Before we travel, we check weather forecasts. We check places to eat. We check museums,  galleries, churches, places of interest. We shop around for places to stay. We research flights and itineraries. We check visa requirements. And, for more exotic locations, we check vaccinations. But, it would seem that far too many of us don’t bother checking currency exchange rates. We’re ripped off. Regularly. And it’s all our own fault. Fair exchange is no robbery but currency exchange? That can be daylight robbery. Budapest is a case in point.

Noting the spread with currency exchange

With currency exchange, the buy rate and the sell rate will differ. The currency exchange booths are in it to make a profit and commissions don’t always cut it. So they buy from me at one rate and then sell to you at a higher rate. The difference is the spread. Fair enough. Personally, if the spread is more than 2 points, I walk away. I might sometimes stretch to 3, but that’s if I’m desperate or am only changing a small amount. Coming through Budapest Airport, for example, I see lines of people at the currency exchange booth. The spread there can be as high as 70 points. Yes, 70. And people still buy. The same can be said for booths at the train stations around the city. Massive spreads. The touristy areas, too, have wider-than-usual spreads and yet people don’t bother checking. Madness.

I have, on occasion, gone over to someone in the queue at these places and pointed out the rate to them, telling them that they can get a much better rate in elsewhere. Most are happy to hear it; others just shrug as if it’s part of the cost of travelling. I wish I had their money.

They then turn to the ATM in the arrivals hall, which is a Euronet machine. These machines popped up in the city overnight (or so it seems – one day nothing and the next day they were everywhere). They make a fortune off unsuspecting tourists.

currency exchange

Using ATMs

Like a lot of ATMs, they offer you the option of a guaranteed conversion rate, which is usually considerably lower than what you would get on the high street. My rule when using a debit card or credit card abroad is to always charge in the currency of the country I am in and NOT in the currency of  my bank account. Don’t believe me? Check it next time you’re asked if you want to accept the charge in euro (or dollars or sterling or whatever) or forints? Note what they’re offering you. And then accept to pay in forints. When it hits your bank account, check how much you were actually charged. On my last hotel transaction in Ireland, the difference was €25 on a €320 charge. This adds up. Let your home bank do the currency exchange for you. It’s cheaper.

When you use Euronet to take out euro cash (and if you find one that does, fair play – even if they all say they do, they don’t), then you’re subject to a double exchange. Your home currency is converted to forints (possibly at your home bank rate) and then to euro, internally, using the Euronet rate. They can charge what they like to convert from forints to euro, so be warned.

Checking shop rates

If you know the exchange rate of the day, you’re better positioned when it comes to shopping. Sometimes, supermarkets and shops don’t update their rates in real time. For a while there it was cheaper for me to pay in euro cash and get my change in forints at one supermarket than to use the atm or to convert euro cash to forints. Likewise, when buying from shops that offer both euro and forint prices – sometimes the euro price is cheaper. Not so the fixed price taxi rate from the airport though – paying in euro rather than forints has always been more expensive.

There are better things to spend your money on than bad exchange rates. Be smart.

 

 

 

 

Where has the summer gone? Is it my imagination or is time flying by ever so quickly, much quicker than years ago when it seemed as if we’d all the time in the world to do whatever it was we had to do. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of the aging process. Or perhaps it’s because many of us don’t have weekends any more. With growing expectations from employers that we be online and available nearly 24/7, the days blur into weeks and the weeks into months and the months into years. Read more

What started off in March 2006 as a bunch of people with a shared affinity for Ireland and being Irish getting together for dinner has morphed into a three-day event. St Patrick’s Day this year falls conveniently on a Friday. Those living in Ireland, Northern Ireland, and on the Caribbean island of Montserrat will enjoy a long weekend, as the day itself is marked by a public holiday in those three countries. Here in Budapest, we’ll have to work a casual Friday. Last year MUPA went green for the day; this year I’d like it be a bridge. That’d be magic.

On the business front, the Irish-Hungarian Business Circle (IHBC) is teaming up with growth consultants M27 Absolvo to organise an Irish-Hungarian event focused on investment and innovation. Neither country is short of brain matter and talent so this promises to be an interesting mix. From what I understand, it’s a little like a dating service – those with ideas who need money to realise them pitch to those with money to invest in promising start-ups and small business enterprises. The invite-only event is taking place in the Marriott Hotel from 2pm on Friday, 17th March. St Patrick himself wasn’t beyond a little innovation. He was the one who added the Sun to the cross to create what’s known today as the Celtic Cross and the one to use the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to the heathen masses of Ireland all those years ago. I reckon he’d be well impressed with this initiative.

