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Brag about Irish scenery, whiskey, or music. Wrap up Ireland in culture,  prose, or poetry. Colour it in 40 shades of green or 50 shades of rain. For me what sells the place is the banter.

I’m back in Ireland. Again. This time in Killarney, Co. Kerry, attending my first TBEX – an international convention of travel bloggers. The main sponsors – Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland – along with the host town of Killarney, are pulling out all the stops when it comes to showcasing the local offer to delegates. Pre- and post-conference side trips include Dingle, the Ring of Kerry, Muckross Abbey, Ross Castle and other local destinations all carefully chosen to give the punters a taste of what some might say is the real Ireland. Posters around the town warn everyone that we’re here – just in case.

The opening event out at the Killarney Racecourse offered an impressive sampling of local food and drinks, (courtesy of Taste Kerry) the requisite show of Irish dancing, and a fascinating insight into horseracing given by Sandra Hughes (daughter of the late Dessie Hughes, a legend in his time – I won a few quid on Hardy Eustace in his day) – but more on all that later. What I’m revelling in today is the banter.

We got back into town about 9.30 last night to find a lot of the shops still open. Time works on a different clock in this part of the world. Most of the tourists spend their days out touring the countryside, only coming back into town in the evening, so local merchants have adjusted accordingly.

A young fellah was hoovering inside Shades of Erin – one of the cornucopia of craft shops in town. He assured us he was still open for business and invited us in for a browse. I complimented him on his hoovering and asked if he’d come round and do my house when he was done.

‘Ah sure I will – but don’t tell the mother. I don’t do it at home.’

I was after a Grandfather shirt for himself – one of those heavy brushed-cotton collarless jobs. But he had none in stock.

‘But here, listen. Would you not fancy a poncho? I’ve been sick looking at them for months but today I brought down the price  to €60 and they’ve flown out the door. Mad, isn’t it.’

I wasn’t into ponchos or jumpers or any of the woolens, but he was determined.

‘Yer woman next door might have one – c’mere and we’ll check.’

He led us to a couple of shops a few doors down – Country Crafts. He told the young one inside what we were looking for and left us to it.

‘I only have the one’, she said, pulling out a tent-like shirt in a nice pale blue. ‘It’s all I have left.’ It was massive – an XXXL. Way too big for himself. But she could see I was biting.

‘You’d be quare shnug in this for the winter. ‘Tis lovely and warm. Sure try it on and see.’

I did. The shoulders were down near my elbows and the tail of it covered my knees. But it was, as she promised, quare shnug.

‘They say I could sell sand to the Arabs’, she said with a smile.

‘Not this particular Arab’, says I.

‘Ah go on’, she said. ‘Tis lovely on ya. I’ll knock another fiver off it. You know you want it…’ And there began the banter. Back and forth. On politics, on tourists, on travel.

I was born in Ireland. I grew up in Ireland. I know Ireland. I’m not one to fall for the tourist twattle. But I love the banter. I wasn’t buying the shirt as much as I was buying the experience. I should have spotted the family resemblance. Danny Cronin and his sister Monica are great brand ambassadors for Killarney and for Ireland. And were Monica running the country, we’d be in good hands.

So with me bagged and sated, she sent us off down to Quills to sort himself out.

I felt my way through the woolens, picked up a present for a friend’s baby, and fixed on a shirt for himself. We went up to the counter to pay. Three women stood waiting to serve us. It was coming up to closing time on a Tuesday night and what business they’d had, had been done. I asked them about the Merino wool, having heard that Ireland was now importing wool from Australia and then  knitting it up. But apparently, we’re also mixing it with Irish wool, to keep it Irish. The traditional Arans with the oiled wool were on sale – they’re not moving as well as they used to, crowded out by the new range of softer wools and pastel colours. There was the usual litany of where are ye from and what are ye doing in town, but far from being rote, they were sincere in their ask. They wanted to know.

Greta, Sheila and Geraldine on the job at Quills

I miss that. I miss getting someone’s life story on the way into town on the bus. I miss the running commentary on the weather or the random remarks from equally random strangers on what I’m wearing or how I’m looking. I miss the engagement, the questions, the innate curiosity that feeds into our stories and embellishes our blather. I miss the banter.

