Most countries have one capital city. Lithuania has had four. Vilnius is the modern-day capital. Perched on the confluence of the Neris and Vilnia rivers, the old town is a UNESCO world heritage site (and, although I spent some days there recently, it wasn’t until the taxi ride to the airport that I found what I’d been looking for). Back between the two World wars, Kaunas, with its 1.7km long pedestrian streeting running east to west was the capital while the emerging state was seeking international recognition. Before this, it was Trakai, located between Vilnius and Kaunas, and before that, the first capital city, Kernave, is now also a world heritage site. Today’s Vilnius is a heady mix of old and new. It’s a strange city, one that unsettled me in ways I still can’t fathom.

Much of Vilnius is hidden. Old walls hidden behind new plaster. Houses, flats, and garden hidden behind street-facing buildings. It seems as if there’s another layer to it that you’re not supposed to see. Downtown, oldtown, is full of amber shops. But no-one seems in the slightest bit interested in selling you anything. I tried five – telling them I was looking for a big green amber ring – and I may as well have been asking for a piece of the moon. And it’s not as if it was a language issue. Speaking English seems to be a prequisite for a job in that part of town.

Vilnius is home to many magnificent buildings, mostly churches. I had a feast day with my ‘three wishes’ thing. This one, St Anne’s, took almost a century to build and was finished in 1581. The facade is made up of bricks in 33 different shapes. Apparently, Napoleon wanted to carry the church back to Paris in the palm of his hand when he first saw it during the Franco-Russian war of 1812. He must have had a big hand, that man.

I wandered in the direction of what I thought was the old town. Along a side street, I came across copies of the alternative Lithuanian constitution in many different languages, including English. Perhaps that, more than anything, gave me an insight into the mentality of the city. 8. Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown. 5. Everyone has the right to be unique. 12. A dog has the right to be a dog. Other alleyways had been commandeered as art spaces where teapots and rubber tyres were put to good use.

When walking the streets of Vilnius, it’s important to make like a periscope. Stop and look around. Look up and down. Take the time to look into nooks and crannies, to walk down lanes and through gateways as you simply never know what you will find.

It’s an old city, with a recent past. A visit to the genocide museum was quite surreal. The guide, a young attractive girl with good English mixed up her tenses and spoke of how unfortunate it was for the prisoners as ‘we like to torture’. This inadvertent use of the present tense made me wonder how much actually has been relegated to the past. A report from a commission formed in the KGB prision a few days after the arrest of the head of the partisans in 1956 noted ‘ the right eye is covered with a haematoma, on the eyelid there are six stab wounds made, judging by their diameter, by a thin wire or nail going deep into the eyeball.’ That the Lithuanians fought and fought hard for their freedom cannot be doubted. As recently as 1972, Romas Kalanta, a member of the student resistance, set himself on fire in protest against the Soviet system  and conformist society. I was only six then.. but it was still in my lifetime. I’m now 44 and I can’t think of any cause I’d willingly set myself alight for.

Perhaps what unsettled me most about Vilnius was the fact that I was so ignorant of its history, of its fight for freedom, a freedom I have taken for granted. The Lithuanian armed anti-Soviet resistance of 1944-1953 was one of the biggest and longest guerrilla wars in Europe in the 20th century. The last resistance fighter refused to surrender and shot himself in 1965, the year before I was born. The last hiding partisan came out of his hide-out in 1986, when I was 20.

The two keepsakes I brought back from Vilnius both broke en route. I am superstitious. And I’m wondering what that says….

Lioness in African sun

African sunset

Late afternoon. April. South Africa. The African sun starts to set and this particular part of the world is bathed in a godly light. Cecile B. de Mille comes to mind. The clouds move, slowly changing shape, as if an invisible choreographer is directing them across the sky. The same ingredients: sun, clouds, sky and yet no two afternoon skies are the same. As we travel back to camp, we meet our neighbours. Tired from a day foraging for food, they laze around in the evening sun.

Baboob lit by the African sun

We pass a baboon, engrossed in picking fleas from his mate’s tail. Focused on the task at hand and paying no attention to our kombi. We may as well be invisible. The African sun catches him just so and adds a reddish tinge to his coat and dresses him for an evening at home with the family.

Lion basking in the African sun

We turn a corner and see a lioness, stretched out on the side of the road, enjoying what’s left of the heat of the day. She radiates pure gold and seems so placid, so tame. On guard, protecting the cubs I know are nearby, she appears so approachable. And yet I know that if I reach towards her, that will change. In a flash. All the godly light in the world won’t change the fact that she is wild – not wild in her world, wild in mine. Zebra in the African sun

A zebra, black and white in the noon-day light, turns biscuit brown as he grazes beneath the lowering African sun. Yet another trick of nature as all its forces work together to change the shape of things as we see them. To show us that nothing stays the same, not even for a little while. Things are constantly changing, however minutely. How we see things depends a lot on when we look. Nothing is certain.

dead tree against the evening African sun

The silhouettes of dead trees stand still against the sky, blacked out by the sun. As the French artist George Rouault so insightfully said: A tree against the sky possesses the same interest, the same character, the same expression as the figure of a human. It’s like being at a private screening of evolving art; a gallery open to the world but empty now, save for the four of us and nature.