And while the business gig is underway, students from schools around Hungary will be competing in the annual St Patrick’s Festival competition organised by the Vörösmarty Mihály Gimnázium. Secondary schools will be sending their best to compete in five categories: Folk song | Pop-rock song, solo | Pop-rock song, group | Poem or prose | Short scene. And this year, there’ll be a special prize for the best Irish entry. This is one I’m looking forward to.

On Saturday, 18th March, dancers from all over the world will be competing at the WIDA Open Feis over at Folyondár Sports Hall (Folyondár utca 15) from 8 am. This international Irish dance competition is a growing attraction on the international Irish dance scene with competitions for all age groups.  For more details, check their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/budapestfeis

And while the dancers are finishing up at 6pm, moves of a different kind will be made on the pitch at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. One of the biggest days in Irish rugby also falls on Paddy’s weekend. This year, Ireland and England will play the final match in the 2017 Six Nations. The event will be shown live, on a big screen, at the Marriott Hotel from 6pm, a move calculated to avoid any no-shows at the 11th annual St Patrick’s Gala Dinner. And, I must admit, there’s something about watching a rugby game when dolled up to the nines that adds spirit to the scrums. Nothing like a roomful of screaming black ties and tuxedos to set the mood. (If you’re not going to the dinner, you can get your fill of it all at Jack Doyle’s Irish pub and restaurant over on Pilvax utca.)

More than 250 guests are expected to sit down to the three-course lamb dinner at the Marriott on Saturday night for an evening of ceoil agus craic (music and fun). John Murphy and his traditional repertoire will accompany the dinner with Budapest-based Hungarian Irish Folk band Green Spirit charged with bringing guests to their feet after their Irish coffees. And, whether you prefer the Hungarian tombola (which actually originated in Italy) or the Irish raffle, there’ll be plenty of opportunity to spread the luck and the love around with a number of charities standing to benefit from the proceeds. DJ Andrew J will be on hand till the wee hours of the morning for all those who can keep pace. If you haven’t already booked your place, you might still be in luck. Check the website for details: www.ihbc.hu

Sunday sees the seventh annual gathering of painted faces and leprechaun hats walking beneath banners and behind Irish wolfhounds to the beat of the Irish Prison Service Pipe Band. Back in 2011, 546 people showed up for the first St Patrick’s Day parade in Budapest. I’m sure of the number because I was the official counter. Last year, it was over 4000. The crowd starts amassing around 1.30 pm at Szabadság tér for face-painting and the like with the parade itself starting at 3 pm. It’ll wind its way through the streets of Budapest, ending up at Instant VIII, on Akácfa utca 49-51, where the craic will continue. Bring along a musical instrument and join in one of the many sessions going on throughout the venue. Billed as one of the biggest St Patrick’s Day parades in Central Europe, it’s not one to be missed.

And, if you feel like getting a head start on the shenanigans, that crazy Irish band Firkin are playing Akvárium on Thursday night. Just what you need to get the green going.

Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhaoibh go léir. (Happy St Patrick’s Day to you all.)

First published in the Budapest Times March 2017

Paying tax is a duty, an obligation. Taxes pay for our medical care, our education, our roads, the infrastructure on which society is built. Even so, few of us pay them with a smile, confident that our money will be put to good use. But taxes, like death, are supposed to be unavoidable.

So, having accepted that I have to pay my taxes, it is nice to be able to divert even the minutest portion from the government’s coffers and into a cause that is far needier. Hungary allows us to donate 1% of our taxes to a church and 1% to a charity. My church 1% goes to the Hare Krishnas because of the tremendous work they do feeding 1500 homeless and in-home poor in the city almost every single day of the year. Rain, hail, or snow, the lads from the Food for Life programme are out there, dishing up hot foot.

The other 1% needed more research.

I only discovered this second 1% last year and then I gave to an art gallery working with those with psychiatric disorders and mental illness. But as I buy from them fairly regularly, I needed to choose another recipient.

I’d heard tell of Menedék Alapítvány (the Shelter Foundation) and their work with the homeless but I hadn’t heard of their work with victims of abuse – mothers and kids in particular. Abuse, in all its guises, is something no one should have to live with. I’ve been there. It’s not nice.

Through the good auspices of a friend, I went to visit the Menedék Mamásotthon, their mums’ home in Budapest. I’m being deliberately vague about the location as many of the women there are seeking refuge from their abusers.

Space is limited and the waiting list is long. Right now, there are 11 mums and 29 kids in the home. Last year, they had 300 registered applications with 34 families passing through. They are unique among shelters and homes of their kind in that each family gets its own room with a private bathroom and a bed for everyone. The two largest families (one with seven children) occupy self-contained apartments on the premises. The others share a communal kitchen and living area with a communal laundry facility.

