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India: a matter of opinion and I’m convinced

The most famous story I know that has its origins in India is that of the blind men and the elephant. It’s a parable that in various forms and tellings has been claimed by Bahá’I, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, and Sufis.

This story was made famous in Europe when 19th-century American poet John Godfrey Saxe wrote a poem about it, one that has been put to music and animated for use in corporate training workshops dealing with conflict resolution and negotiation. Apparently it’s also found its way into physics classrooms where it’s used as an analogy for wave-particle duality, and into biology labs where it helps explain polyclonal B cell response. Not bad going at all.

Each variation on the same theme cautions us regarding subjective experience and its failure to take all truth into account. Each of the six blind men is asked to describe an elephant. Each touches a particular part of the animal; none touches the whole. Not surprisingly, they each come up with a different answer and then fight amongst themselves to determine who is right.

Differences between the various versions stem from how the parts of the elephant are described. For example, the elephant’s trunk is described as the branch of a tree (Jain), a plough (Buddhist) and a water spout (Sufi). The stories also differ with regard to the degree of conflict between the blind men and how they resolve (or fail to resolve) their arguments.

I was reminded of this when in Hyderabad recently. At lunch one day, conversation turned to the world’s view of India and how so much depends on personal experience. Unlike Ireland or Hungary, in my experience India evokes an either/or response. Either you love it, or you don’t. Many people love/like, hate/dislike or are completely indifferent to Hungary and Ireland. But not so with India.

Those travelling there to do business might return full of enthusiasm for the myriad electronic and technology hubs that are sprouting up in cities such as Bangalore and Greater Noida. They might tout the development the country is undergoing as a commendable sign of progress and growth.

Others might just see the extreme poverty and inequality that breed in the shadows of the high-rise apartments built to house the growing middle class and at the foot of the glass-walled skyscraper complexes built in homage to new industry. They might return with such talk that it would turn others off going at all.

More still might never see the outside of their hotels, tour buses and the routes planned by their guided-tour operators, shielded from anything deemed unsavoury and exposed only to handpicked tourist sites, five-star restaurants  and government-approved vendors.

And, just as in the parable of the blind men and the elephant, to paraphrase Saxe, each one would be partly in the right but all would be in the wrong.

India is an elephant, a massive, glorious, multifaceted beast that takes the concept of extreme to a whole new level. A quick internet search reveals the village of Shani Shingnapur in Maharashtra, a village that is so safe its houses have no doors, its bank has no locks and it has no need for a police station. The village of Pothanikkad in Kerala was the first in the country to reach 100% literacy. The village of Hiware Bazar, also in Maharashtra, boasts 60 millionaires. Imagine.

On the love/hate side, I’m definitely in love. Over the course of three separate visits in ten years, I’ve seen some massive changes and have come to appreciate the differences between north and south. My advice: give it a chance. See for yourself. Take an open mind and an open heart with you and you’ll come home all the richer. Go discover your truth about India.

First published in the Budapest Times 22 January 2016

My wish this Christmas

The world is in a mess, a terrible mess. Decisions being made in the hallowed halls of power in one country are affecting the lives of ordinary people in another. Natural disasters are occurring all too regularly, depriving many of their homes, their jobs, their livelihoods. Unnatural disasters like mass shootings have become so frequent as to warrant little more than a raised eyebrow and a tut-tut from those not affected. Our morals are skewed and our values warped. We have relinquished control of our lives, lives that are now dictated by a constant search for success, be it material, fame, or power.

I can do nothing to change the world at large. I can’t stop the wars. I can’t reverse climate change. I can’t eradicate poverty. And much as I would like to, I can’t turn the clock back to an era where family and friends came before work and progress on our list of priorities. But that doesn’t stop me wishing it would all get better, that we would find a way to live together in peace and harmony, to share our resources, and to look out for our fellow man. Yet where would we start?