It is at dawn and at dusk when the true magnificence of the bush comes to be. It is during these quiet transitions between time that I am most a peace, suspended in world where nothing matters but the now. And a tiny piece of me wishes I could stay.

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Safari south africa rhino

Alaska. South Africa. Could two places be more different? And yet, while in South Africa on safari, Alaska kept popping into my head. And it started when I saw a buffalo. Alaska is a great place to spot moose, caribou, bear, and the odd buffalo if you are lucky. In Africa, they talk of the Big 5: elephant, rhino, buffalo, leopard and lion (interestingly, this is to be expanded to the Big 7, to include whale and shark…mmmm).South Africa Safari Bison

Two completely different casts of characters, animals known for either their predatory nature or danger potential in compromising situations, with one common denominator. The Alaskan bison and the African buffalo don’t look alike all; it’s a bit like me having, say, Japanese cousins.  But the relationship is there.

South Africa Safari lioness

As the late AK was fond of saying, for every one animal you see in the bush, 49 see you.  HR is convinced that when he goes to heaven, St Peter will play back a video showing him all the animals he failed to spot on his trips to Kruger on safari and that will be his purgatory. Driving through the park gates was like driving into another world, a world where humans are locked up and animals roam free. A world where looking out the window of a kombi you might spot nothing for hours but acres and acres of bush and scrub and then suddenly, you round a bend and happen across a lioness on the side of the road.

Much of the excitement of being ‘on safari’ is not knowing what you’ll see next. Every bit of your being is tuned in to where you are and what you’re doing. You’re on high alert for the best part of the day. You react to the slightest movement in the trees, call ‘stop’ to the driver (the incredibly patient EK) who will then reverse and give you time to check out what you think you’ve seen. It can be very frustrating – rocks, trees, bushes all begin to take shape and morph into animals. You’d put money that what you saw was alive and breathing but no… it was another one of nature’s tricks.

South Africa Safari

But to truly enjoy it, to really get it, you need to be aware of the majesty of it all. It’s not about spotting the Big 5. It’s about spotting the chameleon on the side of the road; it’s about never tiring of seeing herd after herd of water-buck; it’s about dumping that ‘gotta be big to be great’ attitude that is so prevalent in our world of blockbusters and bestsellers. Yes, your first elephant or lion or zebra will always have that extra ‘specialness’ of being your ‘first’ …but the shame of it is that it’s so easy to devolve into a ‘seen one, seen ’em all’ attitude.

South Africa Safari water-buck

On a night safari (the only option available to see animals at night as private vehicles cannot leave the compounds after 6pm) it was upsetting to hear people groan ‘it’s only a herd of impala’. How anyone could tire of seeing these gorgeous faces is beyond me. Likewise, the zebra. Amazing creatures. I could watch them all day. Their black and white stripes (28 on each side of the average Z) moving and merging into new patterns and shapes. Art on hooves. Whether their stripes are for camouflage or to prevent insects biting  is still under discussion and has been so for more than a century.

South Africa Safari zebra

While the days did take on a certain sameness as we found our groove, that sameness was superficial. Up at dawn. A quick coffee and some rusks (ours made by the incredibly talented SD from Ermelo, Mpumalanga). Pack the kombi. Then out the gate. Brunch about 1oish (Pretoria’s HR in charge of the braai) and lunch late afternoon before back to the camp to supper. That was the routine of it. DR has it down to a fine art – she’s the mistress of order and organisation and could run a small nation. She’d get my vote for president any day. The excitement, the wonder, the magnificence of  it all came in between. During the long hours of nothing, years of collective memories surfaced and I realised how lucky I was to be in the company of such greatness.   And then the adrenaline rush when I thought I saw something. The frustration when it turned out to be a rock. Another rush and this time I was sure it moved… and it did… and I saw nature at her best, in all her glory. And I felt insignificant.South Africa Safari bird on a giraffe

For all our modernity, for all our inventiveness, for all that we claim in the name of progress, nothing can match the uncomplicated complexity of nature. A world where survival is what it’s about; a world where beauty is not augmented by creams and lotions; a world where big and small live side by side and being different is part of simply being.

