No foreigners here

Christmas came early for many people in Budapest this year with the election of the beautifully named Gergely Szilveszter Karácsony as mayor of the city in October. New Year in Hungary is known as Szilveszter and Christmas translates as Karácsony. And yes, I checked. He was a June baby. Read more

Lessons from an Irish pub

We live in divisive times. Debates on social issues are polarising our communities. Families are being torn in two as differences in opinions on the refugee crisis and how to deal with terrorism run ramshod over familial allegiances. Facebook updates, Tweets, and blog posts reveal a side of friends that perhaps we never knew and now need to deal with. I’ve been thinking how nice it would be to get away from it all, but even if I spent a week in a hermitage cut off from the rest of the world, I’d still have to deal with my own company and my incessant questioning of life today. I need a break.

Last weekend, I wandered into Jack Doyle’s, a popular Irish pub and restaurant here in Budapest. I knew they’d have live music but I wasn’t quite prepared for what I got.


Traveller’s Company is the banner under which seven young Hungarian musicians, all in their early twenties, play their music. It took me a little time to get my head around hearing Whiskey in the Jar sung in Hungarian. Afterwards, they told me that they’d kept the music but that their bass player, Kisteleki Márton, had changed the lyrics – my Hungarian isn’t good enough to tell the difference so I was none the wiser. Their version involves a man, a woman, a pub, a broken heart, and a bottle whiskey. Meeting Captain Farrell on a trip over the Cork and Kerry mountains is but a vague and distant memory.

When I asked them why they chose traditional Irish music, being Hungarian and all that, they said that it fit. They’re into Hungarian folk music and gypsy music and traditional Irish fits right in. Talented musicians all, their repository of instruments includes banjo, guitar, mandolin, Irish bouzouki, flute, tin whistle, saxophone, bass guitar, cajón box drum, and violin.

Vocalist Rózsa Márk has captured the soft Irish ‘t’ perfectly and his rendition of Hard Life, a song they wrote themselves, would stand up against the best of Irish ballads. For a few minutes, I was transported back home to a pub in Ireland, foot tapping, eyes smiling, enjoying that general feeling of bonhomie that comes with a good night out in the company of fine people. It’s a pleasure to listen to musicians who really enjoy playing rather than simply go through the motions. I was very taken with them, and I wasn’t the only one.

The audience was mixed – all ages, all nationalities. I asked Juan Orozco from Costa Rica why it worked for him – a Hungarian band singing Irish music. ‘Because both cultures have the same feeling in their music and in their partying’ he said. ‘They’re both energetic and make the listener want to party and feel good.’ He nailed it. The band’s mission is to sate those whose souls have a thirst for happiness.

There’s a pride that I feel when I see part of my Irish culture and heritage so richly embedded in that of another country. As I watched these young people in action, I was proud that they had adopted the best of Ireland as their own. It cheered me up. And they taught me a lesson or three. Instead of focusing on our differences, wouldn’t we be much better off discovering our similarities? Instead of being threatened by others taking what we have, wouldn’t it make more sense to share our riches and our talents? Instead of turning inwards and building fences to jealously guard all we’ve worked for, perhaps it’s time to open up those gates and let the winds of change work their magic. As French philosopher, Michel de Montaigne said back in the 1500s, the most universal quality is diversity. We should celebrate it, not fear it.

First published in the Budapest Times 27 November 2015.
Photo (c) Kiss Támas

2014 Grateful 6

A hectic week in Geneva at the Geneva Internet Conference (GIC) was followed by an equally hectic weekend in Budapest for Jack Doyle’s 5th Birthday.  I am knackered. Looking at the week ahead, it seems that there’s be little in the way of rest there either. I’m tempted to see it all as a practice run for Christmas and the New Year, but secretly I’m hoping that December will be a quiet one. The older I get, the more I realise that I have a limited amount of energy and what I have in reserve needs to be restored on a regular basis. I can’t keep taking from the pot without putting back. Burning the candles at both ends is not for the fainthearted.

In Jelen last night for a quick bite after the final showing of Pretext from Budapest English Theatre, there was an odd combination on stage: a DJ and a double-bass player.  The DJ played techno tunes and the bass player played along – beautiful.

LaurieWhile I’m not a great fan of techno music, I was recently introduced to Laurie Anderson (she who was once married to Lou Reed and who, in her lovely tribute to him in Rolling Stone, summed up their relationship beautifully: For 21 years we tangled our minds and hearts together).  I’m not even sure if it is techno music – or what the definition of that it – but in my world, that describes it perfectly. In our Sleep – a duet with Reed – is one of my favourites.  Born, never asked is haunting. Perhaps what she does is more performance art? I don’t know. Am not musically literate enough to say.

jelen (400x428)Anyway, back to last night and the two boys. I don’t know who they are or what they go by. Exhaustion had kicked in and I wasn’t compos mentis enough to ask or note. But it was lovely. And, given the fact that the GIC had addressed the issue of silos in Internet governance, i.e., where many international organisations, both from the UN and civil society, address the same issues (e.g. cybersecurity) from different perspectives (e.g. health, development, human rights) and rarely talk to each other, this melding of two very different musical forms into a coherent whole gave me pause for thought.

