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At the edge of a tradition (3)

It’s not often that parties in my world start at 7.30 am these days. Perhaps years ago when I was following Irish soccer and time differences meant that the World Cup games were shown at dawn, I’d be in the thick of it when the bars opened. But that was years ago, when I was younger, fitter, and able to last the pace. Nowadays, if I can hold my own till midnight, I’m happy. But starting at 7.30 am, I had no chance. Yet I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to attend a proper, country disznóvágás, especially one that was thrown for Békéscsaba Előre, my football team. Pick yourselves up off the floor:  not alone have I done the pig killing thing to death this year, I’m now a soccer fan to boot.

It was another early morning start but the pig was already dead when we got there. Utensils were laid out and no time was wasted in starting the depilation. The team vice-captain, Gyuri, won’t ever be stuck for a day job. He’s a good man with a blade; heavy work but someone has to do it.

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By 8am I was on my third pálinka (which, as Hungarians say, in small amounts is a medicine and in large amounts a remedy; whatever I had is now officially cured). I rarely touch the stuff, and then only to remind myself how much I hate it. But I was conscious of the fact that I was a guest (and a foreigner at that) and should behave accordingly. So I knocked ’em back – peach, cherry, plum, and quince. The boys found my grimacing hilarious. When I started turning in circles and doing a little dance, they got a tad worried. I detest neat alcohol. I’m a philistine. I need mixers. But I had to show willing and show willing I did.

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At around 9 am breakfast was served. Hagmás vér – blood onion – accompanied by pickled cabbage and pickled peppers and pickled cucumber. I can’t say I was salivating at the prospects of a bowl of cooked blood but again, I had to show willing. I couldn’t let the side down – I might well have been the first Irish person the town had seen. One bite in though, I was converted. It sounds gross, but it tastes divine. This was one of the best breakfasts I’ve had – ever. Did I mention the pálinka?

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The decibels had risen and the quiet of the early morning had dissipated in a fire of onion breath and beer. The party had begun.

The assembly line converged. Each had their job to do – which, in true democratic style, could be as much or as little as you wanted. Me? I watched and took notes. Did I mention the pálinka? The meat was carved up, its future decided by whomever was in charge at any given moment in time. The sausages were made, the kolbász too, with a sizable chunk taken to the kitchen for lunch.

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It seemed like everyone had their particular specialty and favourite thing to do. Some of these lads have been dicing up pigs for longer than I’ve been alive. This is the tradition, the party, the celebration. When it came to the sausage making, Henry Ford couldn’t have done better. It was all hands on meat as the casings were filled for drying. Me? I was fascinated by the splitting of hooves and will never quite think of a pedicure in the same way again. Did I mention the pálinka?

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I’d lost count at this stage but judging from how much my Hungarian was improving, I’d say I’d had too many. And it wasn’t even noon! It felt like it was midnight. When the music kicked off and the cards came out, I thought I was at home in Ireland – except for the noticeable absence of women, which made dance partners a premium. [One thing I’ve never yet seen Hungarian men do, no matter how fast the pálinka has been flowing – I’ve never seen them dance together.] Zoli, our host, was in fine singing voice and the place was buzzing. But the songs… the songs lasted for hours. None of your three-minute jobs here. As I was being ducked and dived around the dance floor by whomever was passing by and fancied a dance, it felt like the end would never come. Then I realised that it wasn’t just the one song – it was that they all sounded the same to my untrained ear. Or…. it could have been the pálinka.

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Lunch was divine – but at this stage, anything would have tasted great. Pork, pork and more pork. With lots of vegetables. The tepertő (crackling) was to die for. And then more dancing. And then the wine came out. By the time 4 pm rolled around, I was saying mass. My notebook was full of squiggles and exclamation marks. I’d dropped my camera on the concrete floor and it had died a death, which was probably just as well. My feet ached. My head was spinning. And three men had sworn blind that if they hadn’t been married already, I’d be at the altar on the morrow.

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But it wasn’t all about the pálinka or the sausage. I had a blast. Perhaps my being a foreigner helped. I know that my curiosity did. Everyone I met was just lovely and for about five minutes, I found myself wishing that I was young enough to be a WAG.  Okay – so maybe it was more like half an hour. I was on pálinka time.

When it comes to hospitality, the boys in Békéscsaba certainly know how to throw a party. I’m really looking forward to being in the stands when the lads take to the pitch in March. And my dance card already has names pencilled in for the stadium opening that same month. And, in the meantime, if I come across a time machine, perhaps that WAG thing could be a reality.

