Many, many moons ago, in an effort to cure myself of the habit of buying touristy tat when I travelled, I hit on the idea of a travel tree (along the lines of my travel bracelet). Before I can buy anything else, I have to buy a silver charm and a Christmas tree ornament (a challenge in non-Christian countries). The search for both usually uses up all of my shopping energy and takes care of that on-holiday-need-to-buy affliction that hits when the plane lands or the train draws into the station.

I’ve been doing this for years but have never gotten around to getting said Christmas tree, the thoughts of taking it down always a lot worse, on balance, that the idea of putting it up. The one year I seriously flitted with the idea, BZs showed up for breakfast sans car and put paid to that. The closest I’ve come is a white metal stand with hooks for ornaments that resembles a tree. But it doesn’t smell.

20161210_150212_resized20161210_150240_resized20161211_192443_resizedThis year, though, with visitors due mid-holiday and himself the antithesis of my do-I-have-to-be-happier-just-because-it’s-Christmas Scrooginess, we got a tree. A real, live tree (well, now dying but you get the gist). And it comes from our part of the countryside, too. I hadn’t realised that there are so many different kinds but thankfully, it was cold, I was in pain, I didn’t have time to dither. I picked the first one that spoke to me. A tad ungainly but it has character.

I dug out my boxes of ornaments, all carefully catalogued over the years, and began to relive my travels. I had to think on some of them, finding it hard to remember whom I was with and why I was there and what had taken me to Smithfield, Virginia in the first place. But as we dressed the tree and swapped stories, it came alive. Admittedly, thoughts of the hassle I was going to have repacking everything threatened to intrude and ruin the moment,  but I managed to get through it.

20161213_163639_resized

20161213_163613_resized20161213_163802_resized20161213_163742_resizedlori-001-800x552One of my all time favourite ornaments though, was one I got when I was in San Francisco shortly after my bestie Lori died. That brought back a wealth of memories. The day after I got the news, I’d planted a tree in her name at an orphanage outside Budapest. It all seemed somewhat fitting. As I revisited the trips I’d taken and the places I’d been, I was at home with thoughts of friendship and travel – two of a long list of what I value in life.

Life changes – all the time. Things simply don’t stay the same. Managing that change and making the most of what we’re dealt is our challenge. Putting up a tree – that’s a start.

Walking down Teréz körút today, I noticed that it was trying to snow. It was bitterly cold. I’d just gotten off the tram and was heading to meet a friend for lunch. I was well wrapped in my designer-labelled, black, knee-length down jacket that I’d bought in the States earlier this year. It’s just about the only thing I own that has a label label, mind you. And it’s warm. I love it.

Anyway, tiny flakes of snow were falling from the sky. I was humming some Christmas song or other and really getting into the festive spirit – unusual for me. The snow kept coming. And then I looked again – a double-take. It seemed like the flakes were blowing horizontally from behind me – as if someone had a snowblower on the go. How odd, I thought. How very odd.

I walked some more and noticed that the flakes were getting  bigger. Much bigger. A particularly big one looked very much like a large feather. Before I had time to process the notion of flying feathers, I heard a familiar voice behind me.

Hey Mary, your coat’s been cut.

I turned, my brain taking a while to compute as it went through everything that could possibly have been lost in translation.

You look like a snowman!

I reached behind and felt my back, disturbing a mound of feathers that went flying. Yes – my coat had been cut. I took it off to see a ten-inch horizontal slash. I’d only been on the bloody tram two stops and had stood just inside the door, facing outwards.

20161214_164727_resizedMy mate popped into the discount store and bought some tape to stick me back together. All the while I was seething. I’ve never been a victim of car keying but I now know what it feels like. I wondered why – why would someone do this? If it was it deliberate, then why? It if was an accident, then why not fess up? I was rightly pissed off, I can tell you.

Some hours later, on calmer reflection, I realise that I’ve little to be worried about if that’s the extent of it. The coat is just a coat. I won’t be cold, or wet, or miserable without it. I won’t be homeless this Christmas, or hungry, or in fear for my life. I won’t lose my job. I won’t be dodging bombs or bullets. I won’t be living rough. I won’t be blackened with bruises or beaten senseless. And after this, I won’t be in danger of taking all this for granted.

The silver lining in the feathered cloud.

