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A trail of tears

Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn – ah, yes, Robert Burns, you certainly got that right. The countless thousands I have in mind are the Cherokee Indians and other Native Americans who were forcefully removed from their homes in the  1830s. Having enjoyed life on vast expanses of land in  Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida, their normalcy was soon to be disrupted as white settlers laid claim to their lands to grow cotton.

Forced by the federal government to walk hundreds of miles to a part of the country designated as Indian territory, they set out on a journey that the Cherokees called the Trail of Tears to a state now known as Oklahoma. Over 4000 of 15000 Cherokees who set out on this epic journey  in 1838/1839 died in transit.

IMG_5351 (800x600) (2)County lines in the USA are well marked. You know when you pass from one to another. Having driven across Arkansas and recognised some of the counties from novels set in the state, I was prepared for more of the same as we crossed the state line into Oklahoma. But to my surprise, instead of travelling through the various state counties, we instead passed from one Indian territory to another – Cherokee, Seminole, Muskogee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Kiowa, Comanche, Apache, Cheyenne…

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The name Oklahoma is actually an Indian word – it comes from the Choctaw words oklah homma meaning ‘red people’. While some Indian tribes agreed to be ‘removed’ to the state and signed treaties surrendering their lands, more than 25 tribes did not agree and were forcibly relocated. Today, there are 34 Indian tribes registered in the State. Casinos are plentiful and trading posts scattered along the I40 interstate sell Native American crafts supplemented by the now ubiquitous offerings from Nepal and Bali. And, in the interests of transparency, anything not made by Native American crafters is clearly marked as such.

It’s interesting, too, to see globalisation at work and to see some new gems in the Native American jewelry market with Australian and Russian gems now being set in Indian silver. Nothing like cross-pollination in the name of commerce.

Oklahoma is a funny state. American humorist Will Rogers reckoned that when ‘the Oakies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the IQ of both states’ (and he should know – he was born in Oklahoma). I can’t comment on the relative intelligence of either state, but in an odd turn of events I had to wonder about Oklahoma’s penchant for understatement, which would appear to me to go against the national grain.

We saw a sign for Prague that laid claim to hosting the national monument of the Infant de Prague. Having already passed by signs for Palestine and Stuttgart, we figured a detour was in order. As the Infant is a particular favourite of mine (putting his statue in the hot press guarantees good weather), and as I’d not seen the inside of a church in days and was in need of three wishes, I figured Prague to be as good a place as any to veer off the I40 and I was driving 🙂

IMG_5347 (600x800)I was expecting to see a monument worthy of the embellishment ‘national’ – and was I disappointed. But shame on me for expecting so much. I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know about Maria Manriquez deLara, she who first brought the image of the infant from Spain to what’s now the Czech Republic. But I did learn about Fr Stanley Rother, a priest from Oklahoma city who was murdered while serving as a missionary in Santiago Attilan in 1981. Apparently, there is a petition registered with the Vatican to consider Fr Rother ‘fit for veneration’. According to the brochure, if canonized, he’d be the ‘first slain priest from Oklahoma to become a saint’. It begs the question: how many more priests from Oklahoma have been slain in the line of duty?

As I said, Oklahoma is a peculiar state but one that’s the birthplace of my heartthrob, James Garner.  Country singers Garth Brookes and Vince Gill are also natives, as was Ralph Ellison, and actors Brad Pitt and Tony Randall. Those luminaries aside though, the state has some pretty weird laws. For instance, in Bartlesville, if your dog is run over by a car, you have to pay any costs associated with its disposal. And you can’t own more than two adult cats or dogs. And in Oklahoma City, it’s illegal to own a stink bomb. The mind boggles.

Yes, VS, every day is a school day…

 

The bliss of solitude

My short-term memory is worsening by the day. My long-term memory isn’t much better. I find myself having vague recollections of events and conversations rather than my usual  chapter and verse. I’m getting older. That’s a given. And with each advancing year, something else gives.

