Forty shades of green

I’m sick. Homesick. I’ve been travelling for what seems like a couple of lifetimes, ever since I first headed Stateside back in 1990. Since then, I’ve lived for a total of three years in Ireland. Three out of the last twenty-four years. Doesn’t seem like much and one would think that by now, I’d have started to call somewhere else home.

IMG_9573 (800x591)Author John Ed Pearce reckons that home is a place you grow up wanting to leave, and grow old wanting to get back to. I never particularly wanted to leave Ireland. It was just one of those things. I’d applied for a US Green Card in the first ever visa lottery – mainly, I think, because everyone else was doing it. I never expected to win one and never gave much thought to what I’d do if I did. But I did. And I was given 28 days to uproot and take up residence in the U.S.of A. So I went. Not because I particularly wanted to live in America, but because I didn’t like my job. And far away hills are always greener.

IMG_9783 (800x586)German author and poet Christian Morganstern said that home is not where you live, but where they understand you. Were I to use his measure, I’d have multiple homes. I have a peculiar way of making people understand. Recently, after an interview I gave here in Budapest, a friend suggested (half in earnest) that she coach me. I was giving away too much. I was too open, too free with my stories. And yet although many might think that in four seasons of presiding over the Gift of the Gab, there’s nothing left to tell, a new story is born every week. And anyway, being Irish, I’m a great lover of poetic license and who knows what’s true and what isn’t. But back to understanding. I’m truly blessed that everywhere I’ve lived, I’ve met people who have taken the time to ‘get’ me; people who were curious enough to explore the inner workings of my mind (albeit with varying degrees of success) and admittedly, some still find consolation in that they’ve just about managed to understand the madness in me.

IMG_9781 (800x597)One may have a blazing hearth in one’s soul and yet no one ever comes to sit by it. Passersby see only a wisp of smoke from the chimney and continue on the way. Perhaps Van Gogh had a point, but again, I’ve been very lucky that people have sat by me and had a conversation. Random meetings and happenstance have resulted in life-long friendships with people my own age … and younger … and older.  Perhaps the secret is to open my home to whomever, whenever. I’ve a fondness for entertaining and an appreciation that homes are happier places if they have that lived-in feel, even if there’s only one full-time resident. And when my fire is lighting, almost anyone is welcome. How long they get to stay though is another matter 🙂

IMG_9856 (800x599)Charles Dickens reckoned that home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answer to, in the strongest conjuration. I was fortunate this last trip to see parts of Ireland I’d not seen before. Magical parts. Parts that couldn’t be bettered by the wave of a thousand wands. Driving the back roads and scenic routes, we came across remnants of times gone by, some spots so remote that it seemed as if we were the only living souls for miles around. When I look at the photos, I’m reminded of Johnny Cash and his 1961 song 40 shades of green and perhaps, for the first time in a long, long time, I get the emotion behind it.

IMG_9555 (800x600)A few hundred years ago, Japanese poet Matsuo Basho wrote that every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. Perhaps that’s where I’m at. A journey that started off by accident and through a series of random happenings along the road it has brought me to Budapest. And yet, despite the fact that I’ve been gone for close to a quarter of a century, give or take a few years, I still talk of going home. Home home. To Ireland. And again, I’m lucky. I can go pretty much as often as I please … I know not many have that luxury.

IMG_9560 (800x600)Nineteenth century author Harriett Beecher Stowe wrote something that really resonates and perhaps best explains the umbilical attachment I have to Ireland and her people. Home is a place not only of strong affections, but of entire unreserved; it’s life’s undress rehearsal, its backroom, its dressing room, from which we go forth to more careful and guarded intercourse, leaving behind…cast-off and everyday clothing. I may never again live in Ireland full time. That said, I could move home next month. Therein lies the beauty of life – the great unknown. This evening though, I’m in an odd mood. I’m in a strange place. I’m something I haven’t been in a long time. I’m homesick.

But enough… I need to pack. Italy is calling.

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A little piece of calm

Anyone remember the first series of Black Books with Dylan Moran? The first show in Series One? Where Bill Bailey swallows the Little Book of Calm? I felt like swallowing a library of them last week – but thankfully, I rediscovered the calming effect of Reiki instead.