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elephant eyelashes

A number of years ago, while sitting in her house in Slough, the indomitable EK promised that some day, she’d take me to play with the elephants. I have to admit, the very words ‘play with the elephants’ conjured up all sorts of wild imaginings. Elephants wielding baseball bats in their trunks. Elephants playing football. Elephants doing the 100-yard dash.  Being South African, EK often paints her thoughts with words, a refreshing change from the formulaic descriptions used this side of the world. But playing with the elephants??? No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get a handle on what she meant. And then I went with her to Kruger.

Kruger elephants

Now, some less fortunate people go to Kruger on tour. With guides. In groups. I was extremely lucky to have three personal, professional, and very entertaining guides in EK and the Springbok Kids (sounds like a band, doesn’t it…and yes, believe me, they sing and bring a whole new meaning to the concept of a ‘captive audience’). Between them, they’ve more than 100 years of elephant play time under their oxters and I knew I was in good hands. Being slightly anal, I refused to believe that elephants could hide. They’re massive. How could they disappear behind a tree? But disappear they do. One minute they’re there. The next, gone!

Kruger elephants

Kruger elephants

We left the camp each morning between 6 and 7am and motored around all day, stopping for breakfast and lunch. You can only get out of your vehicle at designated rest areas or occasionally, in the middle of a long bridge. The animals see vehicles as just another beast – on four wheels rather than four legs,  rarely venturing off the road. Tame enough. No threat. That first evening, on our way back to camp, we hit on a herd of elephants playing in a river. It was gobsmacking – awe inspiring – to see these massive creatures frolicking around like kids. When they’d had their bath, they wandered up across the road to go home. My more experienced companions were keeping a sharp eye for signs that one of them might charge because despite their bulk, they’re fast! They can travel at 25 mph and at that speed, you wouldn’t want to run into one!

I wondered what animals did all day in the bush. Just eat and sleep and wander around? Perhaps. Only once did I see one doing something approaching work,  using her trunk to move a heavy log – admittedly I had trouble seeing the sense in moving a log from a to b, but then again, working for the sake of working is quite common in human terms, too. But when you consider that a grown elephant needs 300-500 lbs of food each day, finding that food and eating it is a good day’s work in itself.

Elephants in Kruger mom and baby

Close up and personal, even the youngest of them looks old and wrinkled. But they’re happy in their skins. I didn’t see any of them working out or trying to firm up that flab but man, do they have eyelashes to die for – they can grow as long as 2.5 inches, without mascara! I fell in love. For me, elephants are the rugby players of the animal kingdom (am thinking Keith Wood here). Big, strong, bald, great eyes. I could forget about dieting as no matter how big I got, with my elephant beside me, I’d still look tiny.

Typically, they reach puberty at 12-14, have kids up until their 50s, and live to be in their 70s. Quite human. They cry, they laugh, they play. They can look sad, and happy, and bored. They’re the world’s biggest land mammal. They grow to 3-4 metres, weigh 4-7 tonnes (think about 12,000 lbs) and have four toes on their front feet, and three on their back ones. They throw dirt on themselves to protect their skin from the the sun (Lancome, watch out!), and this without the benefits of TV advertising!

Kruger elephants

Elephants are very family oriented. The herd (of 9-10 animals) is ruled by the strongest female, the matriarch. If a baby is upset, they’ll all hover around and comfort it. But while they take care of their young, watching over them at all times, never letting them stray out of sight, they’re not so tolerant of the young, obnoxious bulls. These are usually kicked out of the house when they hit their teens and hang around in bachelor herds, only going back to the family to mate. (Why does all this sound so familiar?) The older they get, the lonelier they become.  There is something really moving about seeing a lone bull making his way through the bush. His slow, lumbering walk. His big soulful eyes. I couldn’t help but feel for him.

Playing with the elephants turned out to be much more than I’d expected. It was an amazing experience and a humbling one. I’d never quite realised how much of humanity is mirrored in the animal kingdom.

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birdwatching in South Africa
Yellow hornbill birdwatching south africa

Yellow hornbill

Since coming to terms with the fact that I fancied the geeky Malcolm (the birdwatcher in the 1980s TV comedy Watching) it’s been years since I’ve had difficult admitting anything to myself. I’m not at all backward about coming forward when it comes to sharing my embarrassing moments but in all honesty, this latest fessing up has left me somewhat dazed. Me? Birdwatching? In South Africa?

I like listening to birds and have always had a strange fascination with owls. But other than the dawn chorus, I’ve never really had a lot of time for our feathered friends. Once, in Valdez Alaska, when I saw about 14 eagles perched on the one tree, I stood in wonder. A robin in the back garden at home that comes calling every winter, he’s special enough to warrant an audible awe. But for the most part, not a bone in my body twitches. The British called birdwatchers ‘twitchers’. In South Africa, they call them ‘birders’. Same idea. Spend the day outdoors with binocs trying to get a check or a tick against  a bird (the rarer the better). Yawn! Yawn! Yawn!

birdwatching south africa

Kori Bustard

Now, having spent eight days travelling through Kruger with three avid birders, not to mention having had dinner with three others in Wakkerstroom, it was probably inevitable that something would rub off on me. But then again, I’ve spent years in the company of red-wine drinkers and I’ve never gotten a taste for that! Mind you, I was rather surprised that none of them were the slighest bit anoraky. They are all intelligent, interesting, amusing people with stories to tell.  So much for stereotypes.

