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Forty shades of green

I’m sick. Homesick. I’ve been travelling for what seems like a couple of lifetimes, ever since I first headed Stateside back in 1990. Since then, I’ve lived for a total of three years in Ireland. Three out of the last twenty-four years. Doesn’t seem like much and one would think that by now, I’d have started to call somewhere else home.

IMG_9573 (800x591)Author John Ed Pearce reckons that home is a place you grow up wanting to leave, and grow old wanting to get back to. I never particularly wanted to leave Ireland. It was just one of those things. I’d applied for a US Green Card in the first ever visa lottery – mainly, I think, because everyone else was doing it. I never expected to win one and never gave much thought to what I’d do if I did. But I did. And I was given 28 days to uproot and take up residence in the U.S.of A. So I went. Not because I particularly wanted to live in America, but because I didn’t like my job. And far away hills are always greener.

IMG_9783 (800x586)German author and poet Christian Morganstern said that home is not where you live, but where they understand you. Were I to use his measure, I’d have multiple homes. I have a peculiar way of making people understand. Recently, after an interview I gave here in Budapest, a friend suggested (half in earnest) that she coach me. I was giving away too much. I was too open, too free with my stories. And yet although many might think that in four seasons of presiding over the Gift of the Gab, there’s nothing left to tell, a new story is born every week. And anyway, being Irish, I’m a great lover of poetic license and who knows what’s true and what isn’t. But back to understanding. I’m truly blessed that everywhere I’ve lived, I’ve met people who have taken the time to ‘get’ me; people who were curious enough to explore the inner workings of my mind (albeit with varying degrees of success) and admittedly, some still find consolation in that they’ve just about managed to understand the madness in me.

IMG_9781 (800x597)One may have a blazing hearth in one’s soul and yet no one ever comes to sit by it. Passersby see only a wisp of smoke from the chimney and continue on the way. Perhaps Van Gogh had a point, but again, I’ve been very lucky that people have sat by me and had a conversation. Random meetings and happenstance have resulted in life-long friendships with people my own age … and younger … and older.  Perhaps the secret is to open my home to whomever, whenever. I’ve a fondness for entertaining and an appreciation that homes are happier places if they have that lived-in feel, even if there’s only one full-time resident. And when my fire is lighting, almost anyone is welcome. How long they get to stay though is another matter 🙂

IMG_9856 (800x599)Charles Dickens reckoned that home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answer to, in the strongest conjuration. I was fortunate this last trip to see parts of Ireland I’d not seen before. Magical parts. Parts that couldn’t be bettered by the wave of a thousand wands. Driving the back roads and scenic routes, we came across remnants of times gone by, some spots so remote that it seemed as if we were the only living souls for miles around. When I look at the photos, I’m reminded of Johnny Cash and his 1961 song 40 shades of green and perhaps, for the first time in a long, long time, I get the emotion behind it.

IMG_9555 (800x600)A few hundred years ago, Japanese poet Matsuo Basho wrote that every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. Perhaps that’s where I’m at. A journey that started off by accident and through a series of random happenings along the road it has brought me to Budapest. And yet, despite the fact that I’ve been gone for close to a quarter of a century, give or take a few years, I still talk of going home. Home home. To Ireland. And again, I’m lucky. I can go pretty much as often as I please … I know not many have that luxury.

IMG_9560 (800x600)Nineteenth century author Harriett Beecher Stowe wrote something that really resonates and perhaps best explains the umbilical attachment I have to Ireland and her people. Home is a place not only of strong affections, but of entire unreserved; it’s life’s undress rehearsal, its backroom, its dressing room, from which we go forth to more careful and guarded intercourse, leaving behind…cast-off and everyday clothing. I may never again live in Ireland full time. That said, I could move home next month. Therein lies the beauty of life – the great unknown. This evening though, I’m in an odd mood. I’m in a strange place. I’m something I haven’t been in a long time. I’m homesick.

But enough… I need to pack. Italy is calling.

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When the sun came out

IMG_5291 (800x600)Sam Phillips didn’t know his ass from his elbow when it came to recording music. He winged it. And he made mistakes. And those mistakes gave birth to Rock’n’ Roll. Phillips was a radio engineer who, in January 1950, started up the Memphis Recording Service on Union Avenue. He recorded anything from weddings to funerals, and would travel anywhere the customer wanted him to go. For just $4, anyone could walk in off the street and cut their own record. Just as Elvis Presley did in 1953.