Instead of focusing on our differences, perhaps we might be better served by concentrating on what we have in common. Instead of sticking to our guns and fighting our individual corners and angles, perhaps we might get further if we attempted to seek a compromise. Instead of creating an us-and-them world, we might start thinking and talking in terms of we and our.

I’m not for a minute saying that we should blend into an amorphous whole and lose our sense of individuality – that would be boring. I just think that the sum of the parts is often greater than the sum of the whole.

There are people with whom we work well – people who bring out the best in us, who have a complementary set of skills, who know how to deal with our quirks and follies. And there are people with whom working is, well, work. The same goes for relationships.  I know the drama queen in me gravitates towards calm and when on holiday, I’d so much prefer that other person (or people) to be organised and in charge. You don’t get to be one vowel from venerable, age wise, without recognising your limitations, and giving the nod to your strengths and weaknesses. But perhaps admitting them to the world is a little more daunting.

Today, mid-way between two hectic weeks, I’m grateful for the reminder that difference should be both celebrated and exploited for its potential. I’m grateful, too, that my self-delusions are few and that my energy reserves run deep. And I’m grateful that I have a sleep-in scheduled for next Saturday 🙂





2014 Grateful 44

The seven-year itch is a psychological term that suggests that happiness in a relationship declines after around year seven of a marriage. The phrase originated as a name for irritating and contagious skin complaints of a long duration.

I read that on Wikipedia so it must be true.

Last night, one of my three kitchen clocks fell off the wall and smashed to pieces. It was the one that was set to Hungarian time. It happened at 11.36pm. And I’m sure my downstairs neighbour wasn’t impressed. My question: is this a sign?

Early this week, I had some long conversations with friends about a restlessness that seems to be in the offing – not quite here yet, but waving precociously from within viewing distance. Then I realised that this coming September I’ll have been in Budapest for seven years. The only other seven-year term I did since leaving Ireland back in my early twenties, was in Alaska. And it took 9/11 to send me packing. That and a host of other things, admittedly.

In the last month or so, a number of friends and acquaintances (both expat and Hungarian) have been muttering about job applications abroad. There has been talk of  possible opportunities in Australia. Thoughts of moving back to Ireland with family in tow are increasingly common. And I’m left to wonder at the changing landscape of what has become all too familiar territory.

I’ve been a little dissatisfied with my life lately – hard to imagine really, considering I lead a rather blessed one. But there’s something niggling beneath the surface that no doubt will rear its head in the months to come. All the signs are there. I weeded through my books yesterday and have some ready to mail to friends who will give them a good home and others ready for the book swap shelf in Jack Doyle’s. Divesting myself of my books is a sign I recognise.

I walked away from a pair of shoes the other day, too. And from a jacket I’d had my eye on. And from a heavy-duty frying pan. The shopping gene shutting down: that’s another sign.

And it’s as if my powers of observation have upped a notch or three. Yet another sign. When the mundane starts being novel again, I know that something’s afoot.

I have 18 months floating around in my head – it came from nowhere. It’s just there. I have no idea what my intent is. I have no idea what it is I’d prefer to be doing. But I see the signs.

As I get ready to cross Mohacs off my bucket list tomorrow, I’m grateful that now, after so many reinventions and relocations, I have the experience to recognise the signs of oncoming change and the patience to react accordingly. I’m grateful for the newness that coats the old, and the fact that I’m noticing stuff I’ve overlooked for years. Like this:

sorry we're open

Put your inner magpie to good use

I’ve been trying for a while now to inviegle the masses (you) to collect your soaps and shampoos as you wander the globe staying in one hotel after the other. You (or your company) has already paid a hefty price for the room and methinks that the soaps, etc., are included in this price. A fair logic, no?

Add this to the fact that each of us has a little magpie in us – that fleeting thought that says – oh, I might need that when I next go camping or I could use those for my guests. We drop a couple of the unopened bottles in our toilet bag and then hoard them at home – never used.

When I was in Alaska I collected these miniatures and then donated them to a local shelter for victims of domestic violence. It’s not too difficult to imagine that when your life is upside down, when you’ve had to flee your home for fear of your life, when the man (or woman) you once loved and trusted is beating you senseless – then something as seemingly insignificant as a bag with your very own soap and shampoo can make a difference.

When I was in Chichester I did it, too. It took a while but at the height of the travel season, I was sending bags of toiletries to the various shelters around town. The staff had the kids make gift baskets for their mums on Mothers Day. All it took was a little coordination. I’ve found a shelter here in Budapest that caters for homeless families and I’d like to start the same again. Collect those soaps and shampoos and give them to me personally or drop them off at Jack Doyle’s or the Caledonia with my name on them.