Reiki is a Japanese word, or rather two words: Rei meaning ‘the higher power’ and Ki meaning ‘life force energy’. Combine them and you get a spiritually guided life force energy. The history of Reiki is a little spotted and, at one stage, after WWII when the US banned the practice of alternative medicine in Japan, Reiki practitioners went underground. Few knew of it. And the only way apparently a Japanese could train in Reiki was to go to the USA to be trained by an American who had been trained in Japan. No wonder so many look at it a little skeptically.

Many moons ago, while working in London, I did my Reiki I – the first of three stages to become a Reiki practitioner. I don’t remember much about it, other than when I was ‘graduating’ – can’t ever remember the Reiki term for it – I felt this huge wad of emotion feed up from my toes, through my body, and release in the form of a major bout of hysteria. I bawled. In front of the whole class. Hysterically. And I was the only one to have such a reaction. But man did it feel good. It reminded me of a cult I saw interviewed on the Late Late Show once – they called themselves the screamers and had a commune up in Donegal somewhere. Their therapy was to stand in a field and scream their heads off, something I’ve been known to do on occasion… and not in a field 🙂

On rare occasions since then, if someone was in pain (physical or emotional), I have offered to ‘do some Reiki on them’ – and admittedly I’ve had varying degrees of success. But it takes a huge amount of energy and it’s not often that I feel the urge to volunteer. Selfish? Perhaps. But I know my limits.

Anyway, as I was bouncing the walls over the last couple of weeks, tearing my hair out over this dastardly dissertation and trying to stay sane while at the same time endangering every close relationship I have by overdosing on a mainly (but not always!) irrational angst, I thought again of Reiki. And I sought out the lovely PA who just happens to live in my neighbourhood. Five one-hour sessions later and calm has been restored to 66A.

I can’t say that I felt any miraculous energy flooding through my veins as PA went through the laying of the hands. I usually fell asleep. I only cried once. The first time. Whatever demons that were on the rampage inside obviously upped and fled as the remaining sessions were … well.. quite quiet. But the difference they’ve made!

I’m like a new woman. Back in my stride. Taking everything as it comes. Stressing no more. I had forgotten the concept of being in the perfect place at the perfect time … and even if it seems far from perfect, the secret is to find the perfection in it.

Now, the skeptics say that Reiki works as well as any placebo. And so it may. Whatever, I say… it worked for me. And I really don’t need to understand how or why – just feeling the calm is enough.






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?

Grateful 51

Earlier this week, I sent out an e-mail to my North American friends, those living within the USA and those living without. I included a link to American author Jake Lamar’s video on why he’s not disappointed with President Obama. I was quite taken with it as a piece of rhetoric, even if his eye contact leaves a lot to be desired. It’s also just a tad on the lengthy side. Semantically, it was pleasing, convincing, and passionate. But I wanted to know about the content. And, as I’m not in a position to judge, not living in the States myself, and being a trifle more concerned about what’s been going on here of late, I asked my friends, each of whom I trust and whose opinion I value, to comment.

Predictably, some really liked it, thought it made sense. They voted for Obama and will vote for him again. Others had mixed feelings – Lamar got some issues right, and others wrong – they’d voted for Obama and would consider voting for him again but their vote isn’t in the bag. And then there were those who didn’t vote for him and won’t vote for him and think he’s the worst thing ever to happen to America.

The whys and the wherefores are neither here not there. I don’t intend this to be a discussion on whether Obama is the man or not. What I’m grateful for is that I have a diversity of friends who are educated, passionate, and up to date with what’s going on in their world. They shared their opinions and experiences with me, pointed me in new directions (e.g. what’s happening with SB1070 in Arizona;  and is it really 1963 in America again), and gave valid arguments for their reasoning.