In the midst of all this self-induced angst, I was heartened to recall some lines from a poem I learned in secondary school. From Wordsworth’s I wandered lonely as a cloud. I was in Terezín in the Czech Republic last weekend when they wove their way back into my brain:

When oft upon my couch I lie, in vacant or in pensive mood,
they flash upon my inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude.

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Down by the Ohre river, there’s a pietní místo – a pious place – with signs showing what not to do. No swimming. No sunbathing. The why of it all became clearer as we approached the monument. It was here, in November 1944, that the Nazis ordered the ashes of 22 000 Jews – all victims from the Terezín ghetto – to be dumped in the water. Hard to imagine. Hard to get my head around those sorts of numbers, that sort of volume. It was made even more surreal because in my bag, I had a small urn with just 5% of Lori’s ashes which I would scatter later from the Charles Bridge in Prague. Now, math has never been my strongest suit, but even so, I still couldn’t get a grip on the magnitude of what had happened here.

IMG_2932 (590x800)The death rate in the ghetto was high. Records show that 22% of internees died there – about 30 000. At first they were buried locally – the first 1250 in individual graves, and then 217 in mass graves. But towards the end of 1942, the cremations started. The ashes of some 8000 or so are still in urns at the local crematorium. The remains of the other 22 000 have settled in the silt or floated away.

I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like in 1944, in November. I can’t imagine the logistics, the affect on the water, the sheer volume of ash that had to be disposed of. And while I was struggling to come to terms with all of this, I kept going back to the sign that said no swimming, no sunbathing. And I wondered why anyone would have to be told not to.

IMG_2929 (598x800)It defies reason. The lines from Wordsworth came flooding back – in vacant or in pensive mood – because everything about this place leaned towards pensive. It was eerily silent. No noise. No birds. Even the water was quiet. Despite the intervening 70 years or so, there is still a heavy presence that challenges thought and defies speech. And when we did speak, we spoke in whispers, so as not to disturb the spirit of the place. Although it was the 29th of March, snow still covered the ground and the signs of spring had yet to appear.

IMG_2934 (600x800)I wondered what it might be like in summer. Would people picnic here? Would mothers sit by the river bank as they watched they kids playing? Would courting couples come to get away from it all? Or is it indeed a pious place where people would show the dutiful respect required by definition, where they would come to sit in silence and contemplate man’s inhumanity to man and how it makes countless thousands mourn? I wondered, too, which would be best – should we celebrate the lives of those who have gone before us with gaiety and laughter, showing them that they did not die in vain, or should we be sombre and silent? Can we be happy and still remember, or do those memories weigh us down and make us sad. What does a dutiful respect require? And what would they have wanted?

I mentally compared the gaily decorated graves I found in Hawaii which lie in stark contrast to the Jewish cemetery in Budapest and wondered what I’d prefer. I remembered years ago visiting the concentration camp at Dachau and being horrified at some tourists who had dared to laugh in the face of such atrocities. I found myself leaning towards piety.  In the midst of the manic lives we lead, alongside the constant push to do and be done to, we need the time, the space, and indeed the opportunity to remember. Perhaps bliss is not quite the right word for this occasion Mr Wordsworth. As I searched my memory banks for something more suitable, I hit upon the line from John Donne’s poem Death and agree that

…from thee [death] much more must flow.

2013 Grateful 39

I’d never given much thought to the difference between a concentration camp and an extermination camp until I visited Terezín, about 60km outside Prague, last weekend. It’s a fortress town, surrounded by walls, consisting of large barracks buildings dating back to the late eighteenth century. If ever a town was built to be a prison, this was it. Easy to guard, close to the railway, and it already had a police prison in the Small Fortress.

IMG_2962 (800x598)The grand plan was to isolate all Jews from the general population, concentrate them in a few places, and then send them eastwards to be terminated. Terezín fit the bill beautifully. The first lot of 324 Jews arrived from Prague on 24 November 1941. Their job was to prepare the town for the onslaught that was to follow. So many Jews arrived that on 16 February 1942, the original inhabitants were given till 30 June to leave.