Walking down main street on our way home close to 11 o’clock, we passed Eric Gudmunsen getting traction with the tourists with his Trump song. He had them completely engaged. Further on, the lovely Teresa was offering a taste of some caramel ice-cream.

‘Can I interest ye in some ice-cream? Handmade in Dingle. All natural. Lovely stuff.’

Teresa at work in Murphy’s

I took a spoon to be polite and that was me done. I got the low down on it all, checked out the full offer, had a few more samples and promised I’d be back. And I will. They have a Dingle Gin ice-cream that has a kick in it and a lovely sea-salt one that I could have for breakfast. But apart from the creaminess and the taste and the inventiveness of the flavours, they have Teresa. Wearing her Jackie Healy-Rae cap instead of a hairnet, this pint-sized ice-cream enthusiast is a great ambassador for the Murphy brand.

So yes, Ireland has the scenery, the whiskey, the music. It has the culture,  the prose, and the poetry. It has its 40 shades of green and its 50 shades of rain. But what makes it special are the people and their willingness to engage. What makes Ireland Ireland is the banter.

 

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There I was, on Friday night, sitting on stage at the New Orleans Music Club in Budapest. As you do. It was the Final of the Finalists, the 31st and final round in the English-language speech slam that I’ve been presiding over since 2009. Five finalists had come together to see which one of them would take home the honours.

For those not familiar with the event, five competitors each give five-minute prepared speeches on a topic of their choice and then a three-minute impromptu on a topic chosen by the audience. For his impromptu, Rupert Slade drew me – yep – a slip of paper asking him to talk about me – Mary Murphy.

Now, I’m sure that had I not been in the room, he would have had little trouble meeting that goal. It’s easy enough to talk about anyone if they’re not there to contradict or take offense. But I was there and I wasn’t about to go anywhere.

As the audience waited for him to give up the dirt, I sat  on stage wondering where he was going to go with it.  Rupert knows me well enough to have some stories to tell and has a way about him that would make that telling very entertaining. And as he is not exactly backward about coming forward, I readied myself for public exposition – but it never came.

He talked about my losing weight – the equivalent of a piece of checked luggage on RyanAir. He talked about my blog and my thing about being grateful[so I just couldn’t pass up this opportunity].  He talked about my run-in with sheepdogs on my way to mass in Transylvania. And he talked of how I’d told him to invite his now wife out for a coffee after the GOTG final in 2012. [Apparently, I tell... ]. And he said nice stuff, too, about GOTG and the difference it has made to the orphanage.  And he did all this in the most horrendous stage-Irish accent that was so bad it was  funny.

And the audience was  left wondering.

He didn’t slag me. He didn’t divulge the undivulgible. He left that to me.

When you’re doing anything even remotely humourous on stage, the best person to rag is yourself – you’re the only one who might take offence and you know your limits. I tell stories. About me. About my experiences. And occasionally about my mother. Most have enough truth in them to be credible. But the choice of what to divulge is mine.

Rupert could have gone with the easy option – but he didn’t. And for that, I’m truly grateful. Perhaps I’d be better than most at taking a public roasting but I’m glad that I wasn’t put to the test.

 

 

If I had a pálinka for every great idea I’ve had that’s come to nothing, I’d be in a state of permanent inebriation. I could live out the rest of my days high on the fumes of failed ambition. Great ideas I can do. It’s making them happen that confounds me. Not, of course, because I’m incapable; more because I just can’t be bothered. There always seems to be something else to do, something more important, something more immediate.

Over a lingering lunch about six years ago in a restaurant called Vadász just behind Arany Janos metro station, I sat in the almost surreal British-pub like interior with my good friend Gretchen Meddaugh. We were bemoaning the fact that so many people in Budapest had yet to appreciate that speaking in public is one of the best, and cheapest, legal highs a body can get. Forget the pálinka – if you needed something to make you feel alive, all you had to do was to get in front of a microphone and speak.

As the conversation bounced back and forth, we parsed and analysed the various forums in the city that facilitated speaking in front of an audience and decided that it needed one more – one that was unfettered by rules and regulations, one that was unstilted rather than scripted, one where people could come in to their own. And Gretchen made me do it.

