Saturday, December 2, 2006

Budapest notes from a broad

Jó napot. Hogy van? [Pronunciation: Yow nopot. Hod-yuh vun?] That's "Hello. How are you?" in Hungarian.

Auf Wiedersehn und Aloha
On the BART ride to SFO I met a fortysomething German couple who'd stopped for two nights in SF before continuing on to Hawaii. I gave them advice on what to do and see on Oahu and Maui. They said it was a lifelong dream to visit Hawaii and they were visibly excited. San Francisco was nice but dirty, they said. I agreed.

Four Generations
My flight to Budapest wasn't direct. Connected in Amsterdam. In the KLM check-in line at SFO people were chattering in many languages, returning to work or starting a vacation. One of the loudest groups in line that you couldn't help but eavesdrop on comprised four women, obviously related. I finally gathered that it was a daughter, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother—four generations—on their way to Sicily. The daughter was in her early 20s. She'd planned the trip and was taking her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother to Italy for the first time. They were Italian-American originally from Sicily. What a handful, but what a cool trip. I'm hoping that I can take my mom to Kiev one day so that we can see where her father's family is from. I say hoping because harping on that woman to get her passport has been a project for two years running.

Swiss Kiss
I had my own front and center seat to an uninterrupted hour-long make out session, Euro-style. The couple right in front of me in the KLM check-in line was bursting with love and French kisses. Necking. Hands under shirts. The whole bit. Luckily they were paying passing attention to the ebb and flow of the line, so I didn't have to physically interrupt and ask them to please stop love-Jones-ing each other down and either move forward or get a room. When they weren't demonstrating for everyone how to properly administer a French kiss, they were chattering and whispering sweet nothings in ears. In French. Typical Frenchies. Or so I thought. When we got to the front of the line and all pulled out our passports, theirs were Swiss.

Danish Delights
My knowledge of history is crap. With the focus on European History in the U.S. school system you'd think we'd all retain a little more of the basics. I don't know about you, but after I made the grade I think I hit the mental delete key because I can recall embarrassingly little of said subject matter. Luckily it's still more than the average American so I didn't fare too badly in my 10 hour conversation with the Danes sitting with me on the way to Amsterdam. Our discussion covered everything from the harsh hideousness of the Dutch language (we were in agreement) to the Danish language (related to and sounds like a softer variety of German) to the history of Denmark (I had no idea that the Danes once ruled England, Norway, Sweden, Greenland, and a nice chunk of Northern Germany) to why the Danes deeply dislike the Germans (lost land to Germany) and so on and so forth. History led to geography and we laughed at how poor the average American's knowledge of geography is. The number of Americans this couple met who didn't furrow their brow when told, "No. We aren't British. We're Danish." was evidently nil. Not a one knew where Denmark is located or that it’s a country. Beyond that, few knew where to place Iraq on the map ("The Middle East? Where's that? It must be somewhere in Arabia or Egypt, right?") with any passing degree of accuracy when the couple brought up the war. Geography became a sort of game with the Danes and the Americans. It was easy entertainment. They were traveling through the great states of Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. Nothing against said states, but I couldn't say that I was surprised. The random Californian might have fared little better. The best part of the convo was when the husband (it was a couple celebrating the wife's 50th b-day; the husband was a sprightly 72—bikes 20 miles a day!!) explained how inferior American English is to British English. We were again in agreement. It's all about the accent. British English is just bloody lovelier to listen to. Wouldn't you agree, love?

A Little Pre-Flight Foreplay
In any other setting or circumstances, my security experience at Schipol would have been considered foreplay. If you've never had an "experimental" experience with someone of your same sex, I think this could count. Passenger screening and safety in Amsterdam is intensively thorough and hands-on, shall we say. And that's all I have to say about that.

