Some time back one of my daughters accompanied me down to the basement on an errand, and caught a glimpse through an open door into a small room we never use. As it’s pretty much abandoned the spiders have free reign, and the place is full of cobwebs. It obviously made an impression as she kept talking about “The Spider Room”, and her elder sister became envious and demanded to see it for herself (perhaps reminded by last weekend’s trip to the spider show at the African museum).
Today as I was working from home she asked again, so once she’d fulfilled her part of the bargain (finishing her homework) I took a ten minute break and took her downstairs for a look. In addition to the expected cobwebs and musty smell, after a while I spotted a spider. Or at least, what I thought was a spider. What puzzled me was that it was bright white.
I guessed it was an empty, dessicated spider corpse. But as I looked closer, I realised that the ceilings and walls were covered with these ghost spiders, just hanging there as if left behind by Miss Havisham.
The photos are a little misleading as in fact it’s almost pitch black in there, and only the magic of Photoshop allows us to see anything at all.
This is now probably the coolest room in our house.
Last week I had a birthday. No, I’m not going to tell you which one (although if you’re reading this you probably already know) but it was a significant one. Significant enough to warrant a four day trip to Budapest while the in-laws stayed home to look after the kids. Here are a few of the things we saw and did there.
Our hotel offered rooms with “Danube View (TM)”, and sure enough there it is, with the Chain Bridge (the first bridge to link the towns Buda and Pest).
On our first afternoon we saw the main shopping street (full of tourist tat shops and Thai massage parlours) and the Central Market (more on that in the next post, about the food).
The next day it was time for the serious culture and history stuff. We started with the synagogue, which is the second largest in the world after one in New York.
In the courtyard at the back was a metal weeping willow.
Names and dates were inscribed on individual leaves.
There was another beautifully designed and evocative Holocaust memorial off to one side.
Wandering the streets nearby we found Szimpla Kert, the most famous of Budapest’s “ruin pubs“. We weren’t really in the mood for boozing, and it wasn’t the best time of day to get a feel for the atmosphere of the place, but we popped inside anyway for a look.
It’s huge and full of a bewildering variety of bric-a-brac. It reminded me of a friend’s house in London which I crashed in for a few months in the mid-nineties.
In the afternoon we walked up Andrassy Street until we reached number 60, also known as Terror House. The building where the Communist authorities used to detain, torture and execute dissidents has been converted into a museum detailing their practices.
It’s not pretty stuff, but it is interesting, and well laid out. There are a lot of photos and videos (some, but not all, subtitled in English), and an information sheet in both languages for each room.
This room didn’t require any clarification.
There was some (relatively) light relief in the Communist Propaganda room. I especially like the farmer explaining the Five Year Plan to his pigs.
Once you’ve finished with the upper floors a lift takes you down to the basement. When you step inside the lights go out and as the lift descends painfully slowly a video screen shows an interview with the house executioner, explaining his working methods.
This part of the exhibition has extra impact as you know that this is no mere reconstruction, but these are actually the rooms where these things happened.
A ledge on the outside of the building hosts photos and candles to commemorate the victims.
Outside we took the metro. Budapest has the third oldest underground railway in the world after London and Liverpool, and it has remained small and quaint, all wrought iron, wood and tile.
One of the main attractions of Budapest for many is the baths. I’m not really into spas, although I’m happy to relax in a pool of hot water given the chance, so we headed to the Gellert hotel, home to the most famous baths. It’s a beautiful building, but a poorly signposted labyrinth inside, and the main pool is freezing cold. Still, we managed to find some hot pools to soak in, and as it was a weekday afternoon it was relatively quiet; just me and a Karl Marx lookalike.
Later we tried another one: Szechenyi, which was larger, with a larger variety of hotter pools. It was also crowded (this was a Saturday afternoon) with young snoggy couples and American tourists regaling each other with tales of drunken excess across the capitals of Europe.
On the third day we visited St. Stephen’s Basilica. The star exhibit is the mummified right hand of St. Stephen (first king of Hungary) himself.
We passed by the iconic Parliament buidling, but had missed one of the English guided tours and didn’t fancy waiting around an hour for the next one.
On our last day we crossed the river and took the funicular up to Fisherman’s Bastion for the views across the city.
