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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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The wearin’ of the green 2012

I don’t do fancy dress…not since I went to a party in Dublin cleverly dressed as a tube of toothpaste and everyone thought I was a table lamp. I never once entertained thoughts of dressing up as a leprechaun for St Patrick’s Day, even if it meant getting my name in the Guinness Book of Records. I have zero interest in it all. Last year, in Budapest, on this very day, I confessed to being a parade pooper but I was converted to the joys of it all. This year, I took a major step forward in my therapy and went out, in public, wearing a headband with green bopping shamrocks. One step at a time. Perhaps in 20 years time, I’ll be the one in the orange pigtails.

As we walked over to Szabadság tér, all three of us in our boppers, watching people’s reactions was priceless. Some  laughed out loud. Some tried to hide their smiles. Some stared at us as if we were mad. For the most part, we were like three little rays of light bopping our way through Budapest. Turning onto Szabadság tér and seeing the sea of green, white, and orange, was amazing. The sun was out, the sky was blue, and everyone was in great form. Lots of people dressed up – went the whole hog. Whole families were togged out in the gear and everyone looked like they were having a ball. The Irish wolfhounds competed for attention with the Jameson girls and everyone milling around was in great form.

By my reckoning (verified by two others ad hoc counters) there were about 980 people in the parade at one stage. Let’s say 1000 people took part. That’s 1000 people wearin’ the green, tramping through the streets of Budapest led by a pipe band and a pack of hounds. The reception from the man in the street was nothing short of brilliant – cheers, shouts of encouragement, laughter – and that from those who hadn’t a clue what it was they were witnessing.  In a week that saw parades of political nature on the streets of the city, this one was refreshingly simple, uncomplicated, and happy. A bunch of Irish and Hungarians celebrating what it means to be Irish.

The party ended up back in Deak tér with dancers, musicians, and plenty of leprechauns. The festivities were still in full swing when we left and no doubt will continue well into the night. The brainchild of the Irish Hungarian Business Circle, the parade is part of a four-day festival celebrating the Irishness in Budapest. This is its second year and it’s going from strength to strength. It’s no mean feat organising such an event – hats off to the Parade Committee and all those involved.  There’s nothing quite like seeing grown-ups enjoying themselves like children. We need to do this more often  and remember what it’s like to have simple, uncomplicated fun.

Beannachtaí na Féile Padraig daoibh go léir

 

The cheapest legal high you can get

(c) Alex Own

Way back in 2000, I graduated from Valdez Community College, affiliated to the University of Alaska. I was asked to give the graduation speech and I said no. I said no because I stammer. I don’t do it all the time and can go for weeks without incident but then come the days when I can’t say my own name. And as I can’t predict when these days will fall, I wasn’t about to get up on stage in front of 600 people …just in case.

The one thing I fear more than public humiliation is that feeling of regret. My e-mail signature contains the quote from Syndey Harris – Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable. So I changed my mind and gave that speech. The audience laughed and cried on cue. And I was hooked. Being able to engage with so many people at the one time was incredible. The adrenalin. The rush. The sense of accomplishment.

Back in 2008, when having lunch one day with GM, and talking about how there are so few opportunities for people to experience this high in Budapest, we began to speculate aloud and the result: The Gift of the Gab. The first series was a learning curve. I ended up funding it as we didn’t draw enough people to make it financially viable. By the time the final came around though, we had quite a following. But getting speakers was a problem. GM moved on and I wasn’t up for doing it on my own. It’s a lot of work. Then at various stages, others talked of doing something similar and I discovered in me a reluctance to see my baby exploited for profit. Quite an irrational thought in this day and age, I will admit. So I agreed to do it again – for charity.

The 2012 GOTG season began last September and has gone from strength to strength. People want to be on stage. People who competed this year and didn’t qualify want to try again next year. People came out and supported the cause, glad to be able to give a little, knowing that it would help a lot. The support was amazing. To those of you who are silently tempted to get on stage next year – but are still questioning your sanity, I say take the chance. Don’t regret not doing it. We’re not putting hearts in babies. No-one is going to die. The worst that can happen is that you bomb but at least you tried. The best that can happen is that it opens up a whole new world for you – and you get to experience, first-hand, the cheapest legal high you can get.