Beautiful Budapest
I don't know what I was expecting, but what I wasn't expecting is to become in any way enamored of Budapest. I thought I was just coming to visit a good American friend having a bit of a hard and lonely time settling in to her job and life in Hungary. For starters, I thought Budapest was in Eastern Europe. It is, after all, in the Lonely Planet Eastern Europe guidebook. Wrong. As Hungarians will tell you, Hungary (Poland and the Czech Republic, too) is in Central Europe. I was expecting to see more Turkish influence (the Turks ruled from about 1500 to 1650) but what I found or feel is only a slight variation on all things Western European. I guess I'm really referring to and taken with the architecture and ambiance. It's very Paris. More Paris than Paris even. The castle district in Buda is not unlike Montmartre on its hill. You don't have the Seine but you do have the Danube (Duna in Hungarian) and the lovely bridges connecting the Buda side with the Pest side. The buildings are amazing. Tons of fin de siècle and art nouveau masterpieces (thanks to 200 years of Habsburg Austrian rule) in various states of refurbishment or decay. More so and more beautiful than those in Paris, it seems. Both my friend and I (and many others undoubtedly) hope that the city isn't restored to perfection like Prague. I've never been to Prague but from the pictures it is a bit too picture-perfect. Part of what makes cities like Paris and Venice so charming IMHO, is that they aren't perfect. Some buildings are renovated down to the last detail of former glory while others are left to their delightful demise. Perfection is boring and I hope Budapest doesn't become that. There is deconstruction and reconstruction around every corner. It's amazing. I've never been in a city undergoing so much change from street to street. I've also never been in a city with so many Burger King's, Mac Donald's, Subway's, Pizza Hut's, KFC's, and wall-to-wall commercial brand name products. There’s even a TGI Friday’s in Budapest. How crazy is that? There is little unique or individual here in the way of clothing, jewelry, style, lifestyle, etc. It's like the country went full speed ahead from Communism to cookie-cutter this and that Capitalism. Oh well. Perhaps that will come later. For now it's a good thing because there isn't a damn thing I wanted to buy and take home with me. And a penny saved is a penny earned. Right?

Budapest Isn’t Burning
Yes there's political unrest, demonstrations, and riots here in Budapest at the moment. While I didn’t see any of the action with my own eyes, I read about it and saw pictures in all the papers. Budapest is a big city, so you can be here and have no clue that there's any mayhem going down. The protests began when the world received confirmation that the Prime Minister is a lying sack of shit who cheated his people and his way into office. What’s even more confounding is that the PM refuses to resign even as he admits that he didn't win the election fair and square (!!!). On the bright side, at least the Hungarians now know that all of their darkest suspicions are true and not just crackpot "conspiracy theory".

Buda and Pest
Before coming to Budapest I only vaguely knew or understood that the two used to be considered entirely separate cities. There are other areas too, always referred to here by name. Including Buda and Pest. My friend lives in Buda and works in Pest. She's got the best of both worlds here. Buda is quiet and semi-secluded feeling and is similar in serenity and ambiance somehow to Montmartre vs. Paris proper. Especially up on the hill in the castle district. The Fisherman's Bastion is made of white stone and looks very Montmartre, Sacre Coeur. You can even take a Funicular up if you don't want to burn your thighs climbing the stairs. Just like Montmartre.

Out of Sight, Out of Style
Well, now I understand why there is so little left of the Turks. According to one of my guidebooks (the one that gives Turkey passing, honorable mention), after the withdrawal of the Turks the old city of Buda was rebuilt. Design and construction began in the Baroque style (late 17th-18th century) and there is obvious Western European influence from Italy, Austria, and Germany. Next came Neoclassical and "The Golden Age" (19th century) with monumental structures flaunting columns and Greek facades. You'll find a lot of this style in Pest. On the heels of Neoclassical from 1850 on you have the Hungarian styles known as Eclecticism and then Secession (late 19th century). What I like most about a lot of these old buildings all is their interior courtyards with balconies, gardens, patios, and a whole separate, secret life away from the hustle and bustle of the city streets. Über-cool.