I was reminded, yet again, of the importance of acting on the little things when I read a recent post on the Clearing Customs blog. It recounts the story of Ugandan Derreck Kayongo and his experience when he first stayed in an American hotel in the 1990s. He noticed that his partially used bar of soap was replaced every day – the old bits thrown out and a new one put in its place. The son of a former soap maker in Uganda, he decided to right this wrong – to turn this act of wantoness into something good. He founded the Global Soap Project. Over 600 hotels across the USA donate their partially used soap which is then reprocessed into new bars and distributed to 21 countries, including Haiti, Kenya, South Sudan, Guatemala, and Afghanistan.

Soap, I hear you say. Why soap?

According to the Global Soap Project, many places in the world today have the same problem. Their ”Soap Facts” page gives the following information:

  • 1.4 million deaths can be prevented each year by handwashing with soap
  • Children under 5 who wash with soap can reduce their risk of pneumonia by 50%
  • 1/3 of the world’s soap is used by the U.S
  • 7 million children have died due to disease that could have been prevented with proper hygiene since 2009
  • 2.6 million bars of soap are discarded daily by the hotel industry in the U.S. alone

My project isn’t nearly as ambitious. But if your hotel soaps and shampoos can make even the smallest difference in someone’s life – isn’t it worth the hassle to collect and deliver?

Tears for the Irish

March is one of my favourite months of the year. It has everything I could hope for by way of entertainment: great rugby as the Six Nations tournament continues, great speeches as the final of the Gift of the Gab draws near (Orfeum, March 14), and the St Patrick’s Day parade in Budapest (March 17). It’s a great month to be Irish in Budapest.

Now I’m on record as having little time for the type of expat who surrounds themselves with people from home; the type whose main aim in life is to recreate a mini-Ireland, a mini-England or a mini-wherever, in whatever city they expatriate themselves to. I’m all for moving abroad and embracing the culture of your new country – for however long you might stay. Travel broadens the mind; living amidst the locals gives you a new perspective and very often causes you to question long held and perhaps outmoded beliefs. I’m not for a minute suggesting that we all forget whence we came. But if we take advantage of our newness to ask questions, read up on the history, make an effort to learn the language, and generally mingle with the masses, it’s surprising how many links to home will appear unbidden.

The Hungarian connection

A couple of matches ago (this is how my time is measured in March) I was sitting in Jack Doyle’s delighted with Ireland’s solid win over Italy. I was in the company of two of the most intrepid expats I’ve come across in years. Their curiosity knows no bounds and their eagerness to make the most of their time in Budapest is a stark reminder of how quickly many of us start to take this city for granted. They’d just come back from Győr and asked me if I was aware of the Irish link with the city. I was a little taken aback to find that I didn’t know and a little embarrassed to think that I’ve yet to take the time to stop in the city and not simply train my way through it.

From Galway to Győr

(C) Des Nix

The story starts in 1649 when Oliver Cromwell was busy persecuting Catholics in Ireland. Priests and nuns were hunted down without mercy; many were executed for practicing their religion. The then Bishop of Clonfert, Walter Lynch, one step ahead of Cromwell, fled first to Galway and then to Inishboffin Island from where he was smuggled out of the country to Belgium. With him, he brought a painting of Our Lady praying over the sleeping infant Jesus. Some years later, in 1655, he ended up in Vienna where he met the Bishop of Győr, János Pusky, who offered him as job as pastor of the Cathedral and later appointed him Auxiliary Bishop.

Exit Cromwell; enter Charles II

Just as Bishop Lynch had decided he could end his exile and return safely to Ireland, he died unexpectedly in 1663. In his will, he bequeathed his treasured painting to the city as a thank you for giving him a home. The painting hung without incident for 34 years in the cathedral at Győr. Many came to venerate, sure that Our Lady had interceded on their behalf ensuring victories over the Turks. But while Hungary was enjoying its newfound peace in 1697, Catholicism in Ireland was once again under threat.

On March 16, 1697, the Irish Parliament in Dublin convened. The first order of business was to consider and vote upon the passage of the Banishment Act to rid the country of all bishops, priests, and religious from Ireland. Drastic times, drastic measures.

One day later, on St Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1697, a miracle occurred in Győr. The Madonna in Walter Lynch’s painting began to cry tears of blood. Witnesses from many different religious denominations failed to provide an explanation. Word got out and thousands flocked to see the Weeping Madonna, many leaving their signatures as testament to what they had seen. The linen cloth used to dry the Madonna’s tears is now on display alongside her image.

Irish-Hungarian links

In 1997, to mark the 300-year anniversary of the Madonna’s tears of anguish, the Bishop of Clonfert John Kirby visited Győr. He had this to say: The kindness shown to Bishop Walter Lynch has led to an unusual link between the small Irish rural diocese of Clonfert and the large Hungarian diocese of Győr […] It has shown us the value of friendship and the way that the consideration shown to a refugee can deepen the understanding between peoples who might otherwise never have known each other.

When I think of all the great people, both Irish and Hungarian, whom I never would have met had I not taken that train to Budapest in 2007, I could shed a tear or two myself.

First published in the Budapest Times 9 March 2012

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.