Friday, September 28, 2007

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Happy Birthday To Me

Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood in MacbethIt was my birthday on Monday, so as a present from the other half we went down to the West End and The Gielgud Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue to see a modern re-telling of that Scottish play of Shakespeare's with Patrick Stewart in the lead as Macbeth himself.

For some reason on other, I'd realised that I've never seen one of Shakespeare's plays performed live, and well, it's always interesting to try something at least once, I told the other half when it was obviously not her cup of tea.

As it was, we both really enjoyed it. For something that ran for about three hours (including the interval) there really only was one act when things slowed down and I got a bit bored. The other half, in fact, actually nodded off but then she managed the same feat in the middle of a loud song and dance routine at a musical we saw in New York, so I wasn't too surprised.

So asides from that one dip, the rest of the play was suitably intense. The setting was in more modern times in a somewhat Stalinesque Russia which suited the treachery and greed for power that unfolds within the story perfectly.

Newsreel shots of parading soldiers played across the walls and an atmospherically smokily back-lit clanking lift centre-stage brought characters in and out of the story with some style.

The three witches in particular, re-imagined here as field hospital nurses or serving girls flitting around in the background until the lighting dims, heart monitor traces illuminate the walls and they take centre stage with their echoing words foretelling the future are just wonderfully evil.

So a pretty original (for me) and excellent time was had on my birthday.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Memories of Grandma

Vago RebekaI got a not entirely unexpected phone call over the weekend from my aunt in Hungary.
My grandma, Rebeka, passed away last Wednesday, peacefully in her sleep. She was aged 93.

The funeral is tomorrow, so unfortunately, there was no way that I'd be able to make it, but I spent some time over the weekend recollecting my happy memories of her. I was also thankful that my fiancée and I had at least been able to see her last month before she left us and had effectively received her blessing.

Though not my grandmother by blood, because she couldn't have any children, she adopted my mum and two others when she was young (I'm not sure of the exact age) and raised them like her own.

I'd been lucky to probably have spent the most time talking with my grandma since my mother's death in 2002.

I visited for a week in 2003 and stayed with her for most of that and then again in 2005 by which time she was in a care home. During that time, my Hungarian improved (it always starts of rather rusty due to no practice in the UK) and she'd sit down and tell me about my mum.

She told me how in 1956 when the Russian tanks poured back into Budapest and quashed the revolution, my mum met with her two best friends Julianna and Veronika and talked about leaving the country. My mum was 20 then and my grandma told me how she was a bit of a tomboy.

Well, the three of them headed off but when they got to the border with Austria and saw the guards patrolling with their guns and barbed wire my mum's two friends relented and came back.

My grandmother explained how my mum had then swum across a river at night to avoid the guards and had left the country. They didn't hear from her after this so assumed that she was dead.

Then a year later, a letter arrived telling them that she was alive and well in England working as an au pair having stayed in Austria and then France along the way!

She told me how pleased they'd all been to hear that my mum was alright and how happy they were when, a few years later, she was allowed to come back and visit and then even later got married and then when I was just a wee baby came back to show me off too.

I always remember my grandma smothering me with kisses. Way too many kisses in fact but that just showed how loving she was. She visited us in London twice, the first time with my grandfather. I remember her telling him off one day for telling daft stories and everyone just laughing their heads off at their silly argument, her face initially cross and then breaking down into laughter with us.

A friend of my mum, whom I still see, recalls during my grandma's second visit, how they ended up sitting in the garden together one day and even though my grandma spoke to her in Hungarian and my mum's friend back in English, they seemed to yap on for ages and got on like a house on fire.

Apparently the baffled look on my mum's face when she came out and saw the pair of them getting on so well despite the language barrier was a sight to see.

Rest in peace gran. You'll be missed but never forgotten.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Shuttlecock Sport

Shuttlecock sportWe completed our visit to my mum's home town by checking out Zoli, my 16 year old nephew's new sport, something called Shuttlecock (or labtol in Hungarian which translates literally to foot-feather.)

I'd never heard of it before and wasn't surprised to find out that, internationally, England are crap at it, though probably because nobody plays it over here. Hungary and Germany are the best teams in Europe, with Hungary apparently better at the moment, whilst Vietnam and China lead the rest of the world with the former being world champions (I think?

