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Changing the world, one flowerpot at a time

When I first came to view my flat six years ago, one of the things my soon-to-be neighbours impressed upon me was the fact that in the summer, the inner courtyard turned into a garden. They took pride in this and, in hindsight, had I paid more attention, it might not have taken them so long to warm to me.

I took up residence in November. My neighbourly conversations were few and far between. I weathered a short bout of accusations that my renovation was responsible for everything that subsequently went wrong in the building. Then I had notes on my door complaining about the noise – apparently, it sounded as if a herd of horses was going through my flat day and night. Gradually, though, when word got around that I was, at least, making an effort to learn the language, cringe though they might at my horrendous mangling of same, they began to thaw. For a külföldi (foreigner) apparently, I was okay.

plantersMy first summer started with the appearance of window boxes. So wrapped up was in my own world that I failed to notice that mine were the only naked windowsills on the floor – nay, in the entire building. When it was pointed out to me, I made an effort. I went to my local garden centre, bought window boxes and soil and plants, and duly made my contribution to the overall appearance of the fourth floor.

I have ten fingers, none of which is green. It’s been said of me that I could wither a plant by looking at it (nekem?). But it was by not looks that I killed the first batch. I replaced them with more, who met the same end. Thankfully, my pathetic attempts at urban gardening were saved by the arrival of winter.

The following summer, I switched to herbs: harder to kill, easier to ignore, and more practical. And, I don’t like geraniums. I thought that having green boxes would be better than having no boxes at all. But I could feel that somehow I’d done something wrong. Instead of the approving smiles I’d expected to receive from my neighbours, I was on the receiving end of looks that translated into ‘so you can’t be bothered, eh?’

In my third summer, I travelled a lot. In May I duly potted my plants and then let them be. To my surprise, they thrived in my absence. My neighbours had taken it upon themselves to look after them. I was suitably grateful.

Two summers ago, they went a step further. In May, one neighbour arrived on my doorstep asking for my window boxes. I handed them over. They were returned some hours later, planted with the dreaded geraniums. My windowsills had been taken over by the fourth floor.

In an effort to show willing I bought a tree and set it outside my door where it died a slow and painful death. When I was scolded for not removing it, I duly obliged. When I was scolded for having an empty flower pot on display, I donated that too. Harmony was restored.

My relationship with my neighbours revolves around their tending my plants. We have found a way of communicating, despite the language differences. And it works.

Visiting a Hungarian friend last week, she mentioned that when she moved into her building, there were no flowers. She created a mini-garden on the landing outside her flat and pretty soon, other windowsills and alcoves flourished, too. It just took one flowerpot to make a difference. Both our worlds were changed, one flowerpot at a time.

First published in the Budapest Times 12 September 2014

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Winning a flat – in a lottery

When I first saw the word Lottóház on a building on the corner of  Ferenc Korut and Üllői út , I was curious. I asked around. Someone told that this was the site of the old Killián Kaszárnya (Killian barracks) that had been razed in 1956 during the October Revolution. They went on to tell me that when the current block of flats was built on the site of the barracks, people were too superstitious to buy them so the state decided to raffle them off. That way, people were buying lottery tickets and not the flats, per se. I’ve been happily repeating this story each time I have visitors and we walk up to Corvin Negyed to catch the tram. I can’t for the life of me remember who told me. Perhaps I read it somewhere. Or perhaps I’ve made it all up.

This weekend, out and out with the lovely MI, we walked up Fő utca and she pointed out another Lottóház – one of three I now know of built in Budapest, the third being over on Múzeum  Korut (see this bi-lingual blog for details of the PLACC project about No. 9).

Apparently, back between 1958 and 1968, this was quite a trend in Budapest – building flats and then raffling them off in a sweepstake. Funded by the National Lottery, these building were quickly built – often ready in just 12 months – to replace those damaged in the war. Imagine living in an apartment block full of winners – I wonder what that would do for your outlook on life …