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Making memories

When you work as freelancer, weekends and national holidays mean nothing. There are no set summer holidays, no half-terms, no winter breaks. There are no set long weekends, three-day weeks, or working Saturdays. It’s all in the hands of the workflow gods. Some weeks are quieter than others. The rhythm that most lives have is something I have long-since forgotten. Were my life a musical score, it would be a cacophonous tune running parallel with a sublime melody. I’d not have it any other way.

August is my between-term vacation. Most of my clients are on holiday too, so the work slows to a trickle and my choices are two: I can stay in Budapest and bake, or get out of dodge and travel.

One of the many joys of living in this city is how accessible it is. Planes, trains, or automobiles ‒ whatever your chosen mode of transport, there is so much to do, so much to see, and all within easy reach.

I spent a lovely Saturday afternoon in the forest at Gödöllő. Monday took me to Siófok, to the Balaton. Thursday found me in Dublin. That’s the beauty of being able to work from wherever you can find an Internet connection.

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IMG_7847 (800x600)A day-trip to Szentendre on the Hév or by river is a well-known escape from the oppressive heat of the city. But what about Ráckeve? It’s a lovely little town on the banks of the Danube down on Csepel Island also accessible by Hév. Get there for the Saturday market and enjoy a potter around, making sure to visit the incredibly gorgeous fresco-secco in the Catholic church of St John the Baptist. There’s a wonderful story about the wooden bridge that was built across the river, a story worth repeating:

‘You have got a nice occupation’ said the little child to the old bridge builder. ‘It might be difficult to build bridges, but if someone learnt it, it is easy’ said the old bridge builder. ‘It is easy to build a bridge of concrete and steel. Building other bridges is more difficult…’ ‘What other bridges?’ asked the little child. ‘Building bridges from one person to another, from darkness to light, from sadness to joy. I would like to build bridges to the happy future.’ The little child said: ‘It’s a special thing you do.’

IMG_3289 (600x800)Further afield, heading towards Austria by car to another bridge, is an amazing open air sculpture exhibition that lines the narrow road leading to the Bridge at Andau, the escape route taken by thousands fleeing Hungary in 1956. It is a chilling (and timely) reminder about the lengths people will go to, to make a better life for them and theirs.  The artwork is what remains of a 1996 exhibition along what’s known as the Road to Freedom and originally featured 90 pieces of work entitled The Road of Woes. Just a few miles outside the village of Andau along the Austrian/Hungarian border, it’s well worth the drive.

In the opposite direction, my favourite train destination is an Art Nouveau Serbian town known to Hungarians as Szabadka and to Serbs as Subotica. The birthplace of Hungarian writer and poet Kosztolányi Deszo, it’s not far from Palić Lake, home to the European Film Festival and the best apple ice-cream you will ever taste. This gem of a place has lured me back time and time again. In fact, I think I’m overdue a trip, where dinner at the delectable Boss restaurant will be my reward at the end of the three-hour train journey. That’s me sorted.

Whatever you do this summer, enjoy yourself. And take the time to make some memories. We know not what the future has in store.

First published in the Budapest Times 31 July 2015

 

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The stuff nightmares are made of

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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2014 Grateful 30

I used to collect stamps. Then I moved on to frogs. Now I collect experiences. And chief amongst them is my quest for the perfect cosmopolitan. It doesn’t take much by way of enticement to lure me inside a cocktail bar. As long as cosmos are on the menu, I’ll happily try it out. But when the invite is prefaced with ‘this is where John Malkovich and Quentin Tarrantino drink when they’re in town’, I was sitting on the high stool before the first shake had shook. (Trivia: Tarrantino named one of the characters in Kill Bill II after one of the barmaids.)

The ‘town’ in question is Vienna and the bar is L00s. Designed by Adolf Loos, one of the pioneers of modern architecture in Vienna, it’s tiny but looks spacious. The 290 sq ft is made bigger by the ingenious use of mirrors. The onyx-tiled walls are backlit and the counter and ceiling are cloaked in mahogany.

It’s a haven for true cocktail aficionados, offering six variations of Martinis and five variations of Manhattans. The Cosmopolitan was one of the best I’ve had in years. There’s barely room to swing a handbag and those lucky enough to get a seat are reluctant to give it up. Considering the average drink will set you back €10, it would be easy enough to sip your way through a small fortune over a few hours in the afternoon.

IMG_2377 (800x600)It started off life as a private gentleman’s club but is now open to the public. And, so far has its fame stretched, a tribute bar has opened in Manhattan. Photos are not allowed. (I missed the sign as I came in, but the rather officious manager soon took me to task. It’s a long time since I’ve felt like I’d been hauled into the principal’s office.) The bartender was a dream though – and certainly knew his stuff.

The origin of the word itself, cocktail, has many plausible explanations from sailors stirring mixed drinks with a rooster’s tail, to a derivation of the name of a Mexican goddess Xochitl. But the one I like most featured in George Bishop’s The Booze Reader: A Soggy Saga of Man in His Cups (1965). He says: ‘The word itself stems from the English cock-tail which, in the middle 1800’s, referred to a woman of easy virtue who was desirable but impure…and applied to the newly acquired American habit of bastardizing good British Gin with foreign matter, including ice.’