Over the course of eight days or so, my fascination with birds became more and more obvious until on the last day, still searching for a leopard to complete the Big 5 (+ elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion), I had to fess up to praying for a sighting of the Kori Bustard doing his mating dance. I’d seen it on EK’s video from their previous trip to Kruger and so wanted to see him live, in action, for myself.  Stuff the leopard… I wanted to see yer man strutting his stuff. And I’d have gladly taken a secretary bird over a cheetah!
birdwatching south africa

Lilac breasted roller

Another day, parked on a bridge, ostensibly looking for hippos or crocs in the river below, I spotted this big bird in the distance. It flew closer and closer, black and white feathers with a black beak with bright red band and a flash of yellow. I was gobsmacked. I completely forgot about my camera and just stared, mouth open. The saddleback stork can grow to 58 inches in height and there are only 100 in Kruger (a place the size of Belgium). And I saw one of them! It was amazing. But as big as it was, I was equally taken with the hornbills, the glossy starlings, the blacksmith plovers and the go-away birds – which spend their time shouting ‘go away’!

Child that I am, I got such a kick out of being the one to spot the Kori Bustard EVERY TIME, without binoculars, despite being in a Kombi full of birders! It was during a moment of gloating that I realised what was happening. I was shocked. I was hooked. After two days, I gave in and started ticking them off. After six days, I began to recognise them myself and only had to ask about the new sightings. I spent ages following three yellow hornbills trying to get them to pose. I cursed myself for not having a telephoto lens only once during the whole trip: when we spotted seven ground hornbills…. in a tree!!!
birdwatching south africa

Blacksmith plover

I have a thing for black and white and was dead keen to get a decent shot of some zebras for my B&W hallway.Then I discovered the blacksmith plover…and those pyjama donkeys had some competition. Unfortunately the closet birder in me didn’t show her face until we’d left Wakkerstroom – and I missed the opportunity to see some cranes. Now that would have been cool. Equally so, to see some vultures…close up and personal. I’ll just have to content myself with rereading Xinran’s Sky Burial.

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South Africa and Hungary

The more I learn about the world, the more I realise how little I actually know. Before I visited, what I knew about South Africa had been gleaned from newspapers, TV documentaries, reports by aid organisations, Internet blogs, and the occasional conversation about the state of the nation with some Afrikaaner friends. I have vague memories of Nelson Mandela’s visit to Dublin. I remember the strikes against apartheid and the celebrations when South Africa gained its freedom. I’ve seen the cartoons featuring President Zuma standing under the symbolic showerhead (he apparently believes that showering after sex will prevent the transmission of Aids).  I’m still wondering at FIFA’s decision to hold the World Cup there this summer. In short, if my mind were a computer and you did a search on ‘South Africa’ you’d find a complete mismash of information that says far more about me and my misconceptions than it does about South Africa. Everything I have read or heard about the country has been filtered through a perspective that is the product of the life I have lived so far; a perspective that is influenced by my education, my upbringing, and my spiritual beliefs; a perspective that has been largely coloured by the reported experience of others rather than any first-hand experience of my own.

Learning by doing

A South African friend of mine, recognising this huge gap in my education, invited me to join her on a visit home to the grasslands in Wakkerstroom just south of Pretoria. To see another country, not as a tourist, but as a resident, however temporary, is an honour that is all-too-often taken for granted. To see it in the company of someone who is revered (and occasionally reviled) for the work she has done in breathing new life into this small town is a privilege indeed. Were I here as part of a tour group, staying in a guesthouse or hotel, eating in restaurants featured in guidebooks, my vision of South Africa would probably still be intact. My preconceptions – the cities are dangerous; Aids is prevalent; life is cheap; racism is rife; whites are rich; blacks are poor – may have gone unchallenged.

Instead, I have been party to conversations unfiltered by judicious editors or biased press officers. I have stayed in suburban homes built in guarded complexes, often surrounded by two or three layers of fencing. I have listened to horrific accounts of how rage and anger manifest themselves in senseless, brutal assaults on young and old alike. I have seen how differently people react to the threat of violence; how political correctness is severely curtailing growth and prosperity; and how affirmative action, without the necessary provision of skills and knowledge, is eroding hope for a sustainable future. My somewhat naïve questions about the sanctity of elephants have been met with patient explanations of the damage and the danger and the missed opportunities inherent in not allowing herds to be culled. Heated debates on the dire state of public infrastructure, the inability of politicians to cope with growth and development, and the mistakes that have been made and continue to be made in the post-apartheid era all seem somewhat familiar.

