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Volunteers needed for the Nursery Project

‘Service is the rent we pay for living. It is the very purpose of life and not something [we] do in [our] spare time.’
Whether Marian Wright Edelman, American children’s rights activist and president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund was paraphrasing Mohammed Ali’s much-quoted adage ‘service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth’ is neither here nor there. What matters for me is the message.

A frequent concern I hear from expats who have moved to Budapest is that it is so difficult to volunteer. Many – especially those hailing from Ireland, where a CV that doesn’t mention a spell of volunteering, simply doesn’t rate – grew up with volunteering as a norm. But perhaps because of language difficulties or a lack of connections, they struggle with finding meaningful ways to volunteer their time in Hungary.

One Hungarian has been working to change that. In close cooperation with business chambers like the Irish Hungarian Business Circle and the Canadian Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and charities like the Robert Burns Foundation and St Andrews Egyesület, alongside private sector players like Clarke and White Property, Zsuzsanna Bozo has been coordinating a number of volunteer drives, with one in particular that would be close to Marian Wright Edelman’s heart: The Nursery Project.

Wasn’t it Aristotle who said: Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man? Arguably, were we to adjust the relative age of Aristotle’s 7, we’d be looking at what? 18? But nonetheless, I’m of the mind that a  child’s formative years are the ones that lay the foundation for the adult they will become. Children are the future, our future. We need to ensure that they get the best start possible, in a safe, clean environment that conducive to learning.

2016 – Zabar, Nógrád county

When Bozo revisited her childhood nursery school in Zabar for the first time in more than 35 years, she saw that the village nursery was in dire need of an upgrade. The educational toys were limited but the nursery staff was making do, maximizing what few resources they had. A more pressing problem, though, was that the kids couldn’t shower at home, as many of the houses in the village didn’t have running water. Their clothes told a sorry tale of poverty and deprivation. Determined to make a difference, Bozo coordinated a volunteer effort that saw the refurbishment of the nursery, the installation of showers, and the donation of a washing machine/dryer. She and her team made a huge difference to the lives of these young people. Read more.

2017 – Szilaspogony, Nógrád county

Given the great response from the volunteers and the nursery in Zabar, Bozo found a second village in need of help.  The local nursery in Szilaspogony looks after 24 little ones who come from really difficult backgrounds. Unemployment is rife, with the government’s communal work scheme providing families with limited resources. Working in concert with the mayor’s office, who agreed to paint the playroom, Bozo raised support to cover the materials needed. Over 50 volunteers visited the village on 16 December 2017 to assemble furniture and put it all together. It was a marvellous experience and one I’m proud to have been part of. Plans are in place to plant a fruit garden for the kids, and sponsors are being sought to help make it happen. Read more.

2018 – Wesley János Nursery, Budapest VIII district

One of this year’s nursery projects is underway currently in Budapest in district VIII. Right now, teams are working to remove the old wallpaper and plaster the playroom. A new plasterboard wall is going up to create a smaller changing room. Another team is coming in to lay a new concrete floor and change the flooring. Between 4 and 18 August, walls and doors are being painted (volunteers needed)  and the laminate flooring laid (specialist needed). Then from 30 August to 1 September, the volunteer crew will descend to put together the furniture and finish it off ready for the children to start back on 3 September. Time, money, and materials are needed. You can check the Nursery Project website for a list of what’s needed. Get in touch directly (levelektelaponak@gmail.com) if you think you can help with the more essential things like:

  • The purchase of 25 sqm of tiles for the bathroom and money to pay a tiler along with putting up shelves to hold the kids’ glasses and towels (estimated 250 000 ft).
  • The purchase of 25 fitted sheets, covers, and pillowcases for the nursery beds (or material to make them, as a seamstress has volunteered her time).

And if you or anyone you know has a particular bent for DYI, the following are needed:

  • 2-3 painters to paint the entire ceiling, and walls. Materials provided (16-25 August).
  • A carpenter to install insulating wall panels along the walls to keep out the cold.

These are just three of the many nurseries in need of help all around the country.  All nurseries should be able to provide a clean, safe environment, quality education, and play time for the kids. The Nursery Project was created by volunteers to help raise funds to refurbish and breathe new life into children’s nurseries in Hungary.  Working closely with the local Mayor’s office and nursery staff, Bozo and her team of volunteers are making a difference.

If you want to get involved in any of these projects, by donating time or materials (educational games, sports equipment, and sanitary products are always needed), check out the website. If you have a specific skill that could be of use, let Bozo know. And if you think you simply don’t have the time to get involved, think a while on the words of eighteenth-century education reformer Horace Mann: Doing nothing for others is the undoing of ourselves.

