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11:11 on the 11th

Before moving to Hungary, I thought I was pretty well-versed in my Catholic feast days. I knew enough to be a tad peeved when the Holy See decided to allow Bishops to move most Holy Days of Obligation (those days other than Sunday on which Catholics are obliged to go to mass) to the nearest Sunday. They said it was to accommodate our increasingly busy lifestyles. I’m still struggling to get my head around Ascension Thursday being on Sunday.

marton3In the past few years, 11 November has become one of my new favourite feast days – that of St Martin or Márton nap as it’s known in Hungary. Of course, it’s not exclusive to Hungary but I’m quite taken with how it’s celebrated here. The idea of having to eat goose at 11.11 a.m. on 11 November to avoid going hungry for a year is one I can live with. What I hadn’t realised though, is that it’s also a day for tasting new wines – those just opened after the grape harvest. What a perfect pairing.

What I also hadn’t realised is that St Martin, the son of a Roman tribune, was born centuries ago in Savaria, which is near Szombathely, Hungary (famous in my mind for being the birthplace of Leopold Bloom’s father in James Joyce’s Ulysses). Anyway, as the story goes, one night when Martin was soldiering for the Roman emperor in France, he saw a homeless guy and offered him half his cloak to keep warm. That night, in his dreams, Jesus appeared to him dressed in his cloak, thus sealing Martin’s faith and future. He left the army and turned instead to serve God. His good deeds earned him a reputation for compassion towards the poor. As his popularity grew, the powers that be decided to make him Bishop of Tours. Now, Martin wasn’t at all keen on the idea so hid in a barn full of geese when they came to collect him. But the traitorous geese gave him up which is why we eat them. And in 371 AD, Martin became Bishop of Tours.

There are lots of stories doing the rounds about geese on Márton nap. Geese once saved Rome from attack and were known to Romans as the sacred bird of Mars – and it’s not a goose step from that to Martin’s bird. Or, perhaps a more sensible explanation is that it falls at the end of the harvest season when workers received their annual wages (imagine that!) plus a goose (as a bonus).

marton4His goose connection having been safely established, St Martin as the appointed ‘judge of new wine’ is a later belief, and perhaps has more to do with timing than taste buds. Still, to his credit, the man has been busy and is now considered Patron Saint of France, horses, riders, soldiers, geese, and vintners.

Goose is a year-round staple on the Hungarian menu and my particular favourite place to eat it is a little restaurant called Huszár Étterem up near Második János Pál pápa tér. I go there reasonably often and the only time I don’t have the goose leg is when they’re out of it. And then I pout.

I’m a creature of cravings and when I crave goose, I want roasted goose leg with steamed red cabbage and roast potatoes. There are even days when goose crackling wins over chocolate.

But perhaps this year, we should look to Martin’s selflessness in sharing his cloak with a beggar. As well as thinking about how to avoid going hungry ourselves, we could think about sharing what we have with those who don’t have as much. Winter is coming and for many, life on the streets is about to get a lot worse. Just a thought.

First published in the Budapest Times 6 November 2015

A mutual love

Being Irish, I have an abiding sense of tragedy that sustains me through temporary periods of joy. I wish I could claim those words as my own but I can’t. They are why I fell in love with WB Yeats – Irish Nobel laureate, poet, playwright, politician, and romantic. They are also why the Internet me calls herself ‘stolenchild’ after the most beautiful of all his poems, one that speaks to the Irish worry that a child’s mind might be stolen by the fairies. I’ve been told repeatedly that I’m often away with the fairies – a poetic way of saying that my grip on reality can be tenuous at times.

That my love of Yeats might be shared by half of Ireland is no surprise. That my love of Yeats might be shared by a tranche of people in Hungary, though, is quite remarkable. I came across the newly formed Hungarian Yeats Society recently, an enterprise conceived by a young student, Melinda Szűts, who was so enchanted by Yeats’s poetry, drama, and literature that she wanted to bring his work to the attention of other Hungarians. They have big plans for next year, when the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth will see events in Debrecen, Pecs, Győr, and Budapest.

Damien Brennan, President of the Yeats Society of Sligo, the mothership of the Magyar Yeats Társaság, was in Budapest last weekend to give a talk at the Irish Ambassador’s residence on the life of Yeats. Hosted by HE Kevin Dowling, the early evening soirée gathered about 40 enthusiasts in search of something more than the usual dry biography such evenings often entail. Damien didn’t disappoint. He brought the man to life, sharing with us the details of his work that for many (ok, maybe just me!) had heretofore gone unremarked.

MGyeatsI was enthralled. I didn’t know that when Yeats first laid eyes on Maud Gonne, a woman he would love for nigh on 30 years, he remembered the moment as when  ‘the troubling’ of his life began, for Maud would never love him back. In fact, she didn’t want to love him because she ‘could never love him enough’. They did get together once, in Paris, in 1908, when, as another love put it, ‘the long years of fidelity were  rewarded at last’. Yet it was not to be.

