BUDAPEST’S only Scottish pub, the Caledonia, has SPL football pennants strung up around its walls (Motherwell FC – ‘Live the Dream’), Belhaven beer pumps on the bar and ‘The Edin-burger’ on its menu.
So far, so predictable. But in their Johnny Walker Whisky Room, something a bit special is happening. On two tables, volunteers are sorting through a mountain of toothpaste, soap, razors, wet wipes and shampoo, making them into small aid packages. Behind them, more helpers are making sandwiches or stacking babies’ nappies and bottled water. They’re working fast and efficiently because this is an emergency.
Budapest has a refugee crisis and the Hungarian government doesn’t want to know. In fact it’s running a billboard campaign demonizing refugees and associating them with terrorism. The Mayor of Budapest isn’t interested. Saddest of all, the local churches and even official charities like the Hungarian Red Cross have turned their backs. The only people doing anything to help are a group of concerned citizens who call themselves Migration Aid. Their unofficial donation centre is the Caledonia. Its red-headed co-owner, Zsuzsanna Bozo, worked in Edinburgh for four years before returning to Hungary to open her Scottish bar. She was passing Budapest’s main railway station two weeks ago when she saw a dozen refugee mothers with little children sprawled on the steps in 37 degree heat. “They were hungry and exhausted. They had fled for their lives from Syria and Afghanistan. Some had been travelling for months, walking hundreds of miles. My first thought was to buy them all ice creams. But what good would that do? I met some of Migration Aid’s workers outside the station and decided to offer them as much space as we could in the Caledonia.”
I’d seen the problem for myself the day before. My wife and I brought a bag of bottled water and granola bars to the train station to give the refugees. Within minutes, we had been given jobs. My wife became a guide and interpreter to an Afghan man who’d lost all his friends. She took him to the other railway station and reunited them. “He had no English or Hungarian, he just kept putting his hand on his heart to say thank you.” Then she met a doctor who was looking after one 12-year-old boy who had travelled from Afghanistan with his whole family. He had arrived in Budapest alone. Some of his family had been killed on the way. He didn’t know whether the others were alive or dead.
Back at the station, I was put to work giving cups of cold water to the new arrivals. I talked to one Afghan man called Ahmed who spoke perfect English. He had been an interpreter for the US Army. “My work was to teach soldiers in the National Afghan Army how to use American weapons like the M16 machine-gun. The Taliban found out. They put a notice on the door of my house saying I was on their death list. I had to leave home that night.” He could still smile despite his troubles but most of the others I gave water to were broken men, dead behind the eyes. I could only imagine what kind of hell they’d been through. Still, they queued patiently in the heat and helped us clean the litter that was left after they’d been fed and watered.
The measure of a country is how well it treats its visitors. How would we react if thousands of asylum seekers began to arrive with nothing except the clothes they stood up in? I hope we’d behave like the owner of the Caledonia pub and the ordinary people of Budapest and get our sleeves rolled up.
Is haggis really so offal?
You could scour the streets of New York every day and night in your kilt and you’d never find a restaurant with haggis on the menu. The American Food And Drug Administration banned it in 1971 as it contains sheep’s lung. Man up, my Yankee chums. What’s wrong with a bit of sheep’s lung? Not processed enough for you?
Scottish cuisine gets a bit of a pasting from the rest of the world. You can kind of understand Italian tourists getting their knickers in a twist at the idea of their national dish, pizza, being topped with mozzarella, tomato sauce and oregano then tossed into ten gallons of boiling animal fat – but who runs most of our chippies? The Italians! At a least a deep-fried pizza’s only going to set you back a fiver. But what shocks me is how much people are prepared to pay for something truly disgusting.
The late President of France, Francois Mitterrand, requested a gourmet horror show for his last meal. The Ortolan finch is about the size of my thumb. It’s a protected species and it’s illegal to capture it. Still, if you’re the President of France and you’re dying, you can probably bend a few rules before you go. When they catch the Ortolan, they imprison it in a little wooden box with just its head sticking out. They feed it on millet until it doubles in size. When you order it in a restaurant, the chef drowns the bird alive in Armagnac. Very quickly it is plucked, roasted and served. The Ortolan is crunched whole, bones, beak and all. Eating just one of these wee birds will set you back fifty quid. President Mitterrand had two. He died ten days later.
A hundred quid for a starter? That’s nothing compared to what you could pay for a scoop of Black Diamond ice cream in Dubai. It contains saffron, truffles and 23 carat gold leaf and costs $800 a portion. Mind you, it comes in a Gianni Versace porcelain bowl which you can keep.
Still peckish? Go on, have some cheese. There’s a lovely Sardinian sheep milk variety called Casu Marzu or “rotten cheese”. This stinky treat is created by the deliberate introduction of cheese maggots, the larvae of the cheese fly, Piophila Casei, transparent little worms a third of an inch long that break down the fats in the cheese, making it smelly and runny. Some people clear the maggots from the cheese before eating, others don’t. Chacun a son gout, as they say in France.
Black day for broadcasting
Has anybody NOT heard Mhairi Black’s astoundingly good maiden speech in Parliament?
The answer is yes – anybody who was watching Reporting Scotland’s coverage of it on BBC. They talked over a 20 second clip of it and summarised by saying that her fellow SNP colleagues were rebuked by The Speaker for clapping when she sat down. How out of touch can you get?