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2013 Grateful 17

My interest in soccer died when Jack Charlton retired as manager of the Republic of Ireland team. When players started earning obscene sums of money for prancing around a pitch and giving Oscar-worthy performances of being injured in a tackle only to bounce up bright as new seconds later, I gave up on soccer and pledged my allegiance to the more manly sport – rugby.

IMG_7331 (800x600)I had forgotten how engrossing it can be, though, to watch a soccer game …live. Especially when the teams that are playing are young, not yet corrupted by fame and fortune, and still in possession of the dream – the dream to play their hearts out and win.

Létavértes is a small town of about 3000 people close to the Hungarian/Romanian border. Its team plays in the third division under the auspices of Debrecen. Under the watchful eye of ZS, they have been doing well this season. Yesterday, they played an away game in Budapest against Ferencváros’s second team (Fradi 2). I was one of the six-country cohort that went along to cheer them on and I am so glad I did.

IMG_7342 (800x600)I’d been a little reluctant to go to a Fradi game as I’d witnessed the first team’s reception in Nyíregyháza when they had an away game there a few years ago. Armed police escorts, brawling fans, and mob-like chants – all very intimidating. While Fradi might rank up there amongst the best teams in the country, its fans are famous for their racist, anti-Semitic cat calls and a hooliganism that could stand alongside the worst of what British football has every produced.

But I needn’t have worried. There might have been 100 people in the grounds of Gozdu Palya in Népliget and the vast majority were supporting the home team. Yet there was nothing intimidating about any of them. When the teams went through their opening rituals, I was amazed at how young they looked. Their eagerness to get started was infectious. Their neon-coloured football boots created a rainbow affect against the green of the grass, and it was all go from the start.

IMG_7332 (800x591)LétaV played their hearts out. They attacked. They took opportunities. They made the breaks. And they missed. Yet with just two minutes to go, they were one up. And then Fradi scored two goals in quick succession. It was heartbreaking. Heartbreaking to see a young team have their neon-clad feet swept from under them (a magnificent No. 27 subbed on and he just 18 years old,  and I’d give it to No. 7 and No 13 for the dogged determination they displayed) . Their star player, a young Brazilian, in a No. 19 jersey, was the most marked man on the pitch and while not quite on his game, he was amazing to watch. I’d forgotten the skill that soccer requires. I’d forgotten the dexterity that top players have. I’d forgotten that, all things considered, it’s still a game worth watching.

The goalie, who reminded me a little of Packy Bonner, did his damnedest. Mind you, he didn’t have a lot to do as Fradi were never really in the game (until those fateful final two minutes) with any amount of offensive. The LétaV lads seemed to be doing all the work.

IMG_7348 (800x600)It was soul-destroying to see their three points disappear in a puff of latent adrenalin. And to see them slink off the pitch, despondent, when they should have been walking tall…it was gut wrenching. They played by far the better game and were by far the better players. But on the day, it just didn’t go their way.

As we sat in a nearby bar waiting for ZS to appear, they walked by on their way to the bus that would ferry them back to Debrecen. We cheered. They looked. And we realised that they thought we were taking the mickey. One of ours was in a green shirt – the Fradi colours. Who was to know.

Next time, as a fan group, we need to get our act together. We need to rehearse our cheers that will out-do the moronic Fradi chants that bordered on the neanderthal. We need to colour coordinate in red and white. And we need to get to know the names of the players. Shouting top volume to egg on No. 27 ain’t quite as powerful as telling Lászlo or Tamás to get the boot in.

The fan club – Wales, England, Ireland, Catalonia, the United States, and Hungary – as a body were so very proud of our lads and how they played. And as they left the pitch, we felt their pain. But we’ll be back. And we’ll travel to Debrecen if needs be.

IMG_7364 (800x637)This week, I’m grateful to the players at Létavértes for reminding me of the golden days of Italia ’90, when we’d barrel in to the Lord Mayor’s in Swords, two hours before kick-off, just to be sure we had a seat. When all anyone talked about was where they were going to watch the match. When the entire country came to a standstill for 90 minutes as we watched our boys, en masee, fight for glory. Those who’d taken holidays to go to the opening games called home looking for extended leave. And if they didn’t get it, they quit. They called home asking for loans to finance their extended stay and if they didn’t them, they remortgaged their houses. Companies brought in TVs and beer so that their staff would at least work up until 30 minutes before kick-off. The country, probably for the last time in recent memory, was united behind Jack’s Army. Those days indeed were the glory days. And it was soccer that knit us all together.

