Sunday, 29 September 2013

Do Not Speak Her Name

Time Travelling in Hungary

In 2008 I found myself cycling through Southern Hungary with my teenage son. It was the first part of our ride from Ireland to Japan, via the UK, France, Germany and Austria that had surprised us by its sense of being trapped in an older time. It was beautiful and the sun shone, but there was something surreal about it.

After a long day's ride from Budapest, we arrived at a river and had to wait half an hour to cross on a floating bridge (flat boat with an outboard that crossed every hour). We were nearing the town of Csongrad, the boatman told us. By the time we entered town it was dark.  It was not a large place but it was bustling with people heading home.  After asking a number of people for help, we managed to get ourselves directed to the only accommodation - a hotel. Arriving at a large old building we lifted a heavy brass ring that pulled a cord and agitated a bell inside. The old door creaked open and revealed a pale young girl. We were startled.
“Welcome inside. Step forward please.” 
We thanked her and cautiously moved towards the reception, behind which sat an elderly lady. She smiled and said something in Hungarian.
“My mother does not speak the foreign languages,” said the girl. “I, however, can speak English, Russian, German, French, Italian and Serbo-croat. Yes, yes, and Hungarian of course. Please have look the prices here. We have the hot water and bath. Breakfasts will be included please.”
We relaxed. The price seemed fair and the old lady seemed kind, as did the somewhat cybernetic daughter. "Orlovka," she said abruptly, handing me a pen.

After signing the register, we were led upstairs. Before opening the heavy bedroom door, the girl turned towards us and hesitated a moment.
“My name is Greta,” she said, her stare uncomfortably direct.

Greta was about 16, wearing a rather trendy tracksuit and narrow glasses, yet somehow she still managed to look like a 1950’s Soviet woman.  Her fixed stare held us there stiffly for some moments.  Her wide face was friendly enough, although she did not seem to smile. There was certainly something abnormal about her manner. Sinister even. I wondered what might be behind the door.  Eventually, one of her eyes began to twitch and she looked down.  With a heavy turn of the key the door creaked open.
Timorously my son and I followed Greta into a large room. It was fitted out with what seemed to be furniture from the post-war era.  A shaft of dusty light cut through a crack in the heavy curtains, giving us the sense almost that we might have stepped into the past. There was a strange smell I could not quite identify. Something medicinal, perhaps. She drew back the long heavy curtains to reveal a large sash window that looked down into a grand cobbled courtyard.  We noticed a pair of bikes standing against the wall and realised that they were our own. The elderly mother must have moved them, although it seemed unlikely. It all felt very odd – rather dreamlike. Looking out onto the ancient Austro-Hungarian courtyard, I felt that a horse-drawn carriage, or mounted soldiers with muskets, might arrive at any moment. I looked at Sam. It was not only me; he too looked mesmerised.
“This courtyard is beautiful, not?”
Greta’s words echoed in the high-ceilinged room and it was a moment or two before I realised it was she who had spoken. Pulling myself together, I turned to look at her. I smiled. The full sun on her face had revealed a surprising feature – she had one brown eye and one blue. I tried not to stare. She turned and began showing us the room, opening every drawer and cupboard as if carrying out an obsessively practiced routine.
“It is a spracious room, not?”
“Very precious, yes. Thank you,” I replied.
“Yes, much space. It is our pleasures. We have few stranger guests such days. We will try hardly to give you comfort.”
“We will try hard to be good guests,” smiled Sam.
There was a moment's hesitation as she turned. A change had occurred in Greta’s eyes. There was an awkward silence, followed by a radiant smile. Sam had thawed her. Thank God, I thought. Maybe now we won’t be tied up and held prisoner for years in the cellar.

Greta showed us into a large historic bathroom. Over a large rust-stained bath was a device I had seen before, or something similar at least. My grandmother had one when I was small.  It was known as The Geyser: a huge threatening gas boiler smelling of burning gas, that shook and gurgled when lit, threatening to explode at any moment. The fear I reserved for this monstrous device as a child was still there now. I had no intention of using it, or of allowing Sam to.