I’m writing this from India. I’ve been here for a week now and have been struck, once again, by the hospitality of the people, the pride they take in a job well done, and their constant good humour. When they smile their infectious smile, it’s as if someone switches on a light inside them. They’re quick to laugh, and seem to take genuine pleasure out of ordinary, simple interactions.

Take the service industry as a case in point. Nothing is too much trouble. Everyone is so obliging. And the attention to detail is meticulous. Whether it’s the auto-rickshaw driver or the hotel chauffeur, the concierge or the officer janitor, the shop assistant or the restaurant manager – each one seems to want to do what they can to make my life better. And the more I express my gratitude ‒ a simple thank you, an acknowledgement of what they’ve done ‒ the better it gets.

I made a lot of comparisons with Hungary and Ireland over the first couple of days, mostly unfavourable ones. If I could wave a magic wand, I would arrange for customer service everywhere to be like it is in India. It’s so refreshing not to see miserable faces, not to have to deal with recalcitrant attitudes, not to be dragged down by bad moods and foul humours.

And it’s not just the service industry. I’ve met a lot of different people in different cities and circumstances, people from all over India. And each one delights in the ordinary. It’s contagious. It’s hard to complain when all around you are actively looking for the best in everything. It’s hard to be negative when those with so little can still smile. It’s hard to be unhappy when everyone you meet finds joy in simply being alive.

None of this is new. As far back as the fourteenth century, Amir Khusro, poet-courtier-soldier-chronicler-linguist, nailed it:

How exhilarating is the atmosphere of India!
There cannot be a better teacher than the way of life of its people.
If any foreigner comes by, he will have to ask for nothing
Because they treat him as their own,
Play an excellent host and win his heart,
And show him how to smile like a flower.

My Christmas wish is that we might be infected by the spirit of India and learn to take delight in the ordinary, to appreciate those around us, and to count our blessings rather than our burdens.

Nollaig shona daoibh go léir.

First published in the Budapest Times 11 December 2015

Fortified and flirtatious

I’m not used to young men, either on their own or in groups, blatantly giving me the eye. Initially it was a little disconcerting but two cities and myriad sights later, I was becoming used to it. The girl who still lingers in me preened a little in response and, on occasion, when the mood was right, even threw the eye back. I was safe. They were children. Relatively speaking.

I’m not used to 20 questions about my age and marital status, and the accompanying shocked ‘Why?’ that inevitably followed my saying no, I’m not married. But that, too, found its own level of amusement. Apparently I neither act nor dress appropriately for my age. That was me told and put back in my box.

IMG_1783 (800x600)I was in Hyderabad, in Golconda Fort, a very impressive structure built back in the mid-twelfth century atop a 120 m high hill. So much of it is still standing (wasn’t I just talking about this yesterday?) that it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture how it might have been in the day.

IMG_1786 (800x600)Back then, there was no intercom, no mobile phone, no doorbell. There was no way of announcing yourself to those inside except by clapping. Yup. Clapping. If you clap your hands while standing near the domed entrance of the Fateh Darwaza (victory gate), you can be heard 1 km away on the top of the hill. Pretty amazing, given how long ago these architects figured all this out.

IMG_1788 (800x600)The place was pleasantly full. I was struck, not for the first time, but how much monument sites are used in India. They’re not just for school tours and tourists, although busloads of kids are to be found every day at one or all of them. Ditto the tourists. But couples, families, groups of friends venture out, too. They sit, they read, they have a picnic. Some simply sleep in the sun. And it’s nice, nice to see these age-old places still be enjoyed for what they are.

IMG_1789 (800x600)There were two separate groups of lads who seemed particularly intrigued with me. Perhaps it was because I was on my own. Guideless. Manless. Clueless. They followed me, doing a very poor job of trying to make it all look as if it was by chance that we ended up under the same arch at the same time. Hilarious. I was waiting to be asked for a photo, but it would seem that they couldn’t decide amongst themselves who would do the asking. And while I was enjoying the attention, indecisiveness drives me demented.