And while you can’t compare the European championships or World Cup antics with a second division game in Gozdu Palya, it did it for me. The lads at LétaV have rekindled my interest in soccer and reminded me of how good it is to be young, and energetic, and in charge of life. I sit tonight, somewhat chastened; embarrassed at how easily I give up at times, especially on things I want so badly. Their will, their tenacity, and their determination were an inspiration. You might have lost that game, LétaV, but you’ve won so much more. Go n’éiri an bothair libh.

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

Grateful 30

I was born Irish and I’ll die Irish. My nationality is something I used to take for granted. Being Irish wasn’t an issue. It simply was what I was. It didn’t become an issue until I first went to the States. Living as an expat in California was akin to wearing your Irishness on your sleeve – literally. It seemed that the Irish abroad were a lot more patriotic and a lot more… well… Irish… than the Irish at home. Some took up Irish-language lessons. Others joined Irish drama groups. More still started playing hurling or camogie. It was as if moving away from home and being in the minority instead of being in the majority had tilted that patriotic fulcrum to the extreme.

I used to resent people claiming Irish heritage. Why couldn’t they be happy with being American, or English, or whatever… why did they have to be three-quarters this and an eighth that? In my innocence, an innocence bred under the umbrella of a solid uprearing and fixed values, I never really appreciated what it was to be Irish until I started travelling in earnest.Then I saw how universally liked we are. Perhaps it’s our self-deprecation, or our conviviality, or our ability to talk to prince or pauper. Perhaps it’s our humour, or our melancholy, or our sheer pig-headedness. Perhaps it has nothing to do with us at all and more to do with the celluloid image immortalised by the forty shades of green, the Quiet Man, or the infamous Jack Doyle. Who knows.

Last Monday evening, I sat with hundreds of others in the stands of Ferenc Puskas stadion to see Ireland play Hungary in their last soccer international before Euro2012. The match was delayed because of the thunder and lightning. But that didn’t matter. Some say it was the best part of the evening! We were in the only covered stand in the stadium and I had a back row seat so the weather didn’t bother me. I barely knew anyone on the team. I have little interest in soccer but had come out to support the home side. I’m Irish. That’s what we do.  In the pub afterwards, I managed to disagree with most of the post-mortems, quite happy to have a scoreless draw and no injuries. A classic case of very little knowledge being a very dangerous thing. The craic was good – so good that for a while, it felt like being at home. And then it hit me. Irishness – being Irish – is a state of mind. It travels with you and is not tied to any one place.

Brendan Behan, a favourite author of mine, reckons that other people have a nationality but that the Irish and the Jews have a psychosis. And perhaps our sense of reality is a little distorted and perhaps the sky is a little too green in our world – but it is a lovely world in which to live – and a lovely identity with which to travel.

This week, as the temperatures rocket and the heat brings out my bad humour, as I watch my list of things to do grow longer, as I start scheduling lunches in July, I am grateful that here, in Budapest, there are people (Hungarians as well) who know  what it is to be Irish – and I am grateful that I know them, too.

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

Tune in or turn off as soccer hell beckons

A fever is approaching the edge of Europe. Hovering on the outskirts, it is gathering momentum ready to make a full-on assault on 8 June 2012. Experts reckon it will reach its peak on 1 July. Collateral damage is expected to be high. Those who succumb to the fever will be rendered incapable of talking about anything other than what ails them. Those who live with them or work with them face a gruelling four weeks of sleepless nights and inane conversation. Big screens are being erected. Fans are pulling out their colours. And facepaint will be the most sought-after cosmetic on the market. Euro 2012 is about to unleash itself upon the world.

What’s in a name?

The UEFA European Football Championship has played itself out every four years since 1960.  Originally called the UEFA European Nations Cup, it changed to its current name in 1968. And then in 1996, it adopted the more manageable form of Euro 2012 or whichever year is appropriate. But no matter what you choose to call it, if you’re not involved, if you’re not interested, if you’re not a soccer head, you’re in for four weeks of hell. Four weeks where every watering hole this side of the Atlantic will be showing soccer matches. Four weeks during which fashion gives way to team jerseys and national colours. Four weeks in which conversation revolves around the permutations and combinations needed to win. Sheer hell.

And hell is how I remember Euro 2008 in Budapest. It was as if life stood still and all other forms of entertainment were mothballed. It was soccer or ….soccer. I watched one match and I can’t for the life of me remember who was playing. I know Ireland missed out on qualifying by drawing with Germany in front of a home crowd of 67,495 fans in Dublin. What interest I might have had died a death as the final whistle blew.

