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A blessing in disguise

We had a few hours to kill before our Glamping experience was due to start so we hit upon the neighbouring village of Noszvaj. We had plans to see the castle and the caves – caves in which people live today – and then to wander around the wine cellars. We stopped to ask an old lady which path to take to get to the castle and she invited us to church. She said the castle would still be there in an hour but the church service would be over.

IMG_4828 (800x600)IMG_4823 (800x600)Between the four of us, I was the only one to profess an ounce of religion. And it was a Sunday. And I was conscious of my duties. So I left the others to their own devices and headed into mass. Or so I thought.

I sat in the back of this 750-year-0ld church as hymnals were thrust upon me by a series of ladies of indeterminate age. After the fourth had made her offer, the rest sent up a loud chorus: she’s a foreigner. Everyone in the church that day knew I wasn’t Hungarian. And I knew that I was in the wrong church when a woman – and a fashionably dressed woman at that – appeared on the altar.

The second clue I had was when after the first hymn, by request from the lady of the cloth, everyone turned to greet their neighbour, shaking hands and nodding and having a quick chat. Wrong order here – we [RCs] don’t get around to that till nearly the end. And then it’s not so much of a chat but more a quick ‘peace be with you’.

A couple of hymns were a little on the pop-side of the bible. It was hilarious to see some of the headscarfed oldies pew-dancing to the beat.

The sermon took about 20 minutes and from what I gathered, it was mainly about fathers needing to be more than football coaches [this particular Sunday being the Day of Children in Hungary]. She delivered it with aplomb. I didn’t need to understand the words to get the essence. This woman had what so many priests in my church lack – she had presence. She had her audience in the palm of her hand. She had rhythm. She had tone. She had vocal variety in spades. And she had presence – I know I said that already, but it’s worth repeating.

There was no order that I could identify. There was no communion. I looked down once and when I looked up again, the altar was bare. She’d gone. It was over.

IMG_4833 (800x600) (2)IMG_4826 (800x600)IMG_4837 (800x600)I waited to take some photos and as I was leaving fell into conversation with one of the local women whose English was as good as my Hungarian. We got by. It transpired that I’d been to a Reformation church. And they only have communion a few times a year on special occasions. They were highly amused that I’d thought I was going to mass and even more amused when I told them that I was in Noszvaj to taste the wine.

But we parted on good terms.

The village itself is lovely. The old sod roofs are reminiscent of an Ireland of yore. I was quite taken with the solar panelled roofs, too. A nice mix of eco-traditional.  I was sorry to have missed the cave dwellings but I did catch up with the wine. More of that on June 17th, though. Now it’s enough to say that IMG_4838 (800x600)IMG_4848 (800x600)the village is home to the famous Thummerer Winery and a couple of others of note, but Thummerer is the one that gets the  most attention. Personally, I’m not a huge fan. But then again, all I know is what I like. And I liked the painted postboxes. And the feel of the village. And the quaint houses that dated back to the 1800s. I was completely entranced by what looked very like a map of pre-Triannon Hungary marked out in chalk or white stone on a nearby hill. Fascinating. Worth a visit.

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Pilgrims

The object of pilgrimage is not rest and recreation—to get away from it all. To set out on a pilgrimage is to throw down a challenge to everyday life. So said the authority on World Religions – Huston Smith. And just when I was seriously giving thought to doing the  pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the home of the remains of the Apostle James. Am I ready to challenge everyday life, I ask myself?

People have been going on pilgrimages for centuries: Muslims to Mecca, Jews to Jerusalem, Christians to the Holy Land. Then in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, we had the Crusades, but let’s not go there today.  When the Holy Lands were otherwise occupied, European Christians had to find sites closer to home – St Peter’s in Rome, Canterbury Cathedral, walking labryinths, or the Stations of the Cross. Despite falling out of favour during the Reformation, this idea of a prilgrimage – a journey that would transform your life – managed to survive through the ages.

I went in search of the heart chakra of the world some time ago and on reflection, that was a pilgrimage of sorts. On most of my visits to Ireland, I go to Fr Moore’s Well and check in with him to see what’s going on. I never did Lough Derg – despite the belief that doing it three times would land me a man. Neither have I climbed Croagh Patrick (St Patrick did in 441 AD).

When I think of it, my pilgrimage life has been sadly neglected.  And now I’ve left it too late. Spiritual tourism has become popular. Finding remote areas or trails to travel is a challenge. And although many recommend the Camino Way, I have problems seeing myself walking alongside the masses, each of us heading to the same place. I might have to give this a little more thought.