When accepting applicants, those in physical danger get priority. Then mothers with children who are facing life on the street with no other option. Hungarian law says that no child should be homeless or living in an unsafe environment. Children are often removed from their parents and remanded to the care of the system. At the Menedék Mamásotthon, mums and kids get to stay together.

Families can stay for no more than 18 months. By this time, it is hoped that mum has a part-time job and that they’ve managed to save some of the children’s allowance (13 700 huf /€45/$47) and her salary to set themselves up in social housing (if they’re lucky enough to get one). Clothes and food donations play an important part in the Shelter’s provision and they heavily rely on public support. Government funding goes to pay building maintenance and upkeep and the salaries of the seven employees who provide the support and counselling the families need.

As I sat there chatting with the director, I couldn’t help thinking, on a theoretical level, that it all sounded rather good. Mums are taught parenting values, the importance of routine in a child’s life, the value of nutrition and personal hygiene. The kids go to kindergarten and to school. They have access to a computer for homework if needed. All rather lovely.

Then I saw the rooms. Bright and airy but small. I can’t imagine three people living in one and not killing each other. One mum I met – let’s call her Kati – shares a room with her two children, a boy and a girl, aged 14 and 16. They’re at that age where space is important and moods are frequent. Yes, they go to school, but they’re home by 7 (a house rule). Kati says she’s lucky. Had the home not accepted them, they’d have been split up. They’ve been there close to 18 months. She has a part-time job as a sales clerk and the kids are doing well in school. She’s managed to save some money and is hoping to be rehoused as part of the social housing scheme. She’s there because of a bankruptcy. Her husband left. She had nowhere else to go. Her kids have adjusted well. They’re old enough to know what life could have been like. They’re good. They manage. But they are looking forward to having their own space. Soon.

Not for the first time, I stopped and gave silent thanks for the blessed life I lead. And I thought, once again, about perspective. Kati and her kids are happy – happy they’re not on the street, that they’re together, that they’ve a clean bed to sleep in that they can call their own, however fleetingly. I was looking at the room unable to get beyond the size of it and the horror of living in such close quarters with anyone. If circumstances dictated, I’m sure I’d adapt. But man, am I grateful I’m not there.

The bridge that Menedék Mamásotthon provides is incredibly important to the lives of those families fortunate enough to get a place. Given that the connection between the various municipalities in the city and those in need of their services is tenuous at best, all too often these families have nowhere to turn.

The foundation itself, Menedék Alapítvány, under which Menedék Mamásotthon operates, has other places, too. This home was once a Baptist church, renovated in 2005, so it’s been in operation for a while. I’m a little wary of religious institutions. I’m not comfortable with the idea of conditional giving: I’ll help you, but only if you attend prayer services and bible study groups or only if you share my beliefs. And while the Baptist foundation and Christian beliefs are very much evident in their literature, neither colour nor creed play any part in the application processes. Attendance at bible study and prayer groups is voluntary rather than a condition of acceptance and support. In a sermon last year, Pope Francis talked about the deception of ‘saying and not doing’, of talking piously but not actually doing anything good. Menedék Alapítvány is an example of doing a lot, with very little by way of saying.

Also in Budapest, they operate a weekly TeaKlub for young people in need of support. And a home for self-sufficient, homeless young men aged 18-35, those who need time to get themselves together. Sometimes, all people really need is a break, for something to their way, a chance to right themselves. This respite keeps many off the streets and that can only be a good thing. Down the country, in Kiskunmajsa, a renovated former Soviet barracks now provides temporary housing for 30 families in Menedékváros (City of Refuge) [and there are plenty of these dotted around the country that could be put to similar use].

So, having done my due diligence, I’m happy to redirect my 1% and work also towards getting them the heavy-duty washing machines they so badly need (40 people makes for a lot of laundry and their current machines just ain’t up to the job). If you want to help them out, and redirect your 1%, this is the number you need to quote on your tax form:  Kedvezményezett adószáma: 19004909-2-43. They’ll also accept in-kind donations of food, clothes, and furniture (delivery by prior arrangement to the main office). And cash donations, too. Specify on the transfer which home you want the money to go to. Details available on their website.

As poet and philosopher Samuel Decker Thompson said:

We are all just a car crash, a diagnosis, an unexpected phone call, a newfound love, or a broken heart away from becoming completely different person. How beautifully fragile are we that so many things can take but a moment to alter who we are forever.

Kati and her family dodged a bullet when they got a place in the Mamásotthon. They were lucky, she said. We can be part of creating that luck for others, too.

The village of Tarnabod sits 113 km east of Budapest. A shadow of its former self, today success and plenty are but a memory. Like other villages in rural Hungary, things are bad in Tarnabod. Jobs are scarce, resources few. And, for many villagers, by the last Saturday of the month, food and money have run out.