Getting far more than I give

I’d sooner wash windows than paint walls and I’d sooner clean floors than do anything in the garden. But when it’s not my wall or my garden … that’s a different story. While I’m no stranger to volunteering, I tend to opt for things I can do on my own as I’m not big into group activities generally (am quite anti-social really, when I think about it). But there’s something quite unique about volunteering with the IHBC‘s Give a Little campaign.

This was our second trip to the Topház Speciális Otthon in Göd (a state orphanage), the first having been voted a roaring success back in July. I’d expected pretty much the same crowd, yet I found that I only knew a handful of those who turned up at Nyugati to cadge a lift down. The majority were students from Semmelweiss University – future vets, doctors, and dentists – all giving freely of their time to paint one of the wards and clean up the grounds.

Given that it was such a gorgeous sunny day, I  opted for the garden duty. We raked leaves, trimmed hedges, dug weeds, planted shrubs, played air guitars on shovels, horsed around on spades, got to use a hedge clippers, rejoiced in our welts and callouses, and generally had a blast. Who would ever have thought that hard work could be so much fun.

I have a theory. I can’t speak for anyone else, but this is how I see it. Volunteering for these work crews gives me something I don’t get from my normal, everyday life. I get to go in, work like mad (well, I have a blister or too!), accomplish something, have some fun, and then get to stand back and see the fruits of my labour – all in a matter of hours. Multiply that feeling by the 40 or so people there today and you get a lot of work done and a lot of satisfaction from doing it. That sense of achievement, that reward of almost immediate gratification, are priceless.

Those who live in the orphanage year round don’t have it quite as good. For them, there is no going home or going back to a normal life as I know it. But the staff really seem to care and the lads who are ambulatory laugh a lot. For many, it’s a blessing that they don’t fully realise that they’ve been given up by families who, often through no fault of their own, simply couldn’t cope with their disability.  For me, as a volunteer, it’s a blessing to be able to do something to help. And not for the first time, I’m left wondering who really wins from these days out. I have sneaking suspicion that I get far more than I give.

If you want to get involved, sign up to the IHBC facebook page or website or come support the  Gift of the Gab, the proceeds of which are going towards buying a bed for Norbert.

The talk of the town

Do you know what it’s like to walk into a bar, recognise some faces, and then see them turn away? Do you know what it’s like to wave to someone you know across the street and have them stare back pretending not to know you? Do you know what it’s like to have your arrival punctuated by a series of muttered curses and deep sighs? I do.

A shameless hussy

I’m pretty thick-skinned. I grew up singing the childish chant ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me’. At the onset of puberty and upon discovering the great work of my compatriot, Oscar Wilde, I changed my mantra to ‘the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about’. It doesn’t particularly bother me that my popularity ratings have taken a beating lately. It doesn’t particularly concern me that my name is being coupled with adjectives such as ‘annoying’ or ‘irritating’. It doesn’t particularly disturb me that some people are ignoring my e-mails and not returning my calls. We Irish are made of sterner stuff. We’ve been talking ourselves in and out of trouble for generations. So when William Lower (the Canadian half of this illustrious column) stood on stage, in public, and cautioned people to be careful of me – I simply smiled. When it comes to getting my own way, I’m a shameless hussy. And when getting my own way involves a good cause, there’s very little I won’t do to fill the coffers.

Hustling for hopefuls

Yes, it’s speech slam time again – and I’m hustling for hopefuls who will take the stage and compete for the coveted title of Gift of the Gab 2012. Practically all of my conversations these days start with ‘Have you thought about speaking on stage?’ – I’m in danger of boring myself to death! It is any wonder people are avoiding me. You see, I’m on a mission to find someone in this fair city who can face Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney’s character in that great movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and have him utter that immortal line, in the deepest of southern accents: ‘I detect, like me, you’re endowed with the gift of gab’. Variously defined as (i) to talk idly or incessantly, as about trivial matters, (ii) the ability to talk readily, glibly, and convincingly, and (iii) the ability to speak easily and confidently in a way that makes people want to listen to you and believe you, the gift of the gab is said to be something that all Irish people are blessed with. Thanks to globalization, many who have but the faintest drop of Irish blood in them can now say they have the gift, too, be they American, British, Canadian, Dutch, Estonian, French, German or Hungarian.  It respects no boundaries; recognizes no color; claims no creed. Anyone can have it.

