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When I first hit the States, I was intrigued by the idea of open house. Where I come from, it means that anyone can drop by – for a party. In the States, it’s when anyone who is interested in buying your house can drop by. In Malta recently, I came across an open house of a different kind. The Birgu Festival of Lights. Read more

I’ve been a tourist long enough to know that it’s impossible to see it all first time, or even seventh time. I’ve been going to Malta pretty regularly since 2010 and I’m still finding places that I’ve not been to before. The Inquisitors Palace in the city of Birgu has been on my list for a while and this last trip, I finally got to visit. What a mad bunch they were.

I’ve bandied about the phrase ‘What’s this, another Spanish Inquisition?’ without ever really knowing what it meant. Yes, I had a vague idea that it had to do with the Catholic Church and that it was far from a shining period in the Church’s history. But I’d never quite realised what it was all about and just how nasty it actually was and that it was only one of many: the Inquisition that hit Malta came centuries later, the Roman inquisitions of 1542 and onwards. The Inquisitors Palace has it all.

Inquisitors Palace

The list of things you could be tried for included: abuse of the sacraments, possession of prohibited books, infringement of abstinence, bigamy, apostasy, magical activities and superstitious remedies, heretical opinion, false witness, profanation of the sacred, blasphemy and obstructing the Tribunal. In today’s parlance, the profanity that might escape after stubbing my toe, or the simple act of throwing some spilled salt over my shoulder, or daring to believe something against the norm would have been enough to have me in the docks. Madness.

Inquisitors Palace

Once a girl turned 9 and a half and a boy turned 10 and a half, they were subject to inquisition (interesting the difference there). While just about anyone could land them in the docks with an accusation, it took 72 witnesses to bring up a bishop.  Definitely a case of us and them. While the museum was at pains to point out that torture was seldom resorted to, the gear was all there. There’s a manual – a Guideline for Inquisitors – written back in the 1400s that theorises:

The torture is not an infallible method to obtain the truth; there are some men so pusillanimous that at the first twinge of pain they will confess crimes they never committed; others there are so valiant and robust that they bear the most cruel torments. Those who have once been placed upon the rack suffer it with great courage, because their limbs accommodate themselves to it with facility or resist with force; others with charms and spells render themselves insensible, and will die before they will confess anything.

I reckon that one is still being read in places today. I was quite surprised at the number of inquisitors who went on to become pope. Nay, I was shocked. The whole thing of instilling the fear of God in someone, another phrase I bandy about with impunity, has taken on a whole new meaning. Even the thought of being denounced was enough to drive sane men mad in those days. And once heresy crept into a town or village and the inquisitors arrived, the locals had 40 days to confess or suffer the consequences. How many convinced themselves of their own guilt and fessed up to nothing at all? To quote the great Bertrand Russell:

Fear is the basis of the whole – fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand-in-hand.

Inquisitors Palace

Given the beauty of the city, it’s hard to imagine that it was home to such terrible times. Birgu (aka Vittoriosa) is one of what are known in Malta as The Three Cities and to my mind it is far more impressive than the capital Valetta. And is even more impressive than the walled city of Mdina. If you’re ever in the vicinity, be sure to step outside the usual tourist route and pay it a visit. You won’t be disappointed. And be sure to put the Inquisitors Palace  on your list.

Birgu church

Birgu church

Birgu monumentnOne a gir 

 

What’s that flower? How old is that church? Are all those cows milking cows? I don’t know, he answered. I don’t know. I don’t know. I could drive a teetotaler to drink with my incessant questions. And a series of ‘I don’t knows’ disappoints me  – irrationally so, as it’s very often my standard reply when I’m asked about buildings in Budapest. So I told my Italian friend that day many years ago when we were half-way up Monte Rosa in the Italian Alps, I told him just to make up a story. Any story. I really didn’t care what he told me as long as he told me a story. I think he surprised himself with his creativity and I had a hard time deciphering truth from fiction. Read more

As I child, I gave up chocolate each Lent. I’d hoard every bar I was given as a present until Easter Sunday when I’d gorge on the lot and make myself ill. My idea of sacrifice wasn’t to do without but rather to delay gratification.

Easter Sunday 2014 has come and is almost gone. I’ve a lot deadlines on right now so most of this holiday was spent in front of my computer. To a greater or lesser extent, it was a day like any other, yet I still expected it to be full of Easter bonnets, Easter eggs, and roast lamb dinner. But it wasn’t.

IMG_1646 (800x600)In fact, the only thing that made it different to any other day this week was that I went to Mass. And technically, as I go  to Mass every Sunday, that in and of itself didn’t do much to separate it from the other 50+ Sundays in the year. But today, two things stood out.