IMG_1802 (600x800)So I wandered – not at all sure at what I was looking at but enjoying it immensely nonetheless. It fascinates me to think that all of this was built by hand, hewn out of the granite hill on which it sits. It’s an amazing mix of Hindu and Muslim styles (not that I’d know either one of them if they bit me) but I bow to those who do know. It’s very, I dunno, very … well …. there. It’s as if it belongs. As if it is growing out of its environment, spewing forth.
IMG_1804 (800x600)I quite liked the little mosque, still standing, still peaceful, still requiring silence from those who walked by. I read later that it’s a city within a city. And today, it’s famous for its diamonds. So famous that it is from here that celebrity diamonds like the Regent Diamond, the Hope Diamond, and Kohinoor are thought to have come from. Who’d have thunk it…

Golconda-Fort-at-NightLike the Charminar, it’s at night it needs to be seen – for the disneyland effect. But I missed it. So I have to go back. Not that I need an excuse. Hyderabad is one very impressive city.

Next stop, Delhi.

 

 

 

 

2015 Grateful 4

Some memories, no matter how deep they are buried, refuse to stay buried. Way back when, on my first (and I think my only) package sun holiday, anklets were all the rage. Everyone was wearing them. Never really one for staying on trend, for some reason I was determined to get in on this one. The sun was probably getting to me. I spent ages with one trader from Algiers, who promised that he had the most extensive range of anklets on the street. His blanket was covered with them. All sorts. All colours. All sizes. And I tried them all. And none of them would fit. Of course, the more embarrassed I got, the more anxious he became to make a sale. Eventually, he sat back on his haunches, and gave his diagnosis: I had fat ankles. And then he gave his prognosis: It was very unlikely that I would ever find an anklet to fit me; the only possible treatment was to buy a necklace and loop it around twice. I ran.

Since then, whenever I think of reincarnation, I thinking of coming back with ankles. Real ankles. And if memory serves me correctly, in my very brief appearance in SC’s Budapest Short on Leprechauns, when asked what my one wish would be – I said ‘ankles’. Fixated I am.

Wandering around Laad Bazaar in Hyderabad is quite the experience. [Laad means lacquer, by the way.] It’s colourful, loud, and full of bangles.  I was there during the day but having watched the video of a night visit, I know I definitely have to go back to Hyderabad and see the Old City by night. There are more than 40 shops on the one street, some of which have been in families for generations. It’s an old market, a very old one. It’s where Bollywood comes to buy its bangles. Mind you, I wouldn’t have recognised a Bollywood star if they’d come up to me and introduced themselves by name. But I have it on good authority that they’re regular visitors to the bazaar.

IMG_1716 (800x600)Tourists were few and far between. I had an address for one store that specialised in glass bangles, but Krishna was with me and I was feeling the pressure NOT to wander. He’s a lovely lad, but a tad impatient. We tried one stop but they had no glass bangles at all. They were quite insistent though and I had to start the trying on process. Surprise, surprise. They couldn’t find a bangle to fit me. Son called over Dad and Dad in turn called Grandad and the three of them stood discussing the challenge. Other customers were earwigging and throwing surreptitious glances my way as Dad decided that a plastic bag would do the trick. He stuck my hand into the bag while Son tried to slip on the bangle over it. One pulling, the other pushing, me grimacing in pain. Okay, okay, I have wide hands. Not fat ones, or big ones, just wide ones. Wide knuckles. They eventually  gave up and sent us to another shop.

IMG_1717 (600x800)There, they didn’t try the plastic bag trick but they did try everything else, including hand lotion. They seemed mesmerised. Wide hands are obviously not the norm in Hyderabad. By this stage, I was a little tired of being the attraction, so I didn’t hang around. But the search will be resumed next time I’m in town.

