yu Hua put it: Harmony has been hijacked by the public. Hungary, my friend, you know this and yet you persist.

Burying history in a corner

The New York Times recently reported that the newly renovated National History Museum, which occupies a space of some 185 000 square meters, contains just a single photograph and three lines of text dealing with the Cultural Revolution that tore China apart from 1966 to 1976 and resulted in millions of deaths. And even this is hidden away in a back corner. How many more skeletons has my friend’s new partner buried in a back closet?

Yes, I know that China’s recent surge to dominance could well be just the world getting back on kilter. Yes, I know that for 1800 of the last 2000 years, China and India were the two largest economies in the world. And yes, I know that China has pulled billions out of poverty and the heavy weight of censure is being visibly relaxed. Yet I still worry that this new partnership is more a matter of pragmatism than principle. And if so, what does that say about my friend?

First published in the Budapest Times 22 July 2011

Having fun with money and strangers

So here we are. Just three weeks into 2011 and already the world’s papers are full of Hungary’s EU presidency, growing concern about the new media law, and the supposed ‘Putinisation’ of the country. In Ireland, the mood is little better. Post-IMF depression has set in, the first public sector pay cheques of the year have shrunk noticeably, and many are getting their first taste of job insecurity. Once again, I’m truly glad that I live in my own little world, where the sky is a lovely shade of orange and those who share my space understand the madness.

And I’m glad, too, that I resolved to make no New Year’s resolutions this year. I have spared myself the pain of the annual self-flagellation that usually takes place around this time. I have opted out of the self-berating litany of wudda, cudda, shudda in which I’m normally mired mid-January. I have renounced the long, dark hours of introspection, where, like a baboon digging nits from its mate’s tail, I studiously pick apart my life until I drive myself to drink.  Instead of getting het up about what the world thinks of the recent shenanigans in Hungary, I am choosing to filter each perspective through the mesh that is my own experience. Instead of castigating the hoi polloi for their hedonistic lifestyles (shame that Opera Ball was cancelled, though), I’m choosing to indulge myself in books, travel, and world cinema. Instead of signing up to the cats chorus lauding the great achievers and their award-worthy achievements in 2011, I’m going to spend my time searching out their weird and whacky and oft-overlooked poor relations. For me, 2011 is going to be about the little things that make life worthwhile and the people that actually ‘do’ doing, instead of simply talking about it.

The random redistribution of wealth…

Some of you might know Victoria Mary Clark as Shane McGowan’s ex (him of ‘The Pogues’ fame). Some of you might have read her books or one of the many interviews she’s published with everyone from the wayward musician Pete Doherty to spiritual teacher Eckart Tolle or Osama Bin Laden’s sister-in-law, Carmen.  And then again, some of you might never have heard of her at all. I know I hadn’t until I happened across an interview with the good lady herself about this new Facebook group she’s set up: The Random Reistribution of Wealth to Total Strangers…Just for Fun!

You know that feeling you get when you put on a coat or jacket or jeans that you haven’t worn in ages and you stick your hand in a pocket and find some money? Or you dig out a handbag from the back of the wardrobe and as you’re tucking your wallet away in the zipped pocket you find some money? Or you’re searching for the pen you lost down the back of the sofa and you find some money? Finding money is one of the simplest pleasures in life: the joy of the unexpected, the element of surprise, the hope that it’s a sign your luck might finally be changing. No matter how much money you have earned, no matter how much you have squirreled away in the bank or beneath the mattress, I defy anyone to deny the pleasure they feel at ‘finding’ money!

…to total strangers

The Random Redistribution of Wealth to Total Strangers…Just for Fun does that it says on the tin – it goes around randomly giving money to total strangers…just for fun. Total strangers, mind you. Not friends, or family, or colleagues. Total strangers. The amount doesn’t matter. Neither does the currency. It can be pennies or pounds, cents or euro, forints or… well… more forints. Its raison d’être is to randomly amuse these total strangers and to make them smile at their good fortune. And the strange thing is, if you get into the spirit of it all, you have fun, too. Trying on a pair of shoes? Leave 200 forints in the toe for the next person to find. Browsing books in a book shop? Stick 500 forints in your favourite read. Spot a flat window ledge? Leave a few coins. Use your imagination.