Since then, each year (bar one), expats and Hungarians alike have been testing their mettle, getting on stage in front of friends and strangers alike to see if they have that gift which is universally attributed to the Irish  – the gift of the gab. And yet after five successful seasons, which have produced five stellar finalists, there’s not one Irish person to be seen amongst them. The mind boggles.

GT2The gift of the gab is variously defined as (i) to talk idly or incessantly, as about trivial matters, (ii) the ability to talk readily, glibly, and convincingly, and (iii) the ability to speak easily and confidently in a way that makes people want to listen to you and believe you.

In two weeks’ time, on Friday, 18th September, the Final of the Finalists takes place.  Rupert Slade (2010, English), Patrick McMenamin (2012, Scottish), Hans Peterson (2013, American), Viktor Morandini (2014, Hungarian), and Jennifer Walker (2015, English) will compete to see which one of them has that unequivocally Irish trait, that ability to talk to just about anyone, just about anywhere, about just about anything.

For those of you who have yet to attend the charity speech slam (where have you been?), it goes like this. Each contestant gives a five-minute prepared speech on a topic of their choice and a three-minute impromptu on a topic suggested by the audience. [And we’ve had some doozies over the years – can you imagine speaking for three minutes about peas? Or curtains? Or pavements? Or why bird poop is black and white?] Five judges chosen on the night will decide who gets to take home the trophy.

It’s all happening at the New Orleans Music Club on Lovag utca in the VI kerulet and kicks off at 7.30 pm. Doors open at 6.15 pm for those who’d like to eat. Tickets can be purchased from the venue (10am – 5pm) and cost 2000-2500 huf. All proceeds (every single forint) go to the Irish Hungarian Business Circle’s Give a Little charity campaign that supports Topház Speciális Otthon a Special Needs home in Göd. See www.speechslam.com for more details. Come along. Be entertained. Support the cause. In today’s world of redundant political rhetoric, it’s not often that you get the opportunity to see hot air and bluster do some good.

First published in the Budapest Times 4 September 2015

It could be said that diplomacy was born when our ancestors decided that it might be better to listen to the messenger rather than to kill them. Coming with news from neighbouring tribes, these original diplomats served as relayers, negotiators, and purveyors of peace, precursors to those we now know as ambassadors.

It is thought that the first permanent diplomatic mission was established in 1455, representing the Duke of Milan in Genoa. Since then, ambassadors in host countries around the world have been promoting the interests of their home countries while serving the greater interests of their states.

Diplomacy has had its ups and downs. Back in the sixteenth century, British ambassador Sir Henry Wotton, then serving in the Bavarian city of Augsburg, is said to have defined his ilk as such: ‘An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.’ In times of war and upheaval, the role of ambassadors takes on new meaning. It could be argued that in recent years, the presidency of Barack Obama has done much to put diplomacy back at the heart of foreign policy, and perhaps earning it another descriptive, that of ‘the velvet glove that cloaks the fist of power’.

Amb Dowling SPD 2015For the last three years here in Hungary, the Irish in residence (an estimated 1000 or so) have been fortunate in being represented by Irish Ambassador to Hungary, Kevin Dowling.  Under his auspices, Irish culture has enjoyed a renaissance of its own. Major events on the Irish social and cultural calendar, such as St Patrick’s Day and Bloomsday, are marked with aplomb, most notable for the wide participation not just of Irish citizens, but their myriad Hungarian friends, too. The Leopold Bloom Award, a special contemporary art award was established by an Irish logistics business with a Budapest presence, Maurice Ward and Co., with the prize given to young Hungarian artists every second year in Budapest. Irish poets like Seamus Heaney and WB Yeats have been celebrated in the city, most notably with the birth of the Yeats Society set up to mark the 150th anniversary of the great man’s birth this year. Irish films continue to feature at the Titanic Film Festival and the Irish Embassy, under Ambassador Dowling’s steerage, has been extremely supportive of initiatives such as the Irish Hungarian Business Circle, the St Patrick’s Day Parade, and the charity speech slam, the Gift of the Gab.