Hoping for entertainment

But who, exactly, is anyone? And why do I care? Better still, why should you care? Over the next six months, five hopefuls will take the stage once at month in Smiley’s on St István korut. There they will deliver what’s billed as a five-minute entertaining speech on a topic of their choice. [Note: Please don’t confuse entertaining with humorous or comedic – but be prepared to laugh should the occasion call for it.] So, I hear you ask, what’s so hot about that? Nothing really – except that so many of us are called upon to deliver presentations to captive audiences at work that we confuse this ability with what it takes to captivate a paying audience with expectations and a panel of judges randomly picked for its non-existent objectivity. This is a completely different ball game.  In the second half, these same five hopefuls will deliver three-minute impromptu speeches on topics chosen by the audience. [Back to Mr Lower… ask him sometime how a man who is never at a loss for words, oral or written, could gag on a clove of garlic.] And the same panel of judges will reign supreme. This is the litmus test – the one that proves, once and for all, whether contestants have the gift of the gab.

Collecting for charity

Now, considering the scathing wonder I poured on the contestants of Szexi vagy nem in this very column last week, you are fully within your rights to turn on me and ask why I’m so brazenly asking you to take a visceral delight in the discomfort of others. [And yes, for many contestants, this is a personal challenge and they will be uncomfortable.] Isn’t this the same thing? Well, not quite. These contestants are parading their verbal wit not their pectorals. And they’re doing it for charity. All proceeds go to the Irish Hungarian Business Circle’s Give a Little campaign. Now what could be more fun than that?

First published in the Budapest Times 16/9/2011

Give a little

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.

A few months ago, when the charity arm of the IHBC launched its Give a Little campaign, its aim was to get a bunch of volunteers together to spend a day somewhere, doing some much-needed work. Volunteerism is very much part of the Irish psyche of expectation. Evidence of community involvement and volunteer activity has been a key requirement on Irish CVs for decades. It’s very much part of our culture. Many ex-pats in Hungary find it difficult to get involved, to do something more concrete than forking over a few forints. So when Declan Hannigan, Chair of the Give a Little campaign, organised a day at the centre in Göd, he wasn’t short of volunteers.

On Saturday morning, at 8.30 am, 33 adults and five children began a day that would not be quickly forgotten. Our task: to paint one of the residential houses and to do some gardening. Throughout the morning as we set about organising ourselves to do what had to be done, many of us spoke of how it wasn’t nearly as bad as we’d been expecting.

Mention ‘orphanage’ and immediately we flash back to TV images of old communist blocks in Romania and Bulgaria with patients living in horrendous conditions, supervised with military precision, made all the more stark for its complete lack of feeling. The bungalow we worked on was light and airy. It was a little disturbing to see the metal beds, each with a simple foam mattress, cotton cover, and a blanket,  bolted to the floor. Wardrobes bore the names of the room’s occupants and few toys were visible. The common area was a combination of kitchen and living room, decorated with bright murals; the padlock on the fridge looked a little out of place, but as we would learn, life here works to a different set of rules and expectations. Overall, though, the impression was good. The collective sigh of relief was almost audible – this wasn’t nearly as harrowing as we had expected.Outside in the grounds, more volunteers cut grass and trimmed hedges. The football pitch is now usable again and the front garden no longer looks like an unruly meadow. It was hard work. It was hot work. But it was rewarding work. Most of us, in our 9-5 workdays, rarely get the same level of satisfaction as we got yesterday from seeing a job well done. We started, we worked, we finished – we made a difference. No amount of money could buy that sense of accomplishment. For me, scraping the glue from the wardrobe doors and making those doors look new again was the most satisfying work I’ve done in ages.  As the international team of Irish, English, Scottish, Welsh, Hungarian,  American, and Russian  worked together, united in a common cause, we were fed by Jack Doyle’s, watered by Becketts, supplied with brushes from Kőházy Festékáruházak and paint from PoliFarbe.Although it’s a gated community, residents who can wander, wander freely. One chap had a fascination with smelling hair. Another simply wanted to name all the types of car parked out front. Daniel, the caretaker, had prepared us. We were the strangers; we were the ones out of place. So it was only to be expected that residents would be curious. Seeing such mental and physical disability up close and personal was harrowing. Those who wanted to, were taken in small groups to visit some of the wards.

