P*&&*d off

I count. Obsessively. Steps. Station stops. Train carriages. Luggage coming off the carousel. Don’t know where it comes from, or why I do it. I just do it. Nothing to worry about.

But now I’ve gotten into timing. In fairness, I’m not timing everything. Just how long it takes my neighbour to pee.

For those of you not familiar with the structure of the old udvar flats (flats built around a courtyard) in Hungary, flats share ventilation shafts. It runs floor to rooftop and often sits between buildings (as in my case). Most of the rooms with windows facing the shaft are loos, bathrooms, offices and in my case, all three.

I keep the window open. And for years, life has been great. Okay, so a couple of years ago, during the summer (queue open windows) someone in the next building got a girlfriend/boyfriend and were at it day and night but the relationship was short-lived. It only lasted a couple of weeks. And I wasn’t timing things then.

But about three weeks ago, someone new moved next door, kitty corner across the shaft (a whole 3 meters window to window, if that). Oftentimes I can only hear him talking. Occasionally I get a glimmer that there might be a second person living there. I think he spends a lot of time on the phone or on Skype. He’s Asian. And man does he have a problem.

peeHe pees often, and for ages, with great sound effects that bounce around the shaft like a cat on speed. [His longest sigh of relief clocked in at 7.5 seconds.] I’ve been noting the times. Automatically. No clue why.  Perhaps I see a court appearance in the future when one of the old nénis (aunties) in the building has had enough and gets her nephew to sort him out.

Today, a relatively short pee culminated in a screaming kung-fu body grunt that sounded like AIYEEEE HUFU GANGEEEEEE, whatever that might mean. It’s maddening. Frustrating. And just a tad too personal for my liking. And because he’s in the building next door, I don’t even get to glare at him. I feel cheated. Maybe I could turn it around though, and record him, and then sell it to a website that collects such sound effects – yes, there is one.

When he has to sit on the loo, he takes his phone with him and scrolls through the ring tones, catches up on his videos, and laughs at the good of it all. At least that’s what I imagine he’s doing – I’m tempted to buy a mirror on a stick. [BTW his long sitting was 17.8 minutes.]

When I happened across the Bertrand Russell’s interview from 1959 that I mentioned in a previous post, I so wanted to take his moral advice to heart.

The moral thing I should wish to say… I should say love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more closely and closely interconnected we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way and if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.”

I wonder though if he had any idea back then just how closely interconnected we would be. But I take his point. My ability to tolerate  my peeing neighbour is vital to the continuation of his life.


The lifetime role of expectations

I’ve been back in Ireland for about 48 hours and already I’m in trouble. I’m fighting an addiction – not the fags – haven’t had one since I left Budapest and it’s not bothering me at all. What is bothering me though is that after months of absence, I’m hooked again on the soaps.

soap3In the Australian soap, Home and Away, Marilyn’s concerns that the honeymoon period is over (even though they’ve only been married three months) mirrors similar concerns that Laurel is having in the British soap Emmerdale. Thousands of miles apart, completely different writers, and both come up with the same story line? The mind boggles. It’s business as usual on Ramsey Street, in Neighbours, as Susan and Karl are still dithering about their relationship – how many years has it been? [20 – I checked.]

soap2Coronation Street sees the annoying Gail being even more annoying than usual and in Eastenders, everything is still the same on the square. Ireland’s longest-running soap, Fair City, outstrips them all though – but I can’t keep track of who has died.

Six soaps and even though I’ve not been paying attention for months, just two days in and I’m back in the midst of it all. It’s amazing how much I identify with the characters and how easily they can irritate me. I find myself talking back to the screen, doling out advice as if they could hear me. And that says a lot more about me than I should be sharing. And it explains why I cannot have a TV in my flat.

But what of the actors who, day in and day out for years and years and years have grown old in their characters. Eileen Derbyshire, who played the irritating, gooder than good, Emily Bishop on Coronation Street, did so for 53 years. Ray Meagher has been playing Alf Stewart in Home and Away for 26 years. And Martina Stanley has been doing my head in on Fair City as Dolores  Molloy for 22 years. I wonder how sane they all can be? If you play the one character for so many years, not alone must you grow up with them, you also run the danger of growing into them.

expectation 2I’ve reinvented myself a number of times. Moving to new cities/countries where nobody knows me gave me licence to be anything I wanted to be. And it worked, because one thing was lacking – expectations. No one had any expectations of me. No one knew me. I had nothing to live up to, to measure up to. I could literally turn a page and write my own script. Of course, my expectations of myself didn’t go away or change or meld into anything beyond recognition, so the reinvented me didn’t differ too much from the previous me. I just lost some of the irritating stuff 🙂

expectationI’ve been playing myself for years now, and the drama has ebbed and flowed along with my ratings. Right now though, I’m happy enough with the storyline and am looking forward to a new me evolving next year.



To answer or not to answer…

There’s something quintessentially Irish about popping in on a friend unannounced. There’s no need for phone calls to see if they’ll be there. You take your chances and if they are, great. If not, there’s always tomorrow.

Little explanation is needed other than ‘I was in the area’. They might be calling to have a cup of tea, to get fed, to drop off something or pick something up, to find out what happened last night or is going to happen next week. No matter. The point is ‒ they visit.