It's played across a net, much like badminton or volleyball, but the shuttlecock actually has feathers and the rubberised end is made up of a number of discs and a rubber dome. You can only hit the ball with you feet and parts of your body but not the hands.

Well, we had no idea what we were going to see when my nephew said, let's go down to the local school gym to watch a practice session. They obviously take it very seriously in Ujszasz and there were about twenty kids split across five areas of the gym, three of which were set up with a net supporting teams of three, two and single pairings taking on each other whilst the other two areas were for pairs practicing passing and shooting the shuttlecock at each other.

When someone was tired in one of the games, they'd drop out and enter the practice area whilst someone who'd been practicing would enter the game.

It was fascinating to watch their dedication. My cousin told me how he was looking forward to travelling to Germany and France to compete on an international level. I was mightily impressed.

After this we went back to my Uncle's house and had a lovely cold dinner. Lunch tends to be the main meal in Hungary and generally, Hungarian families will only eat something cold in the evening. In this case it was bread with slices of salami and peppers. Delicious in its own simply way really.

After this we bid our farewells at the train station and got on a more traditional, non compartmentalised and unfortunately slow train for the journey back into Budapest.

Though obviously still tempered by my gran's illness, I was nevertheless happy that we'd manage to achieve so much today and that everyone had managed to meet my fiancee.

The next day was our last and was in reality only a half day, so we packed, slept in and then went out for an early lunch finishing off with some fine Hungarian cakes from the lavish Cafe Gerbeaud.

A fitting end to yet another fine holiday.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Visiting the old neighbours - Pigs, pigeons and Spider

We then walked across the road to see if Veronika, one of my mum's best friends, was home. It was an unannounced visit and I pushed their doorbell not knowing if anyone would answer. A black Hungarian Puli dog ran up to the gate and stood his ground on the other side of the gate and with an impressively constant rhythmic and very loud "bark bark!"

Just as I was starting to think that perhaps they weren't in, I heard a familiar voice calling out from the back telling "Bogar" the dog ("Spider", in English) to shush.Veronka and Pista in 2005

It was Veronka, one of my mum's best friends from school days, and despite us having turned up unannounced, she opened her arms and kissed us both, radiated nothing but warmth towards us.

Once Spider had realised that we were no longer a threat, he quietened down and disappeared to the back of the garden whilst we were ushered in to the house where it soon became obvious from the fact that Pista, Veronka's husband was lying down on top of the sofa in just a pair of shorts, that they had both been taking an afternoon nap!

I apologised for disturbing them, but they would have none of it. We were shown into the front room and sat down on a pair of comfy chairs whilst Hungarian Palinka (Peach Schnaps) was poured out for both of us.

It was really potent stuff and in the heat we had to decline a second helping lest we pass out!

We sat and talked for a while, Veronka also getting us some nice cakes to eat, and me doing my best to translate to the other half so that she wouldn't feel out-of-sorts. The translation process was easier said than done, though, as Veronka and Pista moved from one topic to the next without pause, obviously trying to cram the last two years happenings and then some into our brief visit.

Afterwards, the other half told me that even though she didn't understand a word, she had managed to follow lots by observing how Veronka and Pista had been speaking, laughing and gesticulating throughout the conversation. They are a close couple, having been married for fifty odd years and it really shows in how comfortable they are with each other.

Before we left, they gave us a guided tour of their small menagerie of animals in the back. We saw their well fed, free range chickens running around in a large area in the back, then their house pigeons, and a sweet baby pigeon, something I'd never seen before. These pigeons were nothing like the scrawny, dirty things I've always seen in cities but well fed birds with clean and tidy feathers with a nice colour and sheen to them.

Finally we saw their huge black Hungarian Mangalica pig that they were fattening up. It was feeling particularly hot this afternoon, so it waddled out into the corner of its pigsty, relieved itself over the floor then proceeded to roll around in it's own pee. Lovely!

As a more hygienic alternative to this, Pista sprayed water over it and we watched as it lay on it's side and squirmed and squealed in obvious delight, something that made us all laugh.

It was after this that I looked at my watch and realised that we'd been away from my uncle's place for over two hours, so we bid our farewells and made our way back but now with a grin on both our faces at the memory of that happy pig...