IMG_1664 (800x600)Hyderabad is also famous for its pearls, with an entire street – Patther Gatti – lined with shops selling all sorts of pearls in all sorts of settings. And yes, I know it’s miles from the sea. I did ask the question. But apparently, back in the day when the Nizam-ul-Mulk was in charge (about 200 years from the eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth century), they brought pearls from the Arabian Gulf to Hyderabad. Today, in the village of Chandanpet just outside the city, almost everyone is a pearl driller – a craft that requires a certain skill. Some of the pearls that I saw were tiny.  And when the first set I fancied was in danger of choking me, Aman assured me that he would extend it a couple of inches – no problem. Before I bought (and not for me as I know it’s bad luck to buy pearls for yourself) I had him take a cigarette lighter to random pearls to be sure they were real. It’s not that I doubted him – he was lovely – it was more that I would hate to think I’d be taken for a ride. [I’m well aware of my gullibility – every saleman’s dream I am – and the self-beratement that comes with being had does my head in. I really should do my homework.]

All I actually wanted to buy on this trip, though, was a kurti – a tunic top worn over leggings that are scrunched up at the ankles. Indian women look so pretty, so vibrant, so colourful. And I figured I could cut a dash in one over the festive season. Strangely though, it’s only men serving in the government-sanctioned tourist shops, and lovely though they are, they just don’t get it.

‘Yes, ma’am, we have all sizes.’ And  indeed they did. And everything in my size fit to perfection, except the bust. And it’s not as if the poor lad didn’t try. He must have pulled out ten different styles in fifty different colours. And none worked. I remembered this from last time, too.

So, what have I learned? From my research, I have concluded that the average Indian woman has petite hands, a slender neck, and a small chest. And I just don’t fit the mould. For me, it’ll have to be custom-made. But then I had more time and even after going to the the tailor and specifying exactly what I wanted in terms of neckline and roominess, I was flattened and my decolletage censored.

It’s been a mad week  full of  sensory overload and people, lots and lots and lots of people. I’m sick of hearing myself talk. I’ve been burning the candle at both ends (what’s new?) trying to fit in as much as possible and still work and I’m mentally and physically exhausted. But it’s a good kind of exhaustion. A healthy kind. One that comes from an onslaught of new and a deluge of different, one  that has given me a new perspective.

One of the greatest things about travel, particularly to places that are so different from my norm, is that it gives me a chance to miss things, to miss people, to miss places that I might sometimes take for granted. And for that opportunity, coming as it does in the delight that is India, I’m truly grateful.

So, where to next?

 

Smile and say ‘Charminar’

I’m not a fan of having my photo taken. I will avoid it when possible and while lately it hasn’t been as arduous as in the past, I’d still prefer not to be captured digitally or on celluloid or in any way at all.

I was in Hyderabad – a city that ranks No. 2 in places in the world to visit, if you believe the billboard in the arrivals hall at the airport. Am not sure about No. 2, but it has certainly made it to the top of my list of favourite cities in India. Yes, it’s a short list, I know, but it did bump Chennai from the No. 1 spot.

IMG_1707 (800x600)The city, in particularly the Old City, is predominantly Muslim and seeing so many women blacked out took a little getting used to. My ignorance of world demographics reared its head: for me India was Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, with a little Baha’i thrown in for good measure. Islam just didn’t figure. I need to go back to school.  

IMG_1711 (600x800)Anyway, at its heart is the Charminar (Four Pillars), built at the close of the sixteenth century by Quli Qutb Shah when he moved the state capital to Hyderabad. Its four, 4-storey minarets are nearly 50 m high. Had I done my homework, the whole Islam thing mightn’t have come as such a surprise as the four minarets are said to represent the first four Khalifas of Islam.