There are 220 residents from all over Hungary housed in Göd aged 2 to 45. They’re looked after by 140 staff, most of whom work 12-hour shifts, day on, day off. There are four main wings, long dark corridors lined with airy rooms decorated in bright colours.  Rooms are decordated annually because the residents are not bound by societal rules of what you can and cannot do to a wall. Some pieces of plaster had been pulled away, kicked in, scribbled on. Toys hung from the ceiling so that residents couldn’t destroy them. Some don’t know their own strength. Televisions broadcast in every room and for many, that’s their view of the outside world.

The first ward we visited had 45 residents, all of whom could move about, walking or in their wheelchairs.  It’s staffed by four – a ratio of  less than one carer for every ten residents. Not enough on so many levels. Anita, just shy of 18,  wanted to shake hands and hug. I held her hand and found myself drawn into a tight hug. It was all I could do to hold it together. Anita is one of those who have been forgotten, left to the care of the state. She has never had a visitor. Her need, on whatever level, for physical contact was palpable. Alls sorts of emotions ran through me as we made our way up the ward. These residents all looked much younger than their years and I wondered briefly how much of that had to do with them not living in the ‘real world’ with all the stress and anxiety that this encompasses. They sat around, some on sofas, some in wheelchairs, some on the floor. Some were listless; others watched TV or each other. Some laughed, some made noises that might well have been laughter. Some did nothing at all, their bodies wasted, muscles atrophied, faces disfigured, but eyes bright and watchful showing that someone, a whole person, was home. Most were curious to know who we were. For them, we were a change in their routine. Something new. Something different. Later, in the Caledonia, over a pint or three, we would discuss whether that was what they needed – as well as painting or cutting grass, what if we spent time in the wards, just sitting, talking, and playing. What if we just visited?

In the next ward, we met cot after cot with young children, five or six to a room, each lying quietly, limbs contorted. One child’s  long, wasted legs conjured up images of famine-ridden Africa. Watchful eyes told us that they knew what was going on but just couldn’t communicate. One 4-year-old with encephalitis was being bottle fed. She has never had a visitor. Of the 40 residents in this ward, only 4 have regular visitors and even that might be an annual visit at Christmas. Ubiquitous Disney characters line the walls of the corridor. Soft toys look down on the kids from a height. The flickering TV screens provide noise and distraction. I hung back as the others went to say hi and make friends. All appeared visibly shaken. I was barely holding it together. Again I asked if we were intruding and again I was assured that this break in routine for the staff and for the residents was most welcome.

And then I saw Norbert. Norbert is a grown man in the bed of a child. Kneeling in corner of his cot, he looked over the bars out onto his world. I stared. I couldn’t help it.  He looked at me quizzically. The look he gave me wasn’t accusatory or defiant. It was neither helpless nor hopeful. I wanted to go over to him, to hold his hand, to talk to him. But I couldn’t. All my world experience garnered from years of education, work, travel, and relationships deserted me.  I didn’t know what to do. I swear he could feel it. His world is the room he shares with Tony and Dani. He probably has a better understanding of his life than I have of mine. His look said it all – don’t be sad: don’t pity me, but don’t forget me.

There are homes like this all over the world. The waiting lists are long. The disabilities are severe. The staff undervalued. While I might wonder how parents could give up their children and forget about them, I cannot judge. I don’t know their circumstances. I don’t know if I could cope, were I in their shoes. The staff who work at Topház Speciális Otthon are saints. They care. The residents seem happy. It’s a commmunity. Daniel, the caretaker, had a word for all he met on our travels. It’s underststaffed, underfunded, and over subscribed. Their wish list: CD players, TVs, adult beds, a hoist to lift the adults into their baths, material for the romper suits that need to be specially made, bed linens, mattresses, blankets, diapers… more money, more staff, more equipment.