Kávéház Central
Kávéház is a coffee house or café. I remember reading in one of my books at home that Budapest had more coffee houses at one time than any other city in Europe. Popular in the 19th century through the 1930s and 1940s, many of the fancy old cafés are being renovated to their former gilded glory. I've visited a few and can vouch for the gild. They are truly glorious. Many have free international newspapers and you can read, write, eat, and lounge all day in luxury. And at the present exchange rate, it's quite the affordable luxury. Alcohol is notably cheap too, by the way. I've had more kir royals in under a week than I've had in months. You can have a kir for about 220 forints (a little over $ 1USD) or a kir royal for just double that. It's always happy hour in Hungary!

Bon Apetito
"I'm Hungarian." That's what our waitress told us (in Hungarian) when we asked her in English, French, Spanish, and German if this particular wine we wanted to try with dinner was dry or sweet. This chick is dealing with tourists all day, every day and she clearly hates it. Across the street from the Hilton Hotel in Buda, the restaurant does get some Hungarians (the table of Buda birthday girls behind us) but everyone else appeared to be from out of town. Way out of town. This woman, no more than 25 if I had to throw down a bet, was so rude. The French aren't even this rude (never to me anyway). She immediately passed us on to her sweet and patient coworker (26, maybe) whose English was not much better but offered to fetch us the Sommelier (not sure if I spelled that right; the dude who knows the wines). Over a leisurely dinner of penne and ravioli (Hungarian fare isn't good enough to goulash every night) we watched our original waitress roll her eyes multiple times and provide exceptionally poor service to the American couple at the table next to ours. She didn't even try to hide her disdain. It was bad. More than that it was hilariously unbelievable. I just kept smiling at her to piss her off even more. I think it worked. Despite dumping us on her coworker, she delivered bread to our table; we had to point to either wheat or white in her little basket and she'd scoop the bounty onto our plate with her fancy silver spoon thingie. My friend pointed to the wheat and the girl didn't skip a beat in immediately scooping out a white roll instead and then prancing off without a glance. She also delivered our food. Flustered by her attitude, my friend accidentally said "No" to her question "Ravioli?" and pointed at me. When we switched dishes she waltzed back over, looked at me like I was born an idiot (and yesterday) and said, "That's the penne. That's the ravioli." Fuck you biotch. Vafanculo. I know what the fuck ravioli is. Damn. My hope is that she takes a trip to the States with that attitude and lack of language. Americans are generally patient and helpful with strangers to a fault (or so I've been told by foreigners), but don't let the stranger in question be rude. We can turn on your ass in a hot second. I'd like to see that girl roll her eyes at the wait staff of a sommelier spot anywhere in the U.S. Actually, doesn't even have to be a step above two stars. Actually... I'd rather see a Parisian go off on her. Oh yeah. Now that would be magnifique.

Fall into a Sin
Waiting in line to buy train tickets to Vienna, the girl ahead of us had a rather memorable and large tattoo at the small of her back. A rattle snake or a cobra coiled (not sure which because her shirt covered the top half of the tat) with the phrase "Fall into a Sin" underneath. She was Hungarian and looked every bit your stereotypical Eastern Bloc sex worker. That might have been her boyfriend with her. His name might also have been John.

International Relations from Vienna to Budapest
On the train ride back to Budapest
from Vienna, we were in a car with a Romanian woman making a crazy long trip (like 14 hours) from somewhere in Spain to Bucharest (which is in Romania for those of you not in the know) and a Hungarian student on his way home for a few days. He struck up a convo with us and my friend did most of the talking. It started in German and they started to speak English for my benefit (my friend is fluent in German). He was studying International Relations in Vienna and so we weren't too impressed with a few of his comments. He'd just come from Oktoberfest in Berlin or Munich (I can't remember which) and said, "It was great. The strangest thing was to see the Black and Turkish people wearing traditional dress." He was talking about lederhosen. He also said that he really enjoyed Berlin as a city, but that there were "some places you just don't want to go because it's all Turkish." My friend later explained to me that in Kreutzberg (not sure if I spelled it right) there is a large Turkish population and it's often referred to as "Little Istanbul." Otherwise he was very nice and asked lots of questions about how we liked Hungary, if we thought people's English was good, what Americans knew about Budapest and Hungary, what we thought of the war in Iraq and if Americans really encountered the war on a daily basis, and if life in the U.S. was really all that different from life in Hungary or Germany.