While the Giving Pledge in the USA invites ‘the wealthiest individuals and families in America to commit to giving the majority of their wealth to the philanthropic causes and charitable organisations of their choice either during their lifetime or after their death’ Victoria Mary’s idea ensures everyone gets an invite to the ball, no matter where you live or how little money you have. Imagine if this caught on in Budapest…people finding money in Joszef Attila’s hat maybe, or stuck to the wall inside the Clark Adam tunnel, or on a seat in a metro station…it might just do something to lift the mood.

First published in the Budapest Times 17 January 2011

A matter of choice

It is the ability to choose which makes us human. These simple words are often attributed to American novelist Madeleine L’Engel, who died in 2007, two months shy of her 90th birthday. She lived through the roaring twenties, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the Second World War. Her mid-thirties coincided with the golden age of the 1950s when colour TV was invented, Disneyland opened, and a vaccine was discovered for polio. She was around during the Viet Nam war, the decade of hippies, drugs, protests and rock and roll. The far out seventies brought with them Star Trek and the Jonestown massacre, while the eighties welcomed Glasnost, Perestroika and the fall of the Berlin wall. L’Engel would have read about the end of the Cold War and the release of Nelson Mandela in the 1990s and seen news accounts of the Oklahoma bombing and the Columbine massacre. And as she entered the new millennium, she probably had ample time to think about choice… and to come to this conclusion.

Bringing it home

Dr Ágnés Geréb might well have something to say on the subject of choice. Recently arrested and facing charges for reckless endangerment committed during the line of duty, Dr Geréb has spent her career making choices.

An experienced doctor and midwife, she has attended more than 2000 home births (i.e. not in a hospital). As I understand the current situation, Dr Geréb had a patient whom she had advised not to choose home birth as the patient had some sort of blood clotting disorder. During a scheduled prenatal appointment, the patient suddenly went into labour and the baby was delivered – apparently there was no time to get her to the hospital. When born, the baby had breathing difficulties. Ambulance staff called to the scene began resuscitation and took the baby to hospital. Dr Geréb was subsequently questioned, arrested, and taken into custody.

Dr Geréb was elected to the Askhoka Fellowship in 1997 in recognition of the work she is doing in Hungary with her ‘undisturbed’ birth project. She established the first network of midwives, doulas (mothers experienced in childbirth who provide continuous physical, emotional, and informational support to the mother before, during, and just after childbirth), nurses, and doctors who oversee home birth throughout the country. On 6 June 1998, Dr Geréb won an important legal victory in the area of hospital births: mothers giving birth in hospitals could now request that their friends and relatives be allowed into the birthing room. Her foundation ‘Alternatal’ ensures professional help for those who choose to give birth at home.  She is, in other words, offering women a choice, a choice that is apparently denied them by the state. Or is it?

Personalising the experience

Had L’Engel and Geréb had a chance to sit down and talk about choice, about how human it makes us, I wonder what the outcome might have been? I’m not an expert on the merits of home birth, or any sort of birth for that matter. Thankfully, I can’t claim first-hand experience of the Hungarian medical system. What I am concerned about is the basic right to choose. Pregnancy is not an illness. The right for a woman to choose where to have her baby is surely a basic human right, one recognised the world over. Were I a soon-to-be mother, I would want to deliver my child in a familiar environment; with my family present; with the help of a midwife and a doula. The alternative (unless I had the financial wherewithal to pay for a private hospital) is a state-run, sterile, impersonal environment. I don’t doubt for a minute that there are doctors and nurses out there who genuinely care about their patients; whose commitment to their job isn’t measured by their meagre salaries; who see the birthing experience as something more than just another medical procedure. And I’m sure that for every horror story emanating from maternity wards around the country, there is a glowing report of an equally wonderful experience.  This isn’t about competency; it’s about choice.

