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Bare bums and books

I’ve a thing for markets. I can spend hours sifting through other people’s junk. The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul was high on my list of places to see. What I hadn’t bargained for though, was the matryoshka effect. Just like the Russian nesting dolls, the Grand Bazaar opened on to other, much smaller, delights.

IMG_4282 (600x800)IMG_4314 (600x800)I wandered in through Gate 7 and came out through Gate 14. I have no idea how many gates there are but it is, apparently, the biggest indoor market in the world. And it’s impressive, with its 56 interconnecting vaulted passages, housing over 4000 shops.There’s even a website advising you how to prepare for the experience (which, of course, I found after I’d been).

It’s a warren of small boutiques and stalls selling everything imaginable and more. I had a few moments of blind panic when I lost my way and couldn’t remember from which direction I’d come, so that was a tad distracting. But for the most part, while the glitz was something to be seen, on my market meter it ranked a 6. It takes more than bare bums to impress me.

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The joy came later, when wandering through the maze of streets surrounding the bazaar, I ventured through an archway, went around a corner, and came across the Sahaflar Çarşısı, a second-hand book bazaar.

IMG_4298 (800x600)IMG_4297 (600x800) I let out an audible gasp of awe when I happened upon this quiet courtyard lined with booksellers, a welcome respite from the heaving crowds two streets over. Its only drawback (from a selfish, mono-linguist tourist’s point of view) was that there was nothing in English, other than English language primers. [Mind you, I did find an English-language bookshop later and man were those books expensive – my quest for translated contemporary Turkish fiction will have to wait.]

IMG_4299 (800x600)IMG_4304 (800x600)And then, through another archway, I found my Mecca – a flea market. Give me blankets on the ground over stalls and boutiques any day. What was interesting was  that all the sellers were men. Not a woman in sight, other than those buying. In the calm light of a waning afternoon sun, these men just hung around chatting. Some deals were struck but for the most part, men on their hunkers passed the time of day, smoking and drinking coffee. Despite the cacophony of conversation, it was a tranquil place, a social place, one where I’d imagine y0u’d come in search of solutions to all sorts. Were I living locally, I’d be a regular.

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Shopping, anyone?

Tell me that  it’s not a place for tourists and I’ll move it to the top of my list. Tell me it might be dangerous, and I’ll be sure to bring someone with me. Tell me that I shouldn’t go, and I’m already on my way. I’m a child at heart. And just about the only person who still gets to tell me what to do, with any hope of me doing it,  is my mother.

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IMG_3505 (800x598)Once I heard that the flea market – Tirgus Latgale – in Riga was not a savoury place, I had the map out. Luckily for me, my partner in crime last weekend is not one to be told either, so we ventured forth to this den of iniquity having been told repeatedly that photographs were not allowed and that could it be dangerous. Apart from one crotchety old cow, everyone seemed happy and friendly, although the stalls ranged from madly disorganised to compulsively neat.

IMG_3503 (800x598)IMG_3504 (800x578)Prices ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime and just about everything imaginable that you might want to use over the course of an entire lifetime could be found there. I bought a blue bottle (my current obsession is with blue glass) from a lovely woman for 1 LAT (about €1.50) and she wanted to give me a set of six teacups and saucers as a present (thank God for the luggage allowance excuse!)

Were the spy business still in vogue and were it still necessary to build a new life on a regular basis, it would be quite easy to purchase the trappings from places like Latgale. I’ve quite fancied the idea of creating an entirely new past for myself, using photos purchased at markets around Europe of people who bear even the slightest resemblance to me. How cool would that be?

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Riga is also home to the largest market in Europe – Rīgas Centrāltirgus – situated in old German Zeppelin  hangers close to the train station. About  72,300 square metres  (778,000 sq ft) wide,  they house more than 3000 stands and sell just about everything you might imagine eating.

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IMG_3441 (599x800)I was impressed – how could I not be – but Budapest has many like it, if on a smaller scale. I was up for something more local. As we traipsed the streets, armed with the new-found knowledge that Tirgus is Latvian for market, we found all sorts. And no doubt, were we living in Latvia, in Riga in particular, there is a chance that we would grow immune to the sameness of the crafts on display, but this time, they were really something. Latvia is famous for its wool and its linen and the two are put to such varied use that the ensuing crafts, although a tad expensive, make for very pleasant viewing. It’s also famous for its amber, but not as famous as Lithuania – and yet I still didn’t find that big green amber ring I’ve been hankering after for years.

