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Last week, I did something I rarely do. I went to evening mass on Saturday. A middle-aged man stood by one of the confessionals, watching his daughter or granddaughter running up and down the aisle. He seems a little distracted. I looked again, and saw that he was texting. None of this surreptitious in-your-pocket stuff; there he was, standing in full view of half the church, busily sending SMSs as the priest did his bit on the altar. I thought perhaps it was just the one message – a life or death situation – but when I looked again, some ten minutes later, he was still at it.

Of course, I should have been saying my prayers and not wondering how others were spending their mass time – but I wasn’t. I should have been paying attention to what the priest was saying – but I wasn’t. I should have been present, in the church, at mass, head focused, brain in gear – but I wasn’t. Instead, I was getting more and more annoyed at a complete stranger. Irrationally so. I didn’t know him from Adam. And his texting during mass would have zero affect on my life once I left the church. So why was I so distracted by him? More to the point though, have I completely lost my ability to concentrate and stay focused on one thing for more than five minutes?

Introspective

The year 2012 has been one of serious introspection for me. Perhaps it has something to do with the alignment of the planets.  I don’t know and it doesn’t really matter. I do know, however, that every little detail of my life has to be parsed and analyzed. Every action has to be gone over with a fine-tooth comb to figure out why it happened. Every conversation has to be replayed to catch the nuances and inferences that I might have been missed first time around. Am I going mad? Is this the onset of menopause? Or am I simply a victim of 21st-century navel-gazing?

Pre-occupied

This week’s pre-occupation, brought on by my texting-while-at-mass stranger, is with my attention span, or lack thereof. I’m a great advocate of what the likes of Ekhart Tolle and Antony de Mello call ‘being present’ and what Csíkszentmihályi calls ‘flow’. I try to concentrate on one thing at a time but it’s quite difficult when the levels of oestrogen in my body naturally lend themselves to multi-tasking. I try to be present. I do. Really. Yet it seems as if the world is conspiring against me. There are so many distractions. So many gadgets. So many interruptions.

Anxious

It’s as if I have forgotten how to relax. Every waking minute has to be put to productive use. I read on the tram, the metro, the bus, standing in line at the post office, waiting for a friend to show. If I’m not reading, I’m updating my diary, tidying my phone messages, sorting the contents of my handbag. In Malta recently, I took a day off. Determined not to switch on my computer for a whole day, I even left my phone in my room and took myself off to the pool, with my book. But could I relax? Hello no. I tossed and turned on the sunbed. I couldn’t get comfortable. I had a string of things running through my head that I should have been doing. I was planning my work for the coming week, mentally arranging various meetings and appointments, scheduling my writing tasks. No matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn’t switch off.

Pathetic

Back in Budapest, I tried again. One day. No computer. No phone. Just me, myself, and I. I managed to sit still for five minutes before spotting a cobweb – eight hours later, my books were sorted in alphabetical order by author, my wardrobe was colour-coded, and every loose sheet of paper was filed in its proper place.  I tried again – this time venturing outside the four walls of my world. I figured I’d simply wander the streets and take time to the empty city.  A four-day weekend found just me and the tourists in town. Out on the street I was faced with an insurmountable choice: turn right for the tram, left for the metro. Because I had no plan, no specific place to be, no one to meet, I couldn’t for the life of me make up my mind which way to turn. Rather than waste valuable time, I headed back inside to sort my spice rack.

Where did we go wrong? When did we lose our ability to relax? When did we get so fixated with productivity? John F. Kennedy suggested we use time as a tool and not as a couch but I think we’ve gone a little too far.

First published in the Budapest Times 5 May 2012.

Until the 1980s, what is now Is-Simar wildlife sanctuary in Malta was a marshy area used as a dump. Back in 1995, BirdLife Malta took it under their wing (ahem!) and transformed this wasteland into a beautifully yet naturally sculpted wetland area where urban folk can come and enjoy the birds. It’s just a tad surreal. Within minutes of walking through the main gates, we were enveloped in greenery, completely hidden from the outside world.  Strolling along the pathway that encircles the sanctuary, our view of reality was shielded by bamboo fences  as birds and traffic vied for airtime. Read more

Maltese churches are fascinating. Legends abound and the story of San Mattew’s church and the live-in lovers is one of a kind. St Matthew’s is in fact two chapels in one. The smaller one at the back was one of the first to be built after then Arabs were expelled from Malta. The larger one at the front was finished in 1682 and the two are joined by a stairway. Read more

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that there’s nothing to do in Malta once you’ve seen the temples and the hypogeum. I was over there recently and took a half-day to go chapel-chasing. Armed with the book 100 Wayside Chapels in Malta and Gozo and the intrepid and very knowledgeable Mr Micallef as my guide, we set off to see what we could find. Read more

bull's horn malta

My trouble with pronouncing Hungarian vowels is legendary, if nowhere else than in my own mind. But for me, Hungarian has met its match in Maltese. Take the word qrun, which translates into the more manageable bull’s horns. Try as I might I can’t get my tongue to give it a shape that is remotely recognisable. But I can do the sign language! And this, apparently, is vital to survival in Malta. Read more

On 3 July, residents of the town of Malta in the state of New York will be getting ready to celebrate the holiday of holidays – Independence Day. On the island of Malta, the aptly named Arriva company will be rolling out a fleet of new buses as the yellow and orange tanks of yore will be retired to pasture. What some diehard romantics (myself included) see as yet another homogenous nail in the coffin of individuality, will be welcomed by many locals. Read more

Basil Graffiti Malta

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

carnival in Malta, colourful floats, carnival floats, prinjolata

Shrove Tuesday – the last chance for you to use up your eggs, empty your jam jars, use up the syrup and pig out before embarking on 40 days of fasting… or, as in the old days, one main meal and two colations! This day is traditionally marked around the world with a knees-up that raises the bar on partying to a new level. In Malta, it sees the last day of a three-day festival on the main island and THE day of a rather alternative five-day festival on the island of Gozo. Read more

Hypogeum in Malta

When I was seven, my twenty-year-old cousin was old, which made my forty-year-old aunt very old and my grandmother positively ancient. Age was relative – relative to me. If I were to apply this same logic today, I’d have just passed the ‘very old’ mark and would be making slow but steady progress towards antiquity. Read more

Island of Gozo near Maxokk Bakery

It doesn’t look like much, does it? And its name, The Maxokk Bakery, apart from being unpronounceable, isn’t really an accurate description of what it offers. Buried in the back streets of Nadur, a little town on the island of Gozo, this bakery makes the best pizza I have ever had the joy to taste. Apart from the fact that the end-product is similar in shape to a pizza, the likeness to what’s served up the world over is minimal. Read more