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Lunch with the family and happy reminiscences

We drove back to my uncle's house and ate a lovely Hungarian meal that my aunt had prepared for us. Before this my uncle had popped out and picked up my God-son, Gabriel, and his younger sister, Andi, from nursery and they joined us for the meal.

Gimme Five from AndiAndi, at two and a half, a year younger than Gabriel, seemed a bit more capable at the lunch table. She broke off bits of bread from a large slice and used it to mop up the juice from her dinner plate when she'd finished whilst Gabriel was a bit lazier and played around more. He was also much shyer than Andi who warmed to us instantly. I remember that it had taken three days before Gabriel had come out of his shell during my previous, longer visit but here was Andi, this time, with no such similar reservations. The other half played peek-a-boo with her and she loved it!

Over dinner it became obvious that my aunt and uncle had misunderstood me on the phone, when I had rung to say that I was coming to visit, as they had got a room and a bed ready for us to stay the night.

"No, it's alright, we're only here to visit for the day. We need to be back in Budapest tonight so that we can pack and get ready to fly off tomorrow afternoon," I had to explain to them.

It was still scorching in the house and I suggested to the other half that we go for a little stroll around town to walk off the food and so that I could show her my grandma's old house and perhaps visit one of the neighbours.

We ambled along the narrow pavement past gardens each with guard dogs too hot to bark at us until we arrived by my grandma's house, a place thick with memories for me. I remember arriving here by car, straight from the airport, years back when both my mum and dad were still alive, a dust cloud following us along the then rocky road and my grandparents running out to greet us. My shyness caused in part by my poor Hungarian language skills always made me feel awkward when we arrived but they'd all kiss me on both cheeks, my grandma many times over, and make me feel at home and loved. We'd only visit Hungary every other year, since that was all we could afford, and I'd always be taller each time they saw me, something I recall that they ALWAYS commented on!

I remember the smells and sounds of the house, now locked up and slowly falling apart and I couldn't help but feel sad, wishing that time would stand still, in just this one place, so that I could relive those happy Summers over and over...

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Hospital Visit

My grandma lay in bed, looking deflated, literally, from the jolly old lady that I remembered from my childhood. The doctors' didn't know what was wrong other than that there was something up with her stomach. I stood by one side of the bed and tentatively said hello. She looked confused but her deep blue eyes were still sharp and I thought that they looked beautiful.

She didn't know who I was though. At first she thought that I was her brother but then when we repeatedly said my childhood nickname (which embarrassingly translates into English as little white goose - apparently how I looked when I was born) I could finally see recognition cross her face.

She looked so fragile and seemed to fade in and out a bit but she still told me to visit more often. I introduced her to the other half and I realised that she'd understood what I'd said as she started to tell us to be good to each other and to never hurt each other, as her and her husband never had. It was sweet but also very sad. The other half cried a bit. Hospitals never bring back good memories.

I brushed a hand through my grandma's fine silver hair and told her that it still looked beautiful. She asked "Is it?" with almost a smile on her face but was now also starting to look more tired so we took this as cue to allow her to rest and said our goodbyes.

I felt bad for having to lie that I would come back to see her soon knowing that she probably wouldn't remember my promise though I think that it was worth it as it made her happy to hear me say it now.

We walked quietly back outside. I wondered if it would be the last time that I would see her. I remember her telling me, a few years previously, that she had never been ill until she hit 90.

But the sturdy old woman that she once was was now long gone. I didn't really know what else to do. It'd be all up to her now as to whether or not she'd want to go on. But then having outlived her husband and adopted daughter (my mum) and now lying helpless in a hospital bed, what would you choose?

Later on that day I gave my aunt some money to help with funeral costs, should the worst happen. I hoped it wouldn't but then having seen my grandma as she was now, a pale shadow of her former self, perhaps it would be for the best now?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

A journey across the Great Hungarian Plain

In the four and a half days that we'd spent there so far, we were having a great time in Budapest.

As mentioned in a previous post, I'd failed to get hold of my uncle to let him know that I was coming to the country with a possible visit out to him, his family and my grandmother in the offing.

However, on our very first day in Budapest, right after we'd walked into our hotel room and were unpacking, my mobile rang.

