Venetian pavement 2009

A man walks up Krúdy Gyula utca carrying a pair of chopsticks… No joke. I was stting outside Fictiv enjoying a Saturday evening constitutional, and had his progress in full view. Eyes down, he would stop very so often and use the chopsticks to prise coins from the pavement joints. What a way to make a living. Two memories came to mind: one of this footpath in Venice and another of the start of the old Mary Tyler Moore show.  In stark contrast, she always walked with her head held high. Her view of the world was slightly different to most.

(C) Steve Fareham

Back when I was living in London, S&P came to visit. We were wandering around Piccadilly as S wanted to see the Piccadilly divers. I was convinced she was raving. I have a thing about statues, and couldn’t believe I’d missed something that obvious. I was sure she had the wrong address. But there they were. My problem? I’d never taken the time to look up.

While in Zagreb last year, I spent an amazing afternoon at the cemetery and took lots of carefully chosen photographs. And yet, just last week, when looking for photos, I came across one I don’t remember. I remember taking it, but I don’t remember seeing it.  I don’t remember it being so deep.

Looking at another of Kerényi Zoltán’s photo albums, perspective comes to mind, yet again. Taken from the rooftops of Budapest, they give a completely different focus to the city. I though I knew the city well, but there are some vantage points that I cannot place. I’ve probably passed them a hundred times but have never seen them from this particular angle. I don’t spend nearly enough time on rooftops.

As Ani Difranco said When I look down, I miss all the good stuff. When I look up I just trip over things. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Two memories collided last week to bring a slight halt to my gallop and give air to a peculiar vulnerability that I share with Stephen Fry.

Many, many years ago, when working with the Bank of Ireland in Dublin, one of the lads in the office made a throwaway comment to the effect that my death would make the headlines. It was simply not in my nature to ‘go gentle into that good night’. Every now and then something happens to remind me of this.

A few years ago, Dublin Bus found its sense of humour and introduced some signage onto night buses that gave tourists cause to think that pole dancing was the new  fetish among Irish women. That, too, stuck in my mind. I have a distinct memory of trying to convince the inimitable Mr Evans to have an ‘open pole’ night at his Club here in Budapest. I’d even gone so far as to suggest Tuesday nights at 10pm. I figured that there had to be some other women my age who harboured fantasies of performing on stage – just once. A bucket list thing.

Sadly, Mr Evans has moved back to the UK so that avenue has closed. However, the lovely MI, remembered hearing of this dream and signed me up for pole-dancing classes here in the city, in the shadow of the Synagogue. No special clothes needed. So, other than the initial cost of the classes, no further financial outlay was required. I was curious, and, dare I say, a little excited, about giving this a go. Apart from anything else, it’s supposed to be great exercise – a blessing in a somewhat unusal disguise. Apparently I would learn techniques that require muscle strength, balance, flexibility, and  strong body coordination. And half of Hollywood’s A list has had poles installed at home.

I turned up. On time. The first shock to my system was the bevvy of beauties waiting in the rather cosy reception dressed in briefer-than-briefs briefs and shorter-than-short shorts. And tanned. All of them. All over. No special clothes….mmmm…  my spaghetti-strapped top and my tracksuit bottoms would render me decidedly overdressed. But I had made it this far. I was attracting some curious side-long glances but put this down to the fact that I wasn’t a native, tanned, twentysomething…

We changed. And after a few self-conscious minutes where I failed miserably to fade into the background and was trying instead to adapt the nonchalance I’d recently come to associate with Stephen Fry [I’ve just finished his latest autobiog], the class began. The room was walled in mirrors. There was no escaping me. For the warm-up exercises, I focused directly on the instructor, watching her every move as my limited Hungarian wasn’t up to following her spoken instructions. So closely did I watch that I’m sure I could have been had for static stalking. But I did ok. Not the most graceful swan on the river by any means, but I held my own and did just fine.

Then came the poles. You could circle them easily with your thumb and index finger. About 4 metres high, each one was secured by four bolts into the floor and another four bolts into the ceiling. One was a little loose. The instructor, all 40kg of her showed us the first series of moves  – she reached up and caught hold of the pole, arm fully extended and then, feet off the floor, swung herself around and around until she landed. All her weight was suspended by her wrist as she floated through the air like a ribbon on a maypole. It was then that I started to flashback to those headlines. I had 25kg on the person closest to me in size and was overwhelmed with a vision of the roof falling in as my pole collapsed under my weight, killing all and sundry. When they cleared the rubble, they would find my hand still attached, and my father would know what I’d been up to.

Now, were I less self-confident, I’d have stayed in the class and tried to muddle through. Instead, I excused myself, and left. I’d lasted twenty minutes; long enough for me to draw a pencilled line through that particular bucket list entry.

In a fashion that is a little like cleaning the flat before the cleaner arrives, I figure I need to lose 20 kg before I next attempt to hang out of a pole – be it on the Night bus to Swords or wherever. So, I did what I’ve been threatening to do for years – I bought some gym shoes. One step at a time.

