Category Archives: Budapest Times articles

Facing down the terror

Were I still in school, today would mark my last day of term. Were I in a full-time, paid, pensionable position, today would mark my last day of work before my holiday began. But as writing for the Budapest Times and going to mass on Sunday are the two most regular fixtures in my life right now (and admittedly, I’m a tad more religious about my Times deadlines that I am about mass), this last column in July is what marks my summer break.

This time last year, I wrote about the fun trips I had taken and was planning to take. I was full of the joys of life, grateful for the opportunity to see so much of the world both at home and abroad. My column ran with the title ‘Making Memories’ and ended with the lines ‘Whatever you do this summer, enjoy yourself. And take the time to make some memories. We know not what the future has in store.’

In the intervening 12 months, the world has gone mad. This week alone saw a knife attack claim the lives of 19 people and injure 26 more in a facility for disabled people in Japan. In France, an octogenarian priest, Father Jacques Hamel, had his throat slit in church while saying mass. The headlines noted that he was the 236th victim of jihadists in France since 2015. That struck me as odd. Not in that the number was so high, but that there was a number at all.

Also this week, Irish print and broadcast journalist, Vincent Browne wrote his own headline, claiming that ‘terrorism works only with the complicity of the media and its sensational reporting.’ I’ve been bothered for some time about the role the media plays in what we think today, in how we feel. It’s as if it is doing our thinking for us. Were we better off when news took time to travel? When we didn’t have news feeds clogged with videos of atrocities? When stories of terrorism were curtailed? I wonder.

A few paragraphs into his piece, Browne completes his heading: ‘Terrorism works only with the complicity of the media and its sensational reporting, for without the sensational reporting of such incidents, the intended terror would not materialise.’ He makes his case with statistics showing how the small proportion that deaths by terrorism represent are lost in the annual homicide figures for countries like France, Germany, and the USA. He notes that around the world, more than 1.2 million people die in road accidents [something we could rectify] and concludes with the observation that ‘the usual hysterics and attention-seekers don’t bother with these banalities.’

As I get ready for what is usually a quiet month for me work-wise, as I get set to close out the first half-century of my life and celebrate a big birthday, I do so with a heavy heart. I spent a lot of time with kids last week and I wonder what the future has in store for them. We adults are making a right mess of things. The world’s leadership landscape has rarely looked so bleak. Our elected, or soon-to-be elected leaders, offer little by way of hope. Our media seems hell-bent on fomenting the hatred sown by fanatics. And we’re all being sucked into a vacuum of despair.

focusing on goodWe need to stop focusing on our differences and start focusing on what we have in common – life. And we need to live that life, the only one we get, with a conscious thought for the children who will inherit our world. We need to take responsibility for what we say, for what we post, for what we share. And we could start by facing down the terror, by spending just one day focusing ONLY on the good stuff. It might just catch on.

First published in the Budapest Times 29 July 2016

It’s all happening in vibrant Veszprém

One of the best things about Hungary is the festivals. On any given weekend you can find something going on somewhere. Sometimes you get lucky and find two festivals going on in the same place, the same weekend.

IMG_6813 (800x579)We headed to Veszprém last weekend for VeszprémFest, the annual five-day music extravaganza that turned teenager this year. I was really looking forward to the outdoor gig in front of the Archbishop’s Palace in the Veszprém Castle district. I’m quite partial to a little Baroque with my bopping. We’d booked into the charming Éllő Panzió because it’s within walking distance, so we were set. But fate took a hand.

IMG_6777 (800x600)IMG_6792 (800x600)On Friday night, we were to see Mancunian Lisa Stansfield but such was the demand that they had to move the gig to the outskirts of the city to the Aréna. I’m used to the strictures of Budapest venues where you can’t take a photo without being publicly reprimanded and have to check your coat in the cloakroom and dare not stand up in your seat unless everyone else is standing, too.  But within three songs, she had the crowd out of their seats and swarming the stage. People were recording tracks on their phones, taking videos, and snapping happy. It seems like anything goes.

On Saturday night, it was Jamie Cullum. He was rained out though, and moved inside to a curtained section of the Aréna. Not as popular at the box office but an amazing gig. If Stansfield was good, Cullum was awesome. The festival is quite something.