First published in the Budapest Times 12 August 2018

With a nod to all things Irish

When 1 March dawned this year, Ireland was covered in a blanket of white. Fast-forward a couple of weeks later, all thoughts are turning to greening the country. And not only Ireland, but cities like Buenos Aires in Argentina and Tokyo in Japan, who have embraced the celebration of the nation’s patron saint, St Patrick.

The tiny Caribbean volcanic island of Montserrat is the only other country in the world in which 17 March is a public holiday. But it’s a coincidence. There, Montserratians commemorate an eighteenth-century revolt by slaves against their European white colonizers, the majority of whom were Irish. Their week-long celebration is about independence.

This year, St Patrick’s Day conveniently falls on a Saturday, and carries on the long weekend that starts with the Hungarian holiday of 15 March which celebrates democracy and freedom, two words very much in vogue in recent times, and commemorates the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. It was declared a holiday back in 1990. On this day, most Hungarians will sport a cockade of the national colors – red (strength), white (loyalty), and green (hope). There’s an alternative interpretation, too, apparently: red for the blood spilled by Hungarian patriots, white for freedom, and green for the land of Hungary.

The Irish holiday on 17 March dates back to 1903 and has more religious overtones, marking as it does the advent of Christianity to Ireland, brought to the shores by St Patrick way back when. The first official government-sponsored parade didn’t take place in Dublin until 1931. Slow as it might have been to catch on, St Patrick’s Day is now a day to be reckoned with in many cities around the world, Budapest included.

Eight years ago, in 2011, 546 people took part in the first St Patrick’s Day parade in Budapest. Each year has seen a few more marching, with turnout figures on track to reach the 10 000 mark on the 10th anniversary.

This year, the parade will take place on Sunday, 18th March from Szabadság tér.  The crowds will start convening at 1.30pm to a backdrop of music, face-painting, and a taste of the Ireland that comes in a glass – whiskey and stout. In a nod to sobriety and sanctity, the Irish Free State government banned the selling of alcohol on St Patrick’s Day back in 1927. Our neighbours up North weren’t as drastic and until the ban was repealed in 1961, I’d imagine there was quite a bit of border hopping going on. The parade will step out at 3pm and wend its way through the streets of Budapest over to Akácfa utca 49-51, to Instant VIII, where the party will start in earnest.

The massive venue will morph into a mini Ireland for the day, evening, and night with musicians and dancers doing their bit on all stages. The trinity of Irish revelry – ceoil, caint, agus craic (music, chat, and fun) – will preside over the occasion, one not to be missed.

Some, though, might be feeling a little worse for wear, a little tired perhaps from the previous night’s celebrations. The Annual St Patrick’s Day Gala Dinner is set to take place in the Marriott Hotel on the night itself, Saturday, 17th March. This annual event started back in 2006 and has become quite a feature on the Budapest social calendar. With more than 250 people expected to show up in their best bib and tucker, this elegant evening is an opportunity to get a feel for what Irish hospitality is all about. This year, the fab Hungarian dance troupe Coincidance (European Irish Dance champions) will be giving their take on the traditional Irish dance, with Budapest-based Hungarian Irish Folk band Green Spirit supplying the music. It gives this patriotic soul goosebumps to see how Hungary has embraced the art of Irish music and dance and done us proud. A limited number of tickets are still available, so reserve yours now.

And if all that wasn’t enough, the celebrations continue into the following week when on Monday, 19th March, students from schools around Hungary gather for the annual St Patrick’s Festival competition organised by the Vörösmarty Mihály Gimnázium. Secondary schools will be sending their best to compete in five categories: Folk song | Pop-rock song, solo | Pop-rock song, group | Poem or prose | Short scene. And for the second year running, there’ll be a special prize for the best Irish entry.

On Saturday, 24th March, at Folyondár Sports Hall (1037 Budapest, Folyondár utca 15), local, national, and international Irish dancers, will compete in the Budapest Open Feis 2018. Anyone who has watched, gobsmacked, as Michael Flatly and Riverdance took the world by storm, might be interested in seeing these dancers in step. The whole scene has come a long way since I was dragged, kicking and screaming, to dance classes, hating every minute of the ringlets (the de rigueur hairstyle for anyone with hair long enough to take the rags, long before the invention of curling tongs). Years later, on reflection, I wish I’d found a way to get over the fact that I don’t have a musical bone in my body and have a hard time telling a reel from a jig. But such is life.