In 2011, Gabriella, a then Budapest-based journalist, visited the village to do a piece on child poverty. It was the beginning of a journey that saw her and her best friend and fellow journalist Kata, getting involved in making life a little easier for the locals. Tarnabod és mi (Tarnabod and us) was born. What started as donations of food, clothes, and cleaning materials has grown into solid support. Their relationship with the village is open and trusting, and their help is much appreciated.  When the kids go back to school, Kata & Co., provide school supplies. When the football team needs new boots, they are there. When the village needs hot food, they’re there, too.

Photo by Péter Horgas / Tarnabod és Mi

The Saturday I was there, it was -12°C. I watched as Chef Daniel, from Revolucíon Budapest, one of the city’s top Tex-Mex restaurants (Akácfa u. 57), and his team tried valiantly to get the barrel fires going. They were there to cook a hot stew for the villagers (all 600 or so of them). They’ve been doing this every month in winter and every second month in summer since 2015.  They worked outside, on open fires, in freezing temperatures. When the food was ready, word went around and the people came to collect.

Photo by Zsuzsanna Bozo

Up the road, in the tanoda (study hall), Zsuzsa and her gang from Caledonia Social Bites prepared hot chocolate. We were lucky. We got to work inside. In the next room visiting singers, musicians, and storytellers entertained the kids. The place rocked. Two of the local young lads have gotten places in a gymnastic school in Budapest – one is particularly talented and destined for great things. They both come from large families with unemployed parents. This scholarship is their way out of the cycle of poverty in which the village is mired. And that’s Kata’s aim – to show the kids that they can have a life outside the village, that theirs can be a different world.

As we worked, I met other volunteers from other groups, all there to contribute in their own way. Volunteers like 20-year-old Selina, German born of Turkish descent, who’s spending her gap year working in Tarnabod. An Order of Malta programme funds her food and accommodation and gives her pocket money in return for the work she does at the preschool, the kindergarten, the primary school, and the tanoda. There are far more glamorous places to spend a gap year, but a 10-day student exchange to Debrecen sealed her fate. Selina fell for Hungary in a big way and wanted to contribute to the greater good. She’s one of a group of 12 young people on the programme from Spain, Germany, and Poland aged 18–29 who are volunteering around the country, giving of their time and energy and getting invaluable life experience in return. The kids love her and she gives every ounce of that love back, and more besides.

A car pulled up. Heni and Szilvia had arrived from Debrecen with bags of clothes. They got involved with Tarnabod és mi after experiencing first-hand how activism and volunteerism work. For nearly 80 days straight they worked their day jobs and then helped man the train station in Debrecen from 6pm till 1am helping refugees figure out where they were going. With a multinational student cohort at the local university, they had lots of willing translators and interpreters who juggled exam schedules to be available. Since then, the pair have continued to do what they can for those in need. They joined forces with the Bike Mafia in Debrecen to feed the homeless and are in the process of setting up an NGO.

Photo by Szilvia Vékony

A couple of weeks ago, a Roma family in the village of Sáp heard a knock on the door. Officials came and removed their 8 youngest kids and 2 grandkids to places unknown, saying that the house wasn’t fit for kids to live in (the family had just moved in). For three days, the parents didn’t know where the children had been taken. The dad’s boss posted a request for help on his Facebook page, a request that was brought to Szilvia’s attention. Thanks to local volunteers and community donations, within 6 days the house had a new fitted kitchen and new floors. It was fully furnished and carpeted. The cupboards were stocked with food, the wardrobes filled with clothes. The kids are expected home soon.

Photo by Zsuzsanna Bozo

Photo by Szilvia Vékony

The hot chocolate went down a treat. It did this jaded heart good to see so many smiling, laughing faces, despite the odds. Because the odds ain’t good. And despite there being people willing to give of themselves and their time for no other reason than to help others, naysayers, politics, and egos can thwart the best of intentions. What’s needed is action. What’s needed are more people like the Tarnabod crew – people who do more than sit around a table and discuss the whys and wherefores of possibilities; people who recognise a need and act on it.

Yes, there will be those who show up for the photo opp. And perhaps the gloved volunteers who went to draw with kids in a refugee camp did more harm than good.  But as long as the Katas in this world make things happen, there is hope.  And today, more than ever, we need to work together, to give of ourselves, to do what we can to redress the imbalance and mitigate the fear being fomented by those in charge of our world.

PS: The villagers badly need gloves – all sizes. The collection point is Jurányi Produkciós Ház, II. District, Jurányi u.1. Give what you can. Make a difference.

First published in the Budapest Times 10 February 2017

While out on Friday night, a Hungarian friend mentioned that the Monk of the Gulag had died earlier this week (January 15th), aged 100. As I’d never heard of him, I asked her to tell me some more.