In the years that followed, over 150 000 Jews would pass through the town of Terezín. Only 3600 would survive to bear witness to what went on there. There’s a fascinating article that tells of how many Jews voluntarily moved there, thinking the town was a gift from Hitler himself.

During the Second World War, Heinrich Himmler, head of the Nazi SS, suggested this magnificent site for a city and spa to be called Theresienstadt and to be owned and governed by Jews. It would be protected exclusively by Czech police, with no SS troops nearby. This utopia would even have its own currency depicting Moses carrying the Ten Commandments. The Czech Jewish community, eager to inhabit their new city, worked beside the Germans to construct and prepare Theresienstadt. German chancellor, Adolf Hitler, declared this glorious region to be a gift to the Jews in recognition of their enormous contributions to Eastern European societies and in preparation for the life awaiting them in Palestine.

Yet the horror of what was happening soon became clear. At the Small Fortress, I watched a short propaganda movie that showed how easy it is to believe what we want to believe. The figures it gives are horrendous. 19 000 + shipped out, 3 survived. 1000 shipped, 1 survived.

IMG_3020 (598x800)The Small Fortress is quite the spectacle. Originally built at the end of the eighteenth century, it reminded me a lot of the fort at Komárom, except for the purpose to which it was put. From day one of its existence it was a prison. Franz Ferdinand’s assassin spent time inside its walls. As the Nazi’s kicked into gear, prison space was at a premium. The Gestapo moved in, in 1940, and by the time the war ended, some 32 000 prisoners would have graced it with their presence, including 5000 women.  For most, it was a temporary stop, but for some 2600, it was the end. Disease, living conditions and torture put paid to any hope they might have had of surviving.

IMG_3016 (800x600)Well-mapped for tourists, everything is spelled out in stark detail. The numbered exhibitions clearly state, in concise English, what went on. The execution grounds, the bullet-ridden walls, the gallows from which three people were hanged – all testify to man’s inhumanity to man.

IMG_2967 (800x600)I have the good fortune to live in a spacious apartment. No matter how hard I try, I cannot get my head around what it must have been like to share the same space with so many others. Numbers were etched into wooden bunk beds where people considered themselves fortunate to live, because to be alive was what mattered. Rows of hand basins in the ‘model barbershop’ were there to show how much the authorities valued hygiene.

IMG_2975 (800x600)After a while, I  found myself thinking back to Auschwitz and to Dachau and to the remnants of the horrors I’d seen there. In comparison, Terezín was small potatoes. It wasn’t even a labour camp as such – it was, in effect, a Gestapo prison – a holding ground – which makes the inscription Arbeit macht frei a little unusual.

IMG_2994 (600x800)STOP RIGHT THERE! Has it really come to this? Have I become so inured to atrocities that I find myself weighing the numbers and from my privileged vantage point coming out with thoughts like ‘small potatoes’? Sweet Mother of Divine Jesus, deliver me, and please tell me that it is just my way of coping with what I was seeing and hearing and reading and imagining.

I tell you, there’s nothing quite like a cold hard lump of steel to shake my reality. This statue, and others in the grounds, said far more than numbers ever could. And while numbers might have that initial grenade-type effect, it’s images like these that really hit home. May we be damned for eternity if we EVER allow something like this to happen again.

This week, I am grateful for those monuments to the past that serve as constant reminders of the fragility of human life, our propensity to abuse our power, and our reluctance to stand up and speak out in the face of injustice. Let them continue to remind us of our responsibilities as human beings.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

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Shifting geographical loyalties

Since I first left Ireland back in 1990, I’ve had two homes. ‘Home’ is wherever I happened to be living at a given moment in time; ‘home home’ is Ireland. (This double-word definition is something I use a lot – if you’re sick, you’ll recover, but if you’re sick sick, then the prognosis is a little more serious. If you’re broke, then you’re struggling to find the money for a pint at the weekend; if you’re broke broke, then it’s Raman noodles and water.)