It was my aunt! I couldn't believe it. Had she somehow found out that we were coming? No, it turned out that she was ringing for an altogether different reason. My grandma was ill and in hospital and things didn't look good. But then when you are 93, I guess illnesses become more of a pray and hope type thing.

She was so surprised when I told her that I was in the country. We arranged to come down on the Friday to visit everyone and go and see my grandma in hospital too. It was lucky that she had called as originally we were planning to go down on the Thursday, unannounced and, as it was, it turned out that nobody would have been home!

So we were very fortunate, however unfortunate the circumstances of her call, that we had managed to get in touch.

I'd printed out train schedules before leaving the UK off the excellent Elvira Hungarian railways site and we went along on the Thursday to buy tickets for a 9:45 train leaving the following day. It turned out to be extremely easy and the cost of tickets was just plain silly. Just over four pounds for each of us.

The next day, though, we overslept slightly, so it was a bit of a mad dash to the station. Things wouldn't have been so bad but for the fact that when we arrived, there were two trains leaving at 9:45, both going to the same destination and both on platforms that were on opposite ends of the station! I frantically looked through my printed out schedule and saw something written on the paper for our train that matched one of the trains listed on the departure boards.

We had to jog down to catch it and I spotted someone in a Hungarian railways uniform lounging by the train of whom I asked, in Hungarian, if this was the train for Ujszsaz. "Not for Ujszasz", she corrected me, "But, yes, going through Ujszasz."

That was good enough for me, though afterwards, once we had settled into a carriage and caught our collective breaths, it did suddenly occur to me that she might have meant that it was going through Ujszasz without stopping on the way to its destination. I prayed not!

The train was quite old, and it was one of those with a corridor running along the left side and compartments with doors along the right. We walked along the train until we found a compartment that wasn't full of people and settled ourselves into the comfortable seats.

I said "Jo napot" (good day) to the one other occupant, a woman tucked into a seat by the window facing the direction of the train reading her book, as I remember during one of my Hungarian language classes, years ago, that it was deemed polite to do this whenever you walked into shops and/or train carriages. I knew that that was time well spent after all!

The train left right on time and it wasn't long before we had trundled away from the city and its suburbs and were crossing the flat Great Hungarian Plain. Fields of corn, sunflowers and the occasional vineyard broken up by small towns with stations made up of a single sign and sometimes a platform whizzed by. We only stopped once before I recognised the surroundings and station that marked Ujszasz, our destination, and we quickly disembarked (not helped by a really non-yielding door) to find my uncle waiting for us on the platform.

It was nice to see him again. He explained that we would drive back to the house and then straight off to the main town where my grandma was in hospital. As we drove back to his place he gave us a brief scenic tour of Ujszasz taking in the new school buildings in the town and the new nursery that my God son now attends.

It all looked much as I remembered it from my previous visits, though each time I go there always appears to be at least one more tarmac road than there was before. It was sizzlingly hot too, something that further evoked childhood memories of hot Summer holidays spent here.

My uncle's house was also much as I had remembered it from two years previous bar the fact that the room that I had slept in then was now back to being a storage room. It was even hotter inside and there were lots of flies buzzing around, something that a town with so many farms and livestock can't avoid.

Within a few minutes we were off again to Szolnok to see my grandma...

Monday, September 03, 2007


We woke up the next morning to find rather depressing looking grey clouds blotting out the sun. I sighed to myself and had visions of us wandering around Budapest huddled under my umbrella. But lo and behold, by the time we'd got ourselves sorted and ready to go, it started to show signs of brightening up.

Our first order of business was to find something to eat for breakfast. I rarely do hotel breakfasts as they force you to get up far too early when you're on holiday (a big no no in my book) and can charge you far more than you would pay for the same breakfast in a cafe next door. This was the case in New York last year and we never had a problem finding somewhere suitable to eat in Rome where otherwise our hotel would have charged us 7 euros for a single cup of juice and 8 euros for a small bowl of cereal! Ironically in Dubai, breakfast was included in the price but, like muppets, we completely forgot as we'd got so used to the routine of going out for breakfast in Rome it hadn't occurred to us that we could get it for free there!