Greta had become animated and was now eager to talk, asking us what we had seen on our journey and what we thought of her country. She was also very informative. She sat down at the writing desk and began to give us a potted history of Hungary. Sam and I, meanwhile, were transformed into an attentive audience, perched on one of the beds. In addition to enlightening historical and political facts, Greta provided local information.
“I want to commend you about a very good pizza restaurant near to this establishment,” she said.  “It is very marvellous.” 
This didn’t sound particularly enticing to me – commended or not.  Eating there later, however, we found it did indeed serve excellent pizza. More surprising though were the exquisitely prepared Hungarian dishes, with very fresh fish and delicious wild game.  It was better than anything we had found in Budapest. The staff also seemed entirely out of place. The elderly waiter was dressed in black trousers and a stiffly starched white jacket with gold braided epaulettes. He was reminiscent of someone from a grand Monte Carlo hotel in the aristocratic opulence of the 1920’s. I doubt this small rural town had ever seen more than a dozen foreign tourists let alone opulence.

Photo courtesy of

As the lid was lifted on another large silver terrine, this time containing an enormous bird that could only have been a peacock or a small ostrich, it all started to seem rather surreal again. I glanced across at the hotel and saw the old woman's face disappear behind the twitching curtain. The waiter followed my gaze and sighed.
"Be careful."
"The old lady?" I asked.
"No, no, young girl. Old mother is dead."
"No old mother now. She die five years before. In the river. They say accident but... I don't think. Be careful."
"Greta?" I asked.
There was a crash as he dropped the lid on the terrine. He looked down at me. 
"Better don't to speak her name, my friend."

Short stories by Mark Swain can be found in the book 'Special Treatment & Other Stories.'
The title story won the Kinglake International Short Story Prize in 2010.
Link to short story book on Amazon

Link to Long Road Hard Lessons (cycle travel book) on Amazon

Monday, 16 September 2013

Parental Gap Year

Saved By a Ten-year-old Boy

My father died when I was 15yrs old. He was 37 and very healthy - or so it seemed. He had a heart attack caused by a burst artery or vice-versa. I had never even known him have a day off sick from work. Now I realise that this last fact was perhaps a clue to the cause of his death. He would not allow himself to be sick. If he ever got flu he would go to bed when he got home from work, pile on the blankets and sweat it out so he could return to work the next day. He was an avionics engineer. It wasn't that he loved his work so much, it was more to do with an ethos. You don't give in to things. This is how a man can become enslaved.

Image courtesy of

For myself, I did not begin as a dedicated hard worker. I loved primary school at first but as soon as the serious curriculum and rigid discipline kicked in I loathed school. I only went there to cause trouble - to fight against oppression, and school seemed to me to be its cradle. Later I could see that offices and factories were the same. Grown-up theatres of oppression. Places of drudgery where you were required to conform. It was not for me. I went to art college. But at art college I lacked anything to fight against. I left in search of adventure and found it at first in an army recruiting centre. I found plenty of authority and rules to fight against there. I left and after time hitch-hiking around Europe and Asia I eventually set up my own business. Here I made the rules. At last I was in the right place. I liked what I did and I worked with enthusiasm. I was determined not to work myself to death as my father had but after only a few years I found myself working longer and longer hours and driving 50,000miles a year. I became stressed (as I realise my father was) and short tempered at home. I was in denial. Money flowed in and fired my passion. I basked quietly in the glow of having built a successful consultancy business from scratch, but I could feel myself gasping for air – trying to cram more into every week. The eventual outcome of such a life is not hard for someone to predict, but I couldn't see it.

You will probably be expecting me to tell you I got a serious disease or had a heart attack like my father, but that's not what happened. I was saved from that.
So how was I saved?

Remarkably, I tell you, I was saved by a ten year old boy. My son.

Sam in Tarbet, Kintyre, Scotland.