Being Irish is a constant in my life – my North Star. It is the lens through which I see the world. It is the calibrating factor I use to measure my experiences, the people I meet, everything that happens to me. For years, I compared every city I lived in or visited to Ireland, or Dublin, or the village I come from. But this has changed.

Relocating

On a trip to Moldova back in 2011, I noticed for the first time that I am no longer comparing places to Ireland, but to Hungary – and not just to Hungary, but specifically to Budapest. While I might enjoy occasional bursts of intelligence, at times my dimwittedness surprises even me! It never dawned on me that in comparing, say, Dublin and Budapest, I was dealing in apples and oranges.

Yes, both are capital cities, but apart from literature, religion, and the virtues of their respective national cohort of mothers, it was a little like, well, comparing East and West, back in the days when the divide was more than a line on a map.

Revisiting

This change in geographical loyalty was driven home again last week when I spent a few days in Prague.

When I first visited Prague back in 2001, it compared very favourably to Dublin. Georgian Dublin was no match for the spires of Prague; the narrow streets of Smithfield were no match for Prague’s Old Town; gentrified Dublin was no match for Prague’s more cosmopolitan style. I was impressed. Very impressed.

Yet since living more on than off in Budapest, I now see Prague through a different lens.  On paper, the two cities look fairly alike. In fact, if you picked up a map of both and laid them side by side, it’s quite interesting to see just how similar they are. They’re both divided by a river (Danube/Vltava). Both have an island in the middle (Margaret Island/Slovanský Island). Both have castle districts on the posher side (although Prague has an actual ‘castle’ castle in its district). The food is not dissimilar, the currency is just as foreign, and to my uncultured taste buds, beer is beer.

Re-evaluating

And yet the two cities are as different as any two cities can be. Scratch the surface and there’s little to compare. To my mind, Budapest is by far the better of the two. No question. I came to this conclusion in the metro of all places.

IMG_2862 (600x800)I’ve heard people visiting Budapest complain that the metro stairs are way too fast to be safe. I think the 2.1 minutes it takes to rise from the bowels of Széll Kálmán tér a little long so I didn’t understand their concerns. But in Prague, I felt myself age each time I took the metro. Its escalators are so slow in comparison. I reckon your average Prague commuter would gain about 10 minutes a day if they had the same commute in Budapest. But I’d doubt they’d be concerned. The city seems to lack that sense of urgency that can pervade Budapest at times. Perhaps it’s because everyone there is, literally, on holiday.

The one thing missing in Prague that you find in abundance in Budapest are locals. Prague seems to be overrun by tourists. Perhaps it’s because the streets are narrower that they seem more obvious, all squashed in together like bunioned feet into tight-fitting shoes.  Mind you, and perhaps as a direct result of this influx of foreign masses, Prague has a fashion sense that Budapest lacks. With a notable absence of second-hand clothes shops, your average woman looks like she’s dressed to go somewhere. Mind you, if said woman is not local, then perhaps I’m back to apples and oranges again.

Reconciling

The city’s most famous son, Franz Kafka, is on record as having said: Prague never lets you go… this dear little mother has sharp claws. And yet for all its style, Prague simply doesn’t do it for me in the way that Budapest does.

Admittedly, Budapest will never be in my blood the way Prague ran through Kafka’s veins. That said, it’s very much in my head and my heart. I’m well past my sell-by date when it comes to having kids and I can’t see myself settling down and living happily ever after with someone whose mother tongue I barely understand, let alone speak fluently: my paranoia that his great-Aunt Dóra would spend family get-togethers talking incessantly about me would kill the relationship before our first pig roast. Anyway, as the blood bank doesn’t want my blood, the whole Budapest-in-blood issue has been nixed. But head and heart are another matter entirely.

First published in the Budapest Times 5 April 2013

 

So … I might have been wrong

For years I’ve been rather mean to the city of Prague. Not because of anything it did to me or because of anything bad that happened while I was there. Yet since I’ve lived more on than off in Budapest, I’ve come to regard Prague as falling short in the beauty stakes in comparison. I’m mad about Budapest. Yes, she can be a cranky cow at times, and she has her drab and dreary days, but for the most part, she’s consistently stunning. Prague, on the other hand, didn’t leave any lasting memories with me other than the Charles Bridge and the difficulty in finding local spots with local people. She didn’t leave much of an impression. And all these years, I’ve been doing her a huge injustice.

