The backstory

What’s that flower? How old is that church? Are all those cows milking cows?
I don’t know, he answered. I don’t know. I don’t know.

I could drive a teetotaler to drink with my incessant questions. And a series of ‘I don’t knows’ disappoints me  – irrationally so, as it’s very often my standard reply when I’m asked about buildings in Budapest. So I told my Italian friend that day many years ago when we were half-way up Monte Rosa in the Italian Alps, I told him just to make up a story. Any story. I really didn’t care what he told me as long as he told me a story. I think he surprised himself with his creativity and I had a hard time deciphering truth from fiction.

I have a friend in Malta, SM, who is a walking repository for historical facts and trivia about the island and its people. There’s no limit to what he knows. He could, of course, be making it all up, but do I care? Not a bit. And I doubt it. There’s way too much sincerity there.

We’d been to see a play in Santa Venera one night a couple of weeks ago. An AmDram production that was so obviously enjoyed by those in the audience who had friends on stage but left me in need of some sustenance. Wandering through the late-night streets, we happened across a bakery that was still open to those who knew the knock. We went inside and while he was buying his bread, he gave me a tour of the types of breads and cakes on offer, along with their associated traditions.

20150206_231134_resizedOutside, looking skywards at the moon, I spotted one of many lovely old buildings that seem to be crying out for some TLC. I noticed the broken windowpanes. He noticed the empty flower pillars.

balcony 2Apparently, back in the day, when the daughter of the house was in search of a husband, she’d put flowers  on the ledges on either side of the window. This told the single men in town (and their mothers) that she was open to be wooed. Interested suitors would pass beneath the window and call to her, or perhaps sing. If she was interested, she’d appear and engage in conversation. If she wasn’t, she’d stay put, not showing herself, but no doubt sneaking a peak or three as she made up her mind.

balconyThis was in the days before online dating, before apps like Tinder that let you browse through catalogues of online photos saying yay or nay as the mood takes you. This was even before classified ads and personal columns. Before matchmakers. And what a lovely way it was, too. Romantic, if a little public. But what of the girl who posted the flowers only to find that no one stopped by? And worse, the whole town knew of it?

While I found myself mentally going through the checklist of necessities – I have a street-facing balcony, I have flowerpots, and I have hope – I could also hear a voice telling me to get with the twenty-first century. And not for the first time, I realised that I may well have been born into the wrong era.



Woman-power on the up and up

There’s something about a new year unfolding that brings out wants and wishes in people, be they a new job, a new partner, or a new life – or perhaps a better job, a better partner, or a better life – or simply a job, a partner, or a life.

I’ve had a number of conversations recently with de wimmen – a phrase I use to collectively refer to my female friends, those whose honesty, advice, and pragmatism I value; those whose humour, wisdom, and experience I cherish; and those who I know would stump up bail money or at least keep vigil outside the jail were I ever to be incarcerated simply for being me.

Variations on a theme

These conversations have varied on a theme. We might have discussed how little men understand the workings of a woman’s mind. We might have spoken about how easy we (the gracious gender) are to please… really. We might have wondered collectively why so many of us are still single, while every man we know who can put on his socks unsupervised is happily hooked up. Or … we might just have swapped recipes, considered Hilary Clinton’s strategy for her presidential campaign, or debated the truth of Coco Chanel’s claim that ‘the most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.’

We might have philosophised about the joys of being part of a sisterhood that is at times self-deprecating, frequently hilarious, and rarely at a loss for words. We might have congratulated ourselves on being sassy, solvent, and self-sufficient. We might even have dissected the relationships of those in our kingdom who have been discovered by (or indeed have discovered) men who deserve them and wondered where the other worthies are hiding. Or… we might just have bemoaned the glass ceiling, decried the gender imbalance in the EU parliament, or debated the truth and relativity of Marjorie Kinnan’s reflection that ‘a woman has got to love a bad man once or twice in her life, to be thankful for a good one.’

Woman on the move

In this, the 14th baktun, I am meeting more and more intelligent, attractive women who can hold their own. I’m seeing more and more public and private initiatives thought up by and realised by women. I’m seeing more and more woman-power in action and I’m waiting with bated breath to see the fall-out. As Maya Angelou so beautifully put it: ‘I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.’

vector-of-a-cartoon-courting-man-holding-flowers-and-a-gift-outlined-coloring-page-by-ron-leishman-19166Gone are the days when women sat in drawing-rooms, flirting with fans, making polite shallow conversation in an effort to disguise a cleverness that might just be a tad off-putting to the less discerning male. And while I personally might long for a return to more traditional roles between the sexes (as long as I get to walk on the inside of the street, have the door opened for me, and my chair pulled out by someone who will also value my opinion) and want to see courtship and the art of wooing enjoy a massive revival, I have to admit that progress and the transit of the centuries have shifted the balance of power. But interestingly, not in the direction that one might imagine.

When I think of the strong-minded, capable, intelligent women I know, when I add up what we have to offer to partners, to businesses, to the community, as mothers, managers, and motivators, I question the fear that seems to be holding some of us back.

I came across the first verse of this poem by Marianne Williamson

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?

And on reflection, I have come to realise the answer to that often-asked series question ‘should I tone done my natural enthusiasm, be less forward in offering my opinion, be a little more of what it seems I’m expected to be’ – the answer is simple. No.

Forewarned, forearmed

Men of the world, beware. 2013 is taking shape and the rules have changed. Over the course of the coming months, if you find yourself being asked your opinion on anything from duck down or goose feather, to paperback or kindle, from the Chinese mission to Mars to the survival instincts of the penguin, answer at your peril.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of comments about your appearance (e.g. it would be a lovely shirt, were it ironed); if your witty remarks are eliciting more (or less) than the usual level of (non)appreciative laughter; if your advice is being given due consideration instead of the usual flippant dismissal, be cautioned that your reactions may be being noted. This year, methinks, that women will stand up and be counted, be the choosers rather than the chosen, and have a thing or three to say about the state of the nation.

First published in the Budapest Times 25 January 2013