Sir Christopher Meyer, former British Ambassador to the USA, in his 2009 account of British diplomacy Getting our Way, says of diplomats that theirs is a delicate job that requires ‘a quick mind, a hard head, a strong stomach, a warm smile, and a cold eye’. In the three years that he was at the helm, Ambassador Dowling wore his credentials well.  As citizens living abroad, we can find ourselves in need of a mother ship, somewhere to go should we have difficulties and require assistance over and above what our friends can provide. And for this to happen, an embassy, and its ambassador, has to be open, accessible, and interested in those it serves.

Gyngell & Wesley’s 2003 description of diplomats being seen as ‘a caricature of pinstriped men gliding their way around a never-ending global cocktail party’ has had its day. As so laudably epitomised by Ambassador Dowling and his team, embassies and their staff have a role to play within the various expat communities in providing help, support, and encouragement to their own in addition to fostering good relations with the host country. As Ambassador Dowling returns to Ireland at the end of his term in Hungary, he goes with thanks and appreciation for a job well done, knowing that he has served his community well. Le mile buíochas.

First published in the Budapest Times 28 August 2015

‘How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.’ When Shakespeare first penned those lines in the Merchant of Venice, he had something. Centuries later, the sentiment still holds true. Good deeds restore our faith in human nature. They are the icing on the cake. The froth on a beer. The latte art on an espresso. And ranking high up on the list of good deeds is volunteering. Those who can, do; those who can do more, volunteer.

I discovered recently that Hungary has a National Volunteer Centre (ÖKA) and a Volunteer Centre Network. I had the good fortune to meet with Executive Director, András F. Tóth, and to learn about the work being done to create a pro bono culture within Hungarian business society. Corporate volunteer strategies are on their way to becoming very much part of doing business in Hungary. Good news.

I grew up in a society were volunteerism was part of the norm. If you didn’t have it on your CV, you wouldn’t get a job. Everyone was involved in some voluntary capacity in one of the myriad organisations set up for the betterment of society. It was just something you did almost without thought.

No night out was complete without someone launching into the litany: ‘I’m shaving my head or growing a mustache or dancing for 24 hours [insert as appropriate] in aid of X charity – will you sponsor me?’ And if it wasn’t sponsorship lines, it was raffle tickets, or charity concerts, or cake sales. People dug deep into their pockets and supported the cause.

GOTGfinalIn Budapest, since 2010, the Gift of the Gab has been providing an opportunity for people to both volunteer and contribute. From September every year, each month (skipping December) five speakers would give a five-minute prepared speech on a topic of their choice. Scored by a panel of randomly selected judges, topics ran the gamut from answering the age-old – What’s the difference between a duck? – to the virtues of arranged marriages. In the second half, speakers had to choose a topic suggested by the audience. These ranged from the bizarre – why is bird poop black-and-white – to the more banal – paving stones or peas or curtains. The winner from each of the five qualifying rounds went forward to the final in March.

Next week, on Thursday, 12th March, at New Orleans on District VI’s Lovag utca, the 2015 final will determine the winner of this, the last in the series. Five hopefuls, having made it through the qualifiers, will take to the stage as 200 or so ticketed attendees do their bit to support the Irish Hungarian Business Circle’s Give a Little charity campaign. It promises to be a great night.

Over the course of the five seasons, more than 110 speakers have taken part and given their time to raise funds for Topház Speciális Otthon in Göd. Thousands more have donated at the door and come out to support them. The volunteer judges, photographers, sponsors, and helpers, have worked hard to make it all happen on the night. And together, their work has benefited some two hundred or more clients at the orphanage, while the generous fans and supporters have been entertained.

It’s been great to see how it has all evolved and I look forward to the big final in September that will pit the five title-holders against each other to determine who in Budapest has the Gift of the Gab. In the meantime, let me borrow again from Shakespeare: I can no other answer make, but, thanks, and thanks. 

