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Out in the cold

When I first started delving into the depths of diplomacy, I was intrigued by the protocol involved. It beggars belief. I’m all for manners and etiquette and enjoy a formal function, but after numerous role-playing dinners for new diplomats brushing up on their protocol and etiquette skills, I began to question the seriousness of it all.

DinnerPlacing my cutlery on the table exactly one-thumb measure from the edge became a fixation. Checking that my various wine and water glasses are in the correct order is a ritual. And if I were a protocol officer, I’m sure I’d have many sleepless nights over seating plans and last-minute cancellations. I’ve heard tell of the UK sitting in one UN meeting as Great Britain to avoid having to sit between the USA and the then USSR, as country representatives were seated alphabetically.

The order of precedence fascinates me. Prior to the Vienna Congress in 1815, whenever diplomats from different countries got together, chaos ensued. Who would sit beside whom? Who was the most important in the room? Who drew the short straw and got the seat beside the one no one else wanted to sit beside? Such was the consternation that they finally sat down and agreed on an order of precedence, an agreement later enshrined in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations in 1861. The order of precedence is still invoked for formal dinners, public ceremonies, and other national celebrations to avoid favouritism.

According to the Gospel that is Wikipedia, there are 82 embassies in Hungary, so 82 heads of mission, or ambassadors, which form the diplomatic corps. They are ranked in order of when they presented their credentials (i.e., a letter from the head of the sending state to the President of Hungary, asking him to accept the ambassador and accord them due credence), so the longest-serving ambassador in the country takes precedence over all the others. But there’s an exception: the Papal Nuncio. He scoots to the top of the list in Catholic countries, and ranks first, even if he’s the latest arrival.

Putin an dorbanAs I write, Vladimir Putin is in town. It’s Tuesday. He arrived mid-afternoon and is leaving later tonight after various meetings, a laying of wreaths, and one public appearance. The inner city has been closed down since noon and was due to reopen at 9pm but apparently everything is running about three hours late. Public transport has been disrupted. Traffic has been diverted. Anyone living or working within spitting distance of his itinerary has made sure that they’re carrying proof of where they live or work. Going out for an early lunch and then not being let back into the office because you can’t prove you work there is something that usually happens where there are film crews in town and walking out of your front door could mean walking on to the set of a Hollywood movie. But this is real life.

merkel;The fuss made is usually determined by whether it’s a state visit, an official visit, or a working visit and also probably has a lot to do with the degree of risk involved. Angela Merkel’s visit earlier in the month didn’t warrant nearly as much disruption, so the level of attention accorded to Mr Putin could say more about his notoriety than his prestige or the entourage, 8 planes, and 30 cars he brought with him. Who knows? I’m just glad I wasn’t waiting out in the cold for a glimpse of the man himself up at the Presidential Palace. And yet a part of me would have liked to have seen him in real life – just to see what all the fuss was about.

First published in the Budapest Times 20 February 2015

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.

Do I stay or do I go?

That’s the question that seems to be on a lot of minds these days, as Hungary edges increasingly closer to the edges of democracy. The situation is attracting attention from political commentators such as Paul Krugman of the New York Times and the Contrarian Hungarian is posting regularly with updates on what’s going on. The Irish Times  published a piece and Ireland’s Newstalk radio had a 10-minute section on the goings on here last week, too. President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso and Hilary Clinton have both approached PM Viktor Orbán airing their concerns at the none-too-gradual, and ever quickening erosion of democracy. But to no avail.

Tonight, as Orbán and his VIP guests apparently entered the Opera House via underground tunnels to celebrate the new Hungarian constitution – one that was written and passed into law without any public consultation or referendum, the manifestation of an intention that was never mentioned in his election campaign –  an estimated 100,000 people gathered in the street outside to make their voices heard. Among them some hundred or so Árpád heads were kept under close watch by the police. I couldn’t tell you what they were saying, but there was no denying the venom with which they yelled. There is some consolation to be had in that their numbers were small and contained. But the fact that there are people in this country who feel like this is scary.

I wonder what it felt like to be inside, listening to the anger and frustrations of thousands of citizens, knowing that some of them had voted you into power? How safe can Orbán be feeling? Or does he care? More to the point, do I care?

I loathe the term ‘expat‘ but have resigned myself to being one. When I’m not in Ireland or elsewhere, I’m in Budapest. I love it here and I really don’t want to move. Yes, I’ll admit that the situation is getting a tad worrying and I’m more than a little concerned about talks of Hungary losing its EU membership. Far-fetched as it might seem, I’m beginning to have nightmares about getting a knock on my door at 4am (but that could also have something to do with my currently reading Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44). I’m also beginning to be more and more conscious of being a foreigner. Three years after I moved in, someone finally updated the doorbell list and I was horrified at the fear in my gut when I realised that my name was on there – advertising to the world where I lived. Am I losing my reason? Perhaps. Perhaps the drama queen in me is rearing her head and imagining all sorts but that didn’t stop me taping over my name. Why draw attention to myself.

I know this is irrational. I know, too, that I don’t want to leave Budapest. And tonight, I’ve realised that in choosing to stay, it’s not enough to stand idly by as Orbán & Co chisel away at a democracy that was hard won. Be it just adding to the numbers on the street at the next demonstration, or reposting articles on what’s happening here so that friends abroad know what’s going on  – I have to do something. Being an expat doesn’t exclude me from the ramifactions of what could happen if this continues. I’ve been told that no matter how long I stay or how hard I try, I will never be more than a tourist. However true that might be, it hurt to hear. Yes, Ireland is and always will be my home. I will always be Irish. And while Hungary is a home from home, I have no desire to be Hungarian. And it could well be argued that I should butt out – it’s not my fight. But just as I didn’t listen to those who suggested I incorporate my company in another country, believing that if I choose to live here, I have  duty to pay taxes here, then if I choose to stay, I have a duty to get involved. So when standing 10 metres from a mob of chanting yobbos who I know would like nothing better than for me for me and every other foreigner in this country, and our associated institutions and organisations, to go home, I felt not fear, but anger. The words of  Martin Niemöller came to mind:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —  Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

The coming months will be interesting.  As a growing audience around the world watches and waits to see how the story evolves, liberal voices like Klubrádió are being silenced. When they are all gone, who will be left to speak out? Now is a time to believe in miracles.