Back in 2008 at a conference in Budapest, I discovered Thinkers50, a biannual global ranking of management thinkers billed as ‘the essential guide to which thinkers and which ideas matter now.’ When the list launched in 2001, Charles Handy held the No. 2 spot. He was in Budapest to mark the publication of two of his books in Hungarian. I had the pleasure of introducing one of them – The Empty Raincoat (Üres esőkabát) – at the launch. We discovered, in conversation, that he was born less than a mile from me at home, in the vicarage on the other side of the crossroads. How small the world.

Even though that was eight years and what seems like a couple of lifetimes ago, I still remember the ease with which Handy interwove management practices and philosophical theory. He’s a born storyteller, blessed with the innate ability to distill complex thinking into simple speak without losing any of the message’s inherent power. By introducing me to the concept of a portfolio career, he gave me the gift of a ready explanation for what I do, something that had been heretofore impossible to explain to those who wanted a phrasal answer to the question: So, Mary, what do you do for a living?

book-jacket-a-masodik-gorbe-borito-300-dpi1_easy-resize-comHandy was back in Budapest again last week, this time to launch the Hungarian translation of The Second Curve (A második görbe). He began his introduction with a story.

In Ireland, driving through the Dublin mountains, on his way to Avoca in Co. Wicklow, he got lost. He stopped to ask a local farmer for directions. The man pointed down the valley and up over the top of the next hill, telling him that when he reached the top and looked down, he’d see a red building in the distance – Davy’s Bar. But 1 km before that, he was to turn right for Avoca. He got to the top of the hill and saw the bar in the distance. On he drove. But there was no right turn. Then he realised what the man had meant: he was to take a right turn 1 km before he got to the top of the hill. The idea of the second curve was born.

(c) Elizabeth Handy

(c) Elizabeth Handy

As we set out in life, we have what Handy calls an education, investment, and preparation stage, the drive down into the valley. As we come up the other side, our lives progress, our careers blossom, we start making money. When we get to the top of our game, we inevitably start on the downward slope to Davy’s bar, home of the ‘if onlys’. What we need to do is to take the turn before we get to the top of the hill. We need to start setting up that second phase before the first one reaches its peak, so that when one curve starts its descent, the second curve begins its ascent. That 1 km represents about two years.

Each of us, he says, has three primary roles in life – to make money to live, to fulfil our duty to others, and to follow our passion. Once we have identified our passion, we can start setting up that second curve. And the third curve. And the fourth, depending on how long we live.  But too many of us miss the turn, so busy are we making money and doing our thing. Inside each of us, he believes, is a golden seed, a skill or talent that others might recognise before we do. The trick is to listen for it, to pay attention to it, to nurture it and set up that second curve, so that we’re don’t end up in Davy’s bar wallowing in ‘if onlys’. And the second curve applies not only to individuals, but to organisations and governments, too. World leaders, take note.

First published in the Budapest Times 18 November 2016

We need to take life seriously. We’re all on a one-way ticket that can expire at any moment. We came with nothing, we should leave with nothing. We need to be serious about life. We need to dare to be ourselves.

The thoughts behind those words are not new. Pick up any book on visualisation, actualisation, or realisation and you’ll find the same sentiment couched in self-help rhetoric. But when they wrap up a fascinating account of how two young people finally ran out of excuses and set out in January 2000 to fulfil their dream, they take on new meaning.

IMG_4792 (800x722)IMG_4811 (712x800)Their dream was to drive from Argentina to Alaska in six months. It would take them nearly four years. On a budget of $20 a day, they started out in a vintage car and headed north. Just 55 km into their journey, they ran into trouble. One of their vintage wheels needed specialist attention. As luck would have it, the next town had a blacksmith who knew what was needed. As he did the work, they got to chatting. Herman and Cande Zapp told him about their dream to drive to Alaska. When it came time to pay, he wouldn’t take their money, saying simply that he wanted to be part of their dream.

In a compelling couple of hours last Sunday at Lumen Café, as the Zapps told us their story, we also became part of their dream, a dream that continued beyond Alaska. Before they had set out, friends and family had warned them of the evils that lay ahead. They could be robbed, hurt, even killed. But no one told them that people would help them, take them in, listen to them, teach them, share their worlds with them, and want to share their dream.

IMG_4791 (800x600)A man printed 7000 calendars using their photos for them to sell one Christmas. Another shipped their car from Central to North America. Some others clubbed together to buy them much-needed new tyres for their car. In North Carolina, expecting their first child, they were inundated with strollers and car seats. In Costa Rica, they glued the covers on their hastily printed book at a table at an international book fair as they autographed and sold copies to pay for petrol. No one asked for money. No one asked for anything more than to be part of their dream. The stories, all told with humble appreciation for the good in the world, mounted up.