But it is more than a love of Yeats that connects Ireland and Hungary. About 1000 Irish live here, the majority in Budapest. The Irish Hungarian Business Circle, with its legendary First Fridays, a social gathering that takes place in the city’s only Irish pub – Jack Doyle’s – on the first Friday of every month, attracts not just Irish and Hungarians but a host of other nationalities, too.

The annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations see thousands take to the streets wearing the green. While Szombathely, the homeplace of Leopold Bloom’s father, celebrates Bloomsday every year, Budapest has a Belated Bloomsday coinciding with Museums’ Night, when Joycean devotees gather to celebrate the life and work of another great Irish writer. And the Leopold Bloom Award, a contemporary art award established by an Irish logistics business with a Budapest presence, is given biannually to a young Hungarian artist.

Our most recent Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, was commemorated in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences earlier this year when Irish poet Medbh McGuckian came from Belfast to read his poems. And over in Győr, Irish pilgrims visit the Basilica to admire the famous weeping Madonna painting, donated by Bishop Walsh, from Ireland, who was given refuge there in the late seventeenth century.

Author James Michener once described Hungarians as the Irish of Eastern Europe. Is it any wonder that I feel so at home here?

First published in the Budapest Times 14 November 2014

The lakes at Szombathely

I have no sense of direction and had it been left to me to find our way to the lakes in Szombathely, I’d have called a taxi and saved myself the angst. But with the inimitable KG in charge of navigation we set off on what was to be a hot and somewhat torturous journey for me but with its reward looming at the end.

It was so hot that even the minnows took shelter under the willow trees. Szombathely lies by the  Perint and Gyöngyös streams, where the Lower Alps meet the Little Hungarian Plain.
It is the only place in Hungary that has been continuously inhabited for 2000 years. Legend has it that residents of Szombathely, fleeing from the Huns, went to Italy and founded Venice. I wonder what the Venetians think of that!

The lakes ( there are two) are a haven for boaters, fishermen, swans and ducks. There are plenty of seats and places to stop along the way and despite the ice-cream stand closing when the sun was as its peak, the place seemed normal enough, although again, I was struck by the lack of people and again I wondered where everyone was.

There’s a beautifully sited restaurant right on the shore that makes the best hazi limonade I have ever had.I was tempted to just stop there and not move until the sun went down and I’m sure that with my book and a some lemons, I’d have been quite happy. But the noise of people woke me up and tempted me forward. Life! Inhabitants!

Dragon boat races on the lake! What looked suspiciously like a team-building event with people in same colour t-shirts and dopey hats, was well underway . I’d never seen one of these dragon boats before and slightly in awe of the energy they could muster to row to win. Did I mention I how hot it was? But we were almost at the end of our walk – and the baths.

Day passes without access to the slides were a meagre 1200 huf – considerably less that what I’d pay in Budapest to spend the day at Palatinus. The pools had plenty of room and there was ample space to sling a towel in the sun or in the shade of some old pine trees. There were plenty of people but nothing near what I’d have expected. I reckon that this will be one of Hungary’s unsolved mysteries: Where do the people of Szombathely go?

Given how crowded Budapest’s baths are these days, it’s almost worth the three-hour train journey to Szombathely to have the space to swim and move around. Almost!

A step back in time

I’m a sucker for living history museums. The best I’ve ever seen was near Plymouth, in the USA, where the actors played their parts to the hilt, never wavering, despite the trick questions put to them by the tourists. Here in Szombathely, however, the Vas Museum was not so lively. Like most of the city, what was notable was the absence of people.

Since it opened in 1973, 43 buildings have been transplanted from 27 settlements in the region. Lying on the western bank of one of Szombathely’s fishing lakes, the museum is home to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century porták (farmhouses) that once stood in villages in the Őrség region. As was usual in villages on the western border, the houses are arranged around a semicircular street and include Croatian, German, and fenced houses.

Most of the houses can be visited and the interiors seem quite authentic. It isn’t hard to imagine people eating, sleeping, and cooking in these rooms but what stands out above all is the coolness of the buildings. No airconditioning in sight and yet the interiors feel 15 degrees cooler than the temperatures outside. So much for progress.

The whitewashed walls, daub floors, and wooden furniture are brought into start relief by splashes of colour found in the chimney tiles and  bed linens. It’s a quiet place to wander and quite easy to let yourself be pulled back through the centuries to a time where the community was such an important part of village life – a time where people actually knew each other, met up, and shared experiences in person. A time when life was simple and uncomplicated. I’m reminded of how far we’ve come and ask myself if I would swap my flat and the complexities of my life to go live back in the nineteenth century in one of these farmhouses. The jury is still considering.

According to what I’ve read in Lonely Planet, nettles from a strange plant called kővirózsa (stone rose) growing on the thatch were used to pierce little girls’ ears.

