Posts

2017 Grateful 40

When a seven-year-old child has no idea what they want for Christmas, you might immediately think that they have so much already that there’s nothing left for them to ask for. But when that seven-year-old child cannot answer the question because it’s one they’ve never before been asked, it’s enough to make your heart break.

Hos utca 15

This week, I went to visit some families living in two tenement buildings in Budapest’s Xth district, not far from Stadion, a part of Budapest tourists and many locals never see, Hős utca 15/a and 15/b are home to some 600 people, about 130 of whom are children. These 300 one-roomed apartments were built back in 1939. The conditions are dire. A gas explosion resulted in higher common costs for tenants, only half of  whom live in council-owned flats; the others are privately owned. The local development strategy seems to want the building levelled but there is no place for the people go to. Those who have council leases will not have them renewed on expiration. If they have kids, they’ll be taken into care until the parents can find alternative accommodation. The local government has ruled that it has first refusal on any flat offered for sale but the paltry 1.5 million huf (about €4800/$5600) on the table won’t rehouse the sitting tenants. The street, which translates into Heroes Street, is in the middle of an area bordered by the Anti-Terrorist Unit HQ, Zrínyi Miklós National Defense University, and a police station. The mind boggles. What should probably be the safest place in the city, is one that is anything but.

We got there about 4pm and met with Zsuzsanna Urbanovszky from Kontúr Egyesület. Zsuzsanna has been volunteering at Hős utca for about four years and it’s immediately clear that the children like and trust her. We were in safe hands.

This YouTube clip was filmed in 2012 and believe me, nothing has improved. It gives you an idea of what the place is like.

 

We met some other volunteers in one of the flats that Kontúr uses. The door was locked at all times, even though kids were coming and going. Kontúr is cooperating with the Letters to Santa initiative. In its third year, it’s probably one the most rewarding things I do each Christmas. The brainchild of Zsuzsa Bozo, kids fill out their letters to Santa and then volunteer Elves make sure that Santa delivers on what they’ve asked for. It’s hoped that 50 of the 130 or so children will participate, but it’s proving difficult to get the completed letters back. Parents are reluctant to let them visit the little community centre, and even more reluctant to commit to taking the kids to the party where the presents will be distributed on 22 December. More are suspicious about why the Zsuzsas are doing this. Gifts without strings are rare in their worlds.

We wandered upstairs and down, ably guided by a ten-year-old girl, who, if she had a magic wand, said that she would stop people robbing. Later I met a five-year-old who, with her magic wand, would change the windows in her flat into doors. A couple of young boys told me that they’d make people stop fighting. The doors are grilled, padlocked, and chained. The windows are boarded up. The passageways are dirty, smelly, and full of rubbish. There’s an air of abandonment and yet there’s evidence of life. Shadows flitted about the landings, silhouetted by the glow of a cigarette or the reflection of a phone. Everyone greeted us politely. No threats. No lewd comments. No smart remarks by the groups of young men that hung out in the stair wells. Three women and a child wandering freely in a part of town that the police are reluctant to patrol. Yes, Zsuzsanna has earned respect.

I was walking, head down, making sure I didn’t stumble or fall when I passed a pair of shiny leather shoes sitting beneath a pair of well-pressed trousers and an expensive woolen overcoat. I looked up in surprise. Definitely not a local but one who walked as if he knew where he was going. Drug dealer? Money lender? Who knows.

For some strange reason, the Hanoi Hilton came to mind. Perhaps it was the bars, the flittering shadows, the disembodied voices. Perhaps it was the poverty, the filth, the squalor. Or maybe it was that sense of imprisonment that defied freedom of movement. People are certainly free to come and go, but few, if any, ever truly escape.

And yet, there is a pride visible in the homes. Clean, tidy spaces, furnished with old furniture and hand-me-downs. The children are well turned out, polite, and friendly. They have a fascination with manó – leprechauns – asking if I’d ever seen one and if there was really gold at the end of the rainbow. They showed me their letters, explaining what they wanted, asking me to check on the Net to make sure Santa knew the specifics. I learned a lot about Hungarian YouTubers and Soy Luna 🙂 and today, we went shopping for five.

Hymnist Henry Burton wrote:

Have you had a kindness shown? Pass it on.
’Twas not given for thee alone, pass it on.
Let it travel down the years,
let it wipe another’s tears, till in heaven the deed appears – pass it on.

If you want to get involved, check the Facebook page. Consider passing it on.

For the Zsuzsas in this world, who give so graciously of their time, and work tirelessly to better the lot of others, I’m grateful. Ladies, you do the world proud.

 

PS – the observant regular reader among you will notice that I’m out of sync on my grateful numbering – back to normal next week.

Elephants and ice-cream

I’ve noticed that the meaner the world gets, the nicer I want to be. The crazier world politics becomes, the more simplicity I crave. And as we teeter on the brink of insanity, I’m spending more and more time trying not to lose sight of what really matters.

Ever wonder where your money goes when you donate to a charity, or sponsor someone to run a 10k, or buy a raffle ticket? All too often we never see the effect. We have vague notions, perhaps, of the difference our help may have made. Then again, perhaps we don’t care. Perhaps the giving is something we do automatically without wondering what next. Perhaps in our own little universe it’s not about ego or power or public recognition. Perhaps we don’t care about the applause or the back slaps or the congratulatory adulation. Perhaps we simply give to share and share to give.

Yet there’s a whole debate to be had about where to give, to whom to give, and why to give. I know I’ve had more than few conversations about it. I have an innate distrust of big charities and the money they spend on plush headquarters and fancy cars for their CEOs – but as was pointed out to me recently, if they want to attract big money, they need to have a big presence. On an intellectual level, I can see the validity of this. On an emotional level, I still have problems.

