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The cheapest legal high you can get

If I had a pálinka for every great idea I’ve had that’s come to nothing, I’d be in a state of permanent inebriation. I could live out the rest of my days high on the fumes of failed ambition. Great ideas I can do. It’s making them happen that confounds me. Not, of course, because I’m incapable; more because I just can’t be bothered. There always seems to be something else to do, something more important, something more immediate.

Over a lingering lunch about six years ago in a restaurant called Vadász just behind Arany Janos metro station, I sat in the almost surreal British-pub like interior with my good friend Gretchen Meddaugh. We were bemoaning the fact that so many people in Budapest had yet to appreciate that speaking in public is one of the best, and cheapest, legal highs a body can get. Forget the pálinka – if you needed something to make you feel alive, all you had to do was to get in front of a microphone and speak.

As the conversation bounced back and forth, we parsed and analysed the various forums in the city that facilitated speaking in front of an audience and decided that it needed one more – one that was unfettered by rules and regulations, one that was unstilted rather than scripted, one where people could come in to their own. And Gretchen made me do it.

Since then, each year (bar one), expats and Hungarians alike have been testing their mettle, getting on stage in front of friends and strangers alike to see if they have that gift which is universally attributed to the Irish  – the gift of the gab. And yet after five successful seasons, which have produced five stellar finalists, there’s not one Irish person to be seen amongst them. The mind boggles.

GT2The gift of the gab is variously defined as (i) to talk idly or incessantly, as about trivial matters, (ii) the ability to talk readily, glibly, and convincingly, and (iii) the ability to speak easily and confidently in a way that makes people want to listen to you and believe you.

In two weeks’ time, on Friday, 18th September, the Final of the Finalists takes place.  Rupert Slade (2010, English), Patrick McMenamin (2012, Scottish), Hans Peterson (2013, American), Viktor Morandini (2014, Hungarian), and Jennifer Walker (2015, English) will compete to see which one of them has that unequivocally Irish trait, that ability to talk to just about anyone, just about anywhere, about just about anything.

For those of you who have yet to attend the charity speech slam (where have you been?), it goes like this. Each contestant gives a five-minute prepared speech on a topic of their choice and a three-minute impromptu on a topic suggested by the audience. [And we’ve had some doozies over the years – can you imagine speaking for three minutes about peas? Or curtains? Or pavements? Or why bird poop is black and white?] Five judges chosen on the night will decide who gets to take home the trophy.

It’s all happening at the New Orleans Music Club on Lovag utca in the VI kerulet and kicks off at 7.30 pm. Doors open at 6.15 pm for those who’d like to eat. Tickets can be purchased from the venue (10am – 5pm) and cost 2000-2500 huf. All proceeds (every single forint) go to the Irish Hungarian Business Circle’s Give a Little charity campaign that supports Topház Speciális Otthon a Special Needs home in Göd. See www.speechslam.com for more details. Come along. Be entertained. Support the cause. In today’s world of redundant political rhetoric, it’s not often that you get the opportunity to see hot air and bluster do some good.

First published in the Budapest Times 4 September 2015

Speaking for charity

‘How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.’ When Shakespeare first penned those lines in the Merchant of Venice, he had something. Centuries later, the sentiment still holds true. Good deeds restore our faith in human nature. They are the icing on the cake. The froth on a beer. The latte art on an espresso. And ranking high up on the list of good deeds is volunteering. Those who can, do; those who can do more, volunteer.

I discovered recently that Hungary has a National Volunteer Centre (ÖKA) and a Volunteer Centre Network. I had the good fortune to meet with Executive Director, András F. Tóth, and to learn about the work being done to create a pro bono culture within Hungarian business society. Corporate volunteer strategies are on their way to becoming very much part of doing business in Hungary. Good news.

I grew up in a society were volunteerism was part of the norm. If you didn’t have it on your CV, you wouldn’t get a job. Everyone was involved in some voluntary capacity in one of the myriad organisations set up for the betterment of society. It was just something you did almost without thought.

No night out was complete without someone launching into the litany: ‘I’m shaving my head or growing a mustache or dancing for 24 hours [insert as appropriate] in aid of X charity – will you sponsor me?’ And if it wasn’t sponsorship lines, it was raffle tickets, or charity concerts, or cake sales. People dug deep into their pockets and supported the cause.