Home thoughts from abroad

Interestingly, I find myself contributing to the conversation with stories of what’s happening in Hungary. I hear myself drawing parallels between post-communism and post-apartheid politics; between the Roma and the Zulu; between the townships in South Africa and the villages of Eastern Hungary. I recognise the insularity of the rich and the powerful; the insecurity of those threatened by the devolution of power; and the humility of those who know enough to realise they have so much yet to learn. Corruption, racism, and the ever widening gap between the very rich and the very poor exist to a greater or lesser extent in both countries, as does a growing if unconscious dependency on China. Likewise, patriotism, nationalism, and cultural history abound.

Both countries are beautiful and surprisingly, a lot alike. The great open plains of the Puszta are mirrored by the vastness that lies under the South African sky. The birding paradise of Hortobágy bears a striking resemblance to the grasslands of Wakkerstroom. There is no time difference. The extreme variance between highest and lowest daily temperatures is comfortingly familiar…at least at this time of year as Hungary moves into her summer while South Africa edges towards winter.

The more I learn about  both countries, the more I realise how little I actually know about either of them. What I have learned though, is that to really appreciate a country, I need to live in it. And to really live in a country I need to make a concerted effort to understand both sides of the story.

First published in the Budapest Times Tuesday 11th May 2010

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I think I’m in love with the idea of being in love. I’ve always been a one-man woman. I first realised this when I was 12 and had to make a choice between Pete Duel and Ben Murphy, the stars of that all-time-great TV show, Alias Smith and Jones. I just didn’t have it in me to fancy them both. It was tough. Now, some years later, I still can’t fancy two blokes at the same time. I’m trying, honestly, but it’s tough, and very limiting. I’m getting better with cities and countries, though. The more I travel, the more I realise that I simply can’t be in love with one place… I have to  broaden my scope a little and allow myself some leeway. It’s possible to love different countries for different reasons and, trollop that I am, I don’t feel the slightest remorse about embarking on my Balkan affair.

I met my neighbour in the lift on Easter Saturday, as I was heading to the train station. She asked me where I was going. I said Serbia. She asked where. I said Subotica. She said, rather dismissively, ah, Szabadka…that’s still Hungary! And for many years it was and for many people it still is.  Since the 2002 censuses in Romania and Serbia, Subotica has become the largest city outside Hungary in which Hungarians are the largest ethnic group, although they have only a relative majority 34.99%. But oh my, what a difference.

The Hungarian borderguards come on board at Kelebia. Some twenty minutes later, there’s the Serbian border check,  about 100 yards from the train station in Subotica. It takes a while…up to an hour to clear them both.  And there’s no point in hurrying or getting exasperated because it’s not just about crossing a border, it’s about completely shifting your mindset.  Maybe it was because it was the Easter weekend. Maybe it was because the sun was shining. Maybe it was because everyone uses ‘Ciao’ rather than ‘Szia’ but you know immediately you’re in another country and it’s nothing got to do with the language or the currency. You can feel it. It’s in the air. You’re in the Balkans.

Subotica is a city. Once the second-largest in Hungary, it’s now the fifth largest in Serbia. And it’s chock full of art nouveau buildings. It’s beautiful. Families stroll the streets. People sit at outdoor tables drinking what looks like orange juice and coffee. The beer is good, cold and cheap. The service is excellent. People are friendly. They’re happy. They’re chilled out. They’re helpful. And they know how to laugh. Deep, belly laughs that spill over and are infectious. They’re fashionable, too. While Puma and Adidas seem to sell as well as they do in Dublin, in Subotica they wear their tracksuits with style. Colourful, coordinated, and, dare I say it, almost cool!  Those not in their leisure gear look as if they’ve stepped off the catwalk in Milan. Male or female, it doesn’t matter. There’s a certain panache that no amount of money can buy and this city has it!It took us a while to figure out how to order a tejes kavé though. It translates into a Nes coffee, often listed on the menu as Nescafé. I wonder if any trademark guys ever come here on holiday?  

Although the hotel we stayed in, Hotel Gloria, deserves every one of its four stars, you have to wonder who stays there. I couldn’t find a single postcard on sale and the currency exchange booths seem to cater more for locals crossing over and back than for tourists. Perhaps people simply don’t get off the train…they leave Budapest and go straight through to Belgrade. Or perhaps, the Suboticans respect those brave enough to disembark and that’s why we were treated so well. How about this for a conspiracy theory:  they don’t want tourists! So the view of the outskirts is deliberately bleak. It’s been dressed up to look like a rubbish tip. The kids have a ball spreading the litter about, the houses are deliberately rundown and the gardens purposefully overgrown. If you hadn’t planned on stopping, nothing you see would entice you get off the train.  And if you fell for this trick of theirs, then you’d miss something glorious.