I prefer to support people I know involved in projects that are making a difference. Okay, so maybe these projects won’t bring about world peace, or make any sort of difference on a grand scale, but what they have in common is that they make a difference to someone.

My friend Zsuzsa B has adopted the village of Zabar in Eastern Hungary. At Christmas, I had a blast shopping for a 5-year-old girl, making her wish list a reality. Others did likewise and the kids in the village experienced the magic of discovering that wishes can come true. But it didn’t stop there.

These kids had never been to the theatre or to the zoo or eaten in a restaurant. Until recently, their universe was limited to their village and nearby towns. The capital, Budapest, the seat of their parliament, the home of their government, was some place they’d heard about but never seen. For them to have some hope of a better tomorrow, they need to see what’s out there, to broaden their horizons. And for this to happen, they need help.

A bus was hired. Arrangements were made. And 45 children from this remote part of the country embarked on a trip of a lifetime that included pantomime, elephants, and ice-cream. What an eye-opener it was for them. For those who helped make it happen, little else is needed by way of validation that to see the smiles on their faces. This video captures it all.

It is small initiatives like this one that make such a huge difference in the lives of these kids. And in these troubled times, we need to remind ourselves of what’s important and not lose sight of the necessity of doing our bit to make our world a better place.

Alcoholics, bar tabs, and bonds

I consider myself reasonably intelligent with a modicum of nous.  I make an effort to keep abreast of what’s going on in the world, particularly in my little corner here in Budapest. I read what I can, when I can. I ask questions. I initiate discussions. I’m not afraid to show my ignorance if I am sure of learning something by doing so. I will even own up to being irritating on occasion – following each pronouncement with a ‘but why?’ would drive any one patient enough to explain things to me to drink.

Above all, I know my limits. I will never, for instance, understand the crazy laws that threatens the closure of the Caledonia, a pub on Mozsár utca. Co-owner and friend, Zsuzsanna Bozo tried to explain it to me (bless her patience) but I just don’t get it. Why is having two bottles of the same booze open in a pub such a no-no? Why is having open bottles of booze in a kitchen when the menu clearly calls for alcohol as an ingredient a non-starter. So rather than waste any more of my limited brain cells in trying to make sense of it all, I turned my attention to less complicated matters: Economics 2012.

I was fortunate enough to meet an antipodean recently who had a handle on the whole thing and he explained it to me like this:

Imagine, Mary, that you own a bar in Budapest or in Dublin. It doesn’t much matter. You realise that virtually all of your customers are unemployed alcoholics and, as such, they can no longer afford to drink in your bar. To solve this problem, you come up with new marketing plan that allows your customers to drink now, but pay later. You keep track of the drinks consumed in a ledger (thereby granting the customers loans).

[‘mmm… what about the Government till’, I ask. He sighs: so your bar is in Dublin then.]

Word gets around about your ‘drink now, pay later’ marketing strategy and, as a result, more and more customers flood into your bar. Soon you have the largest sales volume for any bar in Budapest, sorry, I mean Dublin. You’re packed to the gills seven days/nights a week. Because your customers don’t have to pay immediately, they don’t complain when, at regular intervals, you substantiallyincreases your prices for wine and beer, the most consumed beverages.

[Got it… ]

Consequently, your gross sales volume increases massively. Now a young and dynamic vice-president at the local bank recognises that these customer debts constitute valuable future assets. So he increases your borrowing limit. He sees no reason for any undue concern, since he has the debts of the unemployed alcoholics as collateral. At the bank’s corporate headquarters, expert traders figure a way to make huge commissions, and transform these customer loans into Drinkbonds andAlkibonds.

[Idiot…]

These securities are then bundled and traded on international security markets. Naïve investors don’t really understand that the securities being sold to them as ‘AAA’ secured bonds are really the debts of unemployed alcoholics. Nevertheless, the bond prices continuously climb, and the securities soon become the hottest-selling items forsome of the nation’s leading brokerage houses.

One day, even though the bond prices are still climbing, a risk manager at your local bank decides that the time has come to demand payment on the debts incurred by the drinkers at your bar and he lets you know. You’ve no option but to demand payment from your alcoholic patrons. But they’re unemployed alcoholics and have no money so can’t pay their bar tabs. Since you can’t fulfil your loan obligations, you’re forced into bankruptcy. Your bar closes and eleven employees lose their jobs.

[Always the way – the employees suffer – same as the Caledonia!]

Overnight, Drinkbonds and Alkibonds drop in price by 90%. The collapsed bond asset value destroys the bank’s liquidity and prevents it from issuing new loans, thus freezing credit and economic activity in the city. Your suppliers had granted you generous payment extensions and had invested their firms’ pension funds in the various Bond securities. They find they are now faced with having to write-off your bad debt and lose over 90% of the presumed value of the bonds. Your wine supplier also claims bankruptcy, closing the doors on a family business that had endured for three generations. Your beer supplier is taken over by a competitor, who immediately closes the local plant and lays off 150 workers.

Fortunately though, the bank, the brokerage houses and their respective executives are saved and bailed out by a multi-billion euro no-strings-attached cash infusion from their cronies in government.The funds required for this bailout are obtained by new taxes levied on employed, middle-class, non-drinkers who have never been in your bar.

‘Do you get it’, he asked, looking at me expectantly. I sighed… nodded… and said ‘I need a drink’.

First published in the Budapest Times 11 October 2012