This visiting was drummed out of me when I went Stateside. My American friends rarely did drop-ins. The thoughts of someone rocking up unannounced was enough to induce palpitations. I put it down to being house-proud, fastidious about what part of their life the world could see, uninvited, unannounced. In Ireland, we have no shame. It’s a ‘take me as you find me’ thing. Of course there’s the frantic scurrying to clean up the mess as the car drives in, that precious minute before the doorbell goes during which a critical eye is cast around the room and anything that shouldn’t be on public display is shoved behind cushions or into drawers. But generally, no one really cares as long as there’s a cup of tea on offer.

In Budapest, with its street-side csengők (doorbells), there’s no warning. You can’t see someone turn into your gateway or drive up your avenue. You can’t spot the car slowing down or have a look out the window to see who is making their approach. When the csengő goes, you’re at the mercy of your own curiosity.

I’m caught between the Irish ‘take a chance and see if I’m home’, the American ‘call ahead and tell me you’re coming over’, and the Hungarian ‘wait till I invite you’. Pepper that with an innate curiosity and salt it with the fear that I might miss something by not answering the door, and you might come close to understanding just one strain of my many neuroses.

I stand in my hallway, looking at the intercom, wondering if I should pick it up. I mentally check what day it is, what time it is, and think who might be outside trying to get in. Chances are it’s a flyer distributor or someone flogging something. But what if it’s not? What if it’s someone who knows where I live but doesn’t have my phone number? Or a friend whose phone battery is dead? Or a neighbour who has locked themselves out? The angst, I tell you. It’s enough to drive a woman to drink.

As a rule, if it’s in the morning, before 11, then I usually answer as it might be the postman with a parcel. If it’s about 4pm in the afternoon, I’ll answer too, because that’s when my favourite florist makes their deliveries (Murphy? Optimist?). But any other time of the day, I dither. To answer or not to answer, that is the multi-million-forint question.

The dirge of rapid Hungarian that is fired up the line if I do answer and don’t know the caller used to be frightening. But I’ve found a way to separate the tenacious from the timid. My tentative lassan kérem (slowly please) is either met with an exasperated sigh and a dead line as the caller hangs up (in which case I didn’t want to know them anyway) or an exasperated sigh and a slow repeat (in which case I buzz them in and see if they materialise on the fourth floor). ’Tis the stuff dreams are made of. Who says my life in this big city isn’t exciting?

First published in the Budapest Times 3 October 2014

Brussels sprouts and bourbon barrel cake

Yet another Christmas Day dinner has been enjoyed and with it, another year of marvelling at the seemingly universal hatred of Brussels sprouts. I am convinced that these baby cabbages suffer from bad press and that this has a lot to do with the rather unimaginative way inbrussel_sprouts_card-p137036866297087578envwi_400 which they’re cooked – steamed or boiled. But if you check the myriad online recipes, you’ll find everything from stories of frying them in bacon and drizzling with cider vinegar to shaving them for a salad.

Me? I’d eat them hot or cold, by the potload. I can’t get enough of them but for some odd reason, they are indelibly linked with Christmas and rarely get an outing any other time of the year. This is something I have to work on.

From a health perspective, they have some cholesterol-lowering benefits if you steam them.  They also protect our DNA, stabilising the insides of white blood cells. And they’re big in glucosinolate content –  important phytonutrients and the chemical starting points for a variety of cancer-protective substances. So really, what’s not to like about them?

IMG_1301 (796x800)From my favourite Christmas food, let’s move to one of my favourite presents this Christmas. A delicious Bourbon Barrel Cake from Kentucky. This caused great consternation when it arrived with both the postman and my dad marvelling at how much it cost to mail – a whopping $47. It had pride of place in the living room and doubled as a conversational piece all over the holidays. I was torn between lugging it back to Budapest or eating it before I left. I had it figured for a fruit cake but when I finally cut into it on Christmas even, was very pleasantly surprised to find that it was actually a moist brown-sugar cake with pure maple and chocolate cake topped with walnuts, chocolate, and caramel bourbon icing.  [MM: there’s a lot of cake in there… ]

Every Christmas Eve, our neighbours come to call. They start wandering in about 10.30pm (after mass) and then stay still the small hours of the morning. We’ve been doing this for more than 30 years and with each passing year, stories that haven’t been told before are aired and many old favourites are repeated. Before I cut the cake, I explained its history. Or rather my connection with the sender. When I went to Valdez, Alaska back in 1997, RB was in charge of the Ballast Water Treatment Facility. I worked for him for a few months, before the Rutz man took over. RB was transferred across the bay and we stayed in touch, both of us working on the Board of AVV, a domestic violence shelter in Valdez. When he retired, I was asked to be one of the speakers at his going-away do. It was my second public speech and one of my best. That was back in 2000 (I think).

Since then, we’ve stayed in touch as he moved to Tennessee and then to Kentucky. Always marching to the tune of his own drum, RB is one of a small group of men who have had a profound influence on my life. I’ve not seen him in 13 years, something I intend putting right in 2013. (how’s that for poetic alignment?) But miles and distance haven’t dampened my enthusiasm for him. He is, and will remain, one of those who made, and continues to make, a difference.

IMG_1302 (800x600)The cake would have received a standing ovation had there been room to stand. As it was, it filled the room with ecstatic sighs and questions from the cooks as to the ingredients. One neighbour even suggested that we all chip in for the postage next year!

So, between Brussels spouts and the bourbon barrel cake, my Christmas culinary experience was complete. Thanks RB – the neighbours send their love.