Many of the buildings are being or have been restored. More are in desperate need of some care and attention. The trees lining the streets create weird and wonderful shadows. It’s other-worldly. Even the graffiti is different – it’s almost reflective. We had great plans, IM and me, to find the house where Kosztolányi Deszo was born abut no-one seemed to know where it was. There is very little signage to show what anything is and what’s there seems very personal, as if it’s to remind the locals of what has happened rather than to educate the foreigners. To my shame, I know so very little about what happened here not so long ago; it came as such a shock to see such recent dates on war memorials.  But where other countries seem to want to forget, Subotica is very much about remembering. There’s  a huge fundraising effort ongoing to restore the synagogue and it’s already showing some of that old spectacular greatness. The plaque in the garden reads: In memory of 4000 Jewish citizen with whom we lived and built Subotica. They perished in the fascist death camps during the World War II.

We visited many churches. You know of course that every time you visit a church for the first time, you get three wishes? And interestingly, it was outside the Orthodox church that the Roma children had gathered, hands outstretched, palms upwards. With muttered ‘I’m not an ATM’ or ‘Do I look like a bank’ the people gave their coins. It made me sad to think that from such a young age, these kids are being taught to expect handouts. Their mothers waited outside the church while the men hovered at the corner, keeping a manly eye on things. I wondered briefly why I hadn’t see them in such numbers outside the Catholic churches… and if that’s indicative of anything or nothing at all.

I don’t know many Serbs but the ones I do know are  imbued with a passion for life and for living. They have a presence about them. They’ve lived through things I will never fully comprehend and despite this, and perhaps because of it, they have an appreciation for living in the now. They understand the transiency of time. No matter their size, their strength, both physcial and mental, is tangible.  One day soon I will make it to Belgrade and then further afield, perhaps to Croatia, Kosovo,  Bosnia or Montenegro. They say you know you’re really in the Balkans when all you can find is Turkish coffee. I am glad I didn’t just plunge in…I quite enjoyed my Nescafé.

I was proposed to in Geneva. Earlier this year, in January. As I stood outside these very gates. And I was flattered. He described himself as a political refugee from Zurich. An older man whose face had weathered many winters but whose eyes were still those of a very early spring. He was fun. He asked me if I was married. I said no. He asked me if I had any children. I said no. He asked me if I was in love. I said no. He asked me if I spoke French. I said no, but that I could read it and write it, I just couldn’t roll those r’s. Then he asked me if I believed in God. I said yes.  He paused. Smiled. And then asked me what I thought my mother would say if he called her and asked to marry me. I said she’d be delighted. That delighted him. He laughed. He said we could have a good future. I didn’t doubt him for a minute. This was Geneva, the city whose streets are literally paved with gold, where if you’re ‘in’ you’re in!

It had been twenty years or more since I’d last visited the city and I didn’t remember much about it other than the high prices and the pink bicycles that you could pick up and ride for free. I had vague memories of the lake but couldn’t for the life of me conjure up the feel of the place – how I’d felt when I’d been there. Now I was getting a second chance at a first impression. The city offers free travel in from the airport. Impressive. When you check into your hotel, you get a free travel pass for the duration of your stay. Very impressive. I met my host, the inimitable MM, the man from Belgrade. After a quick beer, he took me on a walking tour of his part of the city. It was late on a Thursday night but the place was quiet. Few people walked the streets and those who did spoke softly. The restaurants and cafés were almosty empty; few, if any, showed signs of that bustling night life I had come to expect from a major European city. The liveliest place we came accross was Serbian owned. No surprises there!

There was no litter. The streets were clean. Any that might be dropped overnight would be gone again by morning. What graffiti I could see was tasteful, almost arty, serving more to transform an existing monstrosity into something more appealing. We walked up through the cobblestoned streets of the old quarter, passed the statues of the fathers of the Reformation. I had forgotten, if indeed I ever knew, that Geneva was the centre of the Calvinist Reformation in Europe. His church and the museum are well worth a visit. Hearing Calvin lecture on issues that are still so relevant today was slightly surreal. Religious freedom was limited here, as it was pretty much in all of Europe in the 1500s. The maxim of cuius regio, eius religio  (whose region, his religion) meant that you simply adopted the faith of  your ruler. Makes you wonder about the origins of the phrase ‘When in Rome…’ If you didn’t like it, you moved elsewhere. Switzerland, too, had its witch trials.  Between about 1530 and 1600, numerous witch trials were held in both Protestant and Catholic cantons, often ending in death sentences, the most common form of which was burning at the stake.

