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2014 Grateful 30

I used to collect stamps. Then I moved on to frogs. Now I collect experiences. And chief amongst them is my quest for the perfect cosmopolitan. It doesn’t take much by way of enticement to lure me inside a cocktail bar. As long as cosmos are on the menu, I’ll happily try it out. But when the invite is prefaced with ‘this is where John Malkovich and Quentin Tarrantino drink when they’re in town’, I was sitting on the high stool before the first shake had shook. (Trivia: Tarrantino named one of the characters in Kill Bill II after one of the barmaids.)

The ‘town’ in question is Vienna and the bar is L00s. Designed by Adolf Loos, one of the pioneers of modern architecture in Vienna, it’s tiny but looks spacious. The 290 sq ft is made bigger by the ingenious use of mirrors. The onyx-tiled walls are backlit and the counter and ceiling are cloaked in mahogany.

It’s a haven for true cocktail aficionados, offering six variations of Martinis and five variations of Manhattans. The Cosmopolitan was one of the best I’ve had in years. There’s barely room to swing a handbag and those lucky enough to get a seat are reluctant to give it up. Considering the average drink will set you back €10, it would be easy enough to sip your way through a small fortune over a few hours in the afternoon.

IMG_2377 (800x600)It started off life as a private gentleman’s club but is now open to the public. And, so far has its fame stretched, a tribute bar has opened in Manhattan. Photos are not allowed. (I missed the sign as I came in, but the rather officious manager soon took me to task. It’s a long time since I’ve felt like I’d been hauled into the principal’s office.) The bartender was a dream though – and certainly knew his stuff.

The origin of the word itself, cocktail, has many plausible explanations from sailors stirring mixed drinks with a rooster’s tail, to a derivation of the name of a Mexican goddess Xochitl. But the one I like most featured in George Bishop’s The Booze Reader: A Soggy Saga of Man in His Cups (1965). He says: ‘The word itself stems from the English cock-tail which, in the middle 1800’s, referred to a woman of easy virtue who was desirable but impure…and applied to the newly acquired American habit of bastardizing good British Gin with foreign matter, including ice.’

No matter its origin, the cocktail is indeed one of life’s pleasures. And as to who invented the cosmo? The war of attribution still rages. And spending a few hours in Loos with good friends on what was otherwise quite a chilly summer’s day in Vienna, was something to be grateful for indeed. Thank you, ladies. You know who you are.

 

Kärntnerdurchgang 10, Vienna

 

The ABC of ABQ

IMG_5962 (800x600) (2)Back when I was working in a peroxide plant in Longview, Washington, I decided to move. It wasn’t the smell from the paper mill across the road or the fact that everyone in town knew me as ‘the Irish girl from Willow Grove’ and knew my business to boot. It was that a sense of needing to be somewhere else. It was a toss-up between Alaska and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Alaska won. But for years I’ve been curious about what I missed.

Albuquerque (known locally as ABQ) is one of the oldest inland cities in the USA. And at a height of 5314 feet (higher than then highest mountain (and yes, I use that term advisedly) in Ireland, it’s the highest city on the US mainland. Amongst its many credits is that it hosts the largest hot air balloon competition in the world each year, festivities that draw more than 1.5 million spectators (and something that has now made it onto my lengthening bucket list). I’m glad I didn’t move there because the sun shines 310 days a year on average (who’s counting?) and I don’t do well in the heat.

IMG_5935 (800x600) (2)One of the most important questions you’ll be asked as a tourist is ‘red or green’ and if you haven’t done your homework you might not know that this refers to your choice of red or green chiles. Budapest might have its wine festivals and the new wine bar that’s opened just around the corner from me boasts a choice of vino és wonka (wine or chocolate), but ABQ hosts New Mexico’s wine and chile festival on Memorial weekend. Now that’s a combination that isn’t at all tempting.

Its old town square isn’t quite as overrun with budding artisans as that of Santa Fe, but it’s a lovely spot nonetheless. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that a battle of preferences rages, one quite similar to the one between Budapest and Vienna, with these two New Mexico cities creating division between their admirers. Some said that, given the choice between the two, ABQ won hands down over Santa Fe. Others said the opposite. No one stayed silent. I’m still undecided. The heat does that to me. It addles my brain to the point that decisions are difficult to make.