There’s certainly plenty we didn’t have time for (I was particularly keen to see Memento Park, but it wasn’t to be), so I can envisage going back at some point.
This morning a tweet from Drew McWeeny caught my eye. He’s subsequently deleted that tweet, so I can’t quote it exactly, but he was commenting on the recent election results in France and Greece, and he said something about both France and Greece having elected Neo-nazis. I (and several others, I think) replied that France had in fact just elected a socialist president. He replied apologising for the confusion. It seems he had read a comment from someone else which confused socialism with National Socialism, put two and two together and came up with Nazi. He tweeted a retraction, so no harm done.
What stayed with me for a while afterwards was the hashtag he’d put on the original tweet. Again, as he’s deleted it I’m relying on my own, not exactly fautless memory, but it was something like #notagoodtimetovisiteurope.
Now I’m sure he put this on with tongue in cheek. I don’t think he or anyone else would seriously turn down the chance to visit France solely because a right-wing government had been elected. Or would he? Would you? As a tourist, does it make a difference to your enjoyment of exploring a country if you have major ideological differences with the current administration?
I’ve heard people say in the past that they didn’t want to visit a particular country because they didn’t want to support or appear to condone an oppressive regime, as if visiting, say, China means that you’re turning a blind eye to their human rights violations. I have two problems with this. One, people travel to foreign lands on holiday for many reasons, like a desire to see a different culture, see their monuments and landscape, meet the people, eat the food. No one I know thinks to themselves “I approve of Sweden’s progressive government, which is why I’m going to fund them with my tourist pounds/dollars/euros”. Two, even if you say that you don’t want any of your money to go, however indirectly, to a government with which you disagree, then you’re going to have to be very careful with your shopping. Object to China? Try buying a consumer product which isn’t made there. Issues with Israel? Pay attention to where your fruit and veg comes from. Not easy, is it? And, I’d argue, not very effective either. If you look hard enough you can find something to object to in pretty much any country you can name, but I don’t see that as a reason to stay home.
In fact I’d say that it makes it all the more important for people to go there and interact with the locals, exchange ideas, and spend your money there. After all, some of your money may end up in government coffers, but some of it will also benefit the people who may desperately need it and who aren’t necessarily to blame for the state of their country.
I despise Silvio Berlusconi and everything he stands for, but that didn’t stop me living in Italy for a year and visiting regularly afterwards. I went to the US last year, but if I’d decided to go a few years earlier I don’t think the presence of George W. Bush in the White House would have put me off. Now there are some places I’d think would be fascinating to visit but feel that I can’t simply for safety reasons. I’m thinking of various places in the Middle East and Africa. And there are places like North Korea which would also be interesting but where the restrictions imposed on tourists are so heavy and the freedom to move around, take photos and ask questions is so limited as to almost defeat the object of travelling there.
But politics is usually a fairly transient thing and often increasingly removed from the inhabitants’ day-to-day lives, and I don’t think it should constitue a serious barrier to those wishing to broaden their minds and expand their horizons through travel.
“In Mrs Song’s home, as in every other, a framed portrait of Kim Il-Sung hung on an otherwise bare wall. People were not permitted to put anything else on that wall, not even pictures of their blood relatives. Kim Il-Sung was all the family you needed – at least until the 1980s, when portraits of Kim Jong-Il, named secretary of the Workers’ Party, were hung alongside those of his father. Later came a third portrait, of the father and son together. The North Korean newspapers liked to run “human interest stories” about heroic citizens who lost their lives rescuing the portraits from fire or flood. The Workers’ Party distributed the portraits free of charge along with a white cloth to be stored in a box beneath them. It could be used only to clean the portraits. This was especially important during the rainy season, when specks of mold would creep under the glass frame. About once a month, inspectors from the Public Standards Police would drop by to check on the cleanliness of the portraits.”
Nothing To Envy: Real Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick
As we entered the ballet school with our two daughters, we noticed a small (about 4 years old) girl in the regulation pink dress and tutu, lurking in the hall, crying. Obviously there for the same class as our daughters, we tried to coax her up the stairs to the class, but she refused to budge. Another parent said that they’d seen the mother drive up to the school, let her daughter out and shoo her towards the door, and then drive off. And apparently when other people had opened the door to go in this little girl had even tried to walk back out and onto the street.