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IMG_3562 (600x800)The big craft market on the corner of Kalku and Kaleiu is worth a visit any day of the week – if for nothing else, then inspiration.

All over the city  there are fresh veg markets with great local food. The shapes, the smells, the people – all just that little bit different to what we have here in Budapest. Not necessarily better or worse, I might add, just different. I saw lots of things I hadn’t seen before but then I said the same when I first came to Hungary. It was a nice wake-up call not to take things for granted.

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Mind you, when you venture inside to the shops, it’s a different story entirely. I can’t think of anywhere I’ve been recently (as in the last ten years) where I have been less tempted by what was on offer. The colours – so 1980s – but perhaps it’s just me behind the times.

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But these colours seem to pervade the city – bright greens, blues, oranges… most peculiar. And yet no one was wearing them… yet another conspiracy methinks!

 

 

Finally … a decision

BZs came to breakfast. I told myself that if he drove, I’d ask him to take me to get a Christmas tree. One of the first things he said when he arrived was ‘Hey, I took public transport for once!’ The tree gods were telling me something. But still I was hankering. KG offered me hers as they are leaving for the holidays. But along with the hankering was the need for immediate gratification. I couldn’t wait till the weekend. I wanted it now. A quick check on Kika’s website showed me one that would do nicely – only thing was, I couldn’t be sure where it was made. Would I go there only to find it was made in China?

IMG_1281 (768x1024)The tree gods were talking to me again. I went. There was one big one left. On sale. And it was made in Poland. [Tip: If you want the world to look at you, carry a 1.5 metre metal tree on the tram and the metro.]

Going through my boxes of ornaments would have been everything I’d hoped it would be had I not been rushing to get a bus to Belgrade.  With time pressing, it was like a whirlwind tour of my life – with ornaments from all over the USA, from Alaska to Louisiana and beyond: a lobster from Maine, Santa on an alligator from Louisiana, cable cars from San Francisco.  Hungary is well represented too, with quite a collection of hand-painted bells, and cornhusk cribs. I have a miniature violin from Strasbourg, a lemon from Modica, a felt angel from Mongolia, and a gorgeous set of carvings from Bethlehem that I can’t place at all.

IMG_1274 (1024x768)Best of all though, I have been cataloguing these ornaments since 1994 – nearly 20 years! I have a record of where each one came from, where I was, when I was there, who I was with, or who brought it back from somewhere. People I knew (and still know), places I visited, places I have yet to visit , birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, births, deaths, marriages – all represented on my trees (yes, I bought two, little and large).

IMG_1237 (800x588)So what brought about this change of heart and mind? Well, I ‘did the markets’ at the weekend. I tried blood sausage in Obuda and was surprised that what I thought was a cranberry … wasn’t. But I survived. In the company of the lovely BS, we figured the safest course of action was to drown the bugs in mulled wine. It worked. We hit the food fair at Hold utca market where I capped off a wild mushroom soup with a rather expensive macaroon. From there we went for some better cake at the Bedő Ház.  On Sunday, we tried hot beer at WAMP and won’t be doing that again in a hurry.

IMG_1249 (800x600)All this wandering about, and seeing the city dressed for the festivities, put a longing on me. I’ve made a note in my diary to stay in Budapest next December for as long as possible. The weather is great – cold dry days with the occasional blue sky. The type of cold that makes me feel alive. [Easy for me to say, I know, when I’m dressed for it – not so nice for those who are not.] It’s that time of year when goodwill abounds – people give to strangers, do good deeds, and generally are a lot nicer to their fellow-man. Dare I say it … I’m getting in the mood! ‘Tis Christmas!!!!

PS: Today is the 12th day of the 12th month in 2012 so at 12 minutes past 12 noon, make a wish.

Christmas… again?

Christmas is just around the corner. It’s not long till December and once the 1st of December hits, it’s fast-forward all the way to Christmas Day. My annual internal debate has begun: Do I  put up a Christmas tree or not. I have a collection of ornaments that I’ve purchased (and received as gifts)  in various places over the years (all neatly catalogued as to where I was and who I was with) and they deserve an airing on what I’ve called my ‘travel tree’.

But the question is, can I be bothered? Does the hassle of buying a tree and lugging it home outweigh the excitement of decorating it and the lovely memories that will come flooding back? Being superstitious adds to the complications as it’s ‘up by December 8th and down by January 6th’ with me and I won’t be in town on January 6th. Will that adversely affect my luck for the next year? Is it worth the risk?