The view atop the Basilica
Anyway, after a nice meal (in a cafe by the Basilica), and a scan through the two guide books that I'd bought (yes, I couldn't decide on which I'd preferred and they did complement each other quite well with one giving a good overview of walking routes and such like and the other giving you more detail on the background of places where you were going and handy tips that generally I wouldn't have known otherwise) we started our journey of exploration around Budapest.

Since we were by the Basilica, this was our first port of call. Last time I was here, my nephew and I climbed the 360 odd steps to get to the top of the dome only to discover that we could have taken a lift! This time I didn't make the same mistake twice and we were whisked up relatively quickly and with a lot less sweat than my last journey to the top with the added bonus of the fact that the clouds had now dissipated and the sun had come out.
The Freedom Statue atop Gellert Hill
It was turning out to be a lovely day for sightseeing!

Over the course of the next few days the weather got progressively better, the early cloud becoming wispier and wispier and breaking down much quicker until the Friday when we awoke to clear blue skies and temperatures touching the high 30s out in the countryside!

We walked most everywhere, and took the metro (Europe's oldest: circa 1896) from time-to-time to get from one side of the city to the other in double quick time. Budapest's metro is actually very good and trains never seemed as crowded as anything I've experienced in London. Perhaps this is because ticket prices for your typical local visitor from the Hungarian countryside are seen as too high and the numerous buses and trams make for a cheaper (though slower, in rush-hour) alternative.

As it was, a single fare was less than a pound and we once opted for a day travel card (the machines for which could be switched to English) when we knew we would be going backwards and forwards around the city a bit. Last time I bought a BudapestCard, a vehicle aimed squarely at tourists but which I now know from experience is a waste of money unless you are too lazy to buy a travelcard each day or do intend to traverse the city multiple times every day from a location in the suburbs. Also, the location of our hotel, right on the Danube between the two major bridges and within five minutes walk of the main pedestrianised shopping areas, somewhat negated the need for this as we could walk most places you'd want to.

Parliament overlooking the Danube
So, over the next few days we took in all the sights including the other two other excellent scenic vantage points of Gellert Hill and the Fisherman's Bastion (where I'd highly recommend a walk behind the main well-trodden tourist road too for a peaceful tree-lined stroll back to the main square) and chilled out on the Thursday afternoon at the Széchenyi thermal baths, something that, surprisingly, I've never done in all my visits to the city before.

It was a sunny day with blue skies when we visited the baths in the City Park and such an interesting experience to boot. Though prices were all written out in English too, it was still all a bit confused but not quite knowing what to do was all part of the experience.

For instance the attendant who was letting people into the changing rooms was a bit "simple". His main job, in so far as we could tell, was to take your entry card and put it through a turnstile to gain you entry and exit. He told me in Hungarian that the rooms were full and that we'd have to wait which I translated to a number of non-Hungarian speakers behind us in the queue. After five minutes, with quite a queue building up, a local walked straight passed us and through the turnstile asking us why we were all waiting!

When I asked the attendant if we could go in too he acted as if he hadn't even noticed that there was a queue and let us through as if nothing untoward had happened. Very strange?!

The Széchenyi Baths
The baths were lovely. You basically moved from pool to pool (both inside and out) trying out the different temperatures. Each had a sign telling you how long it was recommended you stay in (the hotter ones, no more than 10 mins.) and you basically just chilled out. There were lots of families, old men playing chess by the poolside and a number of bars and cafes strung around the outside pools outside of which you could sit and relax. We wished we gone there earlier on in the week as we probably would have gone back a few times at the end of each day.

Later on that evening, sitting outside in a restaurant on one of the main squares not too far from our hotel, we got yet another taste of freaky weather as a warm and pleasant evening suddenly turned nasty with, initially, gale force winds blowing everything in the square all over the place. The bonus was that the waiters showed us into a room around the side of the restaurant that was obviously used for private functions. It turned out to be quite a romantic evening with piped music, plush surroundings and a huge storm outside. Luckily the storm had abated, or at least the rainy part of it had by the time we left, so once again, another memorable evening was had by us both.

By Friday, we managed to take in all the sights bar the parliament tour, the tickets for which were sold out for the Thursday that we decided to go.

Our last full day, Friday, was to be spent visiting my family in the countryside, a nice contrast from the city.

To be continued...