About half-way during Mass, a middle-aged woman a couple of seats in front of me stood up. The rest of the church was sitting, but she continued to stand, blocking the view of those sitting behind her. Her muttered mumblings to whom I assume was her daughter or daughter-in-law (given the husband and two kids she had in tow) led me to believe that (a) either the cushion on the seat was cold/wet or (b) the pew was too hard. In any event, stand she did. And stand out she did, too.

I was reminded of an encounter on a bus in Malta a few months ago. A woman with a young child got on the bus and sat towards the back. The child (about 3 or 4) was acting up so the mum told him that he should watch how quiet everyone else was being, and behave exactly the same. For some reason I had a horrendous vision of the Holocaust, one that confusingly flashed in front of me with a background narration of ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’. I’m still deliberating….

Studying this woman today though, she seemed perfectly at ease with standing up (and out); it was those around her who seemed disconcerted. It left me wondering about conformity and who benefits most.

IMG_1644 (600x800)IMG_1648 (600x800)The second involved the Crown of Thorns that I noticed at the base of the cross on the altar. I’d not seen it before, although the church has been decorating the altar in the same way for the all the years I’ve been going there. It struck a chord, perhaps because last night I watched one of many episodes in the first series of Prison Break, in which John imagines seeing the head of Jesus, crown and all, as He hung on the cross. The rust stains in his cell he sees as Christ’s Blood. He then goes out to kill another inmate, but instead, forgives him (having found the Lord), only to have yer man turn and kill him instead. Is there no justice in the world?

In some convoluted way, with some random word association and image processing going on in a chocolate-starved brain perhaps, I began to think about the crown of thorns that each of us wears. Some of us have little choice but to keep suffering, to keep wearing our Cancer or our MS or our Hunger, but I suspect that many more of us could simply take off our crowns of thorns off. We have a choice, one we choose too often to ignore.

After a week that was longer and more intense than usual, I’m grateful that today was the day it was, a quiet day with two clear messages. (1) Stand up for what I believe in no matter how uncomfortable it makes others feel. (2) Be conscious that almost everything in life involves a choice…and I can choose to say no.

Happy Easter to one and all. Hope someone is making up for my chocolate deficiency 🙂

 

 

Il-banda

I still get occasional flashbacks to playing in the school band. I failed miserably with the accordion, had slightly better success with the melodica (mine was green and cream in colour), and finally settled on the recorder. To this day, anytime I hear Glenn Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy I’m back to marching around the GAA grounds in full uniform, playing my heart out. I can still remember the white shirt, the tartan kilt, the blue sash and the colourful broach. And for one tune in particular, all I remember are the notes: Read more

azure window

I travel. A lot. And I love it. I like finding new places, seeing new things, meeting different people. And when I go back again and again to the same place, be it for work or pleasure, there’s an extra satisfaction in showing my special places to those who travel with me. The site of the Azure Window (Tieqa Żerqa) in Gozo is one of those places. If you take an early-morning ferry from Malta across to Mgarr, then you can get there before the hordes descend and make it  too busy for comfort. I managed this one month and failed miserably the next. The difference was inconsolable. [UPDATE: Of course, now that the window has collapsed into the sea, the crowds may have lessened but the place is still worth visiting.]

When I last visited San Lawrence was closed off for construction so by the time I’d found the detour we’d lost that all-important hour. The place was packed. First-time visitors were parroting the usual reaction – how amazing, spectacular, the blue – oh my what a blue…  Old-timers were looking disgruntled at the number of people there. Me? I was so sorry that the experience wasn’t what it could have been.

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But the inland sea was relatively deserted because the water was too choppy to take out the boats. I was glad of this, in a way. To be fully appreciated, it needs quiet. Last month, we took a small fishing boat and travelled through the rock wall to the outer sea. It was the first time in I don’t know how many visits that I’d felt the need to do this and it didn’t disappoint. I’ve long since learned the value of realising that I can always come back – there’s no need for me to pack everything in to the time I have available. No where is going anywhere (except perhaps for the Maldives and the like, should sea levels continue to rise).

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There’s a particular type of coral that only grows here – it’s purple and as eye-catching as a coral can be. With one hand on the side of the boat and the other on my camera, the choice between being tossed overboard and capturing the essence of what I was seeing made me long fleetingly for the days when cameras needed plugs, bulbs, and tripods. Days when a choice wouldn’t be a problem as it wouldn’t have existed.

I was torn between enjoying what I was seeing and my compulsion to share what I’d seen. I was reminded of a Venetian writer whose name I can’t remember telling me to leave my camera at home and enjoy the moment. But what about those who will never get to Gozo, and boat through the wall, and get to the other side – shouldn’t they be able to come too?

