Wednesday, June 2, 2010


Home isn’t simply bricks and mortar, or where you keep your possessions, or a civic address. Home is much more than where you sleep.

Home is where you come from, where you belong. Home is connection. Yesterday in a sense, I was home. I returned to my roots. Today, I am also home, truly home. I am with my family, my friends, and my professional colleagues with whom I have shared over half of my life. Home feels good.

Six weeks ago I dipped my foot in the Atlantic Ocean and started to pedal eastward. It has been an extraordinary experience which will always remain with me. We pedalled in the sun and we pedalled in the rain, on good routes and in mud. There were days filled with joyful travel, great beauty, the sun on our faces and the wind at our back, and quite frankly there were days of discouragement, when it seemed as if the rain and wind,  and the hills and mud, would never end, when all I wanted to do was rest. I cannot however recall a day which didn’t have great meaning and purpose.

This journey has been many things to me. It has been a voyage of discovery, with wonders and beauty appearing almost around every corner, it has been a physical challenge, and it has been a wonderful occasion to spend time with the doctors who saved me, with friends and with my wife with whom I have shared a wonderful life. We have enjoyed joy and laughs and great food and drink together. Most of all, however, this journey has been a tribute to the triumph of science over sickness, the triumph of hope over despair, the triumph of faith and most of all the triumph of life over death. Life is everything, its fragility demands that we make the best of it, that we take every opportunity to live meaningful lives, to do what is right and important and to make a difference. I ask all of you to take time today to appreciate the majesty of life, and to do something, no matter how small, to make someone’s life better.

I would like to leave you with three last pictures. This photo is my grandmother Margaret with me (yes that really is me on the right) and Maryse at our wedding, which was the year before her death. Her memory remains alive within me, and even twenty years after her death, my grandmother remains an important part of who I am. I was very surprised how emotional my arrival in Hungary was. I never really reflected on my Hungarian roots, but clearly roots run deep.

This photo is me and Julianne, several weeks before I was diagnosed with leukemia in September 2004. If things had turned out differently, this is the father Julianne would remember, and if memories exist in the beyond, this would be my memory of Julianne.

Finally, this is home today. The fact that I took this picture this evening is the miracle of survival.

This is the end of my blog, but it is not the end of my journey. I will go on and try to celebrate every day and embrace the miracle of life. I hope I can help others survive and give others hope.

Thank you for reading this blog, thank you for supporting my cause, thank you for being my friends and colleagues and companions. May the goodness and miracle of life continue to shine on all of us.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


I walked today in the footsteps of my Hungarian grandparents, and my life is more complete.

My grandparents, Sam Moldowan and Margaret Ornestein, came to Canada from Tolcsva, Hungary in the 1920's. Some of their family left with them, or came later to North America, but most stayed in Tolcsva, and with one exception, all of the remaining members of their family were killed by the Nazis in Auschwitz or Mauthausen. I owe my existence to my grandparents' departure. Since I never had the foresight to speak to them about their life in Hungary, I don't know many details but I believe that their family had lived in the Tolcsva area for generations. My grandfather Sam died when I was very young, and I only have a vague memory of him, but I knew and loved my grandmother Margaret. She was and remains, an important part of my life. She understood me and accepted me, and there was a special bond between us. I named my daughter Julianne Margaret. One of my greatest regrets is that my grandmother died only two years before Julianne was born; if only she could have met and held Julianne, it would have been wonderful.

It was therefore natural, if not essential for me, to visit Tolcsva. I was pleased and grateful when my friends Claude, Wes and Vince agreed to accompany me. We left from the main station in Budapest (Keleti), took an intercity train from Budapest to Szerencs, then took a local train to the station of Olaszliszka-Tolcsva, and we then took a bus, seven or so kilometres from Olaszliszka to Tolcsva.

