A loose thread

I counted the coins left in my hand on the escalator – 345 florins – around £1. Most of the shops after check-in were selling water for twice that amount, but just when I’d resigned myself to carrying a pocket of coins back with me I found a bottle of Natur Aqua for the exact amount. It’s the dull story of a travel bore, but for it also symbolised for me a certain round completeness to the trip.

It was a trip of two cities, split over two weeks, with two weather systems and two moods for me. That two left me with a roundness – the peak and trough of a waveform taking me right back to where I started from. Except after two weeks of space, reflection, growth – it’s never the same place.

The first week was expansive as I got a taste of the travel bug, the possibilities of a new city and the freedom of having my own apartment after years of sharing. Around lunchtime I would head to the famous and fabulous Bar Szimpla to drink good strong coffee – where a latte is more of a machiatto – and use the wifi in the bohemium courtyard catching a splinter of sunlight as it dashed overhead between the tall buildings.

The buildings of Budapest are super-sized, with an ornate grandeur that reveals just how powerful the Austro-Hungarian empire must have been at its height, and it makes a strange contrast with the often impoverished citizens at their feet. I found the scale of the buildings a bit much, to be honest, which was why discovering the city park early on – blossoming an explosion of autumn colour – was such a relief. Here there were a kind of horse chestnut that looked like a brain, as big as a grapefruit.

Other than my first rainy day – that first week had brilliant blue skies every day, which was replaced with grey skies and showers the day I moved to the second AirBNB apartment. The apartment two was an opposite – the area much poorer, found beyond a grey walk from the station and not a tourist in site or earshot. There were no recycling bins at the entrance to the apartment courtyard and the view from my window was a brick wall.

But the charms were different – my neighbour, the father of the host, is a comic book writer and collector, offering me a vodka and showing me his signed copy of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, on the first night. The city park, Sczerny Baths and cinema were much nearer – and without a bar voted one of the best in the world by Lonely Planet on my doorstep I could get on with some of the more mundane tasks I’d set myself, like totalling up my receipts. And the Szrney Baths – which I only made it to once – were something else. Circuiting from 50 degree sauna, to plunge pool, to 60 degree, to plunge pool, and so on up to 80, then a swim outside in the naturally heated pool, then back taking the sauna up to 100 – and leaving feeling like I’d take a cocktail of unknown drugs, barely able to walk.

But it was lonelier – the 20 minute walk to my favourite bar would be followed by a somewhat sorry-for-myself traipse back home. I considered the fabric of life and how to be part of it you need to be woven into its warp and weft – over and under and over under all around you, and when cut off from that, you can become a loose thread. Who wants to be lint on the fabric of life?

But I reminded myself I’d wanted this – to get away from the friends and socialising that could normally stop me from reflecting on deeper issues and I passed thru it, with, on my penultimate-day, a greater sense of resilience and perspective and balance. I went that night alone to a couple of bars – and seeing a musician from Louisiana I recognised from the previous week, drunk, danced, talked politics and realised how different we were.

So it would have been possible to see the second week as greyer, wetter, more dour – but it felt exactly right – for it rounded out the tourist experience I had in my first week, making the two halfs whole.

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And I do not know how to say Thank You yet

At some point while I was in mid air, Cameron and Salmond signed a referendum agreement. It seemed appropriate somehow, as a yes vote would make me as much as a foreigner in Scotland as I am in Budapest. And if Britain were to leave Europe, as one of the crazy cabinet had just suggested, I might have to get myself out fast, before my fair home dies from the cold.

I worked thru a copy of the New Scientist on the plane. It was classic New Scientist – cover story announces that the grand unified answer has finally been found. The article turns out to be an interesting exploration of a branch of physics, finishing with the ‘possibly this could lead to a new way of unifying the four laws of physics with quantum theory’. It was about thermodynamics and the second law which as a youngster I felt sure must be wrong. Indignantly I cried – but a brick is more ordered than a swamp, a house more ordered than a brick, a book more ordered than a million conversations that led to it. But growing up, like a man accepting at last that he grows old, I can fight the second law no more.

The article suggested time was just a unit of entropy, a marker to designate the ever increase complexity, again like an aged brain filled with more thoughts and regrets than a young one. Maybe that’s why we yearn to stay young, and why as soon as their child is grown up a parent wants grandchildren from them, so they can hang out with such a low-entropy being once more. Maybe not. For when the sun shines – as it did on day 3 – I remember that the second law refers to closed systems. The earth is far from closed, and as the sun pounds us with her power every second, when the clouds are parted, there’s no risk of heat death for a few billion more years. Keep it grey and cloudy for a month, and it feels like there’s only so much juice to go round, and what there is must be conserved. So if I must live somewhere as an expat, not a native, maybe one with a steady supply of sunshine.

I’ve chosen to explore a new kind of life, after a year or two of alarm bells regularly ringing as I slip into an aging, balding, widening monotone of tech support peppered with occasional speaking engagements and tempered by bouts of excess. Instead I want to try out one where I work and travel at the same time. I want to see more of the world and – except for a meeting every once in a while – I work only from my laptop. AirBNB makes it cost not much more to rent an appartment than I was paying for my flat and office in Glasgow. And I get to see the world and taste a bit of that ek-stasis – movement – ecstasy.

It’s an experiment. That’s why I’m blogging it.