GOTGfinalIn Budapest, since 2010, the Gift of the Gab has been providing an opportunity for people to both volunteer and contribute. From September every year, each month (skipping December) five speakers would give a five-minute prepared speech on a topic of their choice. Scored by a panel of randomly selected judges, topics ran the gamut from answering the age-old – What’s the difference between a duck? – to the virtues of arranged marriages. In the second half, speakers had to choose a topic suggested by the audience. These ranged from the bizarre – why is bird poop black-and-white – to the more banal – paving stones or peas or curtains. The winner from each of the five qualifying rounds went forward to the final in March.

Next week, on Thursday, 12th March, at New Orleans on District VI’s Lovag utca, the 2015 final will determine the winner of this, the last in the series. Five hopefuls, having made it through the qualifiers, will take to the stage as 200 or so ticketed attendees do their bit to support the Irish Hungarian Business Circle’s Give a Little charity campaign. It promises to be a great night.

Over the course of the five seasons, more than 110 speakers have taken part and given their time to raise funds for Topház Speciális Otthon in Göd. Thousands more have donated at the door and come out to support them. The volunteer judges, photographers, sponsors, and helpers, have worked hard to make it all happen on the night. And together, their work has benefited some two hundred or more clients at the orphanage, while the generous fans and supporters have been entertained.

It’s been great to see how it has all evolved and I look forward to the big final in September that will pit the five title-holders against each other to determine who in Budapest has the Gift of the Gab. In the meantime, let me borrow again from Shakespeare: I can no other answer make, but, thanks, and thanks. 

First published in the Budapest Times 6 March 2015

Words, in their many manifestations

Defining times

Did anyone else notice the classified that ran in last week’s Budapest Times, the one entitled ‘Looking for?’ Or am I the only one, apart from the editors, who reads the paper, cover to cover, ads and all? In it, a person (gender not given) currently living in Germany (nationality not stated) is looking for someone (again, gender preference not noted) who is over 45 and wants to share a future, to travel around Europe (I wonder what’s wrong with the rest of the world and if it’s off limits for a reason) and see the world (oh, no, it’s just that the world in this instance is limited to Europe).

Ask and you shall receive

As I’m a firm believer in putting the ask out there, in challenging the universe to deliver, I commend this person for being so bold and for taking that step forward. I sincerely hope it works out and that they get the answer they’re looking for, in whatever form or fashion it takes.

What got me thinking though was the sentence ‘My financial relations are very good; so I have no economic sorrows’. It isn’t strange how we define ourselves, and even stranger how we define others. That this would be the one thing the writer thought important to highlight says so much about their perceived notion of the world and what they believe potential applicants might expect. I can’t quite imagine ever introducing myself as such: Hello, my name is Mary. I’m financially solvent.

The gift of the gab

Some of you might know that I front the speech slam Gift of the Gab [shameless plug: final is Thursday, 14th March, at New Orleans on Lovag utca www.speechslam.com]. Each month, five contestants all give a five-minute prepared speech on a topic of their choice followed by a three-minute impromptu on a topic chosen by the audience. My job is to keep the audience engaged as the judges, randomly chosen, decide their scores.

Ideally, my blathering will in some way connect to what the speaker has just spoken about – and as I’ve just heard the speech for the first time, too, it involves some quick thinking to come up with a relevant yarn. For the most part, my stories all have a kernel of truth which I embellish with the intention of amusing those who have come to support the cause.

The 100 or so people in the room know me by name; some of them I know to varying degrees, some I don’t know at all. But each of them forms an opinion of me, based on what I say. I’ve had people sympathise with me about my weight; commiserate with me about my single status; and offer hugs when I’ve spoken about being an emotional wreck. It would seem that everything I say is taken literally – and, truth be told, that’s no one’s fault but my own. What I say, the stories I tell, define me. For those listening I become that person. Nietzsche is on record as saying that ‘All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.’ Perhaps he has something there.

A life without issue

Some weeks ago, I noticed a spate of headlines that confounded me: grandfather describes crash that killed boy riding tricycle; NYC mother killed in Turkey; father of four found guilty of assault. That these subjects were defined by their children got me thinking. Does being a grandfather make you a better witness? Does being an NYC mother make your death more awful? Does being the father of four kids make you prone to assault? Where’s the connection here?

Were I to do something newsworthy, I wonder what the headline would read? Perhaps ‘Childless woman’s mint sauce recipe makes millions.’ I doubt it.

words-1Who are we, really?

I have spent the greater part of my life being my parents’ daughter, my brother’s sister, so-and-so’s girlfriend, or someone else’s friend. My character has been compartmentalised with similar abandon – you know Mary… she talks a lot, she’s not at all backward about coming forward, she’s very particular about her punctuation. It seems as if we’re all destined to have such strap lines attached to us, strap lines which depend in large part on other people’s perceptions of what we do.