We called down one of the school staff and he managed to persuade her to come up to the class. I hope he gave her mother a good talking to when she came to pick her up an hour later…
I remembered this song recently when I was drafting a (subsequently abandoned) blog post on ’80s nuclear paranoia pop. The kind of scenario shown in this video was much discussed in the media and classrooms when I was a child, often framed by the question “What would you do if you heard the four-minute warning?”
Some wag would always reply “Have sex four times!”
“Spain’s state health system is a command economy. My view of it is, of course, largely subjective. Once you have got beyond primary care, you are there to do as you are told. You fill out this form, stand in that queue, and remember that el doctor or la doctora knows best. Spaniards are normally wonderful, imaginative abusers of bureaucracy or rules of any kind. Given the chance they will charm, cheat or bulldoze their way through them. Stand them in front of a man or a woman in a white coat, however, and they go meekly wherever they are led. Doctors, pharmacists and even the owners of healthfood shops – who have adopted the uniform to hide their quackery – are all treated with a degree of respect, even awe, that their counterparts elsewhere could only dream of.”
I can’t comment on the assessment of the Spanish psyche, but it does seem to me that the author’s Englishness is colouring his view of attitudes in his adopted home. In other words, it’s not so much that Spaniards trust and respect their doctors as the fact that the English mistrust and avoid their own. I’m lucky enough to get free annual health checks through my job in Brussels, and my experiences with the Belgian health system have been more than satisfactory, but it’s true that back in the UK I pretty much never went to the doctor as an adult, and never once went to hospital. I’m very lucky in that I almost never get seriously ill, have no inherited defects and have never been involved in a major accident, but I’d also be more wary of using UK hospitals compared to their continental European equivalents due to the way they seems to be organised, run and funded (or rather, not funded).
But there’s something else behind my (and Giles’, and, I suspect, all Englishmen’s) attitude to doctors. If an Englishman’s home is his castle, then his body is the most secret, private room in that castle, and very few people are ever admitted therein. Allowing a stranger in a white coat to prod, poke, intrude and investigate is, for us, the ultimate invasion of privacy, and is only to be borne under the most pressing of circumstances. It reminds me of the relationship between the king and his doctor in The Madness Of George III, when the monarch becomes increasingly incensed by the medic’s impertinent questions about his health and sternly informs him that the colour of a man’s water is no-one’s business but his own.
Night. Aliens are invading, but they are nowhere to be seen. Instead, they are using some kind of ray to weaken the population first by robbing them of their senses. I run out into the street to find many people milling around, going blind. I find a woman who used to work with me as a police officer. I test her sight by asking her to tell me how many fingers I’m holding up. She gets it right, but I can tell that she’s just guessing. She knows me well so she knows how many fingers I’m likely to hold up. I draw the outline of a top hat-wearing snowman in the air and ask her what it is. She says “Snow…”, but again I’m not convinced – she’s going blind, like everyone else.
Later we’re queuing inside a rather dingy, run-down burger bar. People are docile and zombie-like, and although the alien-sense-stealing crisis is still going on in the background, we need something to eat. One man in the queue is talking to an old, rather stern woman who works there. He challenges her on the healthiness of the food they serve. She points out that they have a couple of salads on the menu, but he laughs this off as tokenism.
Later, back outside, most people are now blind, and many are now deaf too. I wonder whether they’ve also lost their sense of touch, or taste. Then a man walking towards me stops in his tracks and falls forward flat onto his face. The end is coming. People everywhere start collapsing, although I and one other person remain unaffected. Then I and this other person find ourselves pulled along the road by an invisible force, as if we’re being collected by a hovering alien mothership while the rest of the population perishes.
Then I wake up.
A prediction of the impending Rapture? Or simply the result of seeing a couple of apocalyptic science fiction movies (Knowing at the cinema and The Day The Earth Stood Still on the plane back from Mauritius) recently?
“Regular people have an ability to hide their true feelings just to be able to get along with others in the world” – and Kenji used the word tatemae to express the skill of mastering a false face. “I just can’t find the value in doing that. Since I want to tell others what I really think, I guess you could say I’m not good at communicating with people”.