IMG_0394 (800x600)I’ve never been much of an artist. My rather dark wardrobe will testify to my lack of imagination when it comes to colour. Yet there was something quite surreal about this purple coral as it mediated between the gray walls and the blue sea. Had it been a colour spectrum, the purple would have been out of place. And yet there it was, in all its glory, mediating between two shades of similarity – a foot in both worlds. And it reminded me a little of me…

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On the journey back inside, what looked like an impossibly narrow opening gradually opened up. Crossing this gradual revelation was like travelling through time, in slow motion. And although I’d seen the inland sea many times before, this was the first time I’d looked at it from a different direction. There was a lesson in perspective there… should I choose to learn it.

Malta is one of the few places I visit repeatedly  – and each time, there’s something new or something old seen in a new light. And more often than not, that new light comes from seeing it from someone else’s perspective, experiencing second-hand the pleasure they get from places I’ve shown them. What’s not to like about travel, I wonder? Were I queen for the day, I’d make it compulsory.

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Driving to my hotel from the airport in Malta last week, I fell into conversation with the taxi driver. He spoke English, the language of business in Malta. But like many others on the island, it was a second language for him, and a poor relation to his mother tongue, Maltese. I asked him what was new in the country, politically. Malta has a new Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, a man who shares the same birthday as my taxi driver’s daughter. Both have just turned 40. To have such a young PM bodes well for a country methinks – particularly in the aftermath of my recent visit to Italy which boasts a gerontocracy with an average age of 64 and, from what I saw and heard while I was there, is the bane of young progressives who have little room to make their mark. Read more

passportMy greatest fear, as a traveller, was realised last week. For years, I’ve broken out in a cold sweat when hotel receptionists ask me for my passport and tell me that I can pick it up in the morning. I always insist on waiting. It’s as if I’m joined to it by some invisible umbilical cord and live in dread of postpartum depression.

A few years ago, on the sleeper train from Cologne to Vienna, I had to surrender my precious baby overnight. Intellectually, I knew I was in Europe. I knew there was little trouble I could get into without it. It wasn’t as if I was going to be carted off in the middle of the night and dumped in a ditch, or sold as a white slave to some drooling turnip farmer with one tooth and a vivid imagination. I knew this and yet not having my passport kept me awake – all night.

Passportless in Las Palmas

Last week, somewhere between getting on the plane at Berlin airport and arriving at Hotel Verol in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, my passport disappeared. I recall showing it to the chap as I boarded the plane. But after that … nada.  When I was asked for my passport at check in, I reached for where it should have been to find it wasn’t there. A subsequent search of every pocket grew increasingly frantic each time I came up empty, and soon had me hyperventilating. Through a haze of tears I heard the male receptionist calmly telling me to breathe deeply. This was Wednesday. I was due to leave for Budapest on Sunday with a six-hour layover before heading to Malta bright and early Monday morning. And I had no passport.

My first call was to the unflappable Karin Bryce of Travel Unlimited who suggested I go back to the airport and check with the handling agent. My second call was to my brother in Dublin who knows a thing or two about immigration laws. His worst-case scenario was that he could claim me in Dublin on Sunday.  In the meantime, he directed me to Lost and Found.

Airline staff in control

But wait a minute! I was in the Schengen Zone. I didn’t need a passport. I hadn’t gone through any passport control. All I had to do was satisfy the airline that I was who I said I was. I just needed to get on the plane. But I had no passport. And I had no driver’s license. And I had no proof that I lived in Hungary. I’d helpfully left all other forms of ID at home … in case I lost them.

I’m not stupid. I knew it was simply a matter of getting some passport photos at the bus station kiosk, going to the Irish consulate in the morning, getting a temporary passport, and then applying for a new one, once back in Dublin later this month. A, B, C, D. Simple. Uncomplicated. Yet when I failed to unearth anything at the airport, I did what any self-respecting woman of my age, intellect, and general capability should never admit to doing – I went back to my hotel room and bawled, hysterically, for an hour.  Deep down, on some weird level, I felt as if my identity had been stolen, as if I had been kidnapped, as if I was no longer sure who I was because I couldn’t prove it to anyone. I was irrationally terrified and so completely alone.

Dependency on a piece of paper

How dependent we have become on pieces of paper, on little books with coloured covers in which we track our progress through the world. History is littered with accounts of letters of passage given by a ruler to an envoy asking for safe passage. Somewhere in Britain there’s a passport that was issued on 18 June 1641 signed by Charles I. But it wasn’t until World War I that passports were generally required for international travel.