After I’d figured out how to get in (special entrance and special price (about €1.40 or $1.50) for foreigners, of which I was the only one), I was just aimlessly wandering around the ground floor. A guide approached me and tried to sell his services. He started to barter down his price to the point where it was nearly nothing, but I still wasn’t buying. I knew I couldn’t absorb any more facts. So I asked him how his tour would change my life for the better… we had quite the exchange. All the while, a group of 5 (2 women, 2 girls, and a young boy) were looking on, giggling away. I didn’t have a clue what was going on. I eventually freed myself of yer man and started to take some photos. The older of the crew came over and said something in rapid-fire Indian English. I caught the word ‘photo’ and assumed she was offering to take a photo of me, an offer I quickly declined.  But then it became clear – she wanted a photo with me!

IMG_1688 (800x600)

The rest of the crew surrounded me and dragged my arms around them. We all smiled and chatted as I was shot to death. All lovely, if somewhat bemusing.

I noticed a couple of men hovering and thought – no, no more guides. But they, too, wanted me to pose for a photo. This time with their mother and their grandmother, the latter a tiny woman whom I dwarfed even more. I was shot some more. It was like my own public photo shoot.  I saw a queue of sorts forming and mild panic set in. Krishna (my driver) had told me I had 30 minutes and I still hadn’t started climbing the 149 steps to the top.

Thankfully, he had felt a little concerned about letting me off on my own and had parked the car and come to find me. My knight in a white Toyota. My 7.5 minutes of fame were explained. It wasn’t because I looked like anyone famous, it was because people in the city are fascinated with foreigners. A first for me.

IMG_1701 (800x600)IMG_1705 (800x600)But back to the Minar. There’s supposed to be an underground tunnel that links Charminar to Golconda Fort: an escape route for the royal family should they be in need of one. I don’t think anyone’s ever found it, though. To get to the top, I climbed the 149 steps, steps that are about twice as deep as a usual set of stairs. Quite the workout. And very, very narrow. It would play havoc with your claustrophobia.

At the very very top, apparently, there is a mosque, with its 45 prayer alcoves and a great open floor in the middle. And had I not decided to do without a guide, I might have realised this. I didn’t. Anyway, I didn’t even try to go in because I didn’t know it was there, but I didn’t see anyone else climbing any higher either. As close to the top as I could get was a fabulous space, with  alcoves, and an amazing ornate ceiling. Stunning. And built hundreds of years ago. Mind boggling.

IMG_1697 (800x600)

IMG_1690 (800x600)IMG_1706 (800x588)The views out over the city are spectacular. The fruit markets, Laad Bazaar, the pearl market, a hive of activity. I felt a little like Gulliver in Lilliput.

Back on the ground, Krishna was a little taken aback at how nonchalantly I walked through the traffic, even stopping in the middle of the street to take a photo. But I’d had training. Many years ago, on my first visit to Bangalore, a local colleague, Lakshminarayana, had made me cross Mahatma Gandhi Street 11 times. It took me that long to get used to the traffic and the chaos and the madness and to realise that although it might seem random, everyone knows what they’re doing. 

IMG_1692 (800x600)I felt right at home in Hyderabad, even though I was turned away from the massive Mosque next door, Mecca Masjid (the oldest in the city). [Sixteen people were killed when it was bombed back in 2007.] I was refused entry because I was not in traditional Indian dress. Their loss, I said, knowing that my photo would soon pass though the hands of hundreds of people as my new friends took their token foreigner home.

charminarI will have to go back though, because I didn’t get to see the Charminar at night, in all its glory. And that’s something I’d like very much to see for myself. With that in mind, I have sowed the seed of a possible flat swop with an Indian colleague who spent time in Budapest. And you just never know what might come of it. I could spend time in Hyderabad. A lot of time.