I tell myself that if I had children and could make a big deal of the decorating, then I’d be first in the queue to buy a tree. If I had kids I could borrow, I might also be tempted. If I had someone patient enough (and interested enough) to share my reminiscences, then perhaps I’d do more than just consider it. Right now though, the hassle factor is winning out.

And, as I always do when faced with a major decision (major? shows just how complicated my life really is), I seek distraction. It seems that I’m never really on top of what’s happening and each year hear of something or somewhere that I’ve missed out on. So this year, I’ve been doing my homework and reading up on what’s on in Budapest over the holidays. What’s open and what’s closed. When everything is open and closed. Where the markets are. And I found it all in one place – everything from when the Santa train leaves to the times of the Advent Fair in Obuda. Written mostly Anna Sebestyen at  TopBudapest.org, this site is well worth forwarding to any visitors you might have coming in over Christmas, and is also a good point of reference for what’s on in town. It’s certainly solved my problem: with so much going on, I won’t have time to get my tree – let alone decorate it.

A little piece of heaven on earth

Since I started to boycott products made in China, my shopping habits have been severely curtailed. I loathe high streets and shopping malls with a passion. The appearance of the same shops all over the world makes one city look just like the next. It is getting harder and harder to find locally made goods. I lucked out in Serbia last week in both finding a local designer (dress) and a local milliner (hat), neither of which could be termed as an extravagance considering designer prices in other parts of the world.

So a Sunday afternoon in Sarajevo wandering through the cobblestoned market streets was a joy in itself. The afternoon sun transformed the stalls into shining grottoes of gold and silver. Tin, copper, metals of all kinds had been fashioned into trinkets and utensils. Craftsmen worked in their stalls, oblivious to passers-by. The smells of Turkish coffee and kebabs hung heavily in the air.

It was all so very foreign. So very local. Not an H&M or a Zara in sight. The plastic sunglasses and the Turkish tat were housed up the road in the covered market – but this place, this open air heaven was for artisans. I felt brief stirrings of a move – a quick flash of wonder at what it would be like to buy and furnish a flat in Sarajevo. What a challenge it would be.  I found myself mentally discarding colours that wouldn’t fit and gradually piecing it all together. Perhaps if Mr Orban shows me my exit papers, I will head to the Balkans – to Bosnia – to Sarajevo.

Markets and more

It’s a testimony to German efficiency that a market spanning two city blocks can be set up and taken down every day. The transition from organised chaos to clean streets and sidewalks made in the space of an hour. Right next to the Tiergarten stop on the S bann, the Todelmarkt is a shopper’s paradise. I found myself thinking how great it would be to furnish a flat in Berlin.

There was everything from new Spanish linens to old masters. From books to baubles. From beer tankards to fine china. And where else would you find a Russian trying to buy a bag of chips and a bottle of water with a €500 note and simply not getting the fact that the chipper couldn’t make change for her. I was in my element and could lawfully have spent a fortune – if I had one.

Across town, at the Mauerpark market, things were a little different. This is where you need to roll up your sleeves, disturb the dust and the cobwebs, and burrow for your bargains. The vendors are younger and more hip. The wares lean more towards artisan than antique. And the food is healthier. A completely  different experience and yet just as interesting.

What makes Mauerpark market different is that outside the market fence, on a Sunday afternoon, a open-air karaoke session is in full swing. Browsing is puncuated with regular applause as complete randoms take the stage to wow the crowd and enjoy their three minutes of fame. A multicoloured golf umbrella marks the spot and a guy in a green t-shirt emcees the proceedings. The audience sits under the full blast of the summer sun, oblivious to the heat. BBQs smolder and cold beers wash away the dust. Tis a hard life but sure someone has to live it.

Burnt hair and beans

Step off Stefan cel Mare into another world – the Piata Centralã – which opened its doors (or its gates) in 1994 and since then has been a veritable hive of activity. You can buy just about anything here  – from mohair shawls to plastic sheets and tweezers. And, while there’s a fair amount of genuine tat, there are plenty of good bargains to be found – if you have the time and the inclination to root around. Or, as in my case, you couldn’t find your way out of a paper bag on a good day and end up wandering for hours trying to find a way out.