A few years ago, they started a complementary Rosé, Riesling, and Jazz festival to run the same week. Lots of vineyards participate offering some excellent wine choices, good food, and three jazz gigs centre stage each evening in Óváros Tér . Thanks to the lovelies Szandra and Irma from Győr, who generously shared their taxi and got us back into town on Friday night in time for the last session, we had a blast. And we figured we could make it back for the second half of Fábián Juli & Zoohacker the next night, too, but the weather gods intervened.

The city is a year-round hive of festivity. My picks for the rest of the year are the Street Music festival (22-25 July), the Fairy Tale festival (18-20 September), and the Veszprém Games, an international art competition and festival that runs 7-12 October. And if those don’t grab you, there’s plenty more.
IMG_6849 (600x800)IMG_6846 (600x800)IMG_6842 (800x600)The city has a lot to offer by way of things to see (even when it’s raining non-stop and the temperature has dropped 15 degrees overnight). There are a couple of excellent exhibitions currently going on. In St Emeric Piarist and Garrison Church, there’s a gorgeous display of photos of frescos from a church in Romania (now on my bucket list) and across from St Michael’s Basilica (where we saw three weddings, on the hour at 2pm, 3pm and 4pm!!!) there’s a fascinating exhibition – Test és lélek a Nagy Háborúban (Body and Soul in the Great War) – that looks at preaching in the field, military hospitals, and medical practice in WWI. Powerful stuff.

The city can hold its own foodwise, too. Fejesvölgy Étterem – a traditional Hungarian restaurant – did everything right, from the service and the food to the drinks and the price. They were turning people away.  The more contemporary Elefánt Étterem was just as good in its own right. Apparently, a third one to watch (recommended by the lovelies) is Chianti but we had to leave that till next time.

And there will be a next time. The locals are friendly, quick to help, and very tolerant of mangled Hungarian pronunciation. Just over 90 minutes from Budapest by train, Veszprém is a gem of a city that is worth considering next time you want a change of scenery.

First published in the Budapest Times 22 July 2016

Spread the love

Prior to Euro 2016, I wasn’t a great lover of international football. And I’m still not.  I can’t get my head around the number of zeros in some of those boys’ salaries. I have a hard time dealing with putting a monetary value on someone’s talent to the tune of tens of millions of euro, even though I know this is done in the Corporate World on an average day. Yes, I know they train their little socks off. And they work hard. And they sacrifice so much in their determination and commitment to win, but I simply don’t get it. What’s the attraction?

Why do millions of people put their lives on hold for four weeks as they watch their teams’ progress? Why do thousands more put themselves in debt to go abroad and support their teams in person? Why do people get so hyped up about 90 minutes of fancy footwork, theatrical romps, and jibs and digs? What’s the attraction?

When your home team doesn’t make it through to the final 16, there’s the disappointment to deal with. No matter what the odds, there’s always hope that a miracle will happen. I was lucky. I’ve moved around and could draw tangible if tenuous loyalty lines to other countries. I followed Ireland of course, even if I spend too much time bemoaning the Irish Manager’s lack of dress sense. I followed Hungary, too. Watching Hungary play on the big screen with thousands of Hungarian fans was incredible. I also followed Wales because I like the Welsh and was surprised to see that they play something other than rugby. I got into Iceland because they are fun and I’m sure some of those players have had ballet training. I’m not quite sure what I’d have done if any of these teams had had to play each other. But it never came to that.

When we boarded the plane to Lisbon a few weeks ago, Ireland had a 1-0 lead over France. It was half-time. I was hoping and praying that we’d pull it out of the boot and make history. By the time we landed in Portugal, that dream had died. I rode the Welsh wave in the surfing capital of Ericeira as they made their way through to the semi-final. And I hoped and prayed some more. And it worked. They got through. A group of 20 or so of us watched the Wales-Portugal semi in a little pub down by the beach called Café Joy. Mostly Irish. Mostly rooting for Wales (except the one Bremainer who has yet to forgive them their vote in the Brexit referendum).  But they fell to Portugal. And the Portuguese went mad.

eurio2016Our flight home from Portugal last Sunday had lots of free seats. There was a final to watch. And when the captain announced the final result, the fans around us asked where they could buy champagne in Budapest after midnight. I like those priorities. Nice one, Portugal.

I realised then what the attraction was. It’s not the soccer, per se, it’s what it represents:  a chance to focus on something bigger; a chance to suspend reality for a while and live vicariously through lads who live vastly different lives to ours; a chance to hope for a miracle that just might happen.  But mostly though, it gave us the opportunity to take pride in countries which, for various reasons, we might be a little disillusioned with right now.