He was born Károly (Charles) Olofsson on 23 December 1916 in Rákosszentmihály  in Budapest’s XVIth district. When he was 16, he entered the Benedictine Order and when ordained, took the name Placid. He studied in Pannonhalma and later in Munich. During WWII, he served his time as a military chaplain and spent some time at Komárom, in the military hospital there. During his 11-month term there, he was demoted for speaking out from the pulpit against officers’ mistreatment of enlisted men. After the army, he went back to school, this time to head one in Budapest. His post-war activism drew some media (and other, unwanted) attention and to remove him from the public eye, the outspoken priest was called back to the Abbey in Pannonhalma, where he was arrested in June of 1946 by the ÁVH, Hungary’s then Secret Police.  

Despite their best efforts, they failed to extract a confession from him but this didn’t stop them. [1946/2016 – have we come any further at all?] Fr Placid was sentenced to 10 years in a Gulag on trumped-up terrorism charges.  He served his time in a camp about 900 km outside Moscow, not allowed contact with friends or family outside until  his final year when he could legally send a postcard.

In 1955, Fr Placid was allowed to return to Hungary but forbidden to teach or work as a priest. What ministering he did was done in secret. He spent his time variously as a factory worker making boxes in Pesterzsebet, as an ambulance driver at the at the Országos Reumatológiai és Fizioterápiás Intézetben (National Institute of Rheumatology and Physiotherapy), and later as a laundry worker.  Finally, in 1977, he went back to being a priest as auxiliary chaplain of the Cistercian parish of St Emeric.  [An aside: In Cleveland, OH, USA, a church by the same name offers mass in Hungarian – it was founded in 1904 to minister to the many Hungarians in the city – who’d have thought eh?]

My friend told me of the four rules that Fr Placid had shared, his secret to surviving the Gulag. He once apparently joked that for ten years, the Soviet Union had tried to destroy him, but that he had the last laugh as he survived and it didn’t, thus proving that God has a sense of humour. In the Gulag, he said he found his true vocation – not to teach but to keep the souls of the prisoners alive. The Soviet Union taught him how to live, he said. And these are his rules for living: (in translation)

  1. Don’t dramatise suffering because it makes you weaker.
  2. Recognize and consciously look for the little joys of life.
  3. Do not believe that you are better than others but when there is an opportunity show that you actually are.
  4. Hang on to God. With His help, you can survive every hell on Earth.

When he turned 100 last year, Fr Placid described himself as a ‘simple man of average abilities’. And this simple man has been lauded with just about every award the country has to offer from the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary to being one of four people to hold the Hungarian Order of Honor. He survived against the odds, with spirit and in faith.

And today, when the future is looking bleak and tantrums are being thrown, it is the likes of Fr Placid to whom I’ll turn when I need an example of humility, strength, justice, courage, and empowerment… all the qualities great men need to inspire and to lead. RIP, Fr Placid. RIP.

Thank you, my friend, for sharing. I’m truly grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Placid Olofsson, the Benedictine monk who was imprisoned in a Soviet Gulag from 1946 to 1955, passed away yesterday evening.


In a book published on his 100th birthday, Father Placid described his life in the following terms:

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 rules of surviving GULAG: 1. Don’t dramatise suffer because it makes you weaker. 2. Recognize little joys of life. 3. Do not believe that you are better than others but when there is an opportunity show that you actually are. 4. Hang on to God. With his help you can survive every hell on earth.

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For me, wine falls in to the same category as music and art:  I know what I like and what I don’t like. I have friends who delight in wine, who have made it their business to educate themselves about the various grapes and vintages. They speak knowingly about bouquets and noses using words and phrases that turn their English into a language I neither recognise nor understand. Sometimes I listen. Sometimes I think them quite pretentious. But that says far more about me than it does about them; I’m well versed in my own limitations.

That said, I like my wine. I like discovering new wineries. And I like to know what its story is, what makes it special. But I’d given up on wine tastings. I don’t like being patronised or preached to and when pretentiousness comes with a price and little or no time to really savour the wine, I’m not impressed. I don’t need to know the technicalities and I have no great desire to learn the language. I just want a few good stories accompanied by some interesting wines in comfortable surroundings.

A few weeks ago, in search of a new Siller (that Hungarian lovely that is darker than a rosé but not dark enough to be a red), I ambled into VinoPiano Bor & Tapas Bár, part of the Élesztőház offer at Tűzoltó utca 22 in Budapest’s IXth district. Their sommelier, the very unassuming Kiss Ferenc, had told me that he was expecting some new bottles and I went to sample. Having introduced me to three new wineries, two new Siller, and a very interesting Olaszreisling that I’ve been wowing friends with since, I decided that he was a man I could listen to.

