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When the border beckons

One of the best things about living in Hungary is that it’s within easy access of fascinating destinations that make exploring the wider neighbourhood very appealing.  When I have a rare free weekend with no plans whatsoever, my feet start to itch. I could stay home and file. Or sort my socks. Or colour code my library. But if the borders beckon, I can’t resist. I don’t even try.

One of my favourite 36-hour getaways is to cross the Serbian border into Subotica (Szabadka to Hungarians). We caught the 8.05 train from Keleti Station on Saturday morning having booked into the cute little Hotel Gloria in the middle of the city. It’s within walking distance from the station and has its own modest spa that I usually have to myself: a Jacuzzi, steam room, and sauna with complimentary robes, slippers, and towels.  The staff there are marvellous: friendly, helpful, and very professional.

Exiting the train station, the view of the art nouveau Raichle House is stunning and but it’s just a taste of what’s to come. The Town Hall and the Synagogue are even more amazing, both built in the same style by Budapest architects Marcell Komor and Dezső Jakab. They’re gobsmackingly gorgeous by day, but even more impressive by night. Sadly, the Zsolnay tile fountain is under wraps for winter. It, too, is magnificent.
IMG_3090 (600x800)Both the Franciscan Monastery and the Serbian Orthodox Church are worth some time. Both are beautiful.  In marked contrast, the Roman Catholic Cathedral has an alarming crack down the façade that conjures up all sorts of terrifying images as to what might happen one day.

IMG_3080 (800x600)IMG_3082 (800x600)We took the bus out to Palic Lake late afternoon, travelling back in time to days when women in long dresses and parasols strolled around this great expanse of now frozen water. We stopped off at a local pub to the amusement of the Hungarian-speaking locals who were fascinated by an Irish woman (badly) speaking their language in Serbia. And, as always, the warmth of Serbian hospitality melted my bones.

That night, having secured a reservation at Boss Caffe, we ate in style. Zang, their Chinese chef, has been doing great things for Chinese cuisine in the region for about seven years. Most of the menu is Italian, but I’d been dreaming of his eggplant chips and beef fillet with spicy zucchini since my last visit. The restaurant is at the high end of the local market but it’s relatively inexpensive, with service that is unmatched in my experience. Someone should poach Felix and have him set up a training school for wait staff in the rest of the world.

IMG_3084 (600x800)Serbians love their coffee and know how to serve it. The Hausbrandt Caffe does a great trade in imported Italian coffees served with good conversation and a smile and they saw a lot of us. Best Food, a Serbian fast food restaurant that would make a small fortune in franchise, enticed us back twice for their mouth-watering sandwiches and local meats cooked to order by … yes … friendly, efficient staff that negotiated the language barrier with both ease and interest.

We caught the 15.22 train back to Budapest on Sunday having had a lazy morning searching for the new monument to a favourite Hungarian poet, Kosztolányi Dezső. And as had happened on the way in, the train sat for 45 minutes about 100 m out of the station while passports were checked. Then, across the border in Hungary, some 10 km later, we sat for another 45 minutes while passports were checked again and customs did their bit. Disturbingly, this time, the hotel had given us a stamped form that we had to surrender on exit showing that we’d be registered as foreign visitors. A dark patch on an otherwise glorious 36 hours.

First published in the Budapest Times 19 February 2016

Here today, gone tomorrow

I’ve been giving a lot of thought this week to the transiency of life. I’ve been paying more attention than usual to what I do each day. And I’ve even expanded my limited Hungarian vocabulary to include the phrase arany életem van (my life is golden).

Obrenovac, 40 kilometers west of Belgrade

Obrenovac, 40 kilometers west of Belgrade          (c) www.balkaneu.com

As I write, I’m in Belgrade. The floods that are ravaging towns on the banks of the River Sava in Serbia have killed and maimed, and made thousands homeless. Sure, someone said that heavy rains were expected but no one thought for a minute that the rains would be heavy enough to knock their houses and change their lives forever. The average rainfall for five months fell in just two days. From one day to the next, people have gone from having everything to having nothing. They’ve salvaged what they could and are now taking refuge in centres in Belgrade, dependent totally on the good will of others.

(c) www.balkaneu.com

(c) www.balkaneu.com

An appeal on Friday by the Prime Minister for people to turn out and help fill sandbags in an attempt to hold the banks saw more than 12 000 people show up. The streets of the city ring out with music played by groups of young musicians, all collecting money to help those displaced by the deluge. Everyone is talking about what has happened and how they can help. There is a palpable awareness that this, too, could have happened to them. The nation is responding en masse and it’s gratifying to see. And yet the common refrain I hear gives voice to the hope that this solidarity, this willingness to engage, to help, will continue long after the waters subside.

(c) reuters.com

(c) reuters.com

For me it has underscored the transiency of life – and the need to appreciate what I have because tomorrow, who knows; it might all be taken from me. Arany életem van most (my life is golden now).