First published in the Budapest Times 6 March 2015

It’s not difficult to be Irish abroad, especially not in Hungary. And especially not during the lead-up to St Patrick’s Day. When he was writing in 1957, James Michener called Hungarians ‘the Irish of Eastern Europe’. In the years I’ve been here, I’ve seen so many similarities between the two peoples. We both have what WB Yeats describes as an ‘abiding sense of tragedy that sustains us through temporary periods of joy’. We both like to party. And we both like to talk.

_IGP2353-1 (800x532)Next week begins a series of events for everyone with a drop of Irish blood and those with a penchant for all things Irish. Far from what has become a drink-fuelled frenzy in other parts of the world, St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Budapest are of a different standard altogether.

Kicking off on Wednesday, 12th March, is the final of the 2014 Gift of the Gab, a charity speech slam that is now enjoying its fourth successful season. Five qualifying finalists compete to see who in Budapest has that unequivocally Irish trait, that ability to talk to just about anyone, just about anywhere, about just about anything. The five hopefuls will each give a five-minute prepared speech on a topic of their choice and a three-minute impromptu on a topic suggested by the audience. Five judges chosen on the night will decide who is crowned the winner of the GOTG 2014. This year’s final takes place at the New Orleans Music Club on Lovag utca in the VI kerulet and kicks off at 7.30 pm. Tickets can be purchased from the venue (10am – 5pm) and cost 2000-2500 huf with an additional option for dinner. All proceeds go to the Irish Hungarian Business Circle’s Give a Little charity campaign.

On Sunday, 16th March, the annual St Patrick’s Day parade will set off from Szabadsag tér at 3.30pm. People start gathering about 2pm and as the crowds amass, the craic kicks off. Leprechauns, Irish wolfhounds, and other random characters dressed in green mix and mingle as the anticipation grows. Then, in true parade fashion, with banners and bands, as many as two thousand people will wean their way through the city to end up at Instant,  Nagymezo 38 for a real Irish party including the three essential elements: ceoil (music), caint (chat), agus craic (and fun). Festivities will continue on in to the night with the foot-stomping Hungarian Irish band, Firkin. All you need to do is dress up, show up and bring a smile.

On Saturday, 22nd March, the annual St Patrick’s Day Gala Dinner will be held at Le Meridien hotel in Budapest. In its seventh year, this annual event is a great opportunity to experience a real Irish-Hungarian night out. With a four-course Irish dinner, traditional Irish music and dance, it’s a night not to be missed.  Tickets are on sale now from the IHBC or Le Meridien. See www.IHBC.hu for more details.

Whatever you’re after, St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Budapest will sort you out. Step out with the crowd and banish those winter blues by donning any one of the forty shades of green.

First published in the Budapest Times 7 March 2014

Defining times

Did anyone else notice the classified that ran in last week’s Budapest Times, the one entitled ‘Looking for?’ Or am I the only one, apart from the editors, who reads the paper, cover to cover, ads and all? In it, a person (gender not given) currently living in Germany (nationality not stated) is looking for someone (again, gender preference not noted) who is over 45 and wants to share a future, to travel around Europe (I wonder what’s wrong with the rest of the world and if it’s off limits for a reason) and see the world (oh, no, it’s just that the world in this instance is limited to Europe).

Ask and you shall receive

As I’m a firm believer in putting the ask out there, in challenging the universe to deliver, I commend this person for being so bold and for taking that step forward. I sincerely hope it works out and that they get the answer they’re looking for, in whatever form or fashion it takes.

What got me thinking though was the sentence ‘My financial relations are very good; so I have no economic sorrows’. It isn’t strange how we define ourselves, and even stranger how we define others. That this would be the one thing the writer thought important to highlight says so much about their perceived notion of the world and what they believe potential applicants might expect. I can’t quite imagine ever introducing myself as such: Hello, my name is Mary. I’m financially solvent.

The gift of the gab

Some of you might know that I front the speech slam Gift of the Gab [shameless plug: final is Thursday, 14th March, at New Orleans on Lovag utca www.speechslam.com]. Each month, five contestants all give a five-minute prepared speech on a topic of their choice followed by a three-minute impromptu on a topic chosen by the audience. My job is to keep the audience engaged as the judges, randomly chosen, decide their scores.