Geneva is in the southwestern corner of Switzerland. Most of it in fact, borders France. It was once an independent republic and, even today, still considers itself a republic in the Swiss confederacy. During Napolean’s time, it was annexed and occupied by France. Liberated in 1813, it joined the Swiss Confederation in 1815 as the 22nd canton. There are 26 cantons in Switzerland, each a member state of the federal state of Switzerland. Perhaps America is a lot closer than we think!

The city itself is a veritable garden: there are 310 hectares of parks, 40,000 trees in public areas, 428,000 plants, including 40,000 rose bushes. The famous flower clock unfortunately, was out of order, because of vandalism. Is this a sign of the times, where lawlessness has breached the borders of a country that is known for its clock-work precision and almost puritannical ways? Down by the lake, the Jet d’eau is very much alive and spurting.  It really is something to behold. And again, my thoughts return to America and to Old Faithful, but without the steam!

The Plaine de Plainpalais didn’t look much that night. But the next day, when it hosted the local farmers market or the day after when it morphed into a flea market, it was truly spectacular.  A posher version of Esceri here in Budapest, more expensive and more upmarket. But then, that’s Geneva in a nutshell.

I’m very gullible, easily impressed. My life so far has been a series of one spontaneous move after the next. In the aftermath of visiting a new city, I can almost always imagine myself living there. Almost always. Gevena is a fine city. It has lots going on. It has more than 200 international governmental and nongovernmental organisations headquartered there. It is the home of the United Nations, windowless banks, designer watches and fancy hotels. It is clean, beautiful, and gentrified.  It offered me a glimpse perhaps of how life might have been, had I made different choices. I was there to work and I was lucky enough to have the time to see more than just the inside of an office. I had an excellent guide. I enjoyed my stay. But I doubt very much that I’d ever want to live there.

You just never know what you’ll find in this city. You think you have it sussed. You think you know your streets. And then, you walk around a corner and literally, there’s a whole new world in front of you.

The sun is  out, the temperatures have risen, the flowers are beginning to bloom, my nose is running and my eyes are itching. Spring is officially here. Next month, I have my second birthday as a home-owner. I signed the contract for my flat on April 15. Tax day in America. I didn’t move in until November so I’ve been in the neighbourhood for a year and some months. The ‘neighbourhood’ is the eighteenth-century suburb, now District VIII, which was originally called Alsó-Külváros (literally ‘Lower Suburb’). It was named after the heir of the Hungarian throne, Emperor Josephn 11 in 1777 – and now goes by the name Józsefváros. I thought I had it pretty much sussed… but I thought wrong.

Yesterday I went to the local garden centre to buy some plants to replace the ones that didn’t survive the winter in my windowboxes. I’d been there before and have vague recollections of MC mentioning botanical gardens. So KG and myself thought we’d stop by to check them out… just for a look-see. What I thought were the Gardens turned out to be the Natural History Museum. The gardens themselves have a rather innocuous-looking entrance marked by a metal plaque. And, to be honest, from the outside looking it, it looks very much like a construction site. But curiosity won out. This is one of the three sites where Ferenc Molnár’s novel, A Pál utcai fiúk (1907)  originally takes place: Füvészkert (botanical garden). (It’s a book worth reading: translated as the The Paul Street Boys.) So we paid our 600 ft  (€2.20, $3.40, £2.00) and wandered around.

It’s the oldest of the gardens in Hungary, founded sometime between 1771 and 1847, depending on what you read!!! and apparently is home to 7000 plants including 150-year-old orchids. What struck me first was the noise – or rather the absence of noise. All we could here were birds chirping. It’s definitely undergoing some sort of renovation (we later saw a sign that reckons it’ll be finished in August 2010 so by next year perhaps, it should be done!) and parts of it are very decrepit. No matter. It’s an oasis in the heart of the city. The palmház (Palm House) is fascinating, if a little humid. It was built in 1866, renovated in 1966 and is amazingly colourful – right down to the piping!  Other buildings were closed (we got there a little late in the day) and unfortunately, neither of us saw anything that might remotely resemble a café.  A return visit is in the diary for the summer! Maybe next time we might dress differently though as two old dears thought we looked as if we worked there!

Walking back  to the flat through District VIII, we hit upon the Law Faculty buildings of Pázmány Péter Catholic University,  a public university of the Catholic Church, recognized by the State, founded in the seventeenth century, and one of Hungary’s oldest and most prestigious institutions of higher education. And I never knew it was there! Perhaps more importantly, if somewhat mundane, there’s a rather nice-looking supermarket (if supermarkets can look nice) tucked away in the back streets behind my flat… again, one I’d never noticed/seen before. And less attractive are the 4000 0r so flats of the Corvinus development that are going up at an alarming rate. God only knows who is going to buy them. Another year or so and the neighbourhood will have changed, yet again! This city is one of the most vibrant in which I’ve lived –  it’s the constant discovery of new places that makes living here so great.