Earlier in the week, I finally watched Adrian Brody’s The Pianist – a harrowing tale of Jews in Warsaw during the Second World War. I watched how they foraged for food salvaging every morsel. And then I noticed how I threw away the top of my tomato. I saw how I didn’t fully empty my tub of hummus before casting it aside. The peel of my avocado still had a lot of flesh on it. Back in 1944, these remnants would have made a feast for someone. Today, in 2014, the same applies.

I buy vegetables with every intention of cooking them and then I get invited to dinner. I get fed but the vegetables go to waste. I buy meats and cheeses that I intend eating but never quite get around to. I buy spices and herbs required by a recipe for a dish I only make once – and then they expire. A semi-annual clear-out of my kitchen presses is depressing as I throw out jar after jar of condiments have have passed their use-by date. And until this week, I did all of this without thought.

Neither world hunger nor natural disasters directly impinge on my life. I can sympathise with those affected but I can’t pretend for a minute to know what either are really like. I can send money to the Red Cross to help the flood victims. I can send money to aid agencies to help those who are starving. And while money helps – as prayers do – there are lessons to be learned, too. Better appreciate what I have. Eliminate wanton waste. Share willingly.

First published in the Budapest Times 23 May 2014

2013 Grateful 7

I’m not what you’d call a people person. Despite outward appearances, I find being around people all the time somewhat nerve wracking. Call it fanciful, but I can feel the energy seeping out of me and need time and space to recuperate. I dread networking events where small talk comes wrapped in hors d’oeuvres and niceties are made more palatable by the champagne.

IMG_7760 (800x600)So when I was invited to join a group of 26 Serbs, Macedonians, Kosovans, Croats, and one Dutch on a trip to the Holy Land, I was a little apprehensive. Apart from me and Roeland, everyone would speak the same language and I know how isolating that can be. Even our guide, Srdjan, was Serbian and while most spoke varying levels of English, the natural default was understandably Serbian or some variation thereof. Other than my friend Milutin, I would know nobody. This was definitely me moving out of my comfort zone but enticed by the idea of writing text to accompany his photographs, I signed up.

IMG_8095 (800x600)It didn’t help that after a day’s touring, I worked most evenings. Such are the joys of freelancing. You take the work when you can get it because you never know when it will dry up. But as a result, I missed out on some of the camaraderie. And yet I was conscious of how irritating it can be to have to translate a joke for someone after the punchline has been delivered. During the day, Roeland’s wife Olivera, a woman of immeasurable patience, translated for us… which I’m sure was a royal pain in the proverbial  for her but she was unwavering.

The group is solid – they’ve been travelling together since 2002 and all have a scouting background. I met Milutin through scouts, too, and although we had that in common at least, no one knew me from Adam. And no one judged. If I wandered off from the group, no one batted an eyelid. If I chose to sit apart with my book, no one took offence. If I sat at a table on my own for dinner, no one commented. That’s what I love about the Balkans – this lack of judgment, this acceptance of life for what it is, of people for who they are.

IMG_8680 (800x600)The trip itself was exhausting. Breakfast at 6.30 most mornings, on the bus by 7.30 and then away for the day, stopping here, there, and yonder. Srdjan had mapped out a packed itinerary and included enough free time to wander cities like Jerusalem and Bethlehem, with the occasional choice thrown in for good measure: an hour at the beach or yet another church or monastery. Despite the full agenda, the early mornings, and the late nights, the good spirits never waned. Rakija is to the Balkans what air is to the rest of the world. To see a bottle of this spirit make its way down the bus before 8 in the morning and then reappear at various times during the day was nothing short of amazing. Who drinks that early? And yet it was never overdone – just a sip every so often to keep the bugs at bay. In the evenings, in Tiberius, I joined a few of the lads on the wall outside the hotel where we sat around before dinner having a beer, Milutin translating for me so that I didn’t miss out on what was being said. And it was there that I came appreciate, once again, that sense of humour that sets them apart as a nation – as self-deprecating as the Irish, and as deadpan in their delivery, their readiness to release their inner child is enviable. The laughter was constant and came from the heart.

IMG_8232 (800x701)I’ve long since enjoyed a love affair with the Balkans. Three of my favourite men in the world are Serbian. As a people, they rate highest on my scale of nation favourites. There’s something about their attitude to life, their ability to enjoy the moment, their constant good humour, and their readiness to engage in informed discussions on just about anything that makes them unique. Everyone has a story – one that involves resilience, humility, and an insight into what’s important in life (family and friends) that leave most other nations standing still in their wake.

IMG_7750 (800x600)Age does not limit them. It doesn’t seem to matter at all. They might have respectable day jobs with multinationals or international organisations, jobs that are demanding in so many ways, yet they wear this responsibility lightly, recognising that while it is important, work is not the be all and end all of life. Friends and family come first and foremost.

I fell into conversation with one of the older lads who told me of a trip he’d made to London when he was 17. At immigration, he was asked if he had enough money to keep himself for two months. Standing tall, he replied: I am visiting a Serbian family; I have no need for money. I’ve witnessed this hospitality on more than one occasion and it still warms the cockles of my heart.

What can I say? In a week that saw a host of illusions being shattered, I am grateful that at least one conviction has remained intact. I’m still deeply in love with the Balkans and its peoples.