We were expecting family for the New Year, most of whom had never been to Hungary before, so I booked a wine tasting for 3pm on the 29th of December. There would be 11 of us. I was promised six wines, tapas, and some good stories. Kiss delivered in spades.

VinoPiano is noted for only stocking natural wines. I was a little disconcerted to hear that 90-95% of wines contain a variety of the 3000 or so legal chemicals used in modern-day viniculture. I’m an avid label reader but apparently these legal chemical don’t have to be disclosed. Mmmmm….

With the general introduction to winemaking in Hungary over, Kiss took us on a tour of the country. He’d taken my request to heart and produced only what I would call ‘interesting’ wines. He peppered his educational talk with anecdotes and trivia from the country’s wine history, going with the flow and taking his cue from the volume of talk around the table.

The first wine on the card was a 2008 white from Lenkey Pincészet in Mád. That year, they managed to produce 3216 bottles instead of around 15 000 because of a very aggressive mildew. This white, aptly named Túlélő (survivor) was one of them; a dry Furmint-Hárslevelű-Muskotály blend that we liked.

Next, we visited Somló, the smallest of Hungary’s 22 wine regions, comprising just 560 hectares. We went to Sághegy, to sample the notable 2011 Sághegyi Olaszrizling from Dénes Tibor whose 2.5-hectare vineyard uses minimum technology to deliver the ultimate in craft wine-making. For a reason I can’t quite remember, we all came away calling this wine ‘rock juice’. And we loved it. So much so that I bought some to take with us. A little gem.

From the volcanic hills, we moved to the Mátra, to Gyöngyöspata and the Kékhegy Pince, another small vineyard producing some 600 bottles annually that walks the minimal-interference walk by making the most of opportunities provided by nature.  I’m a Siller fan and had made a special request to include one in the tasting. The 2015 Piroska is now a firm fixture on my list of recommendations. And even though the company I was in might have preferred the reds, they were suitably impressed with their formal introduction to Siller.

And so to the reds, where I generally lose interest. I had a bad accident with a bottle of port back in my Alaska days, the memory of which is still very vivid. So vivid that even sitting within sniffing distance of an open packet of wine gums is enough to bring them flooding back. My challenge to Kiss was to introduce me to a red that I could drink.

His first choice, a 2014 Turán from Nyolcas és Fia in Eger, didn’t do anything for me, but I was alone in my lack of appreciation. The others were drooling over the dark purple, late-harvest offering.

Determined to convert me, Kiss opened a 2013 Kadarka from Szekszárd’s Halmosi Pincészet. Hungary’s most popular grape in the nineteenth century, the kadarka is enjoying a revival of late. The thin skin means less colour and less tannin, both of which suited me fine, thank you very much. I was suitably impressed – as was everyone else. Kiss took his well-deserved bow; his job was done. And again, Halmosi József, like the other viticulturalists featured, believes in working with nature. Tradition for him is not a trend to be followed, but a core belief that influences everything he does. Another to take home.

Staying in Szekszárd, our final wine of the afternoon was a 2009 Kékfrankos from former electrical-engineer-turned-award-winning viticulturalist, Dániel Zsolt from Dániel Pince. The others raved. I went back to my Siller.

It was a convivial, relaxed, afternoon in a very unpretentious setting. The tapas – breads, cheeses, olives, meats – were plentiful. The wines were excellent. But more remarkable was the man himself, Kiss Ferenc. Young, enthusiastic, and passionate about his profession, Kiss left us with an appreciation for natural wines and a taste for small vineyards devoted to their craft. If, as US founding father Benjamin Franklin* supposedly said, wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy, Kiss made believers of us all.

First published in the Budapest Times January 2017

*Post updated to reflect that Ben Franklin was a founding father and not a US President as originally stated. My bad.

In trying to find a word to describe a friend of mine recently, I had occasion to Google the term ‘giving people’. And once I’d stopped trying to remember how I’d found similar information before Google, I started to think. Three things struck me from a list of 10 things that supposedly characterise a ‘giving person’ and what they give to the rest of us. [All are relevant but these struck me as particularly pertinent.]

The gift of requesting help: Requesting help is is a difficult one. It’s something I’ve had to learn myself. It not easy because somewhere buried inside all our insecurities is that irritating voice that tells us that asking for help is a sign of weakness, of failure. But if we view it not as helping ourselves but as giving others the chance to help us, it takes on a different appearance. Giving people know when and how to ask for help.

The gift of opportunity: Our rhetoric is full of if onlys. I could spend the better part of a day listing mine: If only I spoke Hungarian, I’d apply to go on study tours. If only I had time, I’d spend two hours a day learning the one language I need. If only I had an ear for music, I’d be able to better pronounce my letters. For many with a community spirit, the if onlys could also include ‘if only I had the opportunity, I’d volunteer to do something good, to give something back, to help make someone else’s lot a little easier.’ Giving people do this – they create an opportunity for the rest of us to give something back.