When we arrived in Tolcsva, it was raining, we later learned that it has been raining there for weeks, and since our journey had taken four hours, we were all hungry and wanted to find a restaurant. None was evident so I went into a pharmacy, the employee at the pharmacy didn't speak English, but luckily one of the customers, whose name is Anita did, and she kindly offered to drive us to a restaurant. Its name was Kinzsen Etterem (which is the Hungarian word for restaurant) and since the owner didn't speak English and the menus were only in Hungarian, she stayed to help interpret the menu and choose what we would eat. We ended up asking for a number of typical local dishes and a local bottle of wine. We sat in the type of restaurant where my grandparents would have been, we ate the food they ate, and drank the type of sweet wine that was probably made in their day. It was authentic and felt wonderful. When we wanted dessert, I used google translate and showed the onscreen translation to the owner who brought us some delicious little cakes. We took pictures of the food, of the chef and of the owner, and when we left, he gave us a bottle of wine.

While we were in the restaurant, Wes went to an ATM machine and withdrew some Hungarian Forint's. I called my mother from the restaurant and told her where I was. It's times like this when we can't help but be amazed by the wonders of modern technology, linking the old and the new world.

After lunch, we went for a walk through Tolcsva which is situated in the wine growing district of Tokai. There are vineyards in the hills surrounding the town, and by and large, the town looks fairly prosperous. Most of the buildings are well kept and it all looks very pleasant. I walked down the main (pretty much only) road, I saw houses my grandmother would have seen, I passed by what I think was at some point a Jewish school, with a plaque in Hebrew and Hungarian containing the date 1871, and evidencing the existence of a Jewish population destroyed by the Nazis. The Nazis may have destroyed people, but thankfully they couldn't destroy history, which continues to speak to us. Being in Tolcsva was very moving, it touched my soul, it spoke to my connection with my grandparents, and particularly my grandmother Margaret, who is still in my heart.

Today was a wonderful conclusion to a spectacular journey. I was privileged to share the day with friends. We raised a glass of wine together and made a toast to my grandmother, we laughed together and walked in the rain together. We marvelled at the wonders of Hungarian bureaucracy at the train station, which requires two or three lavatory attendants to make sure that the people using the toilet pay the required 70 Forints (around 30 cents CDN). When Vince tried to leave without realizing he had to make this payment, one of the attendants screamed at him and he found out that this payment was necessary, and when he paid his 70 Forints, he was given a very official looking numbered, signed, dated and stamped receipt to evidence that he had in fact paid the required fee. Somewhere in Hungary, there must exist a warehouse where millions upon millions of these little numbered lavatory receipts stubs are kept. Someone has deemed it necessary to issue a stamped and numbered receipt for every excretion (we are not sure if the fee varies by type of excretion, without going into more detail 70 Forints may be the basic fee). This of course, is part of the joy of being here.

Our train journeys were comfortable, although not thoroughly modern, and the rail system in Hungary seems to be reasonably efficient, it is certainly well used and gets you where you want to go. Vince, Claude and Wes had a good laugh when I went to get cappuccinos for Wes and myself from the dining car and I tried to carry both cappuccinos back to our compartment holding the porcelain cups one on top of another while opening train doors (in retrospect, not a very good idea). I am sure you can imagine what happened next, there was one door between cars that was particularly difficult to open, the train lurched a little bit, the cups went flying, and pieces of cappuccino cup and cappuccino all ended up on a metal grate between two cars. My friends told me that when they heard the crash of cups, they all said "that has got to be Bill". And so it was. We did however, enjoy cappuccinos on the train, although I was more intelligent the second time around, we drank them in the dining car, served by an attendant with a name tag simply marked “38” – we are still not quite sure what that was a reference to. We looked for her relatives 37 and 39, but they were no-where to be found.

Just before we left Tolcsva, Vince stopped at a wine store and bought me a nice bottle of wine, which I will enjoy with my family. The owner of the store then heard we were going back to the train station at Olaszliszka-Tolcsva and rather than have us wait for the bus, he offer to drive us there. On the way, we passed through flooded areas, as a result of the heavy rainfall recently rivers are overflowing their banks and as the pictures below show, the situation is quite serious, people were sandbagging, rivers were flowing wildly and as the train took us through the countryside, there was ample evidence of flooded fields.