And while at face value, it might seem as if the Zapps are the ones to be grateful for all the kindnesses others have shown them, I think the reverse is true.

IMG_4808 (800x600)Just 16 years into this new millennium, our world is a pessimistic one. We are wary of each other, distrustful, constantly on our guard. We expect the worst to happen and so inevitably it does. We are too proud to ask for help and too often deny others the opportunity to do us good, to show us kindness. We are so mired in a subsistence reality of our own making that we have forgotten how to dream.

Some might wonder at the sanity of staying on the road with four children. Some might question what those children are missing in terms of formal education and stability. Some might look askance at the idea of asking for help for what to a cynic might seem to essentially be to fund a whim. But the short time I spent in their company convinced me that the world needs people like the Zapps to restore our faith in human nature, to remind us of the innate goodness of people, and to spark the dreams inside us that have lain dormant for far too long. We are our dream.

Buy their book. Be inspired. Spark your dream.

First published in the Budapest Times 13 May 2016

 

For the last month or so, I’ve been keeping fairly constant company with a lovely man who has the most amazing green eyes and even more amazing hands. He’s in his mid-fifties, Jewish, Israeli, and absolutely and utterly fascinating. He goes by many names but the one I like most is his real one – Gabriel Allon. Born from the pen of Daniel Silva he has taken me to places I could never otherwise hope to go.

He works for Israeli Intelligence on the dark side of the dark side. And he’s one of the top four art restorers in the world. He’s taken me through the history of Israel/Palestine and has helped me understand a little more of what’s behind what’s going on. He has spent pages describing his work  restoring some of Bellini’s famous church art in Venice. And the insider view of the Vatican has me wondering. Getting kindle versions of all his books was one of the best birthday presents I received. They’re an education.

IMG_0661 (800x599)IMG_0662 (800x600)It was Allon who came to mind when our driver that day in Romania took us to see a monastery in the making [it’s somewhere between Magyarvalkó and Bélis in the middle of nowhere]. The building of this Orthodox church began in 2001 and it’s now in the process of being painted by a team of 12-18 young artists from the University of Theology in Cluj-Napoca (Koloszvár)  under the guidance of Alexandru Nicolau, a team chosen apparently by open contest. Money is tight so they work when they have it. Each of them is a religious scholar in their own right and they live their lives in accordance with the Orthodox creed. I know this because we were befriended by a visiting student from the University who showed us around. He’d come to the monastery to clear his head, to enjoy the peace, to paint.

IMG_0672 (800x600)IMG_0681 (600x800)It was a change from the centuries-old churches we’d seen earlier in the day and it’s newness was a little hard to take. To see paint brushes and tins of paint, scaffolding and blank walls, a few radios and the occasional bottle of water – there was a little  of the Mary Celeste about it all, and it was hard not to think of a life interrupted.  The style – Byzantine apparently. Russian Orthodox churches prefer more realistic depictions of their icons, whereas Romanian Orthodox goes more for showing the transfiguration of the saints in its style. I wasn’t quite sure what it all meant – Allon’s teaching stopped at the Old Masters – but I was suitably impressed, both by his telling of the story and by his reverence.

IMG_0674 (800x600)IMG_0686 (600x800)I’ve never before been in a church in the making. And while I’m a great fan of old stuff, I was fascinated by the newness of it all.  And in particular by the depiction of the three wise men as angels. That’s something I’ve not come across before.  I searched the walls, those that had been completed, and looked to see if I could find any more familiar scenes. I wouldn’t swear to it, but part of an image on a side wall looked remarkably like a human portrayal of the three wise monkeys who hear, see, and say nothing. I could be wrong. It was hot that day.

IMG_0676 (800x600)IMG_0691 (800x600)He also mentioned a movie that I want to watch – Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic film, The Passion of Andrei Rublev (1966) – in which an old iconmaker who has lost his faith meets a young boy, the son of a bellmaker. Together they go to the Trinity Monastery where one paints icons and the other makes bells and the whole ‘love thy neighbour’ wins out. We could do with a bit more of that these days. It’s on my list.

Of course, now that I’ve seen the new monastery, I want to see the old ones, too, the painted ones, in Bukovina. After these few days in Romania, I’m really grateful to have had the chance to visit and even more grateful to have it so close to me. I’m already scouring my calendar to see when I can possibly go back. There is so much to see and do, so much to experience. I am blessed to have the freedom to travel and even more blessed to enjoy it as much as I do.  I’m grateful too, that I enjoy losing myself in a book or a movie and have an unchartered curiosity about people and places that gets me up off my ass and out there.