The gift of purpose: In a world where insecurity is rife, change is a constant, and lunacy prevails, it anchors us when we have purpose, some clear, solid goal which we can work towards alongside others also intent on making our corner of the world just a little better than it was yesterday. Giving people give the gift of purpose.

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Just when I thought that my mate Zsuzsa Bozo had topped it all with the soup kitchen/feed the homeless drive she and her gang have been working tirelessly on, a wonderful initiative that the Caley and Age of Hope are facilitating, she goes and takes it one step further.

The cold weather is going to be around for a while and warm coats are needed. The Caledonia has joined the Free Coat initiative. It’s simple. If you have coats you’ve grown out of, don’t like, don’t want, are not wearing and they’re warm… hang them up on the coat-rack outside the Caley where those who have a greater need can come pick them up (and remember to bring a hanger, too). And if you don’t have coats that are warm and suitable but you still want to help, why not swing by any one of the many many many secondhand-clothes shops in the city and buy a couple. Then drop them by the Caley, and while you’re there, stick your head in the kitchen to see if help is needed to peel those veg. The soup drive continues all this week and ingredients are needed.

This week, I’m adding my thanks to those of the hundreds of homeless who are grateful for the soup and sustenance delivered through the good auspices of Zsuzsa and Ákos. Without their provision of an opportunity and a purpose and without their ask for help, the rest of us might well still be mired in a sea of if onlys. They are two truly giving people.

Zsuzsa shared this story with me, a story that has done its bit to restore my faith in human nature. I hope she won’t mind me passing it on:

I left the Caledonia, distributing the soups with Ákos and Gergő. Once we finished, I got out of the van, said happily goodbye to both of them, not realizing that I had no money or no metro pass with me. So I was there , out in Határ Ut, at the metro underground, thinking how I could get back… I spoke to the people of the street there (homeless). One old man went and came back, holding a ticket, he just bought. For me… that’s all he had.

Yep, you reap what you sow.

 

westI’ve been overdosing on West Wing, the old TV series starring Martin Sheen as President of America that ran from 1999 to 2006. The writing is clever, the dialogue witty, the characters eminently likeable. I’m addicted. We can go through anywhere from 4 to 7 episodes a night. Two episodes into series 2 and it’s not lost on me what perfect timing this viewing is. I look at Jed Bartlet and I look at the soon-to-be US President, and three words come to mind: Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot. And no, I’m not an idiot. I know that Jed Bartlet is a fictional character born of the pen of Aaron Sorkin. I haven’t lost the plot completely. And I know that the staff he has surrounded himself with, those who serve at the pleasure of the President, play a huge role in keeping this fictional America straight. And the more episodes I watch, the more I despair at what January 20th will bring.

During the week, I reposted a video by GQ on Facebook – I didn’t know the chap speaking but I could identify with his message. He spoke not of policies or mandates or great plans – but of the man himself. He showed tweets penned by DT that begged the question – Is this guy really all there?  I doubt there’s a writer in Hollywood who could come up with a presidential character quite like him and expect the series to be a success.

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I had two messages of note in reaction to my post. One pointed out there’s nothing that can be said that will change people’s minds. Like abortion and blood sports, both democrats and republicans have come down hard on one side and are intractable. My friend said that posting such videos would just lose me friends. And,  when I checked, they were right. I’m not nearly as popular on FB as I was pre-DT.  Ah well.

Another friend pointed out that the chap in the view was a ‘sports commenter and failed political commenter from a network that can not generate enough viewership to keep him in his time slot,’ branding him ‘an extremist on the liberal side of American politics’.  In public speaking, this is known as ad hominem  – an argument/reaction directed against a person rather than the position they are maintaining. But then, so was the GQ piece, although it was clearly positioned as such, perhaps for lack of a position to attack? Yep – intractable.

Anyway, I’ve decided that as my tuppence ha’penny isn’t going to sway public opinion, I will watch the unfolding drama with an interest born in fiction. I can’t think of it as anything else and find myself seeing the whole thing as a plot line, wondering which way it will go. And in an effort to compare like with like, I will use Jed Bartlet as my yardstick, because comparing DT to Barack Obama would be like comparing oranges and apples. [A shout-out to my US friends who are feeling the pain – thoughts and prayers with you as you battle to  make sense of it all.]

And, in the meantime, while the world continues to go off kilter, I will concentrate on what’s going on closer to home. While I’ve been down the country with my geese, Zsuzsa and the crew at the Caledonia and Ákos and his team at Age of Hope have been busy doing stuff that matters. Another 300 portions of soup have made it to the homeless. Ingredients are coming in. And people are turning up with their potato peelers to help out. Tomorrow, Friday, at 2pm, more help is needed to prep for the weekend. If you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and work, drop by and help out. This is a time when you can really make a difference to the lives of others.