Euro 2020 will mark the 60th anniversary of the competition and will be held in thirteen cities in thirteen different European countries. And while I still prefer rugby to soccer and doubt that I’ll ever fully appreciate the multi-million-euro pretty-boy antics of international football, I quite enjoyed the buzz. So spread the love, I say, spread the love.

 First published in the Budapest Times 15 July 2016

Music with soul, an Irish soul

I was born asking questions. The whys of life fascinate me: I like to know why people do what they do, why they make the choices they make, why they live where they live. My litany of questions has been likened to the relentless nature of the Spanish inquisition (without the evil intent), particularly when I have a glass of wine in hand. I’m fortunate that those who have been on the receiving end rarely if ever take exception to my curiosity. And so the questions continue.

Photo credit: Kaci Simon

Photo credit: Kaci Simon

My latest victim is Hungarian born Martón Béres-Deák. Born in the town of Gyöngyös, some 80km east of Budapest, he spent 9 years in the UK, mainly in London. He speaks his English with a British accent but strangely when he sings an Irish ballad, he sings with an Irish accent. He’s even mastered the soft ‘t’ that is so uniquely Irish.

Béres-Deák was 15 when he first picked up a guitar. And he’s been playing since. At 18, he studied classical music at Bartók Béla Music School, where he also learnt the piano and music theory. Given all that, my burning question was why Irish music? What’s the fascination?

With an Irish landlord in Crawley, UK, Béres-Deák was introduced to the craic from the outset. He played in a band doing popular Irish songs at various Irish festivals in the city. Returning to Budapest, he soon spotted that the Irish pubs in the city liked their Irish music, too. He now plays regular gigs at Jack Doyle’s and at Becketts and loves it.

For Béres-Deák, it’s all about the passion. The songs he sings, most often requested by locals and tourists alike, are full of soul. He likes that the punters get caught up in the music, too. They sing along, eyes half-shut, some inner chord striking as he plays and sings with them. He describes Irish music as a direct extension of the Irish soul.

It takes time to learn new songs, to grasp the lyrics, to mimic the speech, but he says it’s worth it for the emotional response he gets. Some songs take weeks or months to sink in and for him to truly represent their message or vibe. Some songs don’t match his style at all. Some songs he loves the audience won’t like and others that he loathes, the audience will love. Yes, Chesterton had it right when he said of the Irish that our wars are merry and our songs are sad.   The songs Béres-Deák sings are very personal. The stories are easy for him to relate to, as a Hungarian for whom the fight for freedom and the story of migration has also played a huge role in his life.

Earlier this summer, a business man from Boston who heard Béres-Deák play at a gig in Budapest, invited him to play at a local festival in Ballinskelligs. He’s a little nervous about going to Ireland and playing in front of a home crowd but he has what it takes – that cheeky mix of irreverence and passion that is a winning combination. He never repeats the same set of songs. He brings his full repertoire of some 250 songs with him and then picks and chooses to suit his audience. And he makes it all look so easy.

Béres-Deák has worked many jobs – he’s laboured on the building sites, spent time as a lumberjack’s assistant, worked as a cook, drove a van, supervised a warehouse, worked in a call centre. He’s tried hard to not make music his life, but at this he has failed miserably. And rather than fight it, for the moment he’s embracing it.

Check him out at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNxkwOi76vw. Catch him live at Becketts  tonight, Friday, 8th July, and at Jack Doyle’s Irish Pub and Restaurant tommorrow, Saturday night, 9th July. And if you’d like to book him for a gig, contact him at martoon@hotmail.co.uk

First published in the Budapest Times 8 July 2016

Now, this is what you call a super market

What to do on holiday when it’s lashing out of the high heavens and your hotel room is way too small for comfort? Some would head to a museum or an art gallery. Others might go shopping. Me? I’d get lost in the nearest big supermarket.

I find other country’s supermarkets fascinating. From the near-empty shelves of Bourgas, Bulgaria, to the bountiful ones in Carrara, Italy, I have whiled away many a wet hour walking the aisles. I’d take a good supermarket over a designer clothes shop any day.

x1Sadly there are far more of the latter than the former, especially in Hungary.  I was a fan of Waitrose when I lived in the UK and am partial to SuperValue in Ireland. But choice in Budapest is limited.