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IMG_5950 (800x600)ABQ is the oldest farming community in the USA, home to the Pueblo Indians. It’s also the geographical centre of New Mexico. And it’s charming. Despite the tourists and the heat and the hawkers, there’s something still pure about it, something untouched, something that has escaped the commercialisation of Santa Fe. Its history can be read on the murals on the walls of the restaurants lining the old town square. Its church, an adobe building with walls that are five feet thick, still functions as a reminder of the Spanish colonial tradition of anchoring a central square with a place of worship.

IMG_5954 (600x800)Again, it was refreshing to see local artisans selling their wares from blankets in the shaded archways of the main square. It was good, also, to see small cafés and food joints in the back streets, making what had to be a relatively meagre living from the not-so-passing trade but smiling nonetheless. Maybe it’s the laid-back Spanish influence, that little bit of Mediterranean attitude in the desert. Or it could have simply been heat-induced lethargy. No matter. It was all so very relaxed.

But even more enthralling than the white towers of the old church building that rise like beacons into the skies was a little church we passed on the way into town, one that opens for mass once a week, on Saturday, at 4pm. Some miles outside the city limits, it sits alone on a hill by the side of the road, a living testimony to the missionary work done in the states back in the 1700s. It’s beautiful. We had to climb a locked gate to get in (a sad indictment of the state of society) and while there, I was enthralled by the local custom of surround graves with what, for all the world, looks like a bed frame. I thought it peculiar to this little cemetery, but noticed it again as we drove further into New Mexico.

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IMG_5924 (800x600) (2)Apparently this had something to do with the widespread poverty in New Mexico that led to the rather innovative use of everyday items as grave-markers. I came across this fascinating account of famous and unusual grave-sites in New Mexico’s history. Worth a read if, like me, you have a thing about burial sites.

ABQ – I’m glad I didn’t move there. But then again, I’d be happy to return. When it’s cooler and there are thousands of balloons in the sky.

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All aboard

I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to be trapped aboard a ship with the same people for days on end. I’ve never quite understood the attraction of cruises. And I can’t for the life of me see myself ever taking one (at least not when I’m still in possession of all my faculties).  Yet I was dead curious to see the inside of one of the hundreds of boats that sail the Danube.

I’ve been aboard the QEII – the Queen of Cruise Ships – so I know what the top end of the scale has to offer; the Transatlantic kind. What I was interested in seeing was what the river cruises had to offer. Some Aussie mates of mine were disembarking in Budapest en route to Ireland last week and invited me on board for lunch. All my curiosity has been satisfied.

Narrow corridors, lots of blue, and plenty of seating. Some of the cabins have floor-to-ceiling sliding windows and I could see myself passing time sitting by the window watching the world go by. Others have portholes which frame the outside world and make it all look a tad surreal.

The food wasn’t bad. The flowers were fresh. And the staff were extremely friendly and seemed to know everyone by name and cabin number.  Quite an amazing feat, considering. What would drive me to  distraction is the cats chorus of complaints, commentary, and criticisms. Suddenly everyone is an expert and life is not so much about experiencing a port of call but taking photos, buying souvenirs, and then dissecting it all over dinner.

I count Americans amongst my closest friends. I’ve lived there on and off for 10 years. I’m a card-carrying American myself.  Yet I’ve long since thought that Americans who go abroad on holiday are bred for export on some huge ranch in Montana. Never once in ten years did I come across in the States the likes of those I meet on holiday.

Waiting patiently for the lads to pack and disembark, I sat for a while in the lobby and eavesdropped. One particularly annoying woman in her late sixties was stating quite vehemently that she was not getting off here. She didn’t like Budapest. It was dirty. It was dull. And it wasn’t Vienna. Duh. Pressing her compatriots to choose between Vienna, Prague, and Budapest, none were brave enough to disagree. Another couple reckoned that Budapest didn’t have class. More still said that it wasn’t at all impressive. I screamed inside: Hey! Look over your shoulder and see the castle, the parlament, the bridges – what does it take to impress you!

These snap judgements (they’d been on a tour in the morning to the Castle and to Hero Square) based on very little information are so annoying. The high-pitched whine that passed for a voice would drive me to distraction. That authoritative tone that brooks no argument is like a red rag to me. Conversations overheard at lunch led me to believe that those present did not share my politics and  images of daggers at dawn or napkins at noon came to mind. Not because we differed in opinion, mind you, but because the reasons proffered were so asinine.