Who? Her? She’s a drinker. She plays around. She’s got no sense of humour. Who? Him? He’s neurotic. He’s needy. He’s mad in the head. We throw out these one-liners, which are, in effect, a knee-jerk reaction to some part of the person we’ve seen; rarely the whole person, just some part that we’ve been exposed to. We react viscerally to something in them that strikes a chord in us. And, as Jung so rightly pointed out, ‘Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.’

I know. I’ve found myself doing it lately when asked if I know someone… I can’t just stop at a simple yes. I have to qualify it by offering my tuppence ha’penny worth of insight into their character. It’s a dangerous practice, though, because it’s nothing more than my opinion – and sometimes, opinions are best kept to ourselves.

First published in the Budapest Times 22 February 2013

The cheapest legal high you can get

(c) Alex Own

Way back in 2000, I graduated from Valdez Community College, affiliated to the University of Alaska. I was asked to give the graduation speech and I said no. I said no because I stammer. I don’t do it all the time and can go for weeks without incident but then come the days when I can’t say my own name. And as I can’t predict when these days will fall, I wasn’t about to get up on stage in front of 600 people …just in case.

The one thing I fear more than public humiliation is that feeling of regret. My e-mail signature contains the quote from Syndey Harris – Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable. So I changed my mind and gave that speech. The audience laughed and cried on cue. And I was hooked. Being able to engage with so many people at the one time was incredible. The adrenalin. The rush. The sense of accomplishment.

Back in 2008, when having lunch one day with GM, and talking about how there are so few opportunities for people to experience this high in Budapest, we began to speculate aloud and the result: The Gift of the Gab. The first series was a learning curve. I ended up funding it as we didn’t draw enough people to make it financially viable. By the time the final came around though, we had quite a following. But getting speakers was a problem. GM moved on and I wasn’t up for doing it on my own. It’s a lot of work. Then at various stages, others talked of doing something similar and I discovered in me a reluctance to see my baby exploited for profit. Quite an irrational thought in this day and age, I will admit. So I agreed to do it again – for charity.

The 2012 GOTG season began last September and has gone from strength to strength. People want to be on stage. People who competed this year and didn’t qualify want to try again next year. People came out and supported the cause, glad to be able to give a little, knowing that it would help a lot. The support was amazing. To those of you who are silently tempted to get on stage next year – but are still questioning your sanity, I say take the chance. Don’t regret not doing it. We’re not putting hearts in babies. No-one is going to die. The worst that can happen is that you bomb but at least you tried. The best that can happen is that it opens up a whole new world for you – and you get to experience, first-hand, the cheapest legal high you can get.

Grateful 50

High up there on my list of New Year’s resolutions is to stop being so preoccupied with age … and in particular, my age. For too many years now, I’ve been using it as some sort of yardstick – a measurement of how I should be, when really all I want to be is who I am. One of the beauties of moving around so much and re-inventing my life over and over again was the mental process of rebirth I went through each time I moved to a new city or country.

Those I count amongst my friends range in age from 23 to 95 and yet, although I have no problem with other people’s age, I find myself regularly joking about my own: about increasing the average age in the room when I enter or pointing out that I’m old enough to be someone’s mother. What have I been missing? A recent (and extremely painful) visit to my accupuncturist fixed some loose wiring in my psyche to the point that I no longer ask someone’s age and no longer offer mine unless directly challenged.

Out for drinks this week after a very successful Gift of the Gab, that broad hunk of British, KF, stated in no uncertain terms that he was older than me. I can’t quite remember how it came up in conversation but I sensed that he, like me, is regularly thought to be younger than we actually are. He had that tell-tale certainty about his assertion. Not one to resist a challenge, I asked him how much he cared to wager that he was not. Others around the table told me I’d lose – they said he was older than he looked – way older. I handed over my driver’s licence and suffice to say that my favourite charity is now 10,000 huf richer. I was highly amused at people’s idea of old and how relative that is. And I was gratified that everyone showed just the right amount of shock and horror at their poor judgment.

As this week draws to a close and I struggle to decipher the mess that Hungary finds itself in and get a handle on the work that’s been piling up all week, I’m grateful to those who keep me out until the small hours of the morning and make me laugh and keep me young. I could be run over by a bus tomorrow… and then it wouldn’t matter how old I was.

And as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: The age of a woman doesn’t mean a thing. The best tunes are played on the oldest fiddles.