I prefer Auchan over Tesco. I’m not a great lover of CBA. And simply walking into Culinaris is enough to bring out parsimonious me in hives. So stumbling across the upmarket Príma in Kolosy tér on my trip across the river last weekend was a bonus.

X2They have real beef, beef that has been aged for 28 days. Granted it has come all the way from Brazil and Uruguay and the USA, but it’s real beef. And they have real lamb. And yes, it’s more expensive than the lamb in my local halal butcher, but it, too, looks lovely.

And there’s a fresh fish counter, wide aisles and shelves stocked with myriad herb-infused olive oils, designer milks and all sorts of other treasures that had me oohing and aahing for the bones of an hour.

The large helping of foreign foods is nicely balanced by cheese, fish and meat from domestic producers. The baked goods are a step above most offers in the city and the chemical-free bio fruit and veg would warm the cockles of any eco heart.

x3It’s right next door to the Buda Gourmet restaurant. I knew there was some link between the two but I wasn’t quite sure what it was exactly so I checked the website. Together they are called Buda Gourmet Bistro & Market by Príma. And lo and behold, it’s a market designed with the foreign resident in mind.

When recruiting staff, those who speak English and German have an advantage. The idea is that budding gourmets can eat at the restaurant and then shop for the ingredients of their favourite dishes in the market. How novel is that?

Eschewing the a la carte menu, we’d booked in for Saturday brunch, us and a host of designer families: young-ish, trendy parents, with even younger, trendier kids, all very well behaved. The restaurant itself is very stylish and designed to within an inch of its sleek life.

The all-you-can-eat buffet runs to HUF 3990 but you can pay a supplement of HUF 1270 to avail of the grill.  And from that grill you can have lamb cutlets, rib-eye steak, crocodile and kangaroo … and that’s what I can remember.

If you’re a coeliac with a lactose intolerance and a preference for paleo dishes, you won’t be disappointed. But if you’re a vegetarian, you might struggle to find something interesting in the buffet. The food is very tasty and there’s plenty of variety. Not as much perhaps as what the downtown upmarket Sunday buffets run to, but every bit as good.

The drinks menu is extensive with a nice selection of whisk(e)y including Miyagikyo,  a 15-year-old Japanese single malt that will set you back about HUF 12,000 a shot. I was a tad disappointed in the limited gin offer, but that said, it does stock one of the most un-gin-like gins on the market – the French G Vine Floraison, so I wasn’t complaining.

The wine list acquits itself well and the service is friendly and attentive. Sure what more could you ask for?

If you’re in the neighbourhood, both are worth a visit.

First published in the Budapest Tim
es
1 July 2016

 

A basic luxury

The tides of fortune ebb and flow. Periods of economic prosperity are often preceded and succeeded by periods of austerity. At any given moment in time, the flow of people in and out of a country will be greater or smaller. And while Hungarians appear to be emigrating at a rapid rate, Georgians are returning home.

The Rose Revolution of 2003 and the two-term president Mikheil Saakashvili elected that year apparently put the country on the road to economic prosperity. But theirs is still a journey. The country has a ways to go before everyone gets to benefit. The signs are there, though. With little by way of natural resources like oil and gas and precious minerals, Georgia’s biggest assets are its scenic beauty, its culture, its traditions, and its people.

IMG_5654 (800x600)In Kutaisi recently, the country’s second city, I got chatting to 37-year-old Zaali. He returned to Georgia in 2015 having spent time Canada and Spain working construction. He speaks four languages and has an innate interest in people that makes him the perfect host. Less than a year ago he opened his business and set about capitalizing on the growth of tourism.

Zaali owns and runs Hostel Luxe, a hostel close to the bus and train stations that has mixed dorm rooms, double rooms with ensuites, family rooms, and apartments. His is one of many hostels to open in the city recently and with competition quite tough, he had to find his edge. And he did. He offers free transport to and from Kutaisi’s international airport, about 20 km outside the city.

For travellers who are used to staying in mid to high-end hotels, free transportation to and from the airport is a given. For those on expense accounts, it hardly matters. For those who are not on a budget, taxis provide a handy option. But for those who are travelling on limited funds, this is a luxury. He told me how one young woman from Ukraine danced a jig when she saw her name on his larger-than-usual placard. She was delighted with her welcome and said she felt special.