The international Go Green campaign continues. In Singapore, for example, the Singapore River will run green while the Gateway of India in Mumbai will also go green for St. Patrick’s Day. In Budapest, at time of writing, confirmation is in that MUPA and the Tüskecsarnok will go green and hope is still alive that the Chain Bridge and the Budapest Eye will follow suit. Don’t you just love it when it all comes together.

Kudos to the Irish-Hungarian Business Circle, the Irish Embassy in Budapest, and all their supporters for making this all happen.

Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhaoibh go léir. Happy St Patrick’s Day to you all.

 

First published in the Budapest Times, 9 March 2018

2017 Grateful 3

Time is something each of us gets in equal, albeit limited amounts. We each get 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week, 52 weeks in a year. Some of us get more years than others, but their makeup is the same. Time is one of the most valuable commodities we have. We sell it for wages. We barter it for help. We donate it to good causes. We spend it on family and friends. And we waste some of it, too. Coming up to Christmas, a lack of time is one of the loudest complaints heard. There’s so much to do. So many places to go, so many people to meet. And the closer it gets to Christmas, the shorter time gets. This is particularly true, I think, in the expat world, as we ready ourselves to go home, where we begin the battle with time all over again.

And yet, today, on a Saturday so close to Christmas, the turnout in Szilaspogony, in Nógrád county, Hungary, was nothing short of amazing. Volunteers from America, Canada, England, Hungary, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Nigeria, Philippines, Russia and Scotland turned out in force to help decorate the village nursery. Armed with drills and screwdrivers, furniture was assembled, shelves were mounted, dolls houses and train tracks were put together, pictures were framed, books were unwrapped, cots were mattressed, stools were covered, curtains were hung, and lights were strategically positioned, transforming the old nursery into a fairyland for the village kids. Prior to our visit, the Mayor’s office had organised local volunteers to paint the room with paint we supplied, so we had a blank canvas to work with.

 

Szilaspogony has a population of just over 300, about 80 of whom are children. Those aged 3 to 6 attend the village nursery. There’s about 25 of them in all. The local mayor (the first woman to hold such an office in the county), the wonderful Tünde Józsefné Bódi, who is three years into her first five-year term, took the time to fill me in on what was going on locally. Unemployment, surprisingly, isn’t an issue. There is work for all those who want to work; her office sees to that. Her concern is about example. She worries that the village children – who in times past went from the nursery, to primary, secondary, and tertiary education, some graduating as scientists and now working at universities like Oxford – are not being shown the way forward. Parents are concerned with the basics. The children are well turned out and cared for. But there’s a settling … a contentment with just enough, rather than ambition to make a better tomorrow.  Tünde Bíróné Katona, who’s in charge of the Nursery, seconded this. She called it a ‘crisis situation of values’. The children in her care are taught to read and write and count. They learn to socialise with each other. They learn right from wrong. They get the grounding they need to go on to primary school but few, if any, will continue to secondary education. Perhaps just two from each group. The example simply isn’t there. The push isn’t there. The vision isn’t there.

And that got me thinking.

The children, in awe of their new home from home, were a little distracted when it came time for them to put on their play. They acted out the scene at Bethlehem, complete with the Holy Family, shepherds, wise (wo)men, angels, and the star. They watched the audience, not just their parents and teachers, but a bunch of strangers speaking an odd language, who had descended on their village for the day, armed with gifts and good will. I wondered what they thought. What their parents thought. And some part of me hoped that this example might go some way towards giving them a glimpse of a world outside, a world that, with a little application, is within their grasp.

What they might not realise though, is that Clarke & White Property sponsored all the paint needed to refresh the walls and ceiling. On the day, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce donated the cots, mattresses, and curtains, St Andrews Egyesület provided the educational toys, train sets, dolls, board games and such, and the Irish Hungarian Business Circle provided the fixtures and fittings. The rest of us simply showed up. It was quite the cooperation. And all this effort was coordinated by Zsuzsa Bozo and her Letters to Santa charity. The children send in letters to Santa, and his local elves get to work filling out the orders and making their wishes come true. The nursery was in need of a facelift, a remodel. Mayor Tünde told me that some of the furniture  being used had been there in her day, when she was in nursery school, and that, she winked, wasn’t today or yesterday. But more importantly than more modern stuff, brighter toys, newer books, the kids needed to see how special they are, to see relative strangers coming together, working together, to make a difference to their world.

I’m grateful that I got to be part of it. That I got to see the light glimmer in those little minds. That I got to see the spirit of Christmas in action. And that I got fed (the village treated us to a fab lunch featuring all sorts of delicacies, including a delicious wild boar/venison stew). Roll on the 25th. Am ready.