Jack’s army

When Jack Charlton managed the Irish team and brought us to Italia 1990, I was part of a nation that lived, breathed, and slept with soccer. I was working in Dublin in the Bank of Ireland and remember the government advising employers to supply TVs for their staff to avoid the whole workforce going off sick. Grannies dyed their hair green, white, and orange. Tourists wondered why there were no taxis or buses on the road. During match times, the silence on the streets was punctuated with loud roars from the pubs as people cheered on the boys in green. It was a fantastic time. A nation united. Had Jack Charlton run for President of the country, he’d have been elected (assuming the matter of his holding a British passport could be overlooked). The big question on everyone’s lips was ‘where are we going to watch the match!’ Those who had gone to Italy were writing home for money; quitting their jobs when their bosses wouldn’t sanction additional leave; and pledging their first-born sons to anyone who might fund their extended stay.

But that was then. When Jack left, he took my interest with him. This, too, was around the time I moved to the States and so baseball and basketball took over what little sporting interest I had. When I came back to Ireland, I converted to rugby – a far better class of men. As far as I was concerned, the WAGs could keep their pretty boys and soccer could keep its prima donnas.

An interest reborn

As Euro2012 approaches, though, Ireland has qualified. And what’s more, Ireland is playing a friendly with Hungary, in Budapest, on Monday, June 4th. And the question on my mind: will I go? My deep-rooted sense of patriotic duty would have me on the sidelines of an egg and spoon race were Ireland being represented. But eggs and spoons are interesting. Could I bring myself to watch a soccer match – to sit through a full 90 minutes of theatrics (assuming goals are scored) by metrosexual men who earn millions running around a pitch, occasionally jumping in the air, and hugging their team mates? But it’s Ireland. And it’s Hungary. And I’m in Budapest. And I can get a ticket. So yes, I should go.

In preparation, I watched the highlights of Ireland’s last international at home against Bosnia & Herzegovina. I recognised but one name – Robbie Keane. And the Dublin man is looking as good as ever. But one name? Therein lies a problem. If I’m going to cheer my head off, I will need to at least know their names. So I have to do my homework. I have a few days to get to grips with who’s playing in what position and the friendly at Ferenc Puskás Stadion on Monday will be a good text of my new-found interest. Who knows, it might just last all the way through to 1 July.

First published in the Budapest Times 1 June 2012

Real Madrid

IMG_2555And, no, I’ve not gone over the other side. But even I had to respect the greatness that is Real Madrid and pay homage when living practically next door, albeit for 48 hours, to what some consider to be sacred ground. And it was quite the experience. Somehow, I’d never equated a soccer stadium with clubbing, or ever imagined a soccer crowd clad in Prada, Ralph Lauren and D&G… and that’s not even going near the girls. Madrid truly is home to some beautiful people; never once did I see an inch of scruff on a Spanish-speaking  bod. Bright colours, up-to-the-minute fashion, perfectly coiffed and manicured, these lads are gorgeous. And lovely. Chatty, intelligent, and lots of fun. And what profiles!!! Even their graffiti is a cut above the ordinary. Heads are round to allow thoughts to flow in all directions.

The first thing that struck me about Madrid is the greenery. I had to keep reminding myself I was in  city. Magnolia trees everywhere. Long, wide avenues lined with green; huge parks with water fountains, lakes and more trees. It is beautifully sculpted. It, too, has its old parts, its grand squares, and its narrow, cobblestoned streets. It also has its ultramodern skyline with every brand name you can think of dotting the horizon. It’s a strange mix, this old and new and had it not been 38 degrees in the shade, I might have given it a little more thought. It’s definitely out of my time zone – the afternoon siesta I can deal with; going out to eat at 10 or 11 at night would take a complete reprogramming of my body clock. Staying out until 6am is what I used to do…perhaps that’s it. In Madrid, I felt old.  IMG_2673

After seven years in Alaska, I find it difficult to cope with heat if I’m not near water (and yes, I too ask myself what I’m doing in Budapest… ) Sitting in the shadow of the palace having coffee, I saw three older women, dolled up to the nines, gilt edged and gorgeous enjoying an animated chat over an aperitif or three. One in particular struck me and I found myself hoping that I would be just like her when I got to her age. Eccentrically gorgeous, gossiping with my girlfriends and setting the world to rights over a glass of wine. The sheer energy of the Madridites is exhausting.

The lovely KB, my guide, and her gorgeous fellah R_G, crammed as much as possible into two days. I saw lots and more. I discovered Clara – lager with lemon; ate tapas until they came out my ears; and even had my cards read. Another story entirely.