 

Real cutlery, personal pillows, and stray dogs

Emirates1Real cutlery. A real, stainless steel, knife, fork and spoon. And flying economy, too. I hadn’t realised how budget airlines have become my norm. RyanAir, Wizz Air, EasyJet – they’re my standard. So any airline that goes above and beyond is impressive. And Emirates is certainly that. The food was excellent – all of it. And I love the way they refer to the overhead bin as a hatrack – harking back to times gone by. Reminds me of a photo I saw on FB recently but didn’t save: one of a couple in the 1950s on a flight will full crockery and cutlery service, wondering how luxurious flights would be in the future… man, did they ever get that wrong. Oh, it’s still luxurious, if you can afford it… but I ain’t in that financial bracket. Still, it was nice to get real cutlery for a change…

Fast forward through Dubai to Bangalore and the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Electronic City. A far cry from IBIS or the Mercure (not that there’s anything wrong with either of them). I could get used to being called Miss Mary. Everyone is so incredibly nice and friendly and helpful. And everyone smiles. What a concept! Even if it’s something that has been drummed into them during their customer service training (which I doubt), they’ve long since owned it and it’s become their own.

I like having my own iron and ironing board. I like the complimentary shoe shine and the daily papers. I like the bath (big enough for two) and the shower (big enough for four) and the bed (big enough for a small army). I like having a bathroom scales, a coffee dock, and a recliner. But most of all I like that I can have choice of five different pillows.

pillow

It’s been about seven years since I was last in Bangalore. It’s now called Bengaluru and has been since this time last year. Other cities have also changed their names: Bombay became Mumbai in 1995; Madras changed to Chennai in 1996; Calcutta to Kolkata in 2001; Trivandrum to Thiruvananthapuram in 1991; Pondicherry to Puducherry in 2006; Poona to Pune in 2008; and Orissa to Odisha in 2011. I’ve asked a number of people why and no one seems to know the answer. It’s just the way it is. Like so much in this part of the world.

Time goes slower here. People work on a different rhythm and cycle. No one is any great hurry. I was delighted to see that the traffic is still chaotic, that lanes are but wishful thinking – and that the old Banglo saying still holds: all is fair in love and war … and traffic.

When I was here last, I completely missed Electronics City. And I wonder how? It’s hard to get my head around the numbers. This one city is home to nearly three times the population of Ireland – just one city! When I turfed up for work this morning, I was just one of 40 000 clocking in to that one company. It takes up acres and acres of room and has no fewer than 16 different access gates, fully landscaped gardens, and its own amphitheatre.

Electronics City itself is home to some 200 IT companies housed in 1.3 sq. km (332 acres). It was first envisaged in the 1970s as the Silicon Valley of India. And it’s impressive. Very impressive. In the software industry  here (when it comes to developers and designers) there are more women entering the industry than men. Not quite the same picture as in Europe. This imbalance  is reversed as their careers progress, with just 10% of women in the boardroom. A shame.

But the numbers… the numbers…

The city is the third largest in India and one of the first to have electricity back in 1905/6. The ratio of stray dogs to humans is 1:37 = a lot of stray dogs with some 12 people bite by one every hour (who counts I wonder?)  It’s home to the highest number of cigarette smokers in India, the highest percentage of engineers in the world, and the highest number of suicides in the country. I’m drawing no correlations here.  Everything about it is massive. A Banglo friend tell me that it’s lost its heart – it’s not what it used to be. While it’s certainly bigger, is it better?

It’s my third visit and I’m mesmerised by it all.

 

 

 

 

 

2015 Grateful 10

TAPSMany lifetimes ago, when I was living in Anchorage, Alaska, I wanted nothing more that to work on the slope. I wanted to be part of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) and travel north, to the Arctic Circle. I wanted to do shift work at one of the pumpstations, make loads of money, and have time off to spend it.

Instead, I was temping with an engineering company in the city making okay money but working for a boss who put the micro into micro-management. I was obviously impressing them though because they figured it wouldn’t be long before I found something more permanent. They asked me to give them two weeks’ notice if and when I decided to leave. I agreed.

While working there, I spent my lunchtimes trying to get hired on with Alyeska, through their temp agency. One day, the phone call came. It was a Thursday afternoon. They had an opening at Pumpstation 9. Starting Tuesday. It was mine if I wanted it.