When we reached the train station at Olaszliszka-Tolcsva, we had about a half hour wait, and while I was waiting and looking at the train tracks, I realized that members of my grandparents' family were no doubt shipped along those very same train tracks to Auschwitz and Mauthausen where they were murdered by the Nazis. I was drawn to the train tracks, I couldn't stop looking at them and wondering what it must have felt like for my ancestors to be shipped in box cars along the same rails which I would be riding back to Budapest. Over sixty years have passed, but the rails are still there, and so are the memories.

I spent today in my family's old home. Tomorrow I return to my home. Both are now part of my life.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Budapest - now and then

Budapest is a city of two million people, with a very long history.

The Romans had an important  colony called Aquinsum until the mid-fifth century. They located and developed thermal water sources, which continue to be an important attraction today. In the mid-fifth century the Romans were forced to flea from the Huns, who occupied most of what is now Hungary until what we now consider the Hungarians (the Magyars) arrived in the year 1000. The years since have seen a pattern of building, destruction and rebuilding that would last until the mid-twentieth century and included the Mongols burning down what was then Buda and Pest in 1241, and periodic destruction by Turks, Habsburgs, and others, and then the Germans and Russians in World War II, and the Russians during the 1956 uprising. Walking around Budapest, one sees ample evidence of war damage, pockmarked buildings, and bullet holes in various state of repair.

Just looking around, one can imagine the splendor and opulence of pre World War II Budapest. It is evident however that fifty years of communist rule and decay has taken its toll. While some buildings have been beautifully renovated and would be at home in London, Paris or Rome, many buildings are in dire need of repair. Sleek Mercedes, Audis and other luxury cars roll down the streets next to Ladas, Trabants and Yugos belching black smoke. While most monuments to the Soviet era have been removed, there is still a monument to the so-called liberators of Budapest in 1945 (the Russians). Budapest is a place of many faces.

There is also the ugly past of anti-semitism, including the Arrow Cross movement of World War II, where fascist Hungarians turned out to be as effective at murdering Jews and others as the Nazis. Just today I came across a grim reminder, a swastika cut into a park bench, not representative of the Hungarian population of today, but still a grim reminder of its past.

Let's hope that the future holds peace and prosperity for Budapest.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The many faces of Wes

I met Wes Voorheis in 2003 when he began managing some important litigation in which I was counsel, and before long our relationship became one of friendship and respect. On my 50th birthday, when I was lying in the hospital on chemotherapy, my life hanging in the balance, it was Wes and my partner and friend Cara Cameron who brought me a birthday lunch - it brightened an otherwise grim day - it's not a lot of fun having a birthday on a cancer ward, particularly when you believe it will be your last. The lunch he and Cara brought was a gesture of kindness which I have not forgotten.

Imagine my joy therefore when Wes told me he would meet me in Vienna with his lovely daughter Anne to cycle with me to Budapest. His presence here has been very special, a lovely sequel to our lunch in the hospital, and I thought I would celebrate our friendship with my photos of the many faces of Wes, and what better starting point than Wes with his dear (and playful and sometimes embarassed by her father - just like all kids) daughter:

We had such fun with cycling Wes, and as you can see from the last photo below, even the ducks wanted to part of the fun:

and let`s not forget jet lagged, or tired or exhausted Wes, the body may have tired, but the spirit never dimmed:

and Wes was always thinking, his mind working, even when just sitting on the sidewalk:

and then there was Wes on the Budapest subway, he even befriended the ticket checker and borrowed his official armband!

and we enjoyed great meals together (especially when Wes paid), and even just waiting for a table (that's Wes, looking dapper in his red shirt) or strolling around:

but most importantly we all shared this journey as friends.


Wes, thanks for being here, life would not be the same without you.