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You don’t have to look very far on Facebook and other social media to see people’s reaction to the current cold front that is sweeping Europe. It’s bloody freezing. Perishing. Mind-numbingly cold. And for those of us who have homes to go to, we can bitch and moan to our hearts’ content knowing that our discomfort is temporary. Fleeting, even. We can even opt to stay at home and not stir outside until the weather starts cooperating. But for hundreds if not thousands of others in cities like Budapest, life is a tad different.

They have no homes to go to. And perhaps for some who do, they’re faced with the heat or eat dilemma. Money is tight and people have to make decisions based on need. One homeless activist told of how he personally had taken ten dead people from their homes last winter – they’d died of hyperthermia, in situ, having chosen to eat.

There’s been a homeless chap camped under an archway on our street for the last few months. I’ve never seen him drunk or belligerent. He keeps his stuff tidy. And he always looks neat and relatively clean. He can leave his stash and it’s left undisturbed. No one bothers him. He seems to hold himself apart. When we’ve had occasion to interact, he is pleasant and sweet. A nice lad who could be anything from late 30s to early 50s. It’s difficult to tell.

When the cold spell hit, we were worried as he was showing no move to go to a shelter. We talked of inviting him home but this brought up a litany of concerns mostly stemming from the fact that our Hungarian and his English were nowhere close to facilitating a conversation that didn’t run the risk of being misunderstood. What if he was mentally unstable? What if he threw a fit? What if he was allergic to nuts? What if, what if, what if…

But the biggest what if was what if he died during the night and we had done nothing? In the UK you can call a number to report where someone homeless is camping out so that those working to help can come and do their thing. We rang a Hungarian friend to see if there was a  local equivalent. When we explained what was going on, she offered to come with us to talk to him and see what he wanted to do. He didn’t want to go to a shelter, even though one locally would have taken him in. He was adamant. It was dangerous in there. He preferred to take his chances on the street. He was working down on Mester utca during the day so only needed to get through the night. He could slip the night watchman a few forints and he’d let him sleep inside the building he was camped outside. We bought him dinner; she gave him money, and the next day he was alive. That was Thursday.

On Friday, as I was walking by, two policemen were talking to him. From what I could gather without loitering with intent, it seemed that he was still refusing to go a shelter. When they’d gone, I went back and slipped him some money for his bribe, feeling his hands to make sure he was warm. An hour later, a visiting friend told me she’d seen the cops there and she’d thought he had died. But I think they made him go inside, because he was back the next morning.

Respecting his right to decide, we brought him food and blankets to make the decision a little easier, and added money to facilitate his choice. Our conversation is always pleasant and he seems quite okay. But around the city, in the underpasses, other homeless are not coping as well. Cheap booze is fueling what often seems like a death wish. It’s hard to watch.

Budapest Bike Mafia and other activist groups are collecting blankets and food donations to distribute around the city. And when one of the city’s most socially conscious pub – The Caledonia – stepped up to help, we didn’t need to be asked twice. On Sunday morning, we went shopping for ingredients to make 200 portions of goulash soup to be distributed throughout Sunday night and 200 portions of a healthy tomato soup for Monday. We retired to The Caledonia and sliced and diced and cooked it all up. Kilos and kilos of fresh veg and meat. It was distributed that evening by volunteers from the Age of Hope Foundation who stepped in to help out those from Menedèk. Job done. Conscience appeased. And it felt good, damn good, to do something constructive. Giving money is easy, but when it comes to getting bang for your buck, using the money you could donate to buy ingredients and then help prep and cook is far more rewarding.

caleAkós from Age of Hope has said that they’d be happy to distribute more this week, if there is food to distribute. The shopping list, when it comes to feeding 400, is expensive. So we thought – why not ask others to contribute… and to help. Chopping onions, when done in volume, is a Zen-like experience. Ditto for peeling carrots. It can be very meditative.

What’s needed:

  • Onions
  • Celeraic
  • Fresh paprikas (the TV sort, I think they call them)
  • Carrots
  • Potatoes
  • Tomatoes (fresh and tinned)
  • Garlic
  • Gulyas meat
  • Paper bowls/cups for hot soup with lids (Metro has them :-))

You can drop off all donations to the Caledonia, Budapest, Mozsár u. 9, 1066. They’re open from 2pm. And sure when you’re there, stay and have a drink and chop some veg. Restorative therapy has never been so cheap. You can make a difference. I am grateful to have had the experience. Thanks to Zsuzsa & Co. for making it happen.

Tip – Suck on a teaspoon while you’re chopping the onions and you won’t cry. It works.