 

 

[Note: Post Grateful 52 explains the Grateful concept]

2017 Grateful 33

Appalled. Beset. Confused. Dismayed. I ran through virtually the whole reaction alphabet earlier this week when I received a note from a journalist friend telling me about a press release that had crossed their desk. It concerned a damaging report on a charity near and dear to my heart, one that I’d been fundraising for, for years. I clicked the link and read with mounting horror. Could it be true?

A number of years ago, when Gift of the Gab returned for second run after a year-long hiatus, I decided that any monies raised should go to a good cause. Working with the IHBC, we decided to support a state orphanage in Göd, the Topház Speciális Otthon. 

It was back in 2011 that I first met Norbert and was moved beyond tears to raise money to make his life just a little better. I wrote about it.

Yesterday, I met Norbert. Norbert is in his mid-thirties and spends his day in the corner of a cot in a room at the Topház Speciális Otthon in Göd, about a half-hour drive from Budapest. His world is the room he shares with Tony and Dani. Although I had a hard time believing it, Norbert is one of the luckier residents: he has not been forgotten.

We raised enough money to get him and some of the others proper beds. The next year it was new doors. Then it was a new sound system so that those residents confined to their rooms could have music and see the events going on in the main hall, like the Christmas parties. We helped as often as we could and as much as we could, never donating money, but buying things they needed and volunteering time to paint, to visit, to play. It’s been a few years since I’ve been there but the volunteer visits have continued with those volunteering getting far more from the experience than they give. I’ve never forgotten the lads, Norbert and Kristof, and the others.

And then the report. Straightjackets and Seclusion.

MDAC is today calling for the immediate closure of state-run institutions for people with disabilities in Hungary after an investigation of one large scale institution discovered children and adults who had been tortured and abused, including being tied to beds and restrained with makeshift straitjackets.

My orphanage. Our orphanage. The full report makes damning reading. It’s horrendous. As I read, I felt let down, disappointed, angry. I felt as if I had in some way been complicit in it all. I began to feel guilty. I’d been involved. I’d asked people to support this cause. And they’d responded. They’d given of their time and their money to help. I’d planted a tree in the grounds in memory of my best mate who’d died the day before a planned visit to the orphanage. I felt betrayed.

How typical though, how selfish, how human to pivot the whole situation so that it revolved around me. I had to stop, think, take stock. And calm down.

And in the while it took me to get to the stage that I could think straight, I hear the director has been replaced and investigations are underway. And I have come to terms with the part I played.

I volunteered, raised money, helped in my small way to make the lives of some of these people just a little better than that might otherwise have been. And I made a difference. No matter what is said or what comes of all of this, I made a difference. Everyone who contributed made a difference.

And even knowing what I now know about what has allegedly happened there, I’d do it all again. Because the Norberts and the Kristofs of this world need help. They’re stuck in what has proven to be a flawed system. They are at the mercy of the state and its intermediaries, its representatives. The answer is not to withdraw support or distance myself. Continuing to help is not a tacit approval of the way it’s being run. I re-read the translation of a piece that appeared in Index.hu back in 2014 and wondered how three years could have made such a difference.

And if, as MDAC wants, the orphanage is closed, it will take time for everyone to be rehoused. But in the interim, Norbert and Kristof, and the rest of the residents still matter. Helping them still matters.

This week, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute, to help, to volunteer at Göd, along with so many others. I’m grateful for the lessons I learned from the lads. And I’m grateful to have made a difference, however small.

Non nobis solum nati sumus

 

 

Walking and talking

For anyone moving to a new city, making friends can be difficult. And the older you get, the harder it seems. I’ve reinvented myself a number of times, moving to cities and countries in which I knew one, maybe two people, and oftentimes no one at all.

Back in my 20s it was easy. Most of those I met were of similar age and as young, free, and single as I was. They were open to meeting new people and making new friends. Of course, I’m blessed to be Irish, probably the one nationality in the world that almost everyone seems predisposed to liking. By virtue of my birth I come packaged with an expectation in others that I’ll be up for a party – whenever, wherever.

In my 30s, I noticed a difference. A subtle difference, mind you, but an important one nonetheless. My peer group were now newly married couples, perhaps young parents whose priorities in life had changed. They had husbands and wives to go home to. They had children to bathe. They had stuff to do at the weekend and families to be with on the holidays. I managed. I always do. But it was a tad harder.

In my 40s, it took a lot more effort. Moving to a country whose spoken language still defeats me, a country where things are simply different – not better or worse than other places I’ve lived, just different – this was harder again. And a lot of it was down to me. I had my peculiarities. I was prone to my particular figaries. And I had become a little more discerning about whose company I kept. I’ve noticed that my tolerance levels are gradually declining as the years advance.