I’m a sucker for a bargain and free is as good as it gets. But if my Kindle experience had taught me anything it’s that books are free for a reason. Unless the copyright has expired and they’re classics, I think I’m better off not even going to the trouble of downloading them. There is a lot of rubbish out there, pasted between two covers and sold in the name of fiction.

That said, I’ve had a lot more luck with books in translation. I make a point of visiting bookshops when I travel and doing my best to get hold of local authors in translation.

sarajevoWhen I was in Istanbul last year, I happened across  Ayşe Kulin – a Turkish novellist who has four books in English translation. I picked up a copy of Sevdalinka, which carries the English title of Sarajevo of Love and War. Google translate doesn’t recognise the word but a little digging reveals that sevdalinka is either  a woman’s song or a genre of music for women. [Any Turkish speakers out there?]

It tells the story of a love affair during the Bosnian War between 1992 and 1996, an era still very much in living memory. Both the lead characters are journalists – she’s married, he isn’t. I know very little about what happened during that time and my paltry effort to understand it all while I visited Sarajevo a couple of year ago was drowned in the realisation that greater minds than mine have yet to make any sense of what happened.

While I prefer my love stories not to be so blatantly branded, I have a thing about Sarajevo – it’s a city that left an indelible impression on me, one I’d like to spend more time in. That said, the book has languished amidst many other not-yet-reads for months and it’s only lately that I finally got around to reading it.

It ticks all the irritants I find with translated text. Sentence structure isn’t great at times; phrasing is off; colloquialisms don’t quite work as well as they might; and the proofreader seems to have thrown in the towel about half-way in. mmmmm… that goes for a lot of English originals, too. And yet I was sucked in from the start.

The graphic depiction of the atrocities on all sides, situated as they are in everyday relationships, is unreal. If only 1% of it is true, or even based on something approaching fact, that’s too much. I had some idea of what went on but could never have imagined it so bad. And yes, I know it’s a work of fiction, but even fiction has its base in something. It’s clear which side the author was on but even that didn’t take from the story. The reviews on Goodreads suggest that Kulin’s depiction of the politics of the day was well researched and accurate (if a little biased at times but I wouldn’t know). If you’re travelling to the region and are interested in its all too recent history, it’s worth a read.

Kulin’s book is a stark reminder for me of how cosy my own world is; of how blessed I am to have had the upbringing I’ve had; and how little I know of what happens outside my immediate environment. From my current vantage point, I can’t begin to imagine what I’d have done were I born into that region, and lived through that war – but then again, I may well have done what everyone did – tried my damnedest to survive.

 

 

WTF?!*  Had I been doing anything more than a sedate 25 mph on this relatively remote stretch of a very minor Austrian road, I might have left skidmarks. As it was, I braked hard, and stopped dead, not sure where I was or what was I was looking at.

IMG_3273 (600x800)IMG_3274 (800x600) Two sentry boxes were positioned on either side or a narrow country road, each containing a harrowing, life-size wooden carving of an emaciated man. We had seen no signs. No billboards. Nothing to explain what we might be looking at. On closer inspection, each had a small metal plate with the name of what we assumed to be the artist and the title of the piece (in German). We had obviously hit upon some old open-air art installation, one that had weathered the test of time with varying degrees of success. Ahead of us, the road stretched for miles, cutting a straight path to the horizon. It was hot. Very hot. The trees were still, the sunflowers and the corn unmoving, fixed with a rigidity that wasn’t just attributable to the lack of wind. My imagination was already running riot.

IMG_3308 (800x600)IMG_3304 (800x600)We were a couple of miles outside Andau, an Austrian village very near the Hungarian border, trying to find the bridge immortalised in James Michener’s book – The Bridge at Andau. [When I first came to Budapest, three books were recommended to get an insight into what makes the country tick. This one, Tibor Fischer’s Under the Frog, and Julian Rubenstein’s Ballad of the Whiskey Robber, each one worth a read.]

The Bridge at Andau is James A. Michener at his most gripping. His classic nonfiction account of a doomed uprising is as searing and unforgettable as any of his bestselling novels. For five brief, glorious days in the autumn of 1956, the Hungarian revolution gave its people a glimpse at a different kind of future—until, at four o’clock in the morning on a Sunday in November, the citizens of Budapest awoke to the shattering sound of Russian tanks ravaging their streets. The revolution was over. But freedom beckoned in the form of a small footbridge at Andau, on the Austrian border. By an accident of history it became, for a few harrowing weeks, one of the most important crossings in the world, as the soul of a nation fled across its unsteady planks.