IMG_2859 (800x583)Given a clear sky on a cold night, she looks rather well. I’d even go so far as to say that there were a couple of ‘wow’ moments.

IMG_2855 (600x800)I’m the first to admit when I’m wrong (not from any heightened sense of fairness, mind you – I’d simply prefer not to give anyone else the satisfaction of pointing it out to me). So let this be a public confession. To everyone I advised to skip Prague in favour of Budapest, I stand my ground. While the competition might have gotten a little tougher, Budapest still gets my vote. To those to whom I offered Vienna, Bratislava, and Berlin as better alternatives, my apologies. I stand corrected.

IMG_2887 (800x600)The one drawback about the city is still the number of tourists. Even at 8pm on a freezing night in March, the old town was packed to capacity. The eggshells on Charles Bridge were cracking under the weight of the footfall. Walking a straight line was practically impossible. At least this time though, the stag parties were notable by their absence. Back in 2002, Prague might just have been at the peak of its attraction and I’d say she’s relieved that the boys have moved on.

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In memory

Many years ago, I went to see a psychic of sorts near Oxford. She had worked with the local police on a few cases and had quite the reputation. I can’t for the life of me remember anything she told me, apart from an answer to an off-the-cuff question I asked as I was leaving. Would I ever be published? Her answer: Yes, your poetry will be well received. Poems? Mine?

I quite fancied that idea for a while, as back in my twenties I had a bit of reputation for being able to jot down a ditty about someone, on the spot, usually in the pub or at a party, and then recite it to great acclaim. Needless to say the acclaim was more in proportion to the number of pints that had been consumed than to my skill as a poet.

Lori 001 (800x552)Then, about three years ago, in Budapest, I had the good fortune to meet the talented Neil McCarthy. And I knew for certain that whatever latent talent I might have with words didn’t come close to how he can master his. I was mesmerised. A few months ago, I asked Neil to pen a poem in memory of my mate Lori, who died a year ago today, aged 49. I miss her terribly. And while I know that she’s at work on my behalf and probably ratcheting up the fun factor upstairs, the pain of her passing is showing no sign of dissipating. I talked to Neil about her at length. He read some blogs I had written while she was ill. And then he patiently set to work, drafting a memorial. I returned each one with comments. I didn’t know quite what I wanted it to say but knew that if he could capture the essence of what I am feeling, I’d recognise it. We went back and forth until earlier this week when I received the final version. I think it’s beautiful.

Today, as I scatter some of Lori’s ashes from the Charles Bridge – she always wanted to go to Prague – I’ll read it to her. And I’ll remind myself, for the millionth time since her death 12 months ago, that life is too short to wonder what if. We owe it to ourselves, and to those who have gone before us, to make the most of today, to live life to its fullest, and to make sure that nothing that matters is left unsaid. I love you, girl.

A breath of wind through the long grass

                                    i.m. Lori Stephens

1.

Rest assured that the storm will never settle long enough for a smooth crossing,
that the tide has tied tightly its opus of memory to the stern of the boat; nor will
an enduring thought or concern from the shore settle into any intelligible order,
disruptive as a breath of wind through the long grass harrying the sands beneath.
Hindsight is a delicate bequest when surveyed from a careful enough distance,
smiles stifled by grief once again coming to the forefront; a break in the weather
or a high pressure moving in from the sea – perhaps the face of the forecaster in
the hall mirror announcing with buoyancy that we are all but over the worst of it.

2.