I said that I couldn’t go. I explained that I had promised that I’d give two weeks’ notice and that I’d be happy to go when that was up. A rant ensued. I was naive. An idiot. Did I think for one minute that if they wanted to let me go they’d be so considerate? Did I realise how hard it was to get a posting up the slope? Why was I being so stupid? If I didn’t take this offer, I’d go to the end of the list and chances are that I would never make a slope contract at all.

TAPS2I was gutted. I wanted to go, but I’d given my word. And no matter what justifications I used, I couldn’t see my way to breaking it. I never did get to work on the slope.

Fast forward to this week. One client sounded me out about possibly going to South America for a conference. Yes, please, I thought. But when I checked my calendar I saw that I’d two workshops booked that week. I was tempted to cancel, reorganise, postpone – it’s not often I get invited so far afield. But I’d given my word. I had to say that I wasn’t available. But I was gutted.

But then another client asked if I’d be free to go to India on a week that suited me any time before the end of the year. No hesitation there. I found two possible free weeks in December that would involve not attending just one social event, an invite that I’d maybe’d rather than committed to.  Happy days. No going back on my word. No disappointments. The proverbial doors opening and closing on schedule. Now I just have to figure out a way to add some days to either end of a packed 5-day programme. And if this is the only challenge I face this week, what’s not to be grateful for?

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What’s in a name?

I was in India a few years ago at a workshop … me and 49 locals and one French girl who may as well have been Indian she’d lived there that long. As an ice-breaker, we all formed a circle and the first person introduced himself. Hello, my name is Lakshminarayana. Then the next introduced herself: Hello, my name is Kajal and this is Lakshminarayana. And then the next: Hello, my name is Anand and this is Kajal and Lakshminarayana. And so it went around. I was number 35 or so in the circle and I was stumped. Had it been in Ireland, I’d have had a reasonable chance. We have simple names like Peter, Paul, and Mary. But aside from having a terribly bad name/face recollection, I couldn’t get my tongue around the names. Embarrassing. And particularly embarrassing when the last person, No. 51, introduced herself and remembered every single name in order. And she was 80 something.

Earlier still, when in Oxford studying, a number of my classmates came from China. They anglicized their names to make it easier for English-speakers to pronounce. Hi, my name is Vivien. I’m from Guangzhou still sounds odd.

And further back again, when I was at my swearing in ceremony in the USA, every Asian being conferred with US citizenship had chosen a new, American name. Xinran became Amanda. Mengyao became Matt. Qiuyeu became Connie. And it didn’t sit well with me.

Mark Twain supposedly said: Names are not always what they seem. The common Welsh name BZJXXLLWCP is pronounced Jackson. The man had a sense of humour; you get the picture.

Anyway, I’d forgotten how mispronouncing people’s names irritates me until I saw a clip of a UK politician being interviewed about Vona Gábor’s recent foray to the UK. Now, of all the Hungarian names out there (and yes, I have problems with György and Gergely and as for Fruzsina…well…and that’s not even touching the family names) but even I can manage not to mangle Gábor. Don’t get me wrong – he’s not on my Christmas card list – but I was a tad upset that those on the public airwaves whose pronunciation will be copied with a religious fervour, didn’t bother to check the pronunciation of his name, or that of his party, Jobbik.

Confucius reckoned that if names are not correct, language will not be in accordance with the truth of things. And he had a point. But on a more basic level, I reckon that we’re just getting lazy. We can’t be bothered making the effort, and in readily taking the easy way out, we quickly come to accept a new norm where others must change to accommodate us. That is wrong on so many levels.

Yes, it’s difficult. And yes, I regularly make a hames of people’s names here in Hungary because I simply cannot hear the different sounds, let alone repeat them. I’m tone deaf. But I refuse to anglicize them. I like to think that my efforts, no matter how pathetic, are seen as well-intentioned. But perhaps I’m wrong… perhaps my Hungarian friends secretly wish that I wouldn’t try too hard. I wonder.