For the first couple of years in Hungary, I didn’t seek out an expat community. In fact, it wasn’t until the birth of the Gift of the Gab some two years after I’d arrived, that I had my coming out. I began to meet people. Some expat groups were a little too cliquish for my taste, a little too ‘them and us’ when it came to Hungarians. And I tried a few. And then true to form, the Irishness in Hungary won out.

The Irish Hungarian Business Circle (IHBC) is one of a number of chambers in town and despite its name, its focus is not purely business; there’s a charity and a social arm as well. And the social arm is very inclusive. The regular pub gatherings (this year in the Caledonia) on the First Friday of each month draw people from all over. The volunteer work trips to the orphanage in Göd attract people of all ages. And the regular hikes during the year are one of the best opportunities this city offers to meet new people.

IMG_1022 (800x534)Some hikes have had six hikers. Some have had over 40. The inimitable Malcolm Trussler tailors the walks to suit the numbers … and the weather.  Last Sunday saw 20 of us get the train to Nagymáros where we caught the ferry across to Visegrád and from there hiked a nice 10.5 km through the lower Pilis hills to Pilisszentlászló. Sixteen adults, four kids, seven nationalities … and a dog.

As we wended our way through the hills we fell in with different people and had a chance to chat without distraction. No phones. No iPods. No tablets. Just us. Clean air. Good conversation. Afterwards, we ate at the Kis Rigó Vendéglő before bussing back to Szentendre and catching the Hév back to Budapest.

Next hike is planned for October. Dust off those boots and get the thermos ready.

First published in The Budapest Times 2 October 2015

 

Viszlat and a thousand thanks, ambassador

It could be said that diplomacy was born when our ancestors decided that it might be better to listen to the messenger rather than to kill them. Coming with news from neighbouring tribes, these original diplomats served as relayers, negotiators, and purveyors of peace, precursors to those we now know as ambassadors.

It is thought that the first permanent diplomatic mission was established in 1455, representing the Duke of Milan in Genoa. Since then, ambassadors in host countries around the world have been promoting the interests of their home countries while serving the greater interests of their states.

Diplomacy has had its ups and downs. Back in the sixteenth century, British ambassador Sir Henry Wotton, then serving in the Bavarian city of Augsburg, is said to have defined his ilk as such: ‘An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.’ In times of war and upheaval, the role of ambassadors takes on new meaning. It could be argued that in recent years, the presidency of Barack Obama has done much to put diplomacy back at the heart of foreign policy, and perhaps earning it another descriptive, that of ‘the velvet glove that cloaks the fist of power’.

Amb Dowling SPD 2015For the last three years here in Hungary, the Irish in residence (an estimated 1000 or so) have been fortunate in being represented by Irish Ambassador to Hungary, Kevin Dowling.  Under his auspices, Irish culture has enjoyed a renaissance of its own. Major events on the Irish social and cultural calendar, such as St Patrick’s Day and Bloomsday, are marked with aplomb, most notable for the wide participation not just of Irish citizens, but their myriad Hungarian friends, too. The Leopold Bloom Award, a special contemporary art award was established by an Irish logistics business with a Budapest presence, Maurice Ward and Co., with the prize given to young Hungarian artists every second year in Budapest. Irish poets like Seamus Heaney and WB Yeats have been celebrated in the city, most notably with the birth of the Yeats Society set up to mark the 150th anniversary of the great man’s birth this year. Irish films continue to feature at the Titanic Film Festival and the Irish Embassy, under Ambassador Dowling’s steerage, has been extremely supportive of initiatives such as the Irish Hungarian Business Circle, the St Patrick’s Day Parade, and the charity speech slam, the Gift of the Gab.

Sir Christopher Meyer, former British Ambassador to the USA, in his 2009 account of British diplomacy Getting our Way, says of diplomats that theirs is a delicate job that requires ‘a quick mind, a hard head, a strong stomach, a warm smile, and a cold eye’. In the three years that he was at the helm, Ambassador Dowling wore his credentials well.  As citizens living abroad, we can find ourselves in need of a mother ship, somewhere to go should we have difficulties and require assistance over and above what our friends can provide. And for this to happen, an embassy, and its ambassador, has to be open, accessible, and interested in those it serves.

