Friday, 21 April 2017

Budapest is...



High expectations. Every neighbour and chubby bartender and fellow morning dog-walker giving recommendations, predicting you’ll have the time of your life.

Waking up surrounded by strangers in the same hostel room, travellers from cities you’ve only heard of. And yet, you cross paths, each assigned an old metal bunk with what you can only hope are fresh sheets.

Pints for pennies.

A capital city with the air of a suburban village, bare boulevards and space to walk, talk, laugh, dream.

Midnight boat rides; parliament buildings that sparkle like the champagne swallowed. Corks float on the river, lingers of a night worth remembering.

Decades of history, sad, sad history, disguised with a breath of modernity. A museum making a tourist attraction out of torture chambers. A Starbucks on the exact corner a man was shot dead. A Burger King marking the spot tanks parked before their massacre.

Constant calculator use, checking and rechecking conversion rates to confirm that an entire meal costs a quarter of what you would pay at home. It does.

Free walking tours with guides that grin as they spill secrets that, for them, are obvious, guide you down avenues they could walk with their eyes closed. You keep yours wide open, staring at that which is at once so new for some and old for others.

Clubs in caves, dancing with sweaty strangers to music that you don’t remember knowing the lyrics to. And yet you scream every word.

Locals who smile despite your obvious confusion, or perhaps because of your obvious confusion. They point and gesture while you utter hello instead of thank you, swap yes for no because that’s the first thing that comes to mind.

Late nights that lighten into lazy mornings of mild headaches, fresh coffee and wandering without direction.

Snippets of Vienna, Paris, London, Barcelona: a city that borrows the best from others and moulds it into its own.

Finding familiarity in the unfamiliar. Planning another visit to remedy the first having ended. Having the time of your life.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Lives apart


He sat on the opposite aisle, one row in front of me. The bald patch on his head had the same shape and shine as a ceramic plate fresh out of the dishwasher. Around circled patches of hair that seemed to have grown grey from the scalp, rather than whitened with age. As if he were a boy born with the wisdom of a man. And, though he can’t have been born with the earring (a silver disk in the lobe of his left ear), he wore it like it was second nature. A personality trait, not an accessory.

***

The earring didn’t look like it had been his mother’s idea. Perhaps it was a secret kept from her, a tired and wrinkled woman waiting for her son to come home, olive eyes a magnet to the kitchen window. She’d been baking all afternoon – warm wafts of bread lined the cracks in the walls and holes in the ceiling.

“What took you so long?” She asked with open arms. He came closer - her rosy cheeks paled as his white ears crimsoned. “What do you call that?” The silver disk was as much of a staple as her son’s smile: both gleamed with mischief.  

“A fashion statement,” he said.

Burnt bread has a very distinctive smell.

***

Perhaps it had been peer pressure - the cigarettes and vodka shots of forty years ago. In a group of three friends, one always feels like they have to prove themselves.

“Not afraid of a needle are you?”

“I’ll do it if you do it first.”

“We’ll be like the Three Musketeers.”

Teenage boys are all talk. Their words inflated like balloons, popped by the mere stab of a needle. Two friends unsure what to do with themselves. The third still didn’t belong.

“We didn’t think you’d actually agree to it.”

***

Perhaps he was trying to bond with his daughter, searching for his feminine side to disguise his disappointment in his first-born not being a son.

“Daddy, will you get one too?”

“I don’t think Daddy would suit an earring very well, darling.”

Little girls always get what they want. Twenty minutes later, daddy and daughter walked out with three piercings, her two silver stars centred, his slightly lower, somewhat crooked. He had an odd earlobe, he’d learnt.

***

There we both sat, hungry yet bloated from travelling, coffee-breathed but craving more caffeine. Not just a row but an entire lifetime apart. Passengers of the same low budget airline whose paths happened to coincide. His earring twinkled under the plane’s artificial lights. His smile, directed at his daughter, did too.


Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Spotted: Central Park


A couple still discovering each other’s birthmarks and bad habits, sprawled over a plaid picnic mat dotted with breadcrumbs and chocolate stains. She smells of vanilla, he sprayed extra deodorant.

Fathers sprinting after their son’s baseballs, legs buckling and breath panting but smile static, constant, a homerun.

Fresh paint licking a canvas, the painter’s cheeks as textured as his picture, wrinkles sculpted into his skin.

A mutual smile between a dog and its owner, faces alike like they often become between those who live together.

Sweat droplets and the thick smell of sun cream. Shirtless men absorbing afternoon rays, proud of their sagging skin and beer-bellies.

Wafts of fried onions, plump white buns and sausages that sizzle.
“Ketchup or mustard?”
“Both.”

Breakups, private tears becoming public.

Scratched knees and bruised elbows, unstable kids on roller-skates, learning the art of balance.
“I won’t let go.”
They always let go.

Yoga poses, limbs bent and held in ways that seem unnatural. People, young and old, learning from each other.  

Coins sinking to the bottom of fountains, heavy with the weight of their wishes.

First kisses, slow and awkward. Tiptoes and sore necks, unsure where best to place palms.

The sharp crunch of leaves beneath tyres as bikes zig-zag through morning jogs and afternoon strolls.

Bare branches and white ice, rink dotted with couples and parents whose children remembered their promises. Cameras flash, memories captured, left to linger on mantelpieces and beneath fridge magnets.

Snippets of conversations condensing through frost-filled air, Chinese words wafting between Russian, Spanish, Arabic.

The rumbles of the surrounding city, millions of lives co-existing, sharing streets and sidewalks, injecting their own “new” into New York.

Horses clicking and clacking over pavements they know by memory, their hooves tattooed onto the cement.

Men in ironed suits, some with paper cups of black coffee, others with a cigarette hanging from their lips. One eye checks their watch, the other refreshes their email.

Coins being pulled out of the bottoms of fountains: children craving an extra penny out of greed, the homeless out of need.

Guitar strums and raspy voices, pencil sketches and notebook scribbles, self-taught jugglers and toned tap dancers. Doers and dreamers.

Another new couple, fingertips tickling each other’s cheeks, smiles crooked like the park’s daffodils, just beginning to bloom.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Public privacy


If you want to understand someone, ask them to empty their bag – be it their patent leather purse, briefcase or backpack. Or, on the likely chance that they refuse, wait until its unattended, when you’ve been trusted to keep an eye out while they nip to the toilet, and rummage around in secret. Turn it upside down so you can get to know them inside out.

Find ripped receipts, those lingering reminders of money that would be better left unspent. Lip balms that’d long been labelled lost, foreign coins, loose pieces of spearmint gum, wrappers stained with guilt and milk chocolate remains.

A grandmother’s ring, sachets of white sugar, a yellow crayon, a misshapen almond, a makeup wipe stained black with last week’s mascara, a broken cigarette, a pink highlighter missing its lid, a glasses case (with no glasses inside), an old cinema ticket, expired vouchers, a safety pin, more sachets of white sugar, a lighter with no fluid, a giant paperclip, another receipt, a pair of rusty tweezers, a tampon, a mini paperclip, bills that have yet to be paid, stained with coffee and dusted with cracker crumbs.

Search “What’s in my Bag?” on YouTube and you’ll be bombarded with about 20,700,000 results. Ten-minute long videos of the conventional wallet, water bottle, car keys, house keys, maybe an odd lipstick or hairclip. The spotless, censored version - an assortment that ceases to be embarrassing, but one that also isn’t true. Devoid of unwashed socks, one that shows the fresh pack of tissues but hides the loose used ones from view.   

Make sure to be done at least a minute or two before they’re back, enough time for you to be scrolling through your phone and for their mismatched items to settle back into those places they’ve chosen for themselves.

For each expired bus ticket and fridge magnet is part of their everyday (bag)gage. Private belongings that we dare to carry around in public.