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Converted to coffee

A mate of mine once told me that you know when you hit the Balkans: the coffee gets good. Finding myself in the old town market in Sarajevo last Sunday afternoon, I sat down beside this old woman at a table outside a café. I asked the lady of the house for a coffee with milk. She shook her head. I asked for a Nescafé – I knew I wasn’t in Serbia but I was close enough to hope that the Nescafé concept might have leaked over the border. She shook her head again. Wine? Shake. Beer? Shake. She said something and at a complete loss for something to say, I nodded. This was a one-item menu.

I got a traditional Turkish coffee served with two cubes of sugar and a square of Turkish Delight. The coffee looked like mud. Something that reminded me of pond scum floated on the top. It poured like treacle, and the word ‘oleaginous’  came to mind. I don’t take sugar – and I never have coffee without milk. But when in Rome – or Sarajevo – I did as the locals do. And, as years of conditioning condensed and melted away, I found myself enjoying the experience.

Perhaps it was the market though – the ambiance? But no. The next day and the day after, I tried it again both at the hotel and at the conference room. I was in danger of becoming addicted – not to the coffee, but to that rush I got when the caffeine hit my veins and shocked me awake. And to the leisurely pace at which each tiny cup is sipped. I could live this life…

Live ducklings and rosary beads

I’m a great fan of markets. I love sorting through other people’s junk in search of a piece of history or something that I can convince myself I simply cannot live without. I like to see other people’s creativity and inventiveness. And I’m fascinated by fresh fruit and veg. (On reflection, perhaps I need to get a life…my own life!) Down in Ráckeve this weekend, the town was buzzing around the riverside market that happens twice a week – Wednesday and Saturdays. Most markets this side of the world have a certain sameness – fruit, veg, preserves, Chinese or Turkish tat, second-hand clothes from the UK and the occasional original painting or handicraft. I’d never come across baby ducks or live chicks before.

Ráckeve ducklings

Ráckeve marketPerhaps though, being on the banks of the Danube makes this market seem a little less tat-like and a little more real. It’s a working market. I was the only tourist in sight – if I don’t count the five German lads who had come to look at the watermill. The regulars had their baskets out and were doing their bi-weekly shop. Everyone seemed to know everyone (not surprising perhaps in a town of 9000 people). The feel of the place was unlike the busier markets I’ve been to in Budapest (probably the one that comes closest is the one in Hyunadi tér).

Ráckeve market

Within the shadow of the Calvinist church, and nestled between a cheese stall and one selling ham hocks, was this one selling rosary beads. Not the old-fashioned beads that the old man in Ecseri sells – the ones that come with a story, a price, and a hook that had once clipped on to the belt of a brown-robed monk. These were new. New plastic for new Catholics? I’ve seen similar in pilgrimage sites – and that’s expected. Somehow, though, the sight of them here, in Ráckeve’s Saturday market, was a little surreal.

Ráckeve StorkRáckeve riversideRáckeve waterside

 

RáckeveRáckeve - butcher's house

But then, much about the town has that other-worldly quality. The sheer abundance of kerbside flowers makes it different and gives it a parochial feel. The detail in the town is interesting. The flower bed that on closer inspection shows a map of pre-Trianon Hungary. The red-and-white striped flag that is not that flown by Jobbik but just happens to be the colours of the town.The house that used to belong to the village butcher, the one with a pig’s head above each window. The statue of the dancing Huszar and his lady. The stork guarding its chicks, reigning over the town in princely fashion. The myriad community notice boards shaped like the prow of a boat. It’s a fisherman’s paradise. A word of warning though – their interpretation of pizza is a little unusual. Best opt for the fish soup unless you’re feeling particularly adventurous.