There is no space wide enough for consolation to take root, no exemplary words
to sate the hollowness, no charts to leisurely unfold and map the geography of  loss. Faraway cities run blue dye through the retina and birds move in, circling, drifting, diverting attention as the world below races on, stumbling every now and again. San Francisco comes thundering back, slows once it’s found itself perfectly still in the focus of your attention, as if a cinematographer has rolled back a velvet curtain in your thoughts and adjusted the resolution of that view from Columbus Avenue, the traffic out on the Bay in no rush whatsoever to get anywhere in particular.

3.

You make your offerings to the gods with trembling hands, not quite sure whether or not they will be received; or if through your hesitation and reluctance to let go they will be blown clean from your grasp, as a breath of wind through the long grass passes ever so gently, touches the back of your neck, carries her words onwards.  To stand and take this moment in is to feel the world shrink; to walk the cobbled streets of Prague, shake your head in wonder at the distance you have brought her; to pause on Charles Bridge and wait for a break in the clouds to encourage you with the swans asleep on the gentle lap of the Vltava like a white flag on the water.

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The loneliness of loneliness

friends 2I’ve spent the last three hours crying my eyes out. All because of a five-minute telephone conversation. San Francisco to Budapest. My best friend’s husband and me. This time last year, Lori was to be in Budapest – between trips to Prague and Subotica. Two days before she was due to travel, she had some tests. The doctors suggested that she waited on the results before she travelled and six weeks later, she was dead.

I have some of her ashes sitting in an urn on my kitchen table. On March 28th, I will take them to Prague and the next day, on the first anniversary of her death, I will scatter them from the Charles Bridge. She always wanted to go to Prague. Typical American – her terminology, not mine.

My friends in Ireland met her. They know her smile, her irreverence, her attitude to life. My friends in Budapest never got to meet her. They never met the woman who has had such a profound influence on my life. It’s not their fault. It couldn’t be helped. The plan was there.

But although I know I’m surrounded by good mates who mean me well; although I know there are many who would talk me through the night; although I know I have as good a friend in one or two in this city, I still feel so horrendously alone because no one here knew her.

friendsI spoke tonight to her husband. I know what this month will entail for him, and yet in a strange way I’m envious. He gets to grieve with those who knew Lori, with those who loved her, too. It won’t make it easier, or better, or happier. It won’t take from the fact that a woman in her prime, with so much to offer, was taken from this life too early. But at least he’s not alone. For that I’m thankful.

For me – I need to get on with living. And to accept the fact that I chose to live away from home. I’ve made my bed, and if, at times, it’s uncomfortable and lonely, I’ve made that choice and I need to learn to live with it.

To all those who have lost a loved one and have to grieve alone – my sympathy. To those in BP who might see me dissolve in tears in the course of the next month or so, take heed. Ignore me. In the words of Gloria Gaynor – I will survive.

To my mate Lori – I so wish you’d made it to Budapest and had met the friends I’ve made. You’d have liked them  … well most of them, anyway! Be at peace my friend – watch over me and mind my way.

All aboard

I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to be trapped aboard a ship with the same people for days on end. I’ve never quite understood the attraction of cruises. And I can’t for the life of me see myself ever taking one (at least not when I’m still in possession of all my faculties).  Yet I was dead curious to see the inside of one of the hundreds of boats that sail the Danube.

I’ve been aboard the QEII – the Queen of Cruise Ships – so I know what the top end of the scale has to offer; the Transatlantic kind. What I was interested in seeing was what the river cruises had to offer. Some Aussie mates of mine were disembarking in Budapest en route to Ireland last week and invited me on board for lunch. All my curiosity has been satisfied.

Narrow corridors, lots of blue, and plenty of seating. Some of the cabins have floor-to-ceiling sliding windows and I could see myself passing time sitting by the window watching the world go by. Others have portholes which frame the outside world and make it all look a tad surreal.

The food wasn’t bad. The flowers were fresh. And the staff were extremely friendly and seemed to know everyone by name and cabin number.  Quite an amazing feat, considering. What would drive me to  distraction is the cats chorus of complaints, commentary, and criticisms. Suddenly everyone is an expert and life is not so much about experiencing a port of call but taking photos, buying souvenirs, and then dissecting it all over dinner.

