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Monday, April 26, 2010

Critical mass baptism

This weekend I rode my first Critical Mass--well done me!

We were about 35,000 people on Saturday, biking from Roosevelt ter, via Lanchid and Erszebet
bridge, past the Parliament and all the way to the City Park (see the route map here). In my imperfect estimate that was a bit less than 10km in length.

The weather was fantastic and so was the ride, despite the inevitable bottlenecks and having to push the bike occasionally. I was alone so I looked around in curiosity, observing the crowd, and I was impressed by how diverse a group it was--there were kids pedaling patiently, babies on the back of their parent's bicycles, over-enthusiastic teenagers, couples, mothers with daughters, even an elderly citizen here and there. Before I had thought that Critical Mass is just for bike pros, but it is far more democratic than that, and I loved that aspect of it.

This was also my longest ride ever, given that I am a complete novice and that this was only the third biking attempt in my whole adult life. Until now, I haven't ventured far from home because I was afraid of traffic, or that I would get too tired and have to push the bike back home. These are probably typical fears for someone very green but I realized they were totally unfounded--it is possible to have very long rides in Budapest without going into traffic, just following bike tracks around the city. My friend Greg from Cycling Solution would probably say that there is a lot of room for improvement but from my amateurish point of view, Budapest already has great infrastructure for biking and more people should be made aware of that.

But the best thing about this Critical Mass event for me is that I got very confident and absolutely excited about biking, so this is definitely not going to be a one-off thing for me. My next challenge is to try to ride all he way to Szentendre (20km from Budapest)--watch this space!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Gumi macko, my love, Tri-omino, mon amour

It has happened to you that you wake up in the morning not quite knowing why. It has happened to me to eat aromatic hazelnuts or freshly grilled asparagus without appreciating fully. It happens to Budapest tram passengers to cross Margit Bridge without lifting their heads while passing by one of the most beautiful urban landscapes in the world.

Has it happened to you to cross the garden in a beautiful morning hurrying home to finish an important report not noticing how the popcorn-like tree transformed into green leafy tree? You have presumably sometimes stop contemplating a sunset hurrying home for the evening news.

The answer how not to do that and how to enjoy the present moment and small things lies with kids. That's not a revelation, of course, but come on - let us learn it once and forever!

This morning I was struck again by my sons' joy when they were administered their daily dose of multi-vitamins in the form of rubber teddy bears. They were beaming with happiness. One would say what's the big deal...but they would say 'Gumi mackooooooooo, hurray!'

A handful of gumi macko (rubber teddy bears) vitamins

And look here: this is Boris' new passion. It is called Tri-omino and it is a game that resembles domino but with triangles. We discovered this game at New Year through my friend Richard who is the ultimate game guru. Boris is the absolute world tri-omino champion and I have never seen someone being so happy hearing the words 'Yes, of course, we will play until 400......' or someone so excited when making a bridge or a diamond (tri-omino figures).

Tri-omino, Boris' passion

And some words about passion in doing small things like.....eating ice-cream. Here is Andrej and that's how he looks like when he is left alone with a box of chocolate ice-cream. I promise to write a report on Monday with a similar attitude and I wonder what would come out of it.

Andrej after eating chocolate ice-cream

I am kidding a bit with this post but I am also serious. I would like to learn these simple joys and appreciate them fully. Dozens of daily interactions and apparantly banal things and motions are full with inherent beauty which is kind of veiled because of our way of life, because of rushing or because of wrong focus. I would personally like to lift the veil.

I would also like not to be scared by the repetitiveness of things as we all know that this is what often kills the freshness of perception. Exactly because we know it is possible to be tired by repetition I would like to look for fresh ways to look at repetitive phenomena.

I think another reason for lack of appreciation is a certain arrogance that we can have towards possibly simple phenomena assuming that dealing with presumably more complex phenomena makes us more intelligent than we actually are.

There is a poem by my father which is fully in line with what I want to say.

If you transform
Emil Zhechkov

If you transform your soul
into an exquisite bell
How beautiful - drumming of little rain drops hammers
on its bronze neck.