I’m gullible. I can be easily persuaded and often times find myself committing to stuff I really don’t want to do. Take last week, for instance. I had something to do and some place to go on Friday but I let myself be talked into going to a gig on A38 as well … for two reasons. (1) I’d never been and (2) my crush of 2016 was playing.

a38On the night, we ran around like the proverbial blue-arsed flies trying to do all we had to do and still make it to the ship at a reasonable hour. Yes, A38 is a boat, anchored by Petőfi híd, in the Danube.

On stage tbdhat night were the magnificent Braindogs. The collection formed to play a tribute night to Tom Waits back in 2004 and have been doing gigs together every so often ever since, and always on Tom Waits’s birthday. What a line up. London-based Soul-blues singer Ian Siegel (whom Tom Waits seemingly holds in very high regard, ranking him up as one of the best around); the brilliant Ripoff Raskolnikov from Graz (who some say could have been one of the greats worldwide had he had the ambition – now there’s a man who has mastered the meaning of ‘enough’); the ever-so gorgeous and talented Kiss Tibor from the Hungarian band Quimby and a regular with the Budapest Bár; Varga Livius, who also plays with Quimby; the mad pianist Nagy Szabolcs; and of course, my man Frenk, who this time left down his guitar and took up his drumsticks – so talented that man, so talented. It was a great night, despite my misgivings. And to think that I’d nearly cried off and given my ticket away. What I’d have missed!

A little into the gig, the penny dropped. We had tickets to another gig on Sunday night at Muzikum Klub to see a blues guy I’d never heard of (no surprise there, given how musically illiterate I am) – and it turns out that it was the very same Ian Siegel.

1060Word has it that had Siegel been born into a different generation and been gigging in the 60s, we’d be talking about him in the same breath as Van the Man and Joe Cocker. But the 70s were his playground.  Two years after he was asked unexpectedly to sing with this cousin’s band one night (he was a roadie with them at the age of 16) he picked up a guitar.  He was bitten. After  dropping out of art school and busking in Berlin, he started doing the circuit. His was a slow burner. Opening for Bill Wyman in 2003 finally got him the attention he deserved. He toured with Muddy Waters’s son Big Bill Morganfield and finally made it to the states in 2006 after topping the Soul/Blues/Jazz charts in Holland the previous year.

Of all the gigs he’s played, it was his guest appearance with 92-year-old jazz pianist Pinetop Perkins and some of the other remaining members of Muddy Waters’s band at London’s Jazz Café in 2005 that stands out. Later, at a festival in Norway, the boys returned the favour and joined him, unplanned, on stage. That I’d have loved to see.

This week, I’m grateful for the music – again. Last weekend it was Tchaikovsky, Schubert, and Bártok. This weekend it was The Braindogs, and Ian Siegal. You can’t say I’m not doing my homework. I’m grateful, too, that it’s all so affordable, so plentiful, and so much fun.

And, as an early resolution for 2017, I’m going to continue experimenting and call on my music-heads in Budapest (you know who you are) to keep me posted on stuff I might find interesting.

PS Ripoff Raskolnikov plays Muzikum on 22 December and I’m RAGING I’m missing it

 

I’m easily confused. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to regular readers or anyone who knows me. But in my defence, I try hard to replace that confusion with a modicum of certainty, if possible. If not, I simple give up and relax into the confusion. Life is short.

My latest effort to make sense of things involves orchestras. Chamber, philharmonic, symphony, festival, all words that go in the same descriptive phrase, but is there a difference, and if so, what is it?

Apparently, and I’m open to correction here, orchestras are ensembles of musicians that feature stringed instruments. Chamber orchestras are smaller, with fewer than 50 musicians, all of which may or may not be strings. They tend, as the name suggests, to play chamber music. Think Vivaldi, perhaps, and Mozart.  Symphony orchestras can have up to 100 musicians so they’re like the big sister. If there’s enough musicians and instruments to play a symphony (think brass, percussion, strings, and woodwind), you have a symphony orchestra. Beethoven immediately comes to mind.

Philharmonic orchestras are pretty much the same as symphony orchestras, both in their make-up and in what they play. From what I gather, the term is used to distinguish multiple orchestras in cities that are culturally big enough to support two major ensembles.  [Mind you, I see that London has five major orchestras and Tokyo seven!]

Here in Budapest, we have many orchestras. The two major ones are the Budapest Symphony Orchestra and the Budapest Festival Orchestra. As I understand, a festival orchestra is a symphony orchestra by another name. And it was to the BFO that I was drawn last weekend.