It was the week before Christmas 2000. I had suffered a manically busy year at work. Arriving home I met my 10 year-old son Sam on his way to bed. I kissed him goodnight.
"Daddy," he said, "do you have any time off this Christmas?"
"Yes, I'm finished on Friday for around 10days."
"Could we go on a bike ride?"
The weather was cold but we did go on that bike ride. Around 20miles to nearby Folkestone. We camped the night and awoke with the tent frozen up with ice. Arriving back home that afternoon, shattered, I had a hot bath and lay on the sofa. Sam came and sat by me. I'd been worried about him but he seemed to have thrived upon it.
"Daddy, when I'm a big boy, would you cycle to Japan with me?"
"Do you know how far that is, Sam?"
"No, but if we go after I finish school - before university - we'd have a year!"

Eight years later, having found someone (the incredible Colin Bowyer) to run my business for me, we set off for Japan. 9 months and 10,000miles after that we rode into Tokyo. At 18 it was an amazing coming of age experience for Sam, but for me it was unexpectedly life-changing. Over those 9 months I had learned what was important in life, and it was not work. I had also finally come to terms with my own father's death. I felt reborn – a second chance. And all this was my son's doing. It had been his idea. My wife had encouraged me, and I'd done all the planning, and Colin had appeared at the last minute like a kind of miracle man, but without Sam it would never have happened. Bizarrely, at the end of the trip, it almost felt like he might have saved my life.

 Sam - Laos

 Sam with fellow cricketers - Cochin, India. He was their hero for a day.

 Iran was like a biblical landscape with 100miles between villages. We had to get water from truck drivers.

The return home - June 2009. Explorer's beard came off next day.

As a result of the cycle trip I had been encouraged by people I knew in the publishing and media industries to write a book about the experience. It was during the writing of that book, that I realised I owed it to other parents to share this experience with them – to encourage them not to allow work to enslave them. All too often I heard retired people and old people saying near the end of their lives that they wished they had spent more time with their children while they were young, rather than toiling away every day to provide for them. Kids, you will find, value one-to-one time with their parents far more than big houses, holidays, cars and money. An experience like the one I had with Sam is one Sam will always draw upon both in work and family situations. It will be a great story to tell his own children and grandchildren, long after I'm dead and gone. Sam says a gap year with a few mates bumming around Thailand, Vietnam or Australia would have been great but it would not have given him as much in the long term.

There is always a sticking point. I can see two.

1. Permission: Many of my friends asked me how I persuaded my wife to let me go. I didn't have to. My wife could see how valuable the trip would be for Sam as well as me and all of us as a family. I was lucky. Not all partners are as understanding, as selfless or have such foresight (although she did really enjoy the challenge of managing alone with my younger daughter during those 10 months). It must be seen as a joint effort. My wife was excited about the trip but would not have wanted to cycle 10,000miles. She played her part in the organisation and in providing support services.
Similarly, many employers would not take kindly to a request for 10months off by a valued member of staff. I was lucky enough to be self-employed. Except that this gave me more worry. Finding a replacement to run the business was very tough. However he turned out to be so bloody good that I have left him running the business ever since. How fortuitous is that eh?
Most of my clients were very supportive and I think they would have been just as supportive if I had been one of their own employees. It does no harm to ask.

2. Money: People also pointed out to me that I had the money. In 10months we spent £11,000. It sounds a lot, but I worked out that I spent far more when I was at home working as usual. And we needn't have spent that much. We stayed in B&Bs and hotels quite a lot when we could have camped more. I can honestly say that knowing what I know now, I would do it again with half that much.

So please, people, do not be one of those parents who gets to the end of his or her life saying, I wish I'd done more with my kids. Do something before it's too late.

Book is on Waterstones core list for non-fiction & a best seller on Amazon (cycling / travel)

More details in our book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons'. Available in Waterstones Bookshops all over the UK & Ireland and via Amazon worldwide. There are lots of colour photos and each chapter contains a section written by Sam (very humorous and most popular with readers).
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