I count Americans amongst my closest friends. I’ve lived there on and off for 10 years. I’m a card-carrying American myself.  Yet I’ve long since thought that Americans who go abroad on holiday are bred for export on some huge ranch in Montana. Never once in ten years did I come across in the States the likes of those I meet on holiday.

Waiting patiently for the lads to pack and disembark, I sat for a while in the lobby and eavesdropped. One particularly annoying woman in her late sixties was stating quite vehemently that she was not getting off here. She didn’t like Budapest. It was dirty. It was dull. And it wasn’t Vienna. Duh. Pressing her compatriots to choose between Vienna, Prague, and Budapest, none were brave enough to disagree. Another couple reckoned that Budapest didn’t have class. More still said that it wasn’t at all impressive. I screamed inside: Hey! Look over your shoulder and see the castle, the parlament, the bridges – what does it take to impress you!

These snap judgements (they’d been on a tour in the morning to the Castle and to Hero Square) based on very little information are so annoying. The high-pitched whine that passed for a voice would drive me to distraction. That authoritative tone that brooks no argument is like a red rag to me. Conversations overheard at lunch led me to believe that those present did not share my politics and  images of daggers at dawn or napkins at noon came to mind. Not because we differed in opinion, mind you, but because the reasons proffered were so asinine.

I learned two things: I have become extremely protective of Budapest and can’t believe that people would rate Vienna or Prague ahead of it (as one lovely American tourist I know put it –  Prague you visit; Budapest you live). And secondly, I just don’t have the mental or emotional stamina to keep my opinions to myself for a whole week. I couldn’t sit by and not comment. I bet that when Dale Carnegie wrote his tome – How to win friends and influence people – he didn’t suggest that people take  a cruise.

I can now cross that one off my list.

There’s more to the Czech Republic than Prague

When I think Czech Republic, I think Prague. I did spend a couple of days in Kralupy once but that hardly qualifies as having seen the Czech countryside. Last weekend, I was in Valtice – a gorgeous Baroque town of about 4000 permanent residents and another 4000 cyclists [slight exaggeration for effect] who pass through on the weekends cyling the well-pedalled path between there and Lednice.

Valtice lies in the South Moravian region about 265 km south-east of Prague. Its claim to fame, in the history books, is as the seat of princes of Liechtenstain in the eighteenth century.   The castle is connected to the neighbouring manor of Lednice by a 7km avenue lined with lime trees. Alas, when the Habsburg empire collapsed, the princes lost their seats and when the Communists arrived, the castle was confiscated. Oh to have the power and take what you will – Like it? Want it? Seize it. Wonder how long it would take for the novelty to wear off?

It is a beautiful building and life here must have been nothing short of perfect. But to have it all and then to have it all taken from you – that has to hurt. To have been born into such riches and then lose them has to be difficult. It’s a little ironic to think that while our royals are thin on the ground these days, some of our monied nobels have of late found themselves in similar circumstances – having had it all and then lost it. I wonder what it is like to downsize from a multi-million-dollar home in the hills to a semi-detached in suburbia.

The Town Hall, like many of its kind, is quite a wonder. Built in Neo-renaissance style, it dates from 1887. Such a small town and yet such an imposing building. I’ve seen a lot of this in Hungary, too. Massive, ornate, impressive buildings built to house the town’s ruling class, symbols of power and wealth and perhaps, respect. Laughable that, when I think of the amount of respect I have for today’s rulers. Not enough to house them in a matchbox. How the tide has turned.

The town square is home to one of the first  Plague Columns built in Moravia. It dates back to 1680 and was built in thanks for the ending of the plague. The Virgin Mary (seen as the vanquisher of evil) stands atop, and on the bottom are four cardinal statues. I did have a fleeting thought as to what a modern-day equivalent would look like, were we to manage to banish the plagues afflicting our society – anti-Semitism, nationalism, racism…

The town centre of Valtice has been declared a national heritage site and has as its focal point, the parish church of the Annunciation of Mary which dates back to the seventeenth century. The lobby (if one can call it that) was open and then the entrance gated so you could see in but not get in. Another sad reflection of our times. Churches, once the refuge of sinners and sanctuaries for those in search of solitude and divine inspiration are now locked up and seen only through gridded gates. Perhaps if they divested themselves of their riches and once again became simple places of worship, there would be no need to lock them up.