I doubt that any one of us there yesterday came away unchanged. This was no TV commercial or broadcast documentary. This was real. Norbert is real. No matter how small or insignificant our contribution in the grand scheme of things, it felt damn good to make a difference. For those of you Irish and old enough to remember the Gorta ads, in the words of the inimitable Bunny Carr: Give a little. It would help a lot.

The wearin’ of the green

I dislike St Patrick’s Day parades with a passion that should have received specialist treatment long ago.  It’s not just St Patrick’s Day parades, it’s any parade. I’m a self-confessed parade pooper. So, sometime late last summer, when I first heard about the idea of  staging a St Paddy’s Day parade in Budapest, I cringed. I heard it twice from two people I both like and admire so for once, I kept my mouth shut; I held my counsel. For the past few months I’ve been silent on the subject, keeping my distance. Other than haranguing the organisers about missing apostrophes and unnecessary full-stops, I have said nothing, and done even less.

I even went so far to arrange to be out of the country for St Patrick’s Day itself, but I was out-paddied. The parade was scheduled for the 19th and I arrived back in town a day too soon. Today, Saturday, was a miserable day – damp, drizzly, and grey –  typical parade weather. Tempting as it was to stay home and clean my floors and windows, sort my socks and alphabetise my spices, I couldn’t not go. I’m Irish for God’s sake. I had to go. I had no excuse, at least none that would hold water. So off I toddled to Szabadság tér for the grand gathering, with every intention of showing my face, saying my quick hellos,  faster goodbyes, and then beating a hasty retreat.

When I got there, I saw a sea of green in the top corner of the square. The weather was doing little to dampen the enthusiasm of those who were first to arrive. Had Johnny Cash risen from the dead and launched into 40 shades of green, it wouldn’t have surprised me. I doubt the wearin’ of the green has ever been taken so seriously. The IHBC lads were togged out in style with St Patrick and the Leprechaun playing their parts a little too convincingly. From toddlers in prams and pushchairs to those who have seen more than a few parades in their lifetimes, the crowd slowly grew.

When the pipers arrived and opened with Amazing Grace, something inside me switched on. I finally got what it was the lads were on about, the gap they wanted to fill and suddenly a St Patrick’s Day parade didn’t seem like such a bad idea after all. It’s not often that the Irish in Budapest get to gather in one place for one reason and it quite surprised me to see so many there.  And I know they weren’t all Irish Irish – which is even better still. James Michener, in his 1957 book, The Bridge at Andau, describes the Hungarians as the Irish of Eastern Europe. There is a huge affinity here for all things Irish – and while that can be said of many places, to see such a friendly, fun, high-spirited parade in Budapest that served little other purpose than to underscore the importance of having the craic, was probably an attraction in itself.Today was a work day in Hungary but that didn’t stop those in their offices along the route stopping for a minute to wave and wonder. The bemused faces on the passersby, or the faces of drivers stopped in traffic to let the parade were priceless. For many, seeing St Patrick standing on the steps of the Basilica with a Leprechaun by his side, both dispensing blessings on the crowd below, must have seemed a little surreal. As the sea of green marched onwards towards its final resting place – the Guinness House – more and more people joined in. I stopped once to count and at a rough estimate I’d say 546 people took part, give or take a couple of balloons. Not a bad showing at all for a first attempt at rallying the troops.

If you’d told me a few months ago, or even last week, that I’d have marched in a Paddy’s Day parade of my own volition, I’d have said you were mad. If you’d told me that not alone would I have marched, but that I’d have enjoyed it, I’d have said you were off your rocker. But sometimes it’s not a bad idea to remind myself from whence I’ve come and to take a little pride in the fact that St Patrick’s Day is billed, worldwide, as the friendliest day of the year.

So kudos to Messrs Downey and Griffin and Harron, the IHBC, and parade volunteers for pulling this one off. Impressive stuff. Today was a good day to be Irish in Budapest. And, you never know, next year I might even wear a hat!