I learned two things: I have become extremely protective of Budapest and can’t believe that people would rate Vienna or Prague ahead of it (as one lovely American tourist I know put it –  Prague you visit; Budapest you live). And secondly, I just don’t have the mental or emotional stamina to keep my opinions to myself for a whole week. I couldn’t sit by and not comment. I bet that when Dale Carnegie wrote his tome – How to win friends and influence people – he didn’t suggest that people take  a cruise.

I can now cross that one off my list.

Grateful 44

Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see. So said the inimitable CS Lewis and until this week, I would have had to admit to paying lip service to the word ‘miracle’ which for me, was 80% cliché and 20% faith. And to use a term that has been bandied around a lot this week with the death of Davy Jones (RIP), I’m a believer.

Sometime in January I had a phone call from a mate of mine in America to say she was going to come to Budapest to visit and wanted to see Prague, Vienna, and anywhere else I might fancy taking her. We agreed on February 11 – 29 and I booked hotels, trains, and restaurants, mapping out an itinerary that would keep her busy! I hadn’t seen her since we last met up in Hawaii and was really looking forward to it. We go way back. We’v been through all sorts of trouble and adventures in California and have lived to tell the tale. I’ve grown with her and learned so much from her – she taught me to say the words ‘I love you’ without embarassment. We mightn’t see each other from one end of the year to the next or even talk on the phone that often, but ours is a friendship that just picks up from where it left off without need for apologies or explanations.  She is one of my truest friends.

On February 9, she called to say that she couldn’t come. Her doctor had advised her not to travel. She wasn’t feeling well and needed some tests done but she was still hoping to travel to North Carolina for her step-dad’s retirement in a couple of weeks. We spoke daily. Then she was in hospital. Her liver had failed. They were hoping for a transplant and had a possibility lined up when two hours later, her body gave way. Her kidneys failed, her liver stopped working and she flatlined. We were supposed to be in Prague and instead she was dead and I was on the other side of the world.

They resuscitated her and brought her back, wondering all the while if they’d made the right decision. She spent a week or more in an induced coma, living through machines. The outlook was bleak. Even were a liver to be found, she wouldn’t qualify. She’d always said she’d be the last one standing and part of me just couldn’t accept that she’d give in but I had to be pragmatic. I told friends about her and asked for them to pray to whatever or whomever they had as their god. From Venezuela to Malta, from Brussels to Hawaii, from California to all corners of Ireland, friends of mine who had met her and those who’d just heard the stories, sent their invocations to their gods, made their intercessions, all the time cautioning that a miracle was needed.

I thought about going to see her, talking myself in and out of it a dozen times. Selfishly, I didn’t want my last memory of her to be on her deathbed. She couldn’t hear me – I couldn’t talk to her – and vain as she is, I knew she wouldn’t want me to see her like that. We’d agreed when she first went into hospital that I wouldn’t go until she asked me to come. I had to respect that. Last Thursday, when we were supposed to be in Vienna, I went anyway. With the lovely MI, we lit candles in what churches we could find and said our prayers to our respective gods. And hoped for that miracle.

At the weekend, I spoke to her husband. She was awake. She’d had her third successful dialysis, and while she still had difficulty talking, she was able to communicate with facial gestures. She’s gotten stronger day by day and tonight I finally get to talk to her – to see when I can go visit.

It’s been a manic three weeks of up and downs. That elusive thing we call hope has ebbed and flowed. Oceans of tears were shed around the world as thousands of forints were spent on phone calls that turned into trips down memory lane. The general consensus about the lesson to be learned is that you truly never know the day nor the hour…

This week, I am grateful for the power of friendship – that ephemeral thing that brings people together and unites them in a cause. It is with the power of collective consciousness (call it prayer or whatever) that miracles are wrought.

Thank you all. You know who you are.

Not all schnitzel and sausage

When I pitch Vienna against Budapest or even Bratislava, it always comes in third. I’ve never taken to the city – and I have no idea why. It seems a little sterile and old-fashioned, without a sense of humour. It seems to take itself far too seriously. Yes, it has some magnificent buildings and some spectacular museums and galleries. And yes, it’s the home of sacher torte, that delicious chocolate cake immortalised by Franz Sacher in 1832 (interestingly, he trained first in Bratislava and then in Budapest, before ending up in Vienna). And yes, it has some great schnitzel and sausage, but aside from all this, there has always been something missing…for me. Vienna was just a little too predictable.