I’d never considered myself someone who was particularly good at standing up in front of a large group of people and talking, although it was something I had to get used to while teaching English in Italy, and I’m generally ok as long as I have some idea what I’m talking about. Talking last night to a friend who’s a member of Toastmasters reminded me of an experience I had during that period in Genoa.
Most of my teaching schedule was taken up with individuals and small groups who came to the school where I worked for lunchtime or evening classes, but occasionally the school would offer us work “outside”, and one day they proposed that I go to a nearby college and speak to a group of students about English poetry, as a supplement to their English language course. They already had a text book, so the idea was that I’d just sit with a small group of them and read and discuss the poem. Once you get to a certain level of language learning lessons essentially become long conversations anyway, with occasional interruptions to clarify points of grammar or vocabulary, so no real preparation seemed necessary.
I arrived and found the relevant room. The first shock: This was not a seminar room for a small group of people to sit and have a discussion around a table – this was a lecture hall with dozens of rows of seats all facing a desk and a blackboard. Then the teacher responsible arrived, and it emerged that this was not a small discussion group at all – this was an occasion for about 100 students to sit and listen to me talk at them for about an hour.
Panic. I grabbed a spare copy of their textbook and frantically flicked through it so as to find something to talk about. Finally – salvation! Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” - a poem I knew well from my own school days. I scribbled a few notes as the Italian teenagers filed into the room, took a deep breath, and started. I read the entire poem, as slowly as I dared, and then started a line-by-line analysis. Were they bored? I didn’t care. I just wanted to manage to keep talking until it was over and then get the hell out. I tried to make it a little more appealing and less dry by dropping in some contemporary references which might bring it to life a little for them, and accentuating the sexual jealousy aspects. I even managed to coax a few responses when I posed questions or asked them for their own interpretations. At the end, having exhausted all possible aspects, I filled the last ten minutes with another snail’s pace read-through.
Somehow the hour passed, and I was actually pretty pleased with my performance. The students filed out again, and the teacher came up to me and told me how interesting she had found it.
Then another group of about 100 students filed in, and I had to do the whole thing all over again. I managed to pretty much repeat my entire improvised lecture, with a few minor variations. Again the teacher thanked me, and I returned to my school, where I informed the administration that things had gone very well thank you, and could they please find someone else to do it from now on as I had no intention of going back.
Not my usual kind of story, but I was attracted by the "expat Yanks in Luxemburg" angle, and this was indeed the most interesting part of the story for me.
First and foremost it's a spy thriller, albeit a fairly leisurely and un-thrill...
I've marked this as non-fiction, although really it's a hybrid. I normally don't have much time for this kind of mix, but Spufford pulls it off brilliantly, his poetic prose and psychological insight breathing life into what is essential...
Equal parts entertaining and frustrating. Frustrating because the plot, such as it is, proceeds in fits and starts, rambling along over 470 pages when it could have been tighter and more tense cut to under 300. The villain and his plan a...
Inevitably slightly less than satisfying as a book, consisting, as it does, of scraps and bits and half an unfinished novel, this is nevertheless interesting for Adams fans, genuinely funny in places, and a good overview of his writings ...
Pleasant enough, bite-sized, fact-filled nuggets of food history. Presumably aimed at the UK market, as the only mention of non-European food is a couple of chapters relating to the origins of dishes found in Chinese and Indian takeaways...
A war story in which the ideas take precedence over the combat scenes, which is fine by me. Characterisation takes a back seat too while the author works through rather dry discussions of the nature of democracy and the eternal tension b...
On the surface a relatively simple story of one man and his relationship with his therapist, this swiftly evolves into a surreal, complex and spectacular yet always deeply thoughtful book, as much concerned with the ethical aspects of it...
Compelling and eye-opening. I knew pretty much nothing about the subject matter beforehand, beyond having read Heart of Darkness at school, and Hochschild's comprehensive yet intimate approach, contrasting plentiful historical perspectiv...
Vampires bore me, as a rule. Fortunately they don't turn up until later on in this novel, giving the author the time to establish characters and milieu to the extent that when things did turn gory and fantastical I was willing to go with...
Important reading, for a number of reasons. It's split into two halves; the first tackling the increased "pornification" of the mainstream media, and the spread of the idea that stripping, lap-dancing and even prostitution are now to be ...