Gyngell & Wesley’s 2003 description of diplomats being seen as ‘a caricature of pinstriped men gliding their way around a never-ending global cocktail party’ has had its day. As so laudably epitomised by Ambassador Dowling and his team, embassies and their staff have a role to play within the various expat communities in providing help, support, and encouragement to their own in addition to fostering good relations with the host country. As Ambassador Dowling returns to Ireland at the end of his term in Hungary, he goes with thanks and appreciation for a job well done, knowing that he has served his community well. Le mile buíochas.

First published in the Budapest Times 28 August 2015

A bookie’s money is only ever on loan

Civilization is drugs, alcohol, engines of war, prostitution, machines and machine slaves, low wages, bad food, bad taste, prisons, reformatories, lunatic asylums, divorce, perversion, brutal sports, suicides, infanticide, cinema, quackery, demagogy, strikes, lockouts, revolutions, putsches, colonization, electric chairs, guillotines, sabotage, floods, famine, disease, gangsters, money barons, horse racing, fashion shows, poodle dogs, chow dogs, Siamese cats, condoms, peccaries, syphilis, gonorrhea, insanity, neuroses, etc., etc.

No, that’s not my opinion – I pilfered it from Henry Miller because I was glad to see that he included horse-racing in his list. (I’m hyphenating it, because my trusted OED says to do so. Picking a dictionary is a little like choosing a religion – you have to keep the faith!)

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There are few outings I like more than a day at the races. At home, where it costs upwards of €30 to just get through the turnstile, it’s an absolute pleasure to walk through the gates of Kincsem Park and pay nothing. Zero. Zilch. Free entry. And to have the place practically to yourself is another bonus … of sorts. Nothing can quite compete with the atmosphere at the Curragh on the day of the Derby or the Christmas festival at Fairyhouse or the Galway races – there, the crowds add to it all. Yet there’s something very attractive about the leisurely pace of Kincsem Park on a sunny Sunday afternoon in April.

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And it doesn’t matter that I don’t know one end of a horse from the other when it comes to spotting form. I fancy myself as being in the know but at the same time I know I’m only codding myself. I bet the minimum 200 ft but can say with some pride that I now have enough Hungarian  to know how to do a reverse forecast… and one even came up! I was well impressed with myself. Mind you, it was the only win I had all day 🙁 but as my mother would say – a bookie’s money is only on loan. It’s a shame that there are no bookies at Kincsem – just a tote… so the winnings will never be massive, but a win is a win is a win.

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Whether  standing by the track or viewing from the stands or even inside looking out from the bar, just being there is enough. And speaking of bars – the bar at Kincsem uses a very nice Bock rosé for its fröccs (spritzer) – cheap at half the price, no expense spared. Yet the place must be losing money hand over fist. But was I complaining? Hell, no!

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It’s a shame to see the old stand no longer in use. And it’s hard to imagine why it was built there in the first place, so far from the track. Perhaps things have changed since the park was in its heyday. I have very little difficulty imagining those days of yore and the horse-drawn carriages pulling up to discharge their gentile passengers, dressed in their finery. The place oozes a sophistication that is reminiscent of times past.

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Had I been born slightly smaller in stature, more petite (more? how am I kidding?), I reckon I’d have thrown my hat at a jockey or three.  I love the idea of that life. Dick Francis is about the only author whose books I read over and over and over again. I never get tired of them. Someday, somehow, somewhere I will be in the winners’ enclosure collecting a trophy when my horse crosses the finish line first. As it is, with the imagination I have, I can just about get the feeling of what it must be like to have so much invested in such amazingly majestic creatures. I’m not talking money here, rather time, emotion, and hope. The pride the owners, trainers, grooms, and jockeys must feel when their horse comes home in front is envious.

If you’re in Budapest this summer, take a Sunday out for Kinscem Park. You won’t be sorry. And, of course, mark your diary for the IHBC derby day on the first Sunday in July. I’ll see you there.

A bet is a bet

Fancy dress and all that comes with it makes me break out in a cold sweat. I hate dressing up unless we’re talking ‘put on your best boots and I’ll put on my pearls‘ sort of fancy. So when Tim Child agreed to participate in the GOTG on condition that I ‘dress up’ for the St Patrick’s Day parade, I reluctantly agreed. If it’s attention you seek, try dressing as a leprechaun and taking the M3 from Klinikak to Arany János utca on a quiet Sunday following the national holiday. There is no crowd to get lost in! If anything, it’s cured me of any latent desire I might have had to be famous.