I found this fruit – and have absolutely no idea what it is. Any ideas? The seeds taste a little like cranberries. Before you buy, they cut a hole in the skin so that you can see the seeds (I assume to see if they’re ripe) and then you can flower them to eat. Am not quite sure whether you eat the white pith or not, but so far, I’m alive. Really tasty stuff, if a little messy. Am glad that the carpet in my hotel room has a little bit of red running through it:-)

With acres and acres of the usual fruit and veg, there are also bags and bags of beans and pulses and seeds. Each neatly labelled … in Moldavan. Still sore at being snapped at in a market in Bonn for daring to take a photo, I asked permission to take this one and was treated to a tasting session and a detailed explanation of what everything was … in Moldovan. A woman trying to sell me a shawl pulled a thread and burned it and made me smell it. It smelt like burnt hair. Didn’t quite get that particular marketing trick. One stall had recylable shopping bags from Carrolls in Dublin. There’s been quite a lot of oddities in the last few days – I’ve spent two hours each evening this week glued to the TV watching a show set in Alaska. The congregation at Mass was mostly Hungarian and then the shopping bags from Dublin – seems as if my life is passing before my eyes.

Why I love living in Budapest No. 6

IMG_3769There’s shopping. And then there’s shopping. And then there’s Ecseri and Petőfi and Keleti and the other flea markets in Budapest, each one better than the next. Like people, each market has its mood and like people, each market has its good days and its bad days. Sometimes you’re both in sync and spending a couple of hours wandering the stalls is like being with someone whose company you really enjoy. Other days, you may as well be at each other’s throats! There are too many people, everyone’s in a  bad mood, there’s nothing remotely interesting to see (no, that’s not true… there is always something interesting, it’s just a matter of having the patience to look for it).

My favourite is Ecseri. It’s a hike… about 30 mins from the flat via metro 3 to Ecseri ut and then bus 84E or 195E to the market.  I’ve only recently discovered the fleamarket bit (like a carboot sale at home). People load up their cars and vans and trucks and then park them just beside the actual market. The only trouble is that you need to be there early as by 9am they’ve all pretty  much sold out and gone back home. There are temporary stalls at the back and then the more solid ones in the middle which now have a roof so that you can wander out of the rain. You can buy everything from old-fashioned porn to gramaphones, from walking sticks to suites of furniture. It’s a great place to bring a camera for unlike many of the markets in BP, you can actually take photos without risking life and limb. PM got a classic of three violins next to a heap of vintage porn mags! Talk about crosscultural! And the food!!! There’s something magical about a coffee in the market in winter – huddling against the rain or cold trying to get some feeling back into your fingers – while around you, people go about their business, buying, selling, making the world go around!

IMG_3764I lucked out on Saturday and found a wonderful antique tablecloth for my art deco table. Unfortunately, I went to buy chairs and lights… but no joy. Ah well, there’s always next week! My favourite furniture shop there has now opened a shop in town and has gone upmarket! And lovely lads that they are, they’re on the lookout for some chairs for me. It becomes quite the challenge, shopping for stuff. You spread the word and then soon, everyone is on the lookout for what you want – like a community spend! The thrill is in finding exactly what someone wants. I’ve sent texts and had texts about something somewhere that would suit someplace… I’ve just seen X and it would be just perfect for Y…. love it!

For a Sunday morning stroll though, a little more central, is the great Petőfi Csarnok up in City Park. It’s smaller and hasn’t much in the line of furniture but you can still find textiles, statues, lamps, pictures, and washing powder! It sells all sorts! And the journey in itself is worth it. Metro 1 to  Szechenyi (M1 is the oldest metro in continental Europe and still has the leather straps to hold on to!) and then a short walk through the park, past the palaces, and stopping to touch the statue of Anonymous for luck! In winter, you can help yourself to a glass of hot wine;  in summer, a fruit lemonade. My favourite there is a man in his eighties who is selling off his own pen and ink etchings. For a song! I have two of his nudes on my bedroom wall and a monk librarian in my hallway. He’s a dote.

IMG_3768If you’re feeling particularly brave and ready to take on the world, then Keleti market (M2 or the No. 7 bus)  is the place for you. The aisles are narrow and the crowd is large and everyone seems to have a little bit of an attitude going on. I have it on good authority that it has its good days…and I’ve not yet written it off. Mind you, the morning I was there it didn’t do anything to warm the cockles of my weary heart. But never say never. We all have our bad days, and it’s worth trying again. Likewise with the Four Tigers Chinese market. Not one to visit if you’re in any way claustrophic. It’s a maze of stalls, all selling the same tat. But the food… that’s supposed to be out of this world, if you can find it! I know people who go there for lunch! I’ve been there a couple of times and have to fess up to panicking slightly. Too much for me. I have visions of disappearing into the hold and not surfacing for months.

Nope, I think I’ll start setting the alarm a little earlier on Saturday mornings and heading to Ecseri… that’s where the action is!