But this time around, I was taken to the Naschmarkt and was suitably impressed. Aside from the usual fare of fresh fruit, veg, and flowers, this market does a roaring trade in fresh fish and lamb. And lamb to die for. Many many years ago, while in the village butchers with my mother, I laughed at the conversation she had with the butcher in which both were rhapsodising about a leg of lamb. For the life of me, I failed to see how anyone could be so taken with a piece of meat. Then, in Anchorage, Alaska,  I found a real butchers with real cuts of meat. When I stopped to admire a rack of lamb on display, he quickly nipped in the back and brought me out the finest leg I’d seen in years. It had happened – I’d turned into my mother. The same happened on Thursday in Vienna as I ogled the cutlets, the shoulders, the racks, and the legs of lamb and wondered for the umpteenth time why Budapest’s markets are practically lamb-less. I can see me taking the train to Vienna on a lamb spree someday soon.

The market is truly cosmopolitan and perhaps for the first time I glimpsed the city’s multicultural ethnicity. Vendors from all over the world plied their trade in prepared food and ingredients. Had I not been so focused on schnitzel for dinner, I could easily have lost myself in the Indonesian food on offer. On Saturday, the market extends to include a flea market – enough in itself to warrant a return journey. But perhaps one of the most exciting finds of all was an international discount bookshop with a huge variety of English books on sale. To be able to sample new authors without paying an arm and a leg for the experience is a very underrated pleasure. I browsed, I bought, and I went back for seconds.

Flushing the loo is a godless deed – a wanton act of death

One must live as though one were at war and everything rationed.

With a name like Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser, is it any wonder that this Austrian artist believed that the colourful, the abundant, the manifold, is always better than mediocre grey and uniformity. I’ve long since given up any pretensions about knowing my Art and have resolved to like what I like without trying to justify or explain. Until taken to the Hundertwasser museum in Vienna last week, I’d never heard of this chap. My museum preferences lean more towards death, resistance and the Holocaust rather than ecological or environmental but he was sold to me as Austria’s answer to Gaudi.

I’m glad I went. Not least because his paintings are mad (some of his pencil sketches could have been done by a child of seven and once again I wonder if art is more about appreciation than ability) – but his titles are fascinating. Forget the obvious – woman staring at sea or cow standing in field – and instead be prepared for something like The beard is the grass of the bald-headed man.

He talks of living a vegative life: One reason why other people do not want […] to take to a vegetative way of life is because it begins too unpretentiously, it does not have great eclat or drum roll; on the contrary it grows quite slowly and simply, and that does not appeal to our social order, people want instant results based on the slash and burn principle. Throughout this space on a side street in Vienna, colour and disorder reign supreme. Nothing matches – colours and shapes clash, floors dip and dive. Yet there is a stillness and a magic that makes it special. Despite the heaving numbers of visitors, you can still lose yourself in the space and marvel at the man with the mind behind the madness.

Life with Mr H must have been exciting.  In the Mouldiness Manifesto he first claimed the Window Right: A person in a rented apartment must be able to lean out of his window and scrape off the masonry within arm’s reach. And he must be allowed to take a long brush and paint everything outside within arm’s reach. So that it will be visible from afar to everyone in the street that someone lives there who is different from the imprisoned, enslaved, standardised man who lives next door. Am I imprisoned? Enslaved? Standardised? mmmmmm

Perhaps most interesting of all his work though, are his plans to build towns that are in tune with nature. The kindergarten in Heddernheim is one example that was actually built. Imagine being able to walk on the grass of your roof. The Quixote vineyard in Napa Valley, California, is another sublime structure – one that makes me want to find some land and get to it. In 1972, he published the manifesto Your window right — your tree duty. According to H, if man walks in nature’s midst, then he is nature’s guest and must learn to behave as a well-brought-up guest. It is our obligation to plant trees in urban spaces. And a new word was born: vegitecture.

And just when I think I’ve read it all, I come across  link to his Holy Shit manifesto whereby he says that each time we flush the loo thinking we’re being hygienic, we’re actually violating cosmic law and committing murder. Food for thought.