IMG_5260 (800x600)Phillips made one recording of Jackie Brenston’s Rocket 88 which went on to make Chess Records a small fortune. This was when he cottoned on to the fact that had he had his own label, he could have released that single. Famously, Brenston’s amplifier fell off the car on the way to Memphis and he’d plugged it with some paper. That rustlin’ sound was later to become the unique sound of R&R. And Sun Studio was born.

Our tour guide was good. She looked the part and were she to give the same tour 100 times a day, I have the feeling that her passion would never wane. The Sun is like that…relentless. It’s an institution that has been left untouched since the 1950s. I doubt it’s even been painted.

IMG_5284 (800x600)As we entered the studio itself (which is still used most nights of the week to record today) and saw the black-taped X on the floor marking the spot where Elvis stood to record his first hit, I was more taken with the fact that Johnny Cash had also stood in this same room. I’d never done the math – never put the two together, never heard of the million-dollar quartet – Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley – all of whom happened to drop by the studios on the same day and have an impromptu jam session that Phillips recorded unbeknownst to them, a recording that was released in 2003 under the title ‘Bits and Pieces’ (it’s on my Christmas list). The photo he had the local paper take is probably the most famous photo I’d never seen.

IMG_5279 (800x600)As I stood there and half-listened to what was being said, I fixated on this photo and wondered, not for the first time, how much musicians enrich our lives. (Maybe the Serbs have something we all could learn from.) I never knew Carl Perkins, don’t care much for Jerry Lee, only discovered Elvis when he died, but I’ve had a thing for Johnny Cash since I first saw him live, on stage, in Dublin, a lifetime ago. For me, Sun Studio wasn’t about Elvis – it was about Johnny.

IMG_5252I sat on his stool and wondered what I’d have said to him, had I ever had the chance to meet him. Would I have been dumbstruck in the presence of such greatness or would I have talked to him as if he were some ordinary man? I then tried to imagine life without Hurt – his cover of the Nine Inch Nails song. I remember when it came out in 2005 I watched it over and over and over and over again and still get goosebumps when I hear the song now.

Memphis may belong to Elvis, but for my money, Sun Studio … that’s Johnny’s domain.

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My new favourite place for music in Budapest

My taste in music is  debatable. I like jazz, blues, and moody stuff like Leonard Cohen. I like Pink Martini and the Frames. I like Johnny Cash and Glen Miller. I’m the first to admit that I haven’t a note in my head, so when I find myself bopping, in my seat, to what I’m hearing, then I know that it’s good.

Last Wednesday, the lovely DE invited me along to the Gozsdu Manó Klub. I’d been there on New Year’s Eve last year and wasn’t at all impressed – it was empty and they were charging an entrance fee! This night though, in the torturous heat, the outside seats were full with a steady stream of punters coming and going. The new programme organiser, Luca Jakab of Kimono Sound was a little harried, wondering if the music was too loud or not loud enough. This was her first gig, showcasing one of her favourite acts  Experimint with Elliot and Séf from Peg Top Djz and trumpeter MnemonicKiss who plays with bands like Ez a Divat and Dj Bootsie Quartet. (Expirmint have another band, too: The Holy Rollerz)

Their special guest on the night that I was there was a man with a dreamy voice. I could have listened to Ponza all night. This Hungarian slammer and rapper could bring people back from the dead if he spoke to them for long enough. The mix of poetry, trumpet and dj sound was simply amazing. Had I known what I was in for, I’d never have gone. But now that I was there, I had to be dragged away. Who would have thought that in just one evening I’d have been exposed to soul, nu jazz, free jazz, swing, electroswing, bossatech, loungecore, brokenfunk, deep house… and liked it! The mind boggles.

Luca has a busy July mapped out with live music almost every night featuring duos and trios from the world of jazz, bossa nova, world music. Every Wednesday is Experimint’s, and every Friday and Saturday one dj will get everyone on the floor dancing! Not to be missed on 12 July DJ Bootsie Kvartett Húzd who will feature at GM alongside  saxophone player, János Vázsonyi. Mark your diaries.

I’ve long berated Budapest clubs and bars for cutting off their food service early or not providing food at all. GM has gotten it just right. In cooperation with  M Restaurant, it’s offering filled baguettes (freshly baked in the club) with fresh salads. Just the right sort of food for summer nights. Prices are reasonable, the staff are friendly, the music is great, and the bartenders are open to me practising my Hungarian. What more could a body wish for.

GM Club:VII. Király utca 13., Budapest, Hungary, 1075

Mon – Sun: 12:00 pm 4:30 am

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!