It’s been a lifetime or three since I last stayed in a hostel. If I’m travelling on my own dime, my priority is location. I don’t need anything extravagant. But I need clean. And I need free Internet. If I’m travelling to a country where the language is going to be a challenge, I try to schedule flights that get land at a reasonable hour. I avoid early mornings and late nights. I need to find my way around and do so in the light of day. If I can’t manage this, then I take a taxi.

Given all the choice there is for accommodation in Kutaisi, I chose Hostel Luxe because it offers free transport to and from the airport [the flight from Budapest lands around 5 am on a Saturday morning  and departs shortly after the following Tuesday]. With airport transfer available, there was no faffing around with changing currency or finding bus stops. And there’s something to being said for being met in person when you arrive somewhere. It all adds to the experience.

Not being the chattiest of people in the morning, I was dreading the idea of shared space. The room had a TV which I’d gladly have swapped for a desk and a table but I had to make do with working in the common area … and socialising. I met some interesting people, heard some interesting stories, and enjoyed his dad’s fabulous wine. Zaali also offers car rentals and reasonably priced guided tours. He’s thought of it all. This, he says, is his happy job. Budget travellers from Budapest travelling to Kutaisi should check him out. http://carrentkutaisi.com/en/home/

First published in the Budapest Times 24 June 2016

A cellar of note

My head is easily turned. Some would say I’m fickle. Mapping the direction of my conversation would be a challenge. I have a tendency to rhapsodise. On the few occasions I’m overcome with enthusiasm for something, I border on the evangelical. And when I discover something, or somewhere, or someone I really, really like, the world and its mother has to know.

I was introduced to Sándor Szogedi on a recent trip to Noszvaj. I’d gone to mass (wrong service, wrong church, different experience) while the others went to see the castle and the cave dwellings. They were to come back and meet me in an hour when I’d done praying for all our sins. Instead, I got a phone call. They’d found their church – the Gazsi Pince.

&&8It wasn’t by accident. My friend had sampled a red wine from the Gazsi cellar some time ago and knew it was resident in Noszvaj. They went to check it out and when they found it closed, she called the number on the gate. The ever-amenable Szogedi agreed to open up and let them taste his wine.  And it was there I eventually found them, lauding the merits of a rosé that apparently was the best anyone had ever tasted.

While I’m prone to exaggeration myself, I don’t find it becoming in others. I was just a tad sceptical and more than a little contrary that sunny Sunday. So I decided to ignore their urgings and go with one of the cellar’s 12 wines – a dry white 2015 Leányka. And I was impressed. Very impressed. Bottled from grapes from vines planted back in 1982, it’s certainly a ‘young lady’ of note.

I tried another, a 2014 Királyleányka. And the descriptive that came to mind was intriguing. I’m convinced that wines have personalities. A lot of them are simply boring. If they could speak, their conversations would be dull and uninteresting. I could relate to the Királyleányka – it caught me unawares. I liked it, too. A lot.

The others had moved on to the reds so I was catching up. Curiosity got the better of me and I gave in. I tried the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon rosé. Since discovering the virtues of rosé back in Wimbledon, UK, some dozen years ago, I have only once tasted anything that came close. I don’t have the vini-vocabulary to describe it so I’ll revert to the prosaic – it was bloody brilliant.

I’m not one for red wine. I had an unfortunate encounter with a bottle of port when living in Anchorage, Alaska, many moons ago, an incident that left me scarred for life. Even sitting next to an open bag of wine gums turns my stomach. But I was on a mission. And I tried both the dry Cabernet Sauvignon and the sweetish Turán. And if the rosé and the white ran out, I could drink either.

Szogedi, too, is a rather remarkable man. In a country where customer service is still in its infancy, he has nailed it. Eschewing the usual retail channels, Gazsi wines are sold directly to the consumer. Relationships are established. The family is extended. With just two hectares under vine, they buy in grapes from other growers and then work their magic. Their run is small – perhaps 6-8000 bottles a year plus the barrels dispensed in 2L and 5L plastic bottles. Their wine tastings can be coupled with a four-course meal in the cellar, something that’s now officially on my list of things to do. And with delivery runs to Budapest three times a week, putting wine with a personality on your table has never been easier. Introducing others to the delight that is Gazsi is a bonus. Check them out at www.gazsipince.hu

First published in the Budapest Times 17 June 2016