Suitably chastened by my reflections, I went in search of  libation. This region is famous for its wines. And finding no-one in the wineshop who could speak English, I stood back and watched a local stock up for a party. Then I mimed my way through ‘Could I have one of everything he bought?’ and went away happy with my six bottles of vino just waiting to be discovered. Forget the ashtrays and the miniature plates – wine is the best souvenir you can bring home.

Grateful 44

Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see. So said the inimitable CS Lewis and until this week, I would have had to admit to paying lip service to the word ‘miracle’ which for me, was 80% cliché and 20% faith. And to use a term that has been bandied around a lot this week with the death of Davy Jones (RIP), I’m a believer.

Sometime in January I had a phone call from a mate of mine in America to say she was going to come to Budapest to visit and wanted to see Prague, Vienna, and anywhere else I might fancy taking her. We agreed on February 11 – 29 and I booked hotels, trains, and restaurants, mapping out an itinerary that would keep her busy! I hadn’t seen her since we last met up in Hawaii and was really looking forward to it. We go way back. We’v been through all sorts of trouble and adventures in California and have lived to tell the tale. I’ve grown with her and learned so much from her – she taught me to say the words ‘I love you’ without embarassment. We mightn’t see each other from one end of the year to the next or even talk on the phone that often, but ours is a friendship that just picks up from where it left off without need for apologies or explanations.  She is one of my truest friends.

On February 9, she called to say that she couldn’t come. Her doctor had advised her not to travel. She wasn’t feeling well and needed some tests done but she was still hoping to travel to North Carolina for her step-dad’s retirement in a couple of weeks. We spoke daily. Then she was in hospital. Her liver had failed. They were hoping for a transplant and had a possibility lined up when two hours later, her body gave way. Her kidneys failed, her liver stopped working and she flatlined. We were supposed to be in Prague and instead she was dead and I was on the other side of the world.

They resuscitated her and brought her back, wondering all the while if they’d made the right decision. She spent a week or more in an induced coma, living through machines. The outlook was bleak. Even were a liver to be found, she wouldn’t qualify. She’d always said she’d be the last one standing and part of me just couldn’t accept that she’d give in but I had to be pragmatic. I told friends about her and asked for them to pray to whatever or whomever they had as their god. From Venezuela to Malta, from Brussels to Hawaii, from California to all corners of Ireland, friends of mine who had met her and those who’d just heard the stories, sent their invocations to their gods, made their intercessions, all the time cautioning that a miracle was needed.

I thought about going to see her, talking myself in and out of it a dozen times. Selfishly, I didn’t want my last memory of her to be on her deathbed. She couldn’t hear me – I couldn’t talk to her – and vain as she is, I knew she wouldn’t want me to see her like that. We’d agreed when she first went into hospital that I wouldn’t go until she asked me to come. I had to respect that. Last Thursday, when we were supposed to be in Vienna, I went anyway. With the lovely MI, we lit candles in what churches we could find and said our prayers to our respective gods. And hoped for that miracle.

At the weekend, I spoke to her husband. She was awake. She’d had her third successful dialysis, and while she still had difficulty talking, she was able to communicate with facial gestures. She’s gotten stronger day by day and tonight I finally get to talk to her – to see when I can go visit.

It’s been a manic three weeks of up and downs. That elusive thing we call hope has ebbed and flowed. Oceans of tears were shed around the world as thousands of forints were spent on phone calls that turned into trips down memory lane. The general consensus about the lesson to be learned is that you truly never know the day nor the hour…

This week, I am grateful for the power of friendship – that ephemeral thing that brings people together and unites them in a cause. It is with the power of collective consciousness (call it prayer or whatever) that miracles are wrought.

Thank you all. You know who you are.