In many western countries, such as the UK or Germany, home birth is a legal and respected option; an integral part of the healthcare sytem. In Hungary, it is alegal.  Under Hungarian law, a woman has the right to choose where to give birth. So what’s the problem then? Well, the law makes no provisions for anybody assisting the woman with her home birth; doctors and nurses who choose to help run the risk of being prosecuted for misusing their license; independent midwives may be prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license. So the danger of prosecution is really on the helpers, not on the birthing woman herself…as we’ve seen with Dr Geréb. A woman can choose to give birth at home. Those who choose to assist her show their humanity, and for that, they pay a price.

First published in the Budapest Times 25 October 2010

An orderly queue of one

I am spending an inordinate amount of time lately in airports and on airplanes. This new-found intimacy with all things aviation has also been a voyage of self-discovery. While I’d like to consider myself a bit of a radical, fearless when it comes to speaking out against the norm, I’ve had to face the fact that, actually, I’m a conformist.

Strategic positioning

If I don’t have an assigned seat, I will queue.  I live in fear of being sandwiched between two talkative strangers on a flight that lasts longer than it takes for me to order and drink a gin and tonic. If my flight starts with a bus journey from the gate to the plane, I don’t worry about it. Nine times out of ten, if I’m strategically positioned next to a door opposite the driver, I’m one of the first up those gangway steps. But if we’re talking about direct-access planes and unassigned seating, I’m first in line. Queues, I have discovered, are the personification of civilisation. To each who waits his or her turn, come many rewards: the sure knowledge of where you are in the pecking order; a clear estimate of how long it will take you to reach the desired goal; and a somewhat pathetic sense of accomplishment once your bags are stowed in the last available overhead space. Where else in our manic, twenty-first century lives are we assured of the orderliness afforded by a good queue… the certainty, the cleanliness, the precision?

Mikes Gyorgy, that artful Hungarian writer who so beautifully captures the essence of being English, nailed it when he wrote: Some nations have queuing down to an art form. An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one. The English queue; the Americans wait in line. Both nations respect the ritual and pay homage to this embodiment of patience, this physical manifestation of civility.

Was Moses Magyar?

Some Hungarians, on the other hand, seemed to have missed out on this queuing gene. The rest of us mere mortals may patiently stand in line, but not them. Marching straight ahead without so much as a by your leave, they solider through. Elnezest is the golden word… the Hungarian version of ‘Open Sesame’. It’s like watching the parting of the Red Sea and makes me wonder if Moses were Magyar. When this happens at Ferihegy, it goes unremarked; most of those lined up like regimental soldiers have either lived here long enough for this particular phenomenon to have lost its pallor, or are tourists returning home, too knackered to care.

In Dublin Airport on Monday, boarding a flight to Budapest, I saw a couple of stylishly dressed Hungarian queue-jumping women elnezesting their way to the front. Heads held high, they charged ahead, measuring their progress in persons, the bolder of the two carving out a path for her more timid friend to follow. In their wake, they left a legacy of disbelieving frowns and incredulous glances, as their meeker Irish counterparts froze, transfixed by their audacity. Those who had charted their progress from the back of the queue were moved to comment once they themselves had been successfully navigated. Loud declarations that ‘there is a queue, love’ or ‘who the blazes do they think they are?’ reverberated around the waiting area. But our fearless Magyars pressed forward, seemingly oblivious to the caustic comments and the seething anger emanating from dozens of Irish eyes, eyes no longer smiling.

Dress for success

In Rennes airport on Friday, I was queuing patiently in a tunnel outside the terminal building. It was blistering hot. Most of my fellow passengers were either Irish or French. Conditioned as we are to queuing, there wasn’t as much as a murmur of complaint. A well-dressed man of indeterminate age began to weave his way through the line. The worn sheen of his leather suitcase spoke of years of exotic travel. The silk pocket handkerchief peeping from the breast pocket of a beautifully tailored suit shimmered in the sunlight. His gold-rimmed sunglasses reminiscent of the 1950s reflected our collective awe. He was neither a tall man nor a big man but from his immaculate white hair to the tips of his manicured fingernails, he oozed presence. He turned occasionally, beckoning to his companion, urging her to come forward. He quietly side-stepped each one of us, yet we were the ones apologising for standing in his way. As I followed his progress to the top of the line, I noticed that unlike Monday’s Maygars, this man left a trail of bonhomie. There was no acrimony, no resentment. Never once did he say ‘excuse me’. Perhaps Hungary’s one concession to politeness, the elnezest, has outlived its day.