Geneva conventions

I was proposed to in Geneva. Earlier this year, in January. As I stood outside these very gates. And I was flattered. He described himself as a political refugee from Zurich. An older man whose face had weathered many winters but whose eyes were still those of a very early spring. He was fun. He asked me if I was married. I said no. He asked me if I had any children. I said no. He asked me if I was in love. I said no. He asked me if I spoke French. I said no, but that I could read it and write it, I just couldn’t roll those r’s. Then he asked me if I believed in God. I said yes.  He paused. Smiled. And then asked me what I thought my mother would say if he called her and asked to marry me. I said she’d be delighted. That delighted him. He laughed. He said we could have a good future. I didn’t doubt him for a minute. This was Geneva, the city whose streets are literally paved with gold, where if you’re ‘in’ you’re in!

It had been twenty years or more since I’d last visited the city and I didn’t remember much about it other than the high prices and the pink bicycles that you could pick up and ride for free. I had vague memories of the lake but couldn’t for the life of me conjure up the feel of the place – how I’d felt when I’d been there. Now I was getting a second chance at a first impression. The city offers free travel in from the airport. Impressive. When you check into your hotel, you get a free travel pass for the duration of your stay. Very impressive. I met my host, the inimitable MM, the man from Belgrade. After a quick beer, he took me on a walking tour of his part of the city. It was late on a Thursday night but the place was quiet. Few people walked the streets and those who did spoke softly. The restaurants and cafés were almost empty; few, if any, showed signs of that bustling night life I had come to expect from a major European city. The liveliest place we came across was Serbian owned. No surprises there!

There was no litter. The streets were clean. Any that might be dropped overnight would be gone again by morning. What graffiti I could see was tasteful, almost arty, serving more to transform an existing monstrosity into something more appealing. We walked up through the cobblestone streets of the old quarter, passed the statues of the fathers of the Reformation. I had forgotten, if indeed I ever knew, that Geneva was the centre of the Calvinist Reformation in Europe. His church and the museum are well worth a visit. Hearing Calvin lecture on issues that are still so relevant today was slightly surreal. Religious freedom was limited here, as it was pretty much in all of Europe in the 1500s. The maxim of cuius regio, eius religio  (whose region, his religion) meant that you simply adopted the faith of  your ruler. Makes you wonder about the origins of the phrase ‘When in Rome…’ If you didn’t like it, you moved elsewhere. Switzerland, too, had its witch trials.  Between about 1530 and 1600, numerous witch trials were held in both Protestant and Catholic cantons, often ending in death sentences, the most common form of which was burning at the stake.

Geneva is in the southwestern corner of Switzerland. Most of it in fact, borders France. It was once an independent republic and, even today, still considers itself a republic in the Swiss confederacy. During Napoleon’s time, it was annexed and occupied by France. Liberated in 1813, it joined the Swiss Confederation in 1815 as the 22nd canton. There are 26 cantons in Switzerland, each a member state of the federal state of Switzerland. Perhaps America is a lot closer than we think!

The city itself is a veritable garden: there are 310 hectares of parks, 40,000 trees in public areas, 428,000 plants, including 40,000 rose bushes. The famous flower clock unfortunately, was out of order, because of vandalism. Is this a sign of the times, where lawlessness has breached the borders of a country that is known for its clock-work precision and almost puritanical ways? Down by the lake, the Jet d’eau is very much alive and spurting.  It really is something to behold. And again, my thoughts return to America and to Old Faithful, but without the steam!

The Plaine de Plainpalais didn’t look much that night. But the next day, when it hosted the local farmers market or the day after when it morphed into a flea market, it was truly spectacular.  A posher version of Esceri here in Budapest, more expensive and more upmarket. But then, that’s Geneva in a nutshell.

I’m very gullible, easily impressed. My life so far has been a series of one spontaneous move after the next. In the aftermath of visiting a new city, I can almost always imagine myself living there. Almost always. Geneva is a fine city. It has lots going on. It has more than 200 international governmental and nongovernmental organisations headquartered there. It is the home of the United Nations, windowless banks, designer watches and fancy hotels. It is clean, beautiful, and gentrified.  It offered me a glimpse perhaps of how life might have been, had I made different choices. I was there to work and I was lucky enough to have the time to see more than just the inside of an office. I had an excellent guide. I enjoyed my stay. But I doubt very much that I’d ever want to live there.