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The occasion? The third annual St Patrick’s Day parade in Budapest. Alongside 1346 other people (and yes, me and my team of four stalwarts counted them all) I walked the route, decked out in my leprechaun hat and beard, silently thanking St Patrick himself that no one seemed to recognise me. Unlike last year, it was bitterly cold. Zero degrees. With sunshine. The pace was brisker than usual. It wasn’t weather for sauntering. As the crowd made its way from Szabadsag tér to Erszebet tér, it gathered momentum. In a city where demonstrations and mass gatherings are becoming more and more common, it was a refreshing change for many to have a mass of people partying not protesting.

IMG_2690 (574x800)Only the hardy braved the outdoors at Godor while the rest of us supped on our whiskies and pints of Guinness while enjoying Irish music and dance inside. Everyone who should have been there, was there. From the Irish wolfhound to the Pipe Band. From the Ambassador to the representative of the Garda Siochana. Irish, Hungarian, Spanish, English, Scottish, Welsh, American, Czech, Lithuanian, Russian, Latvian, Norwegian, Chilean, Canadian … it was an all-encompassing multinational crowd that had one thing in common: the colour green. My award for best-dressed went to Dalma Jeney  – what style!

There’s something quite remarkable about St Patrick’s Day. It doesn’t matter who you know or don’t know… everyone is the best of friends. Total strangers have the craic, friendships form on the basis that one looks more ridiculous than the other. Conversations that strike up at the bar lead to lasting friendships.

IMG_2619 (599x800)I’m proud to be Irish. I’m proud of my heritage, my tradition, and everything that makes me, me. To be Irish, away from home, on St Patrick’s Day, in a city where others share your passion for life if not your bloodline, is quite an experience. Hat’s off to Mark Downey, the IHBC, and the team of organisers that made Sunday yet another day to remember.

Don’t tell Tim Child… but loathe that I am to admit it, dressing up was actually fun!

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Grateful 4

Christmas is associated with giving – and unfortunately much of what’s given is unwanted, not needed, and a huge waste of time, effort, and money. Yet the one gift that is most sought after, is also the most difficult to find. Time. Everyone seems to want it and no one seems to have any. It’s all rush, rush, rush, wrap, wrap, wrap. Presents to buy, parties to go to, gifts to give. The mania is well and truly upon us. But we forget, perhaps, that the most meaningful gifts we can give are love, compassion, and  … a hug.

Down at the Topház Speciális Otthon in Göd (a state orphanage) today with a gang of IHBC’s Give a Little campaigners, both time and hugs were in demand. We descended on the place at 10am and then set about entertaining and being entertained. The Lions Club had donated Santa Bags for all the residents and while they danced and sang and recited, we had a tune or two of our own to share.

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It’s impossible to describe what it feels like to have so many hands reaching out to touch you. It’s humbling to know that by simply shaking a hand, or giving a hug, or just letting someone touch your hair, you can make a big difference to their day. The staff are wonderfully caring, supportive, and loving. And to see this in their interaction with the residents is heart-warming. They seem to have endless patience. It takes a very special type of person to be able to do this sort of work, day in, day out. For those like Kristóf, or Norbert, who have visitors maybe once a year, having people like us visit literally makes their day.

In an era when social media is doing its bit to distance us from each other physically and the main experience we have of being tactile is a frighteningly intimate relationship with a smart phone or an iPad, visiting Göd is a sobering reminder of what matters.  As we move closer and closer to Christmas, when thoughts turn to gift-buying and partying, we could do worse than remember that the best gifts we can give are our time and our compassion. We might not be able to wrap a hug, but it’s one gift no one will want to exchange.

As one mad week finishes and another hovers on the horizon, I am grateful for my involvement with the Give a Little campaign, and the orphanage. I certainly get far more than I give.

PS A reminder of what novelist, journalist, and humorist Oren Arnold (1900–1980) had on his suggested gift list:

To your enemy, forgiveness.
To an opponent, tolerance.
To a friend, your heart.
To a customer, service.
To all, charity.
To every child, a good example.
To yourself, respect.

Happy shopping:-)

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

Up hill and down vale

Somewhere between my mid-20s and my early 30s, the thought of a hot, sudsy bath became more enjoyable than the bath itself. Gone were the nights when I could spend an hour soaking in the tub, reading, or listening to music, while sipping on a glass of wine. In their stead came a longing that never quite matched up to the reality. I’d look forward to a bath – think of it all day – and then once in it, I’d last barely five minutes. But thanks to the inimitable MT and his IHBC winter hike, I have recaptured the glory of it all. I finally succumbed to a long, leisurely, soak that lasted nearly 20 minutes and a full BG&C. The magic has returned. Thank you, Mr T.