Kid's fingers touch and wake
the sleepy tendersness -
invisible sounds will blossom from
the magic box of the morning.

If you turn your soul into a green tree
it will be a smelly bed for jumping birds
dreaming of infinity
and tireless wings....

It seems to me that we are debtors to many things around us....

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Take a patriotic ride

Are your patriotic credentials in need of refreshing? Have you taken pride in the glorious past of your nation lately?

No, neither have I, but today I realized there is an ingenious way to do it. If you happen to be Hungarian and live in Hungary, you can choose to zoom around not in any random taxi company, but patriotic taxi service called JOBB taxi. Any similiarity to the name of the ultra-right party that has just won almost 17% of votes (JOBBIK) is very deliberate if you even just take a peek at their website (jobb means better but also right, both in spatial and abstract sense).

You would have to be blind to miss the map of pre-Trianon Hungary (which includes big chunks of several neighboring countries) blasting from every corner of the site and, according to reliable eye-witnesses, features prominently on the actual taxis. If you want to become a regular customer, you get a card with--you guessed--a huge map of Greater Hungary coupled with a coat of arms with angels hovering over it.

Interestingly, the homepage features their bank account in flashing numbers the colors of Hungarian flag (red, white, green) so if you don't feel like a ride, but want to support the cause, I suppose you can wire your donation. They offer really competitive prices, but you probably need to complete a quick language and constitution test before you can enter the taxi, and a DNA sample might be needed to establish your true Hungarian-ness.

The taxi drivers are wearing Arrow Cross (Hungarian Nazi collaborators) uniforms and only ever turn right, never left. OK, I just invented this last bit but who's willing to bet?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Mother to some, stepmother to others

When you want to describe that one and the same thing can be good for some people but very bad for others, in Serbian you say "nekome majka a nekom maceha," or "mother to some, stepmother to others," mother being the embodiment of goodness and stepmother... well, think of poor Cinderella.

So with Ejyafjallajökul. My friend Katya is stranded in Spain (this is supposed to sound bad, but somehow it doesn't), reminiscing about Breugel's The Fall of Icarus: " Icarus is drowning in the sea, but no one even notices. Now, people wander the streets with suitcases and backpacks, and life in the city goes on as if nothing happens."

Ruslan, on the other hand, was grounded in Budapest, possibly stranded from a certain point of view. Instead of partying his last 30-something in the city that never sleeps he ended up here. I have to say that this required swift logistical moves on my behalf but I get a kick out of short-notice deadlines (take note of that, potential employers).

This is what we ended up with:

Beef with dried apricots and raisins, with a whiff of cinnamon and orange. It was my first attempt (I have cooked beef no more than three times in my life) and while there is room for improvement it did turn out tasty.

Dangerously good Italian wine--easy to drink, and before you know it you are all slow and fuzzy.

Is there anything more kitsch than heart-shaped objects? Hardly, but this was the best-looking cake around and it tasted yummie (cottage cheese and fruits).

And it was Ejyafjallajökul that has given us this beautiful feast--so do cut him some slack.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Since Thursday my finger has been on the pulse of Earth: I have been following the movements of the omnipresent volcanic ash quite closely. I had a flight to New York to catch on Friday. I had a weekend to spend with Ivailo and Emily. Well, all this didn't happen because of Eyjafjallajokull. John Cleese (Monty Python) reminded me through The Guardian of the saying that if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. Well, after saying this John took a 5,400 $ taxi from Oslo to Brussels.....He must be still making some bugs from the royalties on his films....

I wonder if I should blame the poor guy Eyjafjallajokull (Yesterday I was thinking of the fundamental difference between Icelandic names and other names, take Etna for example) for not having conducted extensive consultations with me if it was a good time to erupt. His behaviour is not at all in the good democratic traditions of proper stakeholder consultation.

If only he had contacted me in advance and invited me for a tea at his place (heated with his own energy) we could have negotiated something and I could have convinced him to wait 24 hours as this was my first trip to New York. I could have persuaded him that there were talks to be talked with Ivailo and Emily, streets to be walked and drinks to be drunk.