Buildings include wine cellars, a wooden belfry, and a nobleman’s house complete with porch. On St George and St Martin’s day, the place comes alive with folk art and fairs. Open all year round, entrance fee is 800 ft and well worth a gander if  you’re in the neighbourhood.

The Saturday Place

Szombathely translates literally as the Saturday Place and is the oldest and tenth largest city in Hungary. Dating back to 45 AD, Constantine the Great is said to have visited a number of times.  Hungarians finally took up residence in 900 AD after a string of other nationalities had been and gone. Beset by tragedy, the city has had quite a colourful past. In 1710, 2000 people lost their lives in a plague. In 1716 the city was destroyed by a fire, rebuilt and again destroyed in 1817.

Synagogue is now a concert hall

After the Treaty of Trianon, the city ceased to be the centre of Western Hungary as it was now just 10 km from the new border with Austria. On three days in July 1944, 4228  Jews were deported by the Hungarian authorities from Szombathely to Auschwitz.

The Iseum, a temple to the Goddess Isis,  also known as the Isis Szentély Romkertje,  is a 2nd century AD Roman temple site dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis. It was excavated in the 1950s. Today, part of the site has been reconstructed and you can still see the the ruins of two temples.

Walking around the town on a Saturday was a little surreal. Perhaps because it was so hot and the weather was keeping the people at bay. With a population of just 85 000 , it’s not exactly a metropolis but I’d have expected to see more bodies.  Like many other towns and cities in Hungary and indeed elsewhere, multinational chains have made their way to the high street but some locally owned boutiques are still clinging on for dear life.

At night, various cafés dot the town’s square and people sit underneath the awnings talking quietly. We ate at the Pannónia Ettérem and Café on Friday night, thankful to find somewhere open and still serving. The food was good, service pleasant, and atmosphere just right. A cocktail afterwards at Paparazzi rounded off the night nicely – and yes, they make a good cosmopolitan.

The next day, coffee at the Café Molo was a joy. Nestled right beside the music school, I enjoyed a morning cappucino to strains of jazz and blues while looking out over the Iseum. A picture perfect morning. The city is a curious mix of old and new and while it has a certain charm – not least the connection to Ireland via the ficticious Leopold Bloom – there is something missing. I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s as if the city is in some sort of parallel universe, untouched by the angst and normacly of twenty-first century living. I felt as if I was walking on a glass floor looking in but never really being allowed inside. Most peculiar.

Grateful 26

Week 26. Half-way through the year. It’s hotter than hades here in Budapest and I’m finding very little to be grateful for this week. The blasted heat. Yes, I know Ireland is cold and wet but what I wouldn’t swap for some of that coldness and wetness. Forty-two degrees yesterday. It is any wonder that I’m slowly losing my will to live.

I was in Szombathely last weekend and who did I run into but the bould Mr Joyce. I’d heard tell that there was a town/city in Budapest that translated into ‘bloom’ and was home to some severe Joycean celebrations each June. But, not for the first time, I got the story a little addled and it turns out that it was Leopold Bloom’s fictional father (him being fictional himself) that supposedly hailed from Hungary – Szombathely – and it’s his name – Virag that translates in to flower or bloom. In his novel, Ulysses, Joyce gives Leopold Bloom’s ancestry as Bloom, only born male transubstantial heir of Rudolf Virag (subsequently Rudolph Bloom) of Szombathely . . .

Bridget Hourican writes in the Irish Times that:

Virag means flower in Hungarian, hence Bloom, but it’s a conceit of Joyce’s that Leopold’s father began life as Rudolf Virag. There were Jews in Szombathely called Blum, but never Virag. Laszlo Najmanyi, writer, musician and organiser of the Hungarian Bloomsday, says: “The Blums were big textile traders in Szombathely and members of the family were posted in Trieste. It’s likely that Joyce met them there.” Trieste was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and Joyce certainly met Hungarians, including Teodoro Mayer, owner of Irredentist newspapers, and one of the models for Bloom. A motif in Ulysses is Arthur Griffith’s Resurrection of Hungary – the history of the struggle for independence from Austria, presented as a model for the Irish. The United Irishman serialised the book from January to June 1904, so of course characters in Ulysses are busy reading it.

Someone took the time to trace the Blum’s old house and erect a plaque over the door that further confuses the Blum/Virág/Bloom issue. I have to keep reminding myself that Leopold Bloom was a figment of Joyce’s imagination and neither he, nor his creator, is likely to be turning in his grave at the apparent inconsistencies. I have no one with whom to share my pain.

This week, as the barometers soar and the heat makes irrationality normal, I am grateful for being Irish. I am grateful that our reach is broad and our influence wide. I am grateful that we have left, and continue to leave, our mark on the world. As the lovely Colin Farrell supposedly said: Being Irish is very much a part of who I am. I take it everywhere with me.

PS – a nice gesture from the Mayor of Poznan after the Irish fans’ performance during Euro2012.