It’s about 248 km from Budapest to Sárospatak if you take the highways and stay on course, but that’s what trains and bus tours are for. When you have a car (thanks to PM), you can stop and start as often as you like. See a church spire in the distance? An interesting road sign? An oddly named village? Check it out. That’s the beauty of driving. And I love it. We left Budapest by 8am on Saturday morning and met very heavy fog outside the city. It felt as if we were flying through clouds rather than driving on tarmac. We were on our way to see a man about some nutbirds and the man lives in Sárospatak, close enough to the Slovakian border.  Once called ‘the Athens of the River Bodrog’ , it’s in the heart of the Zemplén region of Northern Hungary.

On our way, we decided to visit Tokaj, one of Hungary’s more famous wine regions. I’ve been to Villany and was impressed. I was perhaps expecting a little too much from Tokaj and was a little disappointed to see that like its wine, it’s just a little too sweet for my liking. It’s not as if they’ve haven’t had time to practice. There are records of vineyards in Hungary going as far back as the 5th century. The sweet, white dessert wine from Tokaj is probably the country’s most famous export,  christened by Louis XIV of France as ‘Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum’ – Wine of Kings, King of Wines. I’m no expert… and as long as I have difficulty getting my head around drinking a wine made from grapes that have been infected by a fungus Botrytis cinera (Noble Rot), I probably never will be.  Mind you, were I ever trapped in the region and unable to escape, I’d live quite happily with its Furmint – a rather nice dry white with a distinct apple flavour. The jury is still out as to whether this grape came from southern Italy or Hungary. Bearing in mind that in the summer the place is most likely overflowing with tourists, on this particular Saturday morning in November it hadn’t yet woken up. Most of the cellars were closed but we still managed to get a taste or three in before actually making a purchase. The town itself is the centre of a much broader wine-growing region and on the road to Sárospatak, we passed many vineyards. To take full advantage, you need to bring a teetotal driver as Hungary is notoriously strict with its zero-tolerance drink driving policy.

Driving the country roads, we passed many Trabants and it really felt as if we had indeed driven back in time. The pace was visibly slower. It might well have been the late 1950s, when the first Trabant came off the line. The fog had burned off by now and the autumnal leaves  were majestic in the sunshine. Scores of fishermen lined the riverbanks and lakeside edges. Flasks of coffee and bottles of hazipalinka littered the picnic tables as they waited patiently to catch their supper. It reminded me a lot of Alaska. The quiet. The beauty. The solitude. KG is getting much better at navigating and we trundled along without anydifficulties at all. There are still river crossings in Hungary where you have to drive onto a large raft and be literally pulled across. What a way to go. The more I see of this slower way of life, the more I dream of upping stakes and moving to that cottage by the sea. There is something quite godlike about it all.

We made it to Sárospatak with plenty of daylight left to make a quick trip out to the National Cemetery in Karos. It’s supposedly the richest cemetery associated with the first Hungarian settlers in the Carpathian Basin. I am struggling to find any information on this in English, so if anyone reading has a comment, please share it. From what I could see and understand, it appears to be a major archeological dig – there are lots of staked signs which I think mark the sites where relics were found. There is a large circle of totem poles, or what look very much like totem poles, but again, I couldn’t make sense of it all.

Back into town then for a last look at Rákóczi Castle and a glimpse of time gone by. The older part of the town is rather lovely; the newer part, rather new. Famous for its Calvinist college, the town has turned out many famous students.  In fact, the education system at the college was organised by János Amos Comenius, a Moravian humanist, late in the seventeeth century. Comenius is probably more famous for writing the world’s first illustrated textbook for children, Orbis Pictus (World in Pictures).  The organic archictect Imre Makovecz has also left his mark on the city (and a little bit of me wishes he hadn’t…I’m not quite sure I get this ‘organic architecture’ in urban areas). The cultural centre on Eotvos utca is a little too much for my liking as is the Hild Udvar shopping centre. But each to her own, I say.

The Hotel Bodrog, reputedly a **** hotel, was fine. Although unlike any **** I’ve ever stayed in (Hungary is quite liberal with her stars), it did the business: it provided a clean bed, a good breakfast, and a steam room/sauna/jacuzzi/pool complex… with the added realism of peeling wallpaper, chipped formica, and cracked walls. We ate in a lovely Italian cellar restaurant, The Collegium, which is well worth a visit, if you’re ever in that part of the world.  Despite being fortified by Furmint, any inclination to paint the town red was dulled by the fact that the town was closing at 10.30pm. mmmm I wonder just how much of the quiet life I could actually take.