I still recall when the old Irish hard-backed green passport was discontinued in favour of the soft-backed burgundy EU version. I remember feeling a little less Irish as a result of this convergence of colour and thinning of paper. I didn’t want to be a limp burgundy European; I wanted to be solid, green and Irish (mind you, I’m sure there are those who still think I’m both!).

Having unearthed a new fixation on passports, I can now state with some authority that the Nicaraguan passport has 89 security features and, according to The Guardian is one of the ‘least forgeable documents in the world’. Whereas the poor Israeli document is one of the most useless; it’s not accepted by 25 countries including Cuba and North Korea.

So back to me and my breakdown. The airline found my passport and called the hotel to let me know. Life was restored to near normal. Experiencing that gut-wrenching fear of being stateless on such a tiny, insignificant scale, has engendered in me a whole new empathy for refugees and those who don’t have passports to lose. It’s also taught me about vulnerability and shown me a whole new side of me.

First published in the Budapest Times 8 February 2013

The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see. So said  G. K. Chesterton many moons ago and although he himself was not a man I’d have fancied in his day, that insight alone would have earned him a dinner invitation (if he brought Fr Brown with him). Read more

For the first time in a long time I’m enjoying how I look. I still don’t have that hourglass figure I’ve craved for what seems like an eternity. I haven’t managed to grow a decent pair of ankles. And I have resigned myself to never, ever having legs that stretch to my earlobes. But as far as the face goes, I like what’s looking back at me when I get into the elevator to descend to the ground floor and have one last look in the mirror before I step out into the world. And no, I haven’t started wearing make-up but I have given the nod to a dash of lippie and the occasional swish of the mascara wand.

I noticed the change earlier this year. Deep in conversation with a couple of Hungarian friends at Gozsdu Manó, one turned to me and commented that it was great to see how women my size seemed to enjoy life so much more. I ask you! Women my size? I’d long since grown accustomed to the refrain of ‘a woman your age should/shouldn’t do whatever’ but this size thing was a new one. I put it down to yet another morsel of wisdom that got lost somewhere in translation and I took it on the back of the sincerity with which it was delivered … I took it as a compliment.

No tact, no sale

I had a brief flashback to my first visit to Budapest. It was unnaturally cold and I hadn’t packed anything with long sleeves. I went into a boutique on the Korut in search of something warm and woolly. My bright and breezy hello was greeted with a little disdain. The assistant looked me up and down and then pronounced with some authority that they didn’t stock anything in my size. And before you go off on a tangent about Hungarian customer service, this form of clothing commentary is not unique to Budapest.

Rewind even further, to Los Angeles. In the dressing room of TJ Maxx, the ever-so-helpful assistant asked me if I was European. I smiled and asked whether it was my accent that had given me away. She laughed at my stupidity and said no… of course not. It’s just that while American’s tend to be fat in one place, Europeans tend to be fat all over! But these trifling comments on my size had been made by strangers and so were discounted. Granted, they’ve been milked for their amusement quotient over the years but they were never taken personally.

No smiles, no energy

In Bonn last weekend at the Toastmasters International District 59 Conference, I used the bones of this piece as the basis for a humorous speech. It ended up being too heavy on message and too light on humour and so didn’t make the final cut.  But the judges liked how I smiled all the way through. Afterwards, a very pretty young girl in her mid-20s, stylishly dressed with a great figure, came up to me and offered to trade her size for my self-esteem. For once I was lost for words. And not for the first time, I cursed the society we have created, with its innate insecurities and impossible expectations. The opening lines from Maya Angelou’s poem, Phenomenal Woman came to mind: Pretty women wonder where my secret lies / I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size / But when I start to tell them, They think I’m telling lies.

In Malta this week at DiploFoundation’s conference on Innovation in Diplomacy, two people complimented me on my moderation style – a little taken aback, I asked each of them to be more specific. Both independently said the same thing – smiles and energy. I started to wonder if the two are interlinked – whether smiles beget energy and vice versa. And I wondered some more about whether a mass-smiling campaign could help re-energise Hungary and unite the opposition.

No harm, no foul

When people look at me and say with some element of surprise that I’m looking great, I can’t help wondering how I looked before. Or if they’ve not seen me for a while and the initial once-over takes a few seconds longer than usual, I can’t help wondering what they think is different. It must make me smile because they comment on that, too.

There’s a curious sense of peace that comes with accepting who I am and what I look like. There’s a wonderful sense of release that comes with giving up the fight against nature and simply making the best of what she’s dealt me. And there’s a lovely sense of calm that comes with finally realising that anonymous got it right: pretty is something you’re born with, but beautiful … that’s an equal opportunity adjective.

First published in the Budapest Times 23 November 2012

PS Photo courtesy of Art Provost (thanks Art!)