Ideally, my blathering will in some way connect to what the speaker has just spoken about – and as I’ve just heard the speech for the first time, too, it involves some quick thinking to come up with a relevant yarn. For the most part, my stories all have a kernel of truth which I embellish with the intention of amusing those who have come to support the cause.

The 100 or so people in the room know me by name; some of them I know to varying degrees, some I don’t know at all. But each of them forms an opinion of me, based on what I say. I’ve had people sympathise with me about my weight; commiserate with me about my single status; and offer hugs when I’ve spoken about being an emotional wreck. It would seem that everything I say is taken literally – and, truth be told, that’s no one’s fault but my own. What I say, the stories I tell, define me. For those listening I become that person. Nietzsche is on record as saying that ‘All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.’ Perhaps he has something there.

A life without issue

Some weeks ago, I noticed a spate of headlines that confounded me: grandfather describes crash that killed boy riding tricycle; NYC mother killed in Turkey; father of four found guilty of assault. That these subjects were defined by their children got me thinking. Does being a grandfather make you a better witness? Does being an NYC mother make your death more awful? Does being the father of four kids make you prone to assault? Where’s the connection here?

Were I to do something newsworthy, I wonder what the headline would read? Perhaps ‘Childless woman’s mint sauce recipe makes millions.’ I doubt it.

words-1Who are we, really?

I have spent the greater part of my life being my parents’ daughter, my brother’s sister, so-and-so’s girlfriend, or someone else’s friend. My character has been compartmentalised with similar abandon – you know Mary… she talks a lot, she’s not at all backward about coming forward, she’s very particular about her punctuation. It seems as if we’re all destined to have such strap lines attached to us, strap lines which depend in large part on other people’s perceptions of what we do.

Who? Her? She’s a drinker. She plays around. She’s got no sense of humour. Who? Him? He’s neurotic. He’s needy. He’s mad in the head. We throw out these one-liners, which are, in effect, a knee-jerk reaction to some part of the person we’ve seen; rarely the whole person, just some part that we’ve been exposed to. We react viscerally to something in them that strikes a chord in us. And, as Jung so rightly pointed out, ‘Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.’

I know. I’ve found myself doing it lately when asked if I know someone… I can’t just stop at a simple yes. I have to qualify it by offering my tuppence ha’penny worth of insight into their character. It’s a dangerous practice, though, because it’s nothing more than my opinion – and sometimes, opinions are best kept to ourselves.

First published in the Budapest Times 22 February 2013

It’s been a long week and so many things happened to be grateful for. The success of the Gift of the Gab  and the money that was raised for the orphanage. The wonderful rendition of Marie Jones Stones in his pockets by the boys from Madhouse. The fantastic turnout for the St Patrick’s Day parade, a day that culminated in the Gala Dinner. It all wrapped up with the Irish Film Festival’s showing of the Irish SciFi 100 mornings. I had two friends in for the week and saw many’s the sunrise over the course of those few days, staying up till the wee hours sitting around my kitchen table putting the world to rights over a pot of tea and a few cosmopolitans. And for all the friendship and the craic, I am grateful indeed.

But what struck me most over the past week, a week where the Irish were out en masse and the masses were on form, is the sheer versatility of the English language – when it’s in our hands!

The English language brings out the best in the Irish. They court it like a beautiful woman. They make it bray with donkey laughter. They hurl it at the sky like a paint pot full of rainbows, and then make it chant a dirge for man’s fate and man’s follies that is as mournful as misty spring rain crying over the fallow earth. ~ T E Kalem – On Brendan Behan’s 1958 play Borstal Boy, quoted in a Time advertisement, NY Times 17 Mar 1979

There were some classics:
On nervousness: It’s not as if we’re putting hearts in babies – or taking them out! On preaching: You’re not on your high horse now; you’re just on a tall donkey! On Lent: I can’t have sex – it’s lent. Okay so. Let me know when you get it back. On death: He’d gotten very small but he looked very well in the coffin.
On fashion: Sure their skirts are higher than their handbags.
On drink: The weakness in me is very strong.
On meanness: He’d mind mice at a crossroads.
On inquistiveness: She asked it all – breed, creed, and generation.
On beauty: She had calves only a cow could love.
On nerve: He’s not at all backward in coming forward.
On weight: She’s the full of his arms of Irish love.