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

Voting…from the outside

hungarian passportI read with some interest today that some
360 000 Hungarian passports have been issued to Hungarian speakers not resident in the country since the government, in its infinite wisdom, introduced a fast-track scheme in 2010. Most are from neighbouring areas that were once part of Hungary. Most are from Romania –  a country that is already part of the EU – and some from Ukraine and Serbia. This I can understand as it will give them access to the EU and fair play to them for taking advantage of what I see as a very ill-advised and suspect move on behalf of the government.

What is a little frightening, though, is that these 360 000 people, regardless of whether they have ever set foot in present-day Hungary let alone lived here and paid taxes, will have the right to vote in the 2014 elections.  The article  in the Budapest Times reported that another 80 000 applications are being processed, which will swell the electoral roll by 440 0oo new voters. I dread to think how many will choose to show their appreciation for their new útlevélek at the ballot box and what influence these absentee voters might have.

I am reminded of my time in Oxford when my flatmate was horrified when I received a polling card to vote in the local elections. I wasn’t British. So why should I have a say in who ran the city, let alone the country. But I was living there and paying taxes, which to my mind qualified me to vote. It gave me a say.

I am now wondering what entitlement I have as card-carrying resident of Hungary with an Irish passport. I live here. I pay taxes. Does that entitle me to a vote? Does anyone know?

I have a US passport but would never in a million years dream of voting in a US election as I haven’t lived there in more than 12 years. Should I ever return, top on my list of things to do will be so register to vote. Equally, I have an Irish passport, but do not vote there either because I don’t live there permanently. Ditto re registering. From where I’m sitting, if I’m not part of the daily grind, if I’m not affected by the policies of the government, if I’m not subject to its laws, then I don’t have a say in who does what. Yes, I can have my opinion and I can bitch and moan with the best of them on the state of play in either country, but vote? That’s an honour to which I don’t think I’m entitled.

My question to other expats in Budapest: Do you vote? Can you vote? And, if so, how do you go about registering? Is speaking Hungarian a prerequisite? And is having a Hungarian passport a necessity?

Back in the Balkans

Get the phone call – revise the route – hop on a train – and enjoy the best of Serbian hospitality. Just another Sunday in my world. I’d planned to go to Belgrade anyway, so this diversion wasn’t too much out of my way.

12.35 arrive in Subotica 12.50. Find my pick-up – friends of a friend whom I’ve never met before.13.10 stop at the goat lady to buy some cheese.

The sprightly 63-year-old retired locksmith has about 40 goats and lives in a house she built herself. Her account of a run-in with the local authorities over the rights to the grass at the airport was so animated that I didn’t need to understand Serbian to get her drift and be suitably amazed and entertained. I can only home that I’m in as fine a fettle when I get to her age. 14.00 arrive at  Palić to the No. 36 to meet my friend and the rest of the crew and to sample some grapefruit beer (a first for me). 15:15 depart for Paprika čarda, a restaurant on the shore of Palić lake.

At some stage, we passed the Olympic tower. I’ve been to Palić before but hadn’t realised the story behind it.  In the late nineteenth century,  before Pierre de Coubertin’s modern Olympic Games took full flight, local entrepreneur Lajos Vermes organised sports competitions in Palić, gathering the best athletes from Central Europe. Who’d have thought it, eh?

Lunch had been ordered ahead of time as our party had now grown to nine. The most fluent in non-native speaker of English by far was 12-year-old Makarije, who wowed me with his plans to enter the world of stem cell research as soon as he turned university age. When I asked where he had learned his English – he shrugged nonchalantly and said:  Television. Perhaps it’s time I invest in one!

Our menu was simple: fish and chips to start with, followed by fish soup. A little arse-about-face, I thought… but when in Serbia do as the Serbs do. And I was starving. Mention fish and chips and I am transported to an Irish chipper  and greasy chips with cod in batter or perhaps to the more refined Cajun-style offer now available in Budapest, so I wasn’t expecting the communal platter of breaded whitebait. As we picked our way through the mouthfuls of fish, conversation flitted from Hungarian and Serbian politics to the joys (or lack thereof) of school inspection systems, from what we could expect later on the Tisza to the neutrality of the Press. We covered sailing in Montenegro, the cyclical nature of life, nationalism, citizen engagement and the sublime joy of food, wine, and travel. The patience of those present with my lack of Serbian and their willingness to involve me in the conversation was lovely. My Balkan affair was renewed and I found myself wondering what it would be like to live by a lake.

The fish soup was sweet and tasty and served with noodles. Not a bone in sight.  Chunks of fresh, fleshy fish floated in good company with balls of fish eggs. I had not one, but two helpings, and had I had more time and notches in my belt, I could willingly have gone back for more. Another first for me as fish soup isn’t high on my list of culinary delights.

The view from the table was calm and serene. The weather was a little hot but the crisp local white wine mixed with gentle splashings of soda water made it easier to assimilate. It was a gorgeous afternoon. As we readied ourselves for the evening and our visit  to the Tisza River to watch the mayflies mating, I was reminded once again of how travel has broadened my horizons and how casual conversations and serendipitous introductions can herald the beginning of lasting friendships. Thanks, MM.