There is something flattering to be implicated in such a global affair like the eruption of a volcano. One feels a part of a grand scheme more than usual. This is not any more something that is happening to some people in some airports telling the camera that they haven't showered for 2 days. I am already in the game of global interdependencies.

Friday, April 16, 2010

When it's hard

In the first years after Milosevic was ousted from power, elections were held in Serbia about once every two months and it seemed like the country was in a permanent campaining mode. On every visit we were greeted by yet another round of campaign billboards and Ruslan would ask in astonishment: "What, are you having elections again? But didn't you just have some last time?"

Anyway, during one of those semi-permanent election campaigns, one of Milosevic's former allies-turned dissident, Nebojsa Covic, campaigned under the slogan "Kad je tesko--Covic"
("When it is hard--Covic"), implying that he's the man to take care of difficult situation. He was referring to the fact that he had been appointed to deal with the crisis in Southern Serbia which had the potential to turn into an armed conflict (it did not, but it spilled into Macedonia instead).

It was a cool slogan, although it was not enough for his party to garner enough support. But I was reminded of it when, in a completely unrelated conversation, a friend of mine said that, in difficult moments, his slogan had been "When it is hard--Jelica." I thought that was very sweet and I knew it was true. But the irony of the situation was that, at that moment, I was struggling to keep my head above the water, swamped by issues I had no idea how to deal with, paralyzed by indecision and very much in need of help. But I kept the stiff upper lip because how can I be a reliable friend in need if I am breaking into pieces?

I suppose it is some kind of twisted pride, not wanting to share your worst moments and your weakness with people with whom you would otherwise share everything, and whom you love unconditionally. Maybe it is fear that, after the flood of inevitably banal reality sweeps in, it will be impossible to resume dialogue. I know this might sound strange, it does so even to me as I am writing it. It is a mixture of vanity (living up to expectations) and a Spartan, unsentimental approach to yourself.

As I had jokingly replied to my friend--when it's hard, bite the bullet and carry a lot of paper tissues with you. But I wish to add: and have a few friends around to pass you the tissues and help you wipe the snots, without anyone being ashamed or feeling embarrassed.

Not much of a Spartan, eh?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Do pandas go to heaven?

Boris is concerned about dying. He was watching television with grandma last time we were in Lazarevac and he saw a scene from a war movie in which the Germans shot dead a whole bunch of school kids (based on a true WWII event in Kragujevac). I didn't even know that he saw something like that (I wasn't at home) and he never mentioned it at the time. But the other day he started sobbing incontrollably, saying "I don't want to die" and it became clear that he remembered that movie scene and that it had frightened him.

I tried to reassure him by saying that he is just a little boy, he will grow to be an old man and then die, as we all will, but that didn't help one bit--he kept crying. I had a frantic mental search for a better explanation when he asked, through tears:

"When I die, how long am I going to lie on the floor? Is it going to be very long?"

"No, when you die, you will go to heaven."

"What is heaven?"

"That is where your grandpa is. We go to heaven when we die" (she says, biting her agnostic lips)

That seemed to have done the trick, but only for a minute before another round of whining.

"But how am I going to get to heaven? I can't fly!"

Here I had to introduce the concept of the soul, praying that he wouldn't press further, but he seemed somewhat relieved that the flying issue has been resolved in such a simple way. I also had to reassure him that he would not hit his head against the clouds on the way up because clouds are soft.

He wasn't entirely convinced about any of that, though. Clearly, something else was bothering him and, sure enough, another round of sobs starts.

"But I don't want to die! I will miss my panda... Panda can't come with me to heaven...I don't want to die..."

Just imagine that prospect: an entire eternity without your faithful panda by your side. It is just too much for a boy to bear.

There was only one way to alleviate this angst--I promised him that panda, too, will join him in heaven. He was still a bit suspicious about the logistics of it, but then he finally smiled and you could see how deeply relieved he was. I was, too, and the more I think about it, the more I see it from his point of view: what kind of heaven is that if it doesn't have pandas in it?