Monica Lewinsky in Budapest
There's a big street here called Bajcsy-Zsilinszky and the second part sounds a lot like Lewinsky to me. I can say Lewinsky. I can't say Zsilinszky, apparently. So when talking to my friend, I simply refered to it as Monica Lewinsky. Much easier. I wonder if there's a Clinton Street, too?

More Fun with Facts and Ignorance
I would have thought that anyone who knows Sacramento is the capital of California would at least have heard of San Francisco. But I was wrong. The guy who sold me my Soviet and Hungarian stamps (found my perfect souvenirs after all) asked where I was from and was stumped when I said "California. Near San Francisco." He asked if that was near Sacramento and if there were many Mexicans in California. I told him yes, and that California used to be part of Mexico in fact. His turn to stump me. When did Mexico lose California and when did California become a state? Shit. Hell if I know. Where's Google when you need it? Some time in the 1800s was all I was willing to hazard. Before 1850. I think.

Cake, Confusion, and Smiles
I was having cake for breakfast for the umpteenth time, my third visit to the Ruszwurm Café near the Fisherman's Bastion in Buda. If you ever have the chance to swing by here, the Ruszwurm Torta or creme pastry (the specialty of the house) is to die for. Two flaky-crisp layers of pastry are separated by a generous mountain of creamy deliciousness that tastes somewhere dreamily in between whipped cream and custard. I was just about to dive into this perfect piece of unparalleled yummyness when two senior citizens speaking a language that sounded only slightly Slavic but not enough to be Russian began gesturing at the two empty wicker chairs opposite me. I smiled and nodded and they made themselves comfortable at our tiny little outdoor table. When the waitress came over to take their order, confusion ensued. She only spoke Hungarian, they only spoke this Slavic sounding something or other, and I didn't speak a lick of either. After much pointing and flailing of hands, they were served two pieces of cake like mine and two coffees. I guess it wasn't what they'd asked for, but they smiled and laughed and so I smiled and laughed with them. There was a lot of smiling going on. And then there was a lot of screaming when we were nearly killed by a crazed cream-bee. He wanted our cakes, and badly. It was scary (my friend and I actually met a meat-bee over the weekend when we went to the town of Pecs; that was way scary, too—my friend actually abandoned a third of her sandwich as a peace offering to the bee). After the cream-bee saga they kept repeating a question that I didn't understand. Then they started saying, "Africa?" and pointing to me. Then they pointed to themselves and said something that I understood to be Krakow. And I said, "Oh. Poland?" They nodded happily. I said, "No Africa. San Francisco. California. United States. American." I got back Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. Cool. We're making progress. Then the question became, "Espanol?" Shit. I just kept saying no. They looked really confused and kept repeating, "Espanol?" I then tried in the plainest English possible to tackle they're need to place me racially and ethnically. "Father, Black. Mother, White." Frowns of confusion. "Um... Father, African and Native American." Nods. "Mother, White, Western Europe, and Russian." Semi-nods. Then one bolted up and broke her camera out. "You pretty smile." She took my picture with her friend. I decided I needed a visual record of these characters, so I took my camera out and took their picture, too. I paid my bill and tried to say good bye. They said "Espanol?" a few more times and then what sounded like "Dozvidenya" (good bye in Russian). I said, "Russian? Ruskie?" "Nem. Nem. Polish!" Okay. Too many languages that are 99.99% foreign to me going on here. I was beginning to develop a mild migraine and it was only 11:30 in the morning. I hadn't had enough to eat and was on a sugar high but still slightly delirious from hunger (normally I'd love a situation like this, but not under dietary duress). So I repeated the new word twice, gave them one last big Spanish smile (by which I think they probably meant Mexican), and walked away.