Note to self: start carrying a notebook.

(c) Alex Own

Way back in 2000, I graduated from Valdez Community College, affiliated to the University of Alaska. I was asked to give the graduation speech and I said no. I said no because I stammer. I don’t do it all the time and can go for weeks without incident but then come the days when I can’t say my own name. And as I can’t predict when these days will fall, I wasn’t about to get up on stage in front of 600 people …just in case.

The one thing I fear more than public humiliation is that feeling of regret. My e-mail signature contains the quote from Syndey Harris – Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable. So I changed my mind and gave that speech. The audience laughed and cried on cue. And I was hooked. Being able to engage with so many people at the one time was incredible. The adrenalin. The rush. The sense of accomplishment.

Back in 2008, when having lunch one day with GM, and talking about how there are so few opportunities for people to experience this high in Budapest, we began to speculate aloud and the result: The Gift of the Gab. The first series was a learning curve. I ended up funding it as we didn’t draw enough people to make it financially viable. By the time the final came around though, we had quite a following. But getting speakers was a problem. GM moved on and I wasn’t up for doing it on my own. It’s a lot of work. Then at various stages, others talked of doing something similar and I discovered in me a reluctance to see my baby exploited for profit. Quite an irrational thought in this day and age, I will admit. So I agreed to do it again – for charity.

The 2012 GOTG season began last September and has gone from strength to strength. People want to be on stage. People who competed this year and didn’t qualify want to try again next year. People came out and supported the cause, glad to be able to give a little, knowing that it would help a lot. The support was amazing. To those of you who are silently tempted to get on stage next year – but are still questioning your sanity, I say take the chance. Don’t regret not doing it. We’re not putting hearts in babies. No-one is going to die. The worst that can happen is that you bomb but at least you tried. The best that can happen is that it opens up a whole new world for you – and you get to experience, first-hand, the cheapest legal high you can get.

I’d sooner wash windows than paint walls and I’d sooner clean floors than do anything in the garden. But when it’s not my wall or my garden … that’s a different story. While I’m no stranger to volunteering, I tend to opt for things I can do on my own as I’m not big into group activities generally (am quite anti-social really, when I think about it). But there’s something quite unique about volunteering with the IHBC‘s Give a Little campaign.

This was our second trip to the Topház Speciális Otthon in Göd (a state orphanage), the first having been voted a roaring success back in July. I’d expected pretty much the same crowd, yet I found that I only knew a handful of those who turned up at Nyugati to cadge a lift down. The majority were students from Semmelweiss University – future vets, doctors, and dentists – all giving freely of their time to paint one of the wards and clean up the grounds.

Given that it was such a gorgeous sunny day, I  opted for the garden duty. We raked leaves, trimmed hedges, dug weeds, planted shrubs, played air guitars on shovels, horsed around on spades, got to use a hedge clippers, rejoiced in our welts and callouses, and generally had a blast. Who would ever have thought that hard work could be so much fun.

I have a theory. I can’t speak for anyone else, but this is how I see it. Volunteering for these work crews gives me something I don’t get from my normal, everyday life. I get to go in, work like mad (well, I have a blister or too!), accomplish something, have some fun, and then get to stand back and see the fruits of my labour – all in a matter of hours. Multiply that feeling by the 40 or so people there today and you get a lot of work done and a lot of satisfaction from doing it. That sense of achievement, that reward of almost immediate gratification, are priceless.

Those who live in the orphanage year round don’t have it quite as good. For them, there is no going home or going back to a normal life as I know it. But the staff really seem to care and the lads who are ambulatory laugh a lot. For many, it’s a blessing that they don’t fully realise that they’ve been given up by families who, often through no fault of their own, simply couldn’t cope with their disability.  For me, as a volunteer, it’s a blessing to be able to do something to help. And not for the first time, I’m left wondering who really wins from these days out. I have sneaking suspicion that I get far more than I give.

If you want to get involved, sign up to the IHBC facebook page or website or come support the  Gift of the Gab, the proceeds of which are going towards buying a bed for Norbert.