It was across this bridge that more than 70 000 Hungarians fled to Austria, days after the failed 1956 Revolution. Once they’d reached the other side, they had a five-mile walk to freedom through the swampy no-man’s land along this road,which back then was little more than a bike path.

At Andau there was a bridge. Could someone reach it, he found the way into freedom. Only an insignificant bridge, neither wide enough for a car nor strong enough for a motorcycle. It’s rickety …..

In 1996, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, the  Austrian and Hungarian armies cooperated to rebuild the Bridge at Andau, witness as it was to such a remarkable happening.

Those generations who had once built this bridge could not, of course, know the role this bridge of simple planks and beams will play one day….

That year, what had become known as the Road to Freedom, was used as an open air exhibition for 90 pieces by artists from both countries entitled The Road of Woes. And it was the remnants of this that we had stumbled across.

IMG_3280 (800x600)As we drove slowly alonIMG_3282 (600x800)g the road, we began to get some sense of what the journey might have been like. The average age of those escaping was 27; many had young children with them. Some 500 students and their university professors made the trip, too. Michener’s account, told from his vantage point on the Austrian side of the border, makes compelling reading. Although it had been a few years since I read it, it all came flooding back, helped in large part by the sometimes very graphic works of art potted along the way. We were on our own. Not another car in sight. I gave quick thanks that we were doing this in daylight. Had I caught the sentries in my headlights, the one sleepless night I had might have been serialised.

They came out of the reeds of the marsh land, from the mud and the dirt, right across the swamps and via the Einser channel, across the bridge with the rickety beams. Yes, that’s the way they came. Then we heard a dull bang, but nothing was to be seen. A refugee, who had kept hidden until then, took his opportunity. Breathless he came running towards us: “They have blown up the bridge!”

IMG_3286 (600x800)The agony was all too visible. I can’t begin to imagine what it might have been like, to have had to pack up my life into one small bag and then make the break, leaving family and friends, and a lifetime of accumulation behind me, knowing that at any minute, I could breathe my last. This, of course, is what hundreds of thousands of fleeing refugees face on a daily basis. [Coincidentally, my book of choice right now is about Mexican illegals feeling across the Texas border into America. The human coyotes they have to deal are just another form of sentry.]

Michener, after witnessing what he had, said that if he ever had to flee, he hoped it could be to Austria, such was the compassion with which the Hungarians were treated.  The humanitarian work accomplished was quite simply amazing – the  schools, the kindergarten, the cinema and all public spaces have been provided for the accommodation of refugees.

IMG_3295 (800x600)The countryside, being what it is, has grown up and over many of the pieces so that they seemed to pop up out of nowhere. Heads swivelling back and forth we went for a fair stretch without seeing anything but so involved were we in the experience that we were imbuing rocks and dead trees with all sorts of stuff that simply wasn’t there.

IMG_3288 (590x800)IMG_3289 (600x800)Perhaps the most graphic  was a series of dismembered limbs, hanging on what I assume is a leftover piece of the original Iron Curtain. Another, a woman, hung suspended from the air, her hair falling away from a face contorted in agony. I wondered if this depicted the agony of what she had left behind or something she met along the road. I began to think of mines, and snipers, and all sorts but as I said, it all appeared without warning – I was clueless. Days later, as I write, what’s to be gleaned from the Internet wouldn’t make a bowl of soup. I did find one page though, that leads me to think that there’s more than just the 1956 Revolution being commented upon. It would seem that the pieces symbolise the rejection of violence, intolerance, inhumanity, contempt of humankind and racism. And their state of disrepair stems from the fact that they remain the property of their creators and are not maintained by the municipality.

 

IMG_3299 (800x600)IMG_3300 (800x600)Even after the Russians blew up the bridge on 21 November, the Hungarian people kept crossing and the Austrian locals in Andau and surrounding villages kept their doors open.  In a world that is going slowly mad, it’s gratifying to think that compassion for the fates of others existed and that people were willing to do their bit. I wonder how many of those who fled have come back to visit? Where are they now? Is that journey just a fleeting memory or has it shaped the lives they live today?

Standing on the Hungarian side, looking across the bridge to Austria, was a sobering moment. The walk across that second time even more so. Yes, the bridge has been renovated, but the wooden planks still groan, footsteps still echo, and that sense of touching down on terra firma and looking back is all too real.

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