First published in the Budapest Times 19 July 2010

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

The more I learn about the world, the more I realise how little I actually know. Last week, what I knew about South Africa had been gleaned from newspapers, TV documentaries, reports by aid organisations, Internet blogs, and the occasional conversation about the state of the nation with some Afrikaaner friends. I have vague memories of Nelson Mandela’s visit to Dublin. I remember the strikes against apartheid and the celebrations when South Africa gained its freedom. I’ve seen the cartoons featuring President Zuma standing under the symbolic showerhead (he apparently believes that showering after sex will prevent the transmission of Aids).  I’m still wondering at FIFA’s decision to hold the World Cup there this summer. In short, if my mind were a computer and you did a search on ‘South Africa’ you’d find a complete mismash of information that says far more about me and my misconceptions than it does about South Africa. Everything I have read or heard about the country has been filtered through a perspective that is the product of the life I have lived so far; a perspective that is influenced by my education, my upbringing, and my spiritual beliefs; a perspective that has been largely coloured by the reported experience of others rather than any first-hand experience of my own.

Learning by doing

A South African friend of mine, recognising this huge gap in my education, invited me to join her on a visit home to the grasslands in Wakkerstroom just south of Pretoria. To see another country, not as a tourist, but as a resident, however temporary, is an honour that is all-too-often taken for granted. To see it in the company of someone who is revered (and occasionally reviled) for the work she has done in breathing new life into this small town is a privilege indeed. Were I here as part of a tour group, staying in a guesthouse or hotel, eating in restaurants featured in guidebooks, my vision of South Africa would probably still be intact. My preconceptions – the cities are dangerous; Aids is prevalent; life is cheap; racism is rife; whites are rich; blacks are poor – may have gone unchallenged.

Instead, I have been party to conversations unfiltered by judicious editors or biased press officers. I have stayed in suburban homes built in guarded complexes, often surrounded by two or three layers of fencing. I have listened to horrific accounts of how rage and anger manifest themselves in senseless, brutal assaults on young and old alike. I have seen how differently people react to the threat of violence; how political correctness is severely curtailing growth and prosperity; and how affirmative action, without the necessary provision of skills and knowledge, is eroding hope for a sustainable future. My somewhat naïve questions about the sanctity of elephants have been met with patient explanations of the damage and the danger and the missed opportunities inherent in not allowing herds to be culled. Heated debates on the dire state of public infrastructure, the inability of politicians to cope with growth and development, and the mistakes that have been made and continue to be made in the post-apartheid era all seem somewhat familiar.

Home thoughts from abroad

Interestingly, I find myself contributing to the conversation with stories of what’s happening in Hungary. I hear myself drawing parallels between post-communism and post-apartheid politics; between the Roma and the Zulu; between the townships in South Africa and the villages of Eastern Hungary. I recognise the insularity of the rich and the powerful; the insecurity of those threatened by the devolution of power; and the humility of those who know enough to realise they have so much yet to learn. Corruption, racism, and the ever widening gap between the very rich and the very poor exist to a greater or lesser extent in both countries, as does a growing if unconscious dependency on China. Likewise, patriotism, nationalism, and cultural history abound.

Both countries are beautiful and surprisingly, a lot alike. The great open plains of the Puszta are mirrored by the vastness that lies under the South African sky. The birding paradise of Hortobágy bears a striking resemblance to the grasslands of Wakkerstroom. There is no time difference. The extreme variance between highest and lowest daily temperatures is comfortingly familiar…at least at this time of year as Hungary moves into her summer while South Africa edges towards winter.