6xx4525-270x270I’d heard tell of Iván Fischer, founder and conductor of the BFO. I’d read about the altercations over funding during the summer. And I’d been pretty impressed with stories of the BFO being the people’s orchestra. Classical musical is often perceived as the purview of the rich and cultured, those a rung or three higher up the social ladder. But Fischer and his orchestra are doing their damnedest to make sure that everyone gets to enjoy the music.

They regularly give free concerts around the country, playing in nursing homes, churches, abandoned synagogues, and child-care institutions. In addition to their autism-friendly Cocoa Concerts for younger kids and their Choose Your Instrument programme for primary-school children, their Midnight Music series is attracting lots of teens and young adults. The BFO doesn’t wait for people to come see them, they take their music to the people.

The orchestra has come a long way since it gave its first concert on 26 December 1983. In a matter of 33 short years, it made the list of Top 10 orchestras in the world with a multi-awarded international reputation. I simply had to see it for myself.

bfpThe programme meant nothing to me. To my uneducated eye, it was simply a musical sandwich of Schubert and Bartók. Anyway, I was more interested in seeing Fischer in action and getting a peek at the renovated Liszt Ferenc Music Academy. But what a treat it was.

We had two surprises. Before the official programme began, the orchestra played Bartók’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3. But search though I might, I couldn’t see anyone playing the piano. It turned out that this was a piece dedicated to the late Zoltan Kocsis, co-founder of the BFO. And the piano we heard was a recording of him playing. He was there in spirit. Just as we thought the programme was finished, the orchestra swapped their instruments for song sheets and treated us to their rendition of Schubert’s Sound of Angels.

Christmas is coming. If you want to give someone a gift that will last a lifetime, a memory that can be replayed again and again, what about tickets to a 2017 BFO concert? And yes, if you’re asking, that’s what I’d like.

First published in the Budapest Times 9 December 2016

Sometimes, life gets a little overwhelming. Twenty-four-hour days aren’t nearly long enough to do everything that needs to get done. And when my to-do list spirals out of control and spills over onto a third page, I have a tendency to sing my theme tune more often than usual.

Until this past weekend, I didn’t even know I had a theme tune, an utterance that has been popping out of my mouth with little bidding for years, usually when things are in danger of getting on top of me. Mine is simple – it goes something like this: oi, oi, oi-oi-oi. The inflection and the tone might vary but the words never change.

During the week, I took myself off to Kuplung (a great little venue on Király utca) to see Frenk – a Hungarian singer I’m particularly fond of. I first saw him play with Budapest Bár at Sziget a few years ago and have been a fan ever since.

One of my favourites of his is a duet he does  – Where the Wild Roses Grow – it’s guaranteed to improve my mood, no matter what state things are in. But the song on his playlist that is a tonic for all my woes is his version of Iggy Pop’s Tonight.

And it would seem that his mood determines how he sings it, too. I like it best when it’s just him and his guitar. There’s not much to the lyrics but there’s a verse that resonates and speaks of a quiet that is all too elusive.

No one moves
No one talks
No one thinks
No one walks, Tonight

There’s lots to be grateful for in Budapest – and one that ranks up there is the sheer variety of things to do in the city. On any given night of the week, there’s someone (many someones) singing or playing music somewhere. The gigs are affordable (often free) and can be found in all sorts of weird and wonderful places. Last week, too, I finally got to see Tchaikovsky’s Nutcraker at the Opera House and for the first time heard Bartók Béla performed by the Budapest Festival Orchestra in the fabulously restored Lizst Ferenc Music Academy.

Wasn’t it Plato who said music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul? No matter – I had a mad week last week and this coming one looks even worse. The few hours I spent in good company with great music were restorative… and Lord knows, I’m in need of restoration.

 

Walking through the city in late October, I spotted my first Christmas tree. I tried to block it out, to pretend it wasn’t there. But the minute November arrived, there were too many to ignore. Even the city’s Christmas Markets seem to be ahead of schedule this year – didn’t they usually open the first weekend of Advent or am I losing my mind completely? Whatever happened to saving Christmas till December? Why are we in such a rush to make it all happen? Read more

I love a good sing song. Be it on the back of a bus or in the bowels of a bar after hours, there’s something about trotting out the ballads that speaks of home. And I can’t even sing. Mind you, I can’t remember the words to all the verses of any song, but I’m bloody brilliant with the ould choruses.