Just 30 km from the Balaton in the direction of Kaposvár lies the little town of Somogyvámos where  Krishna Völgy (Krishna Valley) sits. Its 260 hectares houses a cultural centre, an eco farm, a village (complete with temple and school) and 150 Krishna devotees committed to living in accordance with the ancient Vedic scriptures. When I mentioned to  Foodie friend of mine in the UK that I was going to visit the Haré Krishnas at home in Eco Valley, she immediately started talking about milk. Here in Hungary, as at George Harrison’s old mansion in Hertfordshire in the UK, cows enjoy a sacred life. There is a strict no-kill policy. No matter how old, how decrepit, how useless, the animals live out their natural lives…and do so quite happily, it would seem.

Each animal has its own name. I was personally introduced to Radhika and fell madly in love. (Don’t tell me you’re surprised?) Srila Prabhupada, the founder of the Haré Krishna movement, set up farm communities almost from the git go [and there I was thinking they simply danced in the streets]. His idea of ‘simple living, high thinking’ is realised by the community in Krishna Völgy who are striving, in so far as practically possible, to be self-sufficient. Srila Prabhupada, like all persons so inspired, apparently had a stock of quotable quotes – morsels of wisdom that might, on first hearing, seem somewhat inane, but on deeper reflection, capture huge concepts in tiny phrases. You can’t eat nuts and bolts. No, you can’t. A simple statement – but think of what it implies: by being dependant on  bulls and cows, by working the land in order to be self-sustainable, and by protecting these animals in harmony with the natural laws of God, Haré Krishnas utilize this life in a conscious fashion [the keyword for me in all of this is ‘conscious’].

But back to the happy cows and their gifts of milk, butter, curd, yogurt, and cheese. And don’t forget the urine and the dung, both of which are used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine. Dung is also used as fuel for cooking and many believe it to be a powerful antiseptic [others disagree]. Late last year, the Guardian ran an article on two extremes – a proposed new 8000-head dairy farm and a small farm of just 44 cows and oxen (on the aforementioned former home of Beatle George Harrison). And, having discovered ahimsa [slaughter-free] milk, they asked a panel of experts to do a taste test between it and supermarket milk. No surprise which won.

So, I met the cows here in Hungary (one even gave birth the day I was there) and they are beautiful. And with each one having its own name, they’re very real. My granny had a farm and I’m well used to cows and calves and cows calving. Some had names but as kids, we were never encouraged to get attached to them as one day, we’d most likely be meeting them at the kitchen table. Talking to cows as if they were, well,  human, seemed a tad peculiar. And not for the first time, I found myself wondering at the innate human kindness that has been subversed to a greater or lesser degree in many of us, all in the name of progress.

I started reading up on ahimsa milk [according to the website: no bulls or cows were slaughtered or exploited to produce it] and discovered that this isn’t quite what it says. Ahimsa (Sanskrit: Devanagari; अहिंसा; IAST ahiṃsā, Pāli: avihiṃsā) is a term meaning to do no harm (literally: the avoidance of violencehimsa). And can there really be such a thing as ahimsa milk? According to Dusyanta dasa, picking a carrot and feeding it to a cow who is producing milk is violence by the human and the cow… ergo the milk cannot be non-violent (ahimsa).

Oh yes… I can see eyes being rolled to heaven and can hear vague murmurings of ‘she’s lost the plot’. But no, I haven’t stopped drinking supermarket milk – it’s not practical for me to do so. But I do think of Radhika as I drink it. And I am convinced that if we were all just a tad more aware of what we do and a tad more willing to accept responsibility for our actions, the world would be a creamier place. mmmm….might milk have become my metaphor?

Like a lot of things in Malta, the graffiti is contained… contained mainly to underpasses and skate parks. The island is not awash with colourful murals, insightful snippets, and entreaties to vote this way or that. And like so many other things, its absence here underscores its presence in , say, Budapest, or Subotica, or Belgrade.

I quite like graffiti and the liberal concept of the external walls of our built environment providing a ready-made canvas for urban artists. Admittedly, just as paper will take any print, walls will take any paint, and a lot of what is written should have been left in the spraycan. Declarations of undying love and affection alongside racist and derogatory comments have no place on our public walls – but colourful murals, invocations of hope, morsels of wisdom… by all means.

Somewhere in Malta there’s someone with some large stencils and a spray can. They sign themselves off as Basil and write not just on walls, but on pavements, like this one, beside the Church of our Lady of Mount Carmel in Balluta. It gives little in the way of clues as to Basil’s identity. Sadly, the minds of many generations have been destroyed by madness. I wonder what, if anything, can be read into its proximity to the Catholic church.

Closer to the university, Basil strikes again. A little more personal this time. And again, I have to wonder if Basil just happened by one day with the spraycan and stencils and decided to pick on this particular wall, or if its location, right by the University, says more about the message than the message itself? Now some might argue that the artistic merit in these messages is minimal, if it exists at all. How hard is it to use a stencil. But then how difficult was it for Marcel Duchamp to put a urinal in a room and call it a fountain and thereby make it art.

Right now, I can’t get the Smokie song out of my head – Living next door to Alice – Basil, Basil, who the f*&! is Basil?