‘Don’t worry’, she said. ‘The smug feeling we’ll have when it’s all over will make it worth it.’ Yeah right. ‘Don’t worry’, he said. ‘It’ll be a short, easy hike. We’ll be eating by 2.30 latest.’ In my dreams. I can fault neither of them – the fault (if any) lies clearly with me – I believed them. And I was wrong.

IMG_1091 (600x800)I was a little taken aback at the chorus of ‘Mary! You’re here!’  that greeted me at the set-off point. Such incredulity should have been a warning. So many people couldn’t possibly have been looking forward to my company, scintillating though it is. The exclamation marks were deafening. They obviously knew what was in store – and I obviously didn’t.  I had the boots, I had the rain gear, I had donned my layers. I’d even remembered my bottle of water. And I was determined to get all my moaning over with before I put one foot on the hills. I had a vague notion that I’d need to save my breath, every breath – I’d need them to breathe.

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The first clue that things wouldn’t go to plan came on the tram. ‘Oops, I missed the stop!’ For a heartbreaking second I thought we’d have to walk further, but no. I was assured that, if anything, it would make it a shorter hike. Shorter than the advertised [and I quote] ‘shorter, less demanding and more sociable walk’. Note the use of understatement here… walk.  There’s a lesson to be learned here in relativity. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter and all that. I took heart in the fact that others, too, had brought their cameras, and if nothing else, the scenery would be worth photographing.

Not having been on any of the previous hikes, I had nothing to compare it to. When we left the paved roads and the fancy houses and hit the woods, it was beautiful. A veritable winter wonderland. As we picked up the pace I noticed that I wasn’t cold but I was wet. Wet from the inside out. And getting wetter. And pretty soon that wet sweat began to freeze and I could feel my shoulder tensing and my arm pulsing and my hand swelling to the point that my ring finger looked like a banded sausage. Vertical hills left me wheezing and although determined not to moan aloud, my facial contortions must have been priceless. I was in Agony (and that capital A is deliberate). Not all of the time – just some of the time. It didn’t help that MT was nimbly jogging up hill and down vale, keeping his errant strays in check. Or that others seemed to be literally taking it all in their stride. And to really add insult to injury, Sz and R were actually smoking!

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There were lots of distractions by way of conversation. Planning a US road trip with EZ, plotting strategy with Sz trying to wangle tips on dealing with a mid-life crisis from RB – all these momentarily distracted me from the fact that this hike was taking decidedly longer than planned.  The first time the map appeared, I didn’t pay much attention. The second time though, I began to feel just a little less confident. Don’t get me wrong – I had no fear for life or limb and I didn’t doubt for a minute that we would eventually get to where we were going, I just wasn’t at all sure that it would be by the appointed time of ‘2.30 latest’. And given that it was now closing in on 3pm, I was at least right on that point.

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When we hit the railroad track and heard a train coming, for one mad moment I thought seriously about hitching a lift. They make it look so easy in the cowboy movies…  I’d have done anything rather than face another incline.  Light was waning and the mist was settling in. The lead dogs were mere outlines in the distance. And from my vantage point, nothing much had changed.

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I used my camera as a prop, stopping to take photos while catching my breath. The scenery really was something else. When the restaurant called to see where we were, I was within earshot and even with my limited Hungarian, I knew enough to know that EP’s ‘fél ora’ meant that the day wasn’t even close to being over. It was one of MT’s ‘fél oras’ and as I had come to realise, he has his own unique way of measuring time. So I stopped and took more photos. I tried to take off my ring but my hand was swollen so much  it was impossible. I thought gangrene. I thought lumbago. I started to wonder how I’d face my Assembly of 150 anxious teens in the morning. I even started to draft my last will and testament.

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It was really beautiful, though. And the company was great. Had I been home, I’d have been in front of my laptop working. But I was getting cranky. Petulant. Irritable. I was discovering something about myself that I already half-knew – I just can’t march to the beat of someone else’s drum. Especially not when the other drummers are fitter and fleeter of foot. Just when I’d catch up with them, we’d be off again. That old adage kept coming to mind: no rest for the wicked. I wondered what I’d done to deserve this.

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When we finally landed at Normafa, I knew I wouldn’t be able to summon up the energy to lift fork to mouth, let alone the brain matter needed to decide what to eat. And I was sopping. So I jumped ship and bussed it back to town.  And at least I wasn’t on my own. IF captured the moment nicely when he said how glad he was that he’d joined the IHBC – ‘they’re a lovely bunch of people’.  They are. We are. Though it was demanding, it was very sociable.

I’ve crossed one more thing off my bucket list and for all my bitchin’, I am glad I went. The one unanswered question I have though is how RB managed to stay looking as if he’d stepped off the front page of Esquire!

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