The net result is that I now know more than I did on Monday and am a lot clearer about what I’d do were I in the USA and voting. Consensus is not important. I don’t have to agree with my friends for them to be my friends. In being able to challenge their opinions and likewise to have to stand beside my own, is a very valuable exercise. Diversity is key… diversity of opinion, of taste, of reasoning. Surrounding ourselves by like-minded people while wallowing in the same type of information will simply serve to narrow our perspectives and make us more insular.

So, at the end of this, the second week of 2012, I am truly grateful for my friends and their continuous edification; for opening new doors and beckoning me through.

Notes to self

I have spent the last ten days in a room with 16 people who travelled from Abu Dhabi, Austria, British Virgin Islands, Congo, Grenada, Hungary, Malta, Ireland, Libya, Sierra Leone, Sweden, Switzerland, USA, Venezuela, and Zambia. Despite our varied backgrounds, we are all students enrolled in a Master’s program in contemporary diplomacy.

That I learned a lot about diplomacy is a given. That I learned a lot about other countries and cultures goes without saying. That I learned a lot about myself is surprising.

In my first simulated diplomatic experience, I represented the Irish government and faced my first media interview. For the real me, being on stage with a microphone is one of the best legal highs I can get. I’m an active member of Budapest Toastmasters and well versed in the art of impromptu speaking; I was prepared. What I hadn’t bargained for was the relentless onslaught of questions and the merciless way in which the journalist exploited my weaknesses. He asked me to defend a recent EU study showing Ireland’s problem with underage drinking. He asked what we, as a government, were doing about it. No sooner had I launched into an explanation of our alcohol awareness campaign than he devoured me with the ferocity of a cocoa junkie who finds chocolate on a health farm.  Why were we only now taking action? Why hadn’t we taken responsibility years ago? I knew I should calmly argue my point, be firm, and give the party line. That was my job. But before I could marshal my thoughts, he changed tack. Did I think Ireland had racial prejudices?  My mouth dropped open. The speaker in me frantically searched for a hook, something on which to hang a coherent response – hell, any response! I was drowning. And then I heard myself say, quite forcefully:  Yes! Yes! The collective intake of breath in the room silently screamed: No! No! Wrong answer. But there was no going back. Note to self: Be mindful that armchair politicians rarely sit in the hot seat.

Multilateral negotiations

In the next simulation, having been summarily dismissed from the Irish Government, I found myself representing South Africa in multilateral negotiations at a working group on food security. Fourteen countries were represented, with Hungary (the current President) speaking for the EU. I had been given instructions from my Capitol regarding negotiation and defence objectives. I knew what I had to accomplish. We went through the draft agreement and made our initial representations.  It soon became clear that somewhere in the next 72 hours, each country would have to give and take. We moved from negotiating as separate states to finding strength in numbers and quite soon it devolved into a classic case of them and us: the big guys and the little guys. Semantic arguments funnelled their way politely through the Chair. I would never have believed that so much could hang on a compromise about the choice of verb. Inch by inch concessions were made. Envoys travelled back and forth between the two sides to bargain and cajole. Deals made over coffee were reneged on over tea. Nothing much had been gained. Note to self:  Compromise, like hollow-centred chocolates, may look good but often lack substance.

Bilateral negotiations

When the South African foreign ministry suggested early retirement, the next simulation saw me representing the USA, facing off against Egypt in a bilateral negotiation. This was more like it. I was in the driver’s seat; the big shot. I was already savouring the sweet taste of success.  With only two of us, it would be so much easier to come to an agreement. Again I got my instructions from my Capitol as to what I could and could not do. And once again, my expectations were far removed from reality. While I may have had might on my side, I faced intractable opposition. This time I gave away not just a couple of chocolates, but the whole box! Note to self: The ‘and’ in ‘give and take’ is there for a reason.

Unilateral negotiations

When it’s just me in the room, negotiating with or talking to myself, I do fine. No stress, no pressure, no instructions. Finally, I’d found my niche. But while I successfully negotiate with myself all day every day and have even been known to get my own way on occasion, I had to face the ugly truth. When defences are down and carelessness creeps in, when emotions leapfrog over reason and rationale, when mental acuity is diluted by exhaustion, I would gladly trade it all for a bar of chocolate.

First published in the Budapest Times 14 February 2011