So I got off the plane, lost in thoughts about entropy, dopey from too little sleep and suddenly aware that I didn’t know a single word of Hungarian, not even ‘thank you’. I’d downloaded two free aps earlier – Lingapol Lite and En-Hu Free and while I stood in the wait for baggage I took a look. En-Hu Free was a dictionary, useful, but not the phrases I needed. Lingapol gave me ‘essentials’ for free and I could upgrade with more complex phrases if I needed. The interface was straightforward – and soon, with relief, I learnt that Helló means Hello and that goodbye sounds like ‘see ya’. But there’s no numbers or how to ask for a coffee so I paid 69p for the upgrade. All those other aps that asked for me to pay up-front may have been better, but I got to taste enough of the developers’ skills to not think twice about it.

Still, I spent my first 24 hours speaking little, ashamed to be so lingually lacking. But then I noticed that a lot of the people speaking in English weren’t Brits and Americans – they were Europeans too. It’s far more likely that a Croatian and a Dutch woman will both speak English together and – I’m not sure why I’d never noticed this before on all my travels – I realised how lucky I was to speak that language. It’s a bit like carrying travellers cheques. The music in the shops, from Queen to any number of obscure indie bands – even the (amazing) Hungarian band I saw on my second night, mixed Hungarian rapping with soulful verses in English. We have such an inferiority complex us Brits that some tend to compensate with bravado swagger, but we don’t need to. People here seem to like that I am from England, which is quite a novel experience.

I did have a bit of a moment tho, as I tried to find my way to the flat. I get on the bus OK. Spent a while at the bus station trying to find the metro station, and find only a ticket machine which takes coins. I return to a shopping centre to break my 1000f note, go back to the machine, seem to have lost the coins, and go thru my pockets a dozen times to try and find them. I listen to the conversations like they will start to make sense to me but they are indecipherable. I try to read the signs and notices like I might guess how to pronounce them but I’m lost. I realise I am quite a stranger here. So I go back to the shopping centre to change another note and – tho I’ve avoided Tesco’s for some years – fall into the superstore like it was home. George Michael plays and even that is welcome. It’s remarkable – there’s Tesco’s Finest and Value and tortelini packs and ready meals with english names. I wonder around now, so tired and my brain so exhausted from having taken too much in, that I zombie around the aisles with my wheely suitcase. There’s Kettle crisps and Warbuttons and Lurpack Organic, and never have I felt so happy to see brands I know.

The irony that a year to the day after the start of the European Occupy movement, I’m finding brands as the one common language that helps me connect with this foreign world. It made me think what my great-uncle Ernest, had pointed out the day before. In reference to the Nobel price he put it simply – “after centuries of fighting, European countries were getting better and better at having wars with each other, and in the last one 60 million people died [2.5% of the world population]. So the European project was just to make absolutely sure that we were all so connected thru trade that it could never happen again.”

Maybe Milliband was right, and capitalism is the ‘least worse’ system we have, in that it encourages countries separated by traumatic history and language, to work with each other. And maybe it’s changing into something different now, a kind of networked capitalism that is much less hierarchical and more-decentralised – because that’s how the web works, both culturally and technically, and the web’s the only growth area left.

I make it to the flat – which also speaks the international language of Ikea, tho thankfully with a local accent. It’s perfect, this is what I need. A place to write, a city to walk in, and few excuses to go home. Very grateful, even if running out of cash.

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"Don't make us feel small. Remind us to be larger."

"From another perspective, the news is not good at all. Everybody's miserable. Everybody's had about enough. People are sick to death of being valued only as potential buyers, as monetary grist for some modern-day satanic mill.

They're sick of working for organizations that treat them as if they didn't exist, then attempt to sell them the very stuff they themselves produced. Why is a medium that holds such promise — to connect, to inspire, to awaken, to enlist, to change — being used by companies as a conduit for the kind of tired lies that have characterized fifty years of television? Business has made a ventriloquist's trick of the humanity we take for granted. The sham is ludicrous. The corporation pretends to speak, but its voice is that of a third-rate actor in a fourth-rate play, uttering lines no one believes in a manner no one respects.

Oh well. That's OK. We'll get by. We've got each other.

I have to laugh as I write that. The Internet audience is a strange crew, to be sure. But we're not talking about some Woodstock lovefest here. We don't all need to drop acid and get naked. We don't need to pledge our undying troth to each other, or to the Revolution, or to the bloody Cluetrain Manifesto for that matter. And neither does business.

All we need to do is what most of us who've discovered this medium are already doing: using it to connect with each other, not as representatives of corporations or market segments, but simply as who we are... Tell us some good stories and capture our interest. Don't talk to us as if you've forgotten how to speak. Don't make us feel small. Remind us to be larger. Get a little of that human touch."

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What Gurinder Chadha Should Do Next

Gurinder Chadha has had a long career directing very successful films since her breakthrough with 1994’s Bhaji on the Beach.

In an industry that is notoriously slanted to male and middle class she has managed to maintain a steady career giving opportunities to Indian actors to have choice parts that rarely come to those working in movies and television (see Eastenders and Coronation street for racial stereotyping). While riding the Asian wave with such artists as Talvin Singh and the Goodness Gracious team there is still under representation in the media and a lack of diversity to bring a new generation of artists. Hit films like Bend it Like Beckham and It’s a Wonderful Afterlife bring to the mainstream Indian culture and mannerisms with all their eccentricities and are funny but Ms Chadha has been treading the same water for the last few films which gives it a samey albeit funny feel. You could say the same about Woody Allen doing the same thing but he is now a poor imitation of himself with a dire catalogue of his last few releases. Her next film should have Indian characters interacting with the British with no self-conscious regard to race, just a bold strong story whether it is drama or comedy. American cinema and television have achieved great success in stories that go beyond gender and race in the strong line-up of television dramas. Getting typecast for these kind of films is not good for the British industry as other Asians who are trying to make it will still be ghettoised and moving into another genre shows diversity and broadening of directorial talents and lets the industry know that diversity can also be a talent thing.

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