Welcome to My World
When I recounted my morning with the Poles to my friend later that day, she only sighed knowingly and said, "Welcome to my world." Her roots are equally esoteric; German and Ethiopian. Only to further confuse inquiring minds with her perfect American English, fluent German, and bits of Dutch, French, Spanish, Italian, and now Hungarian. After my encounter at Ruszwurm I understand why she sticks soundly to "I'm American" without giving up any further details. I need to maybe adopt that tactic. The only problem is it frustrates the questioning party and rarely stops the attempts to dig a little deeper. That's why when I can't handle another question (whether verbal or via silent stare) I always resort to being Hawaiian. It’s an easy lie. I look it, the people speak English, and I’ve been there many multiple times. Sometimes it's just easier to lie about these things and move on.

Don't We All
Having now heard Polish, I am certain this kid I saw on the tram was in fact speaking Russian with his friend. He was maybe 15 or 16 and had scrawled on his forearm in black ballpoint pen "I wish I had an angel."

Hen or Stag?
Walking to the tram home last night after dinner, I noticed a herd of men sporting identical t-shirts and being shepherded by one of the pack toward an Irish pub. They were speaking a British varietal of English and as soon as they passed I immediately started chuckling and muttering to myself. I'm so easily entertained. It's pathetic really, I know. My friend asked me what their shirts said and all I caught was something about stags. "Ooohhh. Oh god." What? Apparently Amsterdam (where she lived a few years back) used to be the British port of party for soon-to-be-ex bachelors (stags) and bachelorettes (hens). It got to be so bad that when you called to make reservations for such a shindig you'd have to lie when asked, "Hen or stag?" because if you said yes the restaurant or lounge or whatever would say, "Go fly your crazy UK party kite somewhere else. Another country, preferably." The rowdy reputation of drunken, partying Brits proceeds them. So Amsterdam is old news and Budapest is the new spot to get wasted for three days and nights straight, in honor of the groom or bride-to-be. As I said, drinks are cheap here and places to purchase them are plentiful, so I can see why Budapest is the budding party town of choice for people paid in Pounds. Bet they're drinking double what they were in Holland.

Dancing till Dawn
I went out with my friend and a friend of hers to four clubs in a single night. I do believe that's a record for this self-described hermit. My favorite was the club in the mall near my friend’s apartment. A club in a mall. It was actually amazingly upscale and packed. Well, the go-go dancers wearing thongs and bikini tops took it down a notch to semi-sleazy for me, but the men seemed to enjoy them well enough. And no. This was a club with a DJ and everyday people dancing. Not a strip joint. And the bars in the mall were still open, serving alcohol, and jumpin' at 3AM!! Budapest is definitely a party town.

Thermal R&R at Gellért
As you can imagine, if you know me, I was half dead the next day and deathly ill (killer cold, my second this vacation). So we took it easy and went to the thermal baths at Gellért for a few hours. I was hoping to do more thermal bathing before going home, but not to be. Too sick. Gellért was amazing though. Gorgeous architecture, two women-only baths, two saunas, one co-ed thermal bath and a mineral water swimming pool in pink marble. Niiiiiiiiice. I could have lounged around there all day. The only thing that took some getting used to was the nudity (in the single sex area, of course). I guess I'd never really seen an old (and I mean old-old, ready to kick the bucket tomorrow maybe) woman naked. All I could think was, oh my god. So that's what all us ladies are gonna look like over the next few decades, eh. The female body really doesn't age gracefully, does it? Guess men's bodies don't fare too well when tested by time either. I'm guessing. No need to see the proof though. No thank you!

The Trip Home
After a bad version of Thai from a lovely Pest restaurant called Old Amsterdam (What was I thinking? Wait. I know. I was thinking I'm sick of Hungarian food and