First published in the Budapest Times  31 January 2014

Baktuns and new beginnings

Well, 21 December 2012 has come …. and gone. The Mayan calendar has run its course and were the lads alive today, they’d be starting off at scratch again: 00.00.00. They measured their time in baktuns, periods of time lasting 394 years. This was simply the end of the 13th baktun. In all likelihood, they’d have woken up on 22 December and begun the 14th, just as we woke up on 1 January and started a new year.

The Internet was full of apocalyptic stories of the end of the world as we know it. Reports from Russia in mid-December talked of people stocking up on vodka and candles, while in China, the government was busy arresting those spreading doomsday rumours. More optimistic souls were maxing out their credit cards in the hope that their credit history would become just that – history! But for good or for bad, for better or for worse, we’re still here.  And while we have seen the end of an era, the world still soldiers on, undaunted.

Eleven days in and…

So far this year, in the USA, Congress and the White House swerved to avoid taking the country over the fiscal cliff. Croatia is on track to join the EU in July – all going well.  China is scheduled to attempt its first unmanned landing on the Moon and India is planning to send an orbiter to Mars in November. In Hungary, the country is battling with the results of a recent Eurostat poll that shows 31% of Hungarians at risk of poverty or social exclusion. The 2013 budget deficit is expected to rise to 2.9% of GDP and the IMF is expected to pay a visit in mid-January. Let the talks begin – again.

Ireland will hold the EU Presidency for the first six months of the year and has named 2013 as the year of the gathering when it will open its arms to friends and family from all over the world, inviting them home to locally organised gatherings in villages, towns and cities. The cynics say it’s a crude attempt at milking the pockets of successful emigrants; the idealists say it’s a wonderful opportunity to reunite families and friends and enjoy everything that Ireland has to offer. Somewhere in between, the publicans and hoteliers are rolling up their sleeves, oiling their credit card machines, and preparing for the onslaught.

What’s in store?

So what’s to celebrate…really? Let’s start with the fact that 2013 is the first year since 1987 not to have repeating digits. Excited? Brace yourself. It gets better. According to the Hallmark calendar, January 11 is Milk day. Back on this day, in 1878, milk was delivered in bottles for the very first time in the USA. Mind you, it’s also ‘step in a puddle and splash your friends’ day. Well pin my apron to the floor and keep me from stompin’. [I know about Hallmark as I’m writing this from the big island of Hawai’i and in the USA, Hallmark rules.]

Open house

It’s my fourth trip to the biggest of the Hawaiian Islands and once again, I’m completely amazed that people don’t lock their houses or their cars. They leave their stuff on display on the beach without a worry in the world. I’m the odd one out, shouldering my bag wherever I go or charging someone with keeping watch over it if I venture in to the ocean. I’ve had to be physically restrained from zipping up the Jeep’s windows when we go to the market and I hide my laptop every time we leave the house. In Budapest, I have three locks on my front door and a naggle of neighbours who know my comings and goings better than I do myself. I would never, ever think of leaving even a window open were I not in the flat. In Ireland, we have an alarm on the house that goes on every time we leave. Cars are checked and double-checked every night to make sure they’re locked and woe betide the one who leaves a bag, a purse, or a laptop in plain view on the kitchen table.

Great expectations

There are those who say that if we expect to have our stuff stolen, it will be. If we expect our house to be broken into, burglars will oblige. If we worry about our car or bike being nicked, we may as well wave them goodbye. But can it really be down to expectation and how we live our lives?  John Wayne apparently said that tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday. And yesterday’s lessons really do determine what we do today. We can choose how we react to both fortune and misfortune. We can choose what measures we take to prevent the same things happening again and again. We can choose how we live our lives. Now that’s reason enough to celebrate. Welcome, 2013.

First published in the Budapest Times 11 January 2013