The more I learn about  both countries, the more I realise how little I actually know about either of them. What I have learned though, is that to really appreciate a country, I need to live in it. And to really live in a country I need to make a concerted effort to understand both sides of the story.

First published in the Budapest Times Tuesday 11th May 2010

Gorgeous girls and goosefat

I am very fortunate to have some wise and wonderful Hungarian friends who are extremely knowledgeable and clued in. Between them, they have managed to answer practically all of my never-ending questions about life in Hungary as it is now and as it was then. Their areas of expertise include history, geography, politics, linguistics, sports and the arts, with a little bit of religion thrown in for good measure.  Together, their knowledge of who’s who and what’s what in Budapest alone is encyclopedic. They have their fingers on the city’s pulse. They speak its language and, more importantly, they also speak mine! But try as they might, there is one question that still remains unanswered.

Making comparisons

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that Hungarian women are beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that grown men literally stop and stare as they walk by. And it’s not that surreptitious glance from a gawky teenager that you might see in Dublin; a glance made all the more daring by the chances of being caught in the act. No, Budapest has left puberty behind. Here, men stop. And stand. And stare. It used to catch me unawares. There I’d be, walking along, lost in my own little world, trying to conjugate a particularly difficult Hungarian verb, when the man in front of me would suddenly stop. And stand. And stare. And I’d run right into him and ruin the moment. Now I pay more attention. I’m more considerate. I save my conjugation for cafés. But it rankles. Hungarian girls are gorgeous: they have perfect figures, great skin, healthy hair… and all of this on a diet of red meat, goose fat and lángos! How can it be so? Where’s the justice? Answer me that!

I love my food. I can’t imagine life without red meat and chocolate. I shudder at the thought of never again enjoying Filete Enchocolatado. While at an open-air market recently, I noticed my visitors going pale at the sight of pork steaks swimming in vats of hot oil. I couldn’t wait to get stuck in. At dinner later that evening, while they searched in vain for a fruit-filled palacsinta, I went straight for the hórtobagyi. Hungary, for me, is hog heaven, with a large duck pond and a garden full of geese. But unfortunately, I am missing that all-important gene that allows Hungarian women to eat what they like, when they like, and still look fantastic.  I’ve thought about this a lot and for want of help from my encyclopedic friends I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s simply no other explanation. It has to be genetic…doesn’t it?

Making concessions

The last time I fitted into a size 8, I was 18. I have neither the interest nor the inclination to do what’s needed to go back there.  Don’t get me wrong: if it could be done with a wave of a túró rudi, I’d be first in line. But diet and exercise are two words that don’t feature in my vocabulary, in any language! I have made a couple of concessions though. I only allow myself langós when I have virgin guests in town – far be it from me to deprive first-time visitors to Budapest of an experience that is truly Hungarian! When I cook at home, I always have at least two real vegetables: tomatoes, onions and peppers don’t count! Come to think of it: that’s another question I must ask. Where do all the real vegetables go once they leave the market stalls? The carrots, the parsnips, the turnips, the cauliflowers – I’ve yet to see one come out of a restaurant kitchen in solid form!

 Making choices

My weight fluctuates according to where I’m living. In California, it was too hot to eat. In Alaska, it was too cold not to. Ok, so perhaps I didn’t have to take hibernation as seriously as I did or have so much sympathy for the whales that I began to morph into one myself.  No matter. That’s history. Today, I have chosen to live in a city full of beautiful women; a city which is populated by men who are very obvious in their appreciation of this beauty. Perhaps, subconsciously, the skinny person living inside me is making a last-ditch effort to escape. Maybe hers is the voice I heard telling me to move to Budapest in the first place. Maybe she was hoping that being in the presence of such beauty would inspire me to lend her a hand. But, as Woody Allen wondered: what if the 20lbs I lose is the best 20lbs I have? The pounds that contain my genius, my humanity, my love and my honesty? What then?

This article first appeared in the Budapest Times on Monday, 22nd October, 2009