No wonder then that when I came across Tara O’Grady and her Black Velvet Band, the chorus of the Dubliner’s 1967 classic of the same name started streaming through my head. I went in search of more. And man, what a voice.

taraThe Wall Street Journal calls her ‘imposing’. IrishCentral calls her an ‘Irish American Jazz Powerhouse!’ And the New York Music Daily says she ‘leads one of the most badass old-time swing bands you’ll ever hear’. That the name Tara O’Grady has been mentioned in the same breath as Patsy Cline, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday, is probably more telling than the numerous awards and hits the lady has to her credit.

But go see for yourself – Tara O’Grady and her Black Velvet Band will be playing at a reception hosted by the Irish Hungarian Business Circle at Beckett’s Irish Pub on Liszt Ferenc Tér, Saturday, 3rd December at 8pm.

So. Tara O’Grady. Ireland. Hungary. What’s the connection?

Believe it, or believe it not, this Irish-American jazz singer who lives in New York, is coming to Budapest with her signed copy of the Houdini family bible, which she will deposit in the House of Houdini in the Castle District (Disz tér 11), returning the book and its spirit to Houdini’s native city. How she came to own it is a story in itself. Stick with me.

houdiniTara’s mum, Mary, was friendly with her New York neighbour, Marguerite, a retired nurse who worked for Dr Leopold Weiss. Dr Weiss had a brother Ehrich, who would later be better known as Harry Houdini. The good doctor was quite fond of Marguerite and regularly gave her gifts, much to the chagrin of her husband, Robert. One of these gifts was a bible, signed by his father and his soon-to-be-famous brother, in March 1893 (when Harry was 21). [The Weiss’s were Jewish and the Doctor probably figured that Marguerite, being a Catholic herself, might appreciate the gesture.]

Visiting her friend sometime in the late 1970s, Mary noticed a large book in the basement. When she expressed an interest in what turned out to be the Weiss family bible, her friend happily gave it to her. Her husband certainly didn’t want any reminders of the good doctor and his misguided affections.

houdini-bibleThe book sat on her parents’ bookshelf for most of Tara’s childhood. And, except for Tara, no one showed much interest in it. She came across it again this past summer, took a photo of the signature and posted it on Facebook. The book’s rarity became known. Harry Houdini’s family bible had come into play.

In her search for an appreciative home for the artifact, Tara came across the newly opened House of Houdini in Budapest. Following conversations with the museum’s founder David Merlini, himself an escape artist, she decided to bring it back to the city in which she herself had studied in her university days. The book will be handed over at a invite-only press conference in the museum on Saturday, 3rd December at 11am. Merlini, Prime Ministerial Cultural Commissioner Géza Szőcs, and Irish Ambassador to Hungary Pat Kelly will be on hand to welcome Tara and the bible to back to Budapest.

Later that evening, she’ll be in Beckett’s, as I said, performing her original songs and arrangements of what she calls Celtic Jazz with some of Budapest’s best jazz musicians, including trombonist Attila Korb. Whatever else you’ve planned for that evening, escape. This is a gig not to be missed. Seats limited. Book yours by emailing info@ihbc.hu

First published in the Budapest Times 25 November 2016

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

It was an intimate affair. About thirty discerning souls in the back room of Beckett’s Bar in Budapest on a cold, rainy, rather miserable Thursday night. Given the week that was in it, it’s probably not surprising that more didn’t venture out. Denial can do that to you. But tonight was all about the love. And the man on stage, resplendent his three-piece suit and spats … he was all about the love, too.

No one quite knew what to expect and those sorts of expectations can be difficult to manage. The audience was a global one with Hungary, Scotland, England, Ireland, Norway, America, and Australia (and possibly more) ready for whatever the wee man with the funny accent (a heady vocal cocktail laced with traces of Glasgow and Donegal) threw at us. Some, concerned that their English mightn’t be up to it, relaxed when Little John Nee admitted that his English wasn’t great either. We were in safe hands.

jn2_easy-resize-comWe’re used to being technically entertained – the lights, the amps, the pageantry that come with modern productions. But last night, we could have been in a town hall in the back-end of anywhere.  It was just him and us. He had his array of instruments neatly lined up on the stage behind him; we had our appreciation and our wonderment on tap, ready to pour.