No matter its origin, the cocktail is indeed one of life’s pleasures. And as to who invented the cosmo? The war of attribution still rages. And spending a few hours in Loos with good friends on what was otherwise quite a chilly summer’s day in Vienna, was something to be grateful for indeed. Thank you, ladies. You know who you are.

 

Kärntnerdurchgang 10, Vienna

 

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Not all schnitzel and sausage

When I pitch Vienna against Budapest or even Bratislava, it always comes in third. I’ve never taken to the city – and I have no idea why. It seems a little sterile and old-fashioned, without a sense of humour. It seems to take itself far too seriously. Yes, it has some magnificent buildings and some spectacular museums and galleries. And yes, it’s the home of sacher torte, that delicious chocolate cake immortalised by Franz Sacher in 1832 (interestingly, he trained first in Bratislava and then in Budapest, before ending up in Vienna). And yes, it has some great schnitzel and sausage, but aside from all this, there has always been something missing…for me. Vienna was just a little too predictable.

But this time around, I was taken to the Naschmarkt and was suitably impressed. Aside from the usual fare of fresh fruit, veg, and flowers, this market does a roaring trade in fresh fish and lamb. And lamb to die for. Many many years ago, while in the village butchers with my mother, I laughed at the conversation she had with the butcher in which both were rhapsodising about a leg of lamb. For the life of me, I failed to see how anyone could be so taken with a piece of meat. Then, in Anchorage, Alaska,  I found a real butchers with real cuts of meat. When I stopped to admire a rack of lamb on display, he quickly nipped in the back and brought me out the finest leg I’d seen in years. It had happened – I’d turned into my mother. The same happened on Thursday in Vienna as I ogled the cutlets, the shoulders, the racks, and the legs of lamb and wondered for the umpteenth time why Budapest’s markets are practically lamb-less. I can see me taking the train to Vienna on a lamb spree someday soon.

The market is truly cosmopolitan and perhaps for the first time I glimpsed the city’s multicultural ethnicity. Vendors from all over the world plied their trade in prepared food and ingredients. Had I not been so focused on schnitzel for dinner, I could easily have lost myself in the Indonesian food on offer. On Saturday, the market extends to include a flea market – enough in itself to warrant a return journey. But perhaps one of the most exciting finds of all was an international discount bookshop with a huge variety of English books on sale. To be able to sample new authors without paying an arm and a leg for the experience is a very underrated pleasure. I browsed, I bought, and I went back for seconds.

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Flushing the loo is a godless deed – a wanton act of death

One must live as though one were at war and everything rationed.

With a name like Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser, is it any wonder that this Austrian artist believed that the colourful, the abundant, the manifold, is always better than mediocre grey and uniformity. I’ve long since given up any pretensions about knowing my Art and have resolved to like what I like without trying to justify or explain. Until taken to the Hundertwasser museum in Vienna last week, I’d never heard of this chap. My museum preferences lean more towards death, resistance and the Holocaust rather than ecological or environmental but he was sold to me as Austria’s answer to Gaudi.

I’m glad I went. Not least because his paintings are mad (some of his pencil sketches could have been done by a child of seven and once again I wonder if art is more about appreciation than ability) – but his titles are fascinating. Forget the obvious – woman staring at sea or cow standing in field – and instead be prepared for something like The beard is the grass of the bald-headed man.

He talks of living a vegative life: One reason why other people do not want […] to take to a vegetative way of life is because it begins too unpretentiously, it does not have great eclat or drum roll; on the contrary it grows quite slowly and simply, and that does not appeal to our social order, people want instant results based on the slash and burn principle. Throughout this space on a side street in Vienna, colour and disorder reign supreme. Nothing matches – colours and shapes clash, floors dip and dive. Yet there is a stillness and a magic that makes it special. Despite the heaving numbers of visitors, you can still lose yourself in the space and marvel at the man with the mind behind the madness.

Life with Mr H must have been exciting.  In the Mouldiness Manifesto he first claimed the Window Right: A person in a rented apartment must be able to lean out of his window and scrape off the masonry within arm’s reach. And he must be allowed to take a long brush and paint everything outside within arm’s reach. So that it will be visible from afar to everyone in the street that someone lives there who is different from the imprisoned, enslaved, standardised man who lives next door. Am I imprisoned? Enslaved? Standardised? mmmmmm

Perhaps most interesting of all his work though, are his plans to build towns that are in tune with nature. The kindergarten in Heddernheim is one example that was actually built. Imagine being able to walk on the grass of your roof. The Quixote vineyard in Napa Valley, California, is another sublime structure – one that makes me want to find some land and get to it. In 1972, he published the manifesto Your window right — your tree duty. According to H, if man walks in nature’s midst, then he is nature’s guest and must learn to behave as a well-brought-up guest. It is our obligation to plant trees in urban spaces. And a new word was born: vegitecture.

And just when I think I’ve read it all, I come across  link to his Holy Shit manifesto whereby he says that each time we flush the loo thinking we’re being hygienic, we’re actually violating cosmic law and committing murder. Food for thought.