Give a little – get a lot

Let the investment bankers amongst you weep! Last week, in Malta, I put €10 in the collection plate – it was a special collection for environmental refugees. Not ten minutes later, walking up the street after mass, I spotted €20 in the corner of a step, nestling amidst the remnants of Satuday night’s partying. What a return, eh? You give, you get, someone said, when I told them of my good fortune. And that got me thinking…

Way back when, before the industrial revolution, before money became our god, and urbanisation made strangers of us all, volunteering was second nature. We gave – we gave of our time, our skills, our energy. We shared – we shared our food, our homes, our experiences.  Clothes were passed on, tools were borrowed, and lives were intertwined. Whole communities survived with the helping hands of neighbours. Harvests were brought in, homes were built, roads were repaired, children were minded, the sick were cared for – we looked out for each other.

Volunteerism stakes a place

In 1920, shortly after WWI, a group of Austrian, English, French, German, and Swiss volunteers – some of whom had fought on opposite sides in the War – began to rebuild a village near Verdun.  And thus the first modern volunteer movement was born: the French Service Civil International (SCI). Many more followed and soon volunteering was once again playing a significant part in contemporary life. Organisations like the US Peace Corps, or Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) offered great opportunities for going abroad to ‘help out’. In Ireland, growing up, we talked of ‘going on the missions’ – not in a religious context – but to help out in Africa. There were bake sales and book sales, poker classics and whist drives, table quizzes and raffles, with all proceeds going to someone’s sister or brother, uncle or aunt, who was out on the missions, volunteering.

Those who stayed at home were involved in youth clubs and Scout groups. They volunteered at the hospice and the hospital, the children’s home and the old folk’s home. They coached football, taught adult literacy, got involved in home-help scheme and respite programmes.  The community pulled together and worked as one. We may not have been as well off materially, but in other, far more important ways, we were rich beyond measure.

Commercialism creeps in

One night, as we were all sleeping the sleep of the just, commercialism crept in. Suddenly those 12-month voluntary posts overseas were reserved for professionals – for doctors, nurses, nutritionists, engineers and the like. The rest of us, although willing to serve our time for the betterment of mankind and, if truth be told, for the betterment of ourselves, were asked to pay for the experience. Up front. Now, don’t get me wrong: I have no problem at all with paying my way to get to wherever, but to pay to stay there and volunteer? There is something not quite right with that picture.

At home, governments began to regulate every ounce of community spirit out of us. With restrictive health and safety regulations, background checks, and a leporine multiplication of forms to be filled to hold any position in a voluntary capacity, suddenly volunteering simply wasn’t worth the effort. But hey, all was not lost. We had money. We could help out by donating cold hard cash instead of our time, skills, and experience. Not quite the same admittedly, but if we had a conscience to salve, then cash was the balm to hand.

But gradually, once again, this avenue, too, became the stomping ground of the professionals – this time, the professional money-makers: those who could afford to shell out big bucks for charity dinners; who could afford to bid extravagantly at charity auctions; who had the wherewithal to be charitable.

But what of the rest of us? Where do we fit?

Pessimism postponed

Much an all as I enjoy living in Budapest, I miss that sense of community. That sense of knowing I’m contributing to making my city a better place. That sense of giving. That sense of belonging that only really comes when you’re actively contributing to where you live. So if your Hungarian is as abysmal as mine, and you’re not in a position to pull up a chair to the charity fundraising table, what options are there to volunteer, to help out? The British Women’s Association requires you to have a British passport. The North American Women’s Association is for women from North America. The International Women’s Association, well you have to be female. But there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon: the Irish Hungarian Business Circle (IHBC) is working to reignite that community spirit here in Budapest by supporting people in their fund-raising activities, not matter how small, and by identifiying opportunities for all of us to donate our time and skills to community-based projects rather than just our money.

A healthy social life is found only when, in the mirror of each soul, the whole community finds its reflection, and when in the whole community, the virtue of each one is living.

Rudolf Steiner, Austrian philosopher and scientist

First published in the Budapest Times 13 September 2010