jn4_easy-resize-comA storyteller who uses music and drama to tell his tales, Little John Nee took us on a journey through rural Ireland, popping over to Scotland on the Derry Boat for a look-see and then back again. He introduced us to people we’d never met but would know ten years from now if we ever ran into them. As we listened to his songs and stories, it hit me that what we were seeing bordered on innocence. No bells and whistles. Just pure, honest-to-goodness entertainment … from the heart.jn7_easy-resize-com

Storytelling is about holding the audience’s attention, about having them hang on your every word, about painting a picture that makes the sights and sounds and smells you describe come alive. And we were there. Everywhere Little John Nee went in that 90 minutes, we went with him. He gave us a gift: the opportunity to use our imagination, to let it take flight. Those of us born and reared in Ireland had no trouble at all reading volumes into the nod of his head, the tip of his chin, the roll of his eye. Those who had visited were back in the land of the familiar. And those who’d yet to make the journey started planning their trip.

His is a rare talent. He has a way with words, an innate ability to extract the best of stories from a combination of words like androgynous, brobdingnagian, cantankerous, and daffodils. We rode a wave of emotion with him, the peaks and the troughs. And afterwards, we felt good, better than we had a couple of hours earlier. Everyone was smiling. Reflective smiles that come with having been privy to something special.

Come back any time, Little John Nee. Next time, stay longer.

[Photo credit to Declan O’Callaghan]

I grew up in Kildare, an Irish county known for its thoroughbreds. With its stud farms and racecourses, it’s a mecca for anyone interested in National Hunt or flat racing. The local schools close for the three-day Punchestown Festival. Ladies Day at the Derby in the Curragh is up there as one of the fashion highlights of the year. And while racing here in Budapest in Kincsem Park isn’t quite of the same calibre, it’s still a great day out. Unless it’s heading in to winter and too cold to hold a pen to mark your race card. Which is why Race Nights were invented.

For those not familiar with the format, it goes like this. You get a bunch of people together in pub. You show videos of 8 real horse races, with the names changed, of course. People bet on them, as if they were at a real race course. Races are sponsored, just as they are in real life. There’s a bookie to take your money and pay out your winnings. There’s a bartender to take your drinks order. But best of all, the proceeds go to charity.

So, who goes to all this bother, eh? The Club.

Back in the day, the British Embassy ran the Britannia Club, a regular meeting place for expats in Budapest. Since its demise, The Club has dedicated itself to continuing the camaraderie and ambiance it fostered amongst visitors and locals in Budapest. This private members’ club is also open to guests and friends and meets from 18:30 each Friday in The Clubhouse, at the rear of Champs Sport Pub, Dohany u. 20. [You can also enter from Sip utca 4, direct into The Clubroom – but just on Fridays.]

The Clubhouse is a home from home for travelling souls and kindred spirits from all over the world who enjoy meeting new people, catching up with old friends, and generally having a good time. Special monthly events vary in theme and regular charity events get members and guests involved in the community, having fun while doing good. The annual race night is just one example.

racenightThis year will mark the fifth annual Charity Horse Race Night, which has gone from strength to strength, raising 40 000 ft in 2012 to 100 000 ft last year, and all for charity. This year’s focus is to raise money to help support the Children of Zsámbék through the work of the Norbertine Sisters, who provide a daily routine, food, schooling, and vocational training in usable skills like carpentry, tailoring, IT, metal-working, and restaurant and hospitality, for disadvantaged kids in the area.

I’ve been in town for a couple of them and once dragged along some visiting Irish friends – under duress, I might add. They hadn’t come the whole way to Budapest to spend the night in a British pub at a race night! But it’s infectious. Perhaps it’s the betting blood that courses through us, but it was amazing how excited we got about winning 500 ft. Madness.

My mother always told me that a bookie’s money is only ever on loan; what you win today, you’ll lose tomorrow. But with this event, no matter what you lose, the Children of Zsámbék will come out winning.

The first race will be under starters orders after the event introduction at around 19.30; the Clubhouse will open as usual around 18.30. Chili con carne will be served between races 4 and 5 to help bolster the inner gambler and calm the nerves ahead of final four races. Suggested donation at the door is 2000 ft for guests and 1500 ft for members. Every little helps.

If you’re in town on Friday night, 11 November, in want of something to do, go along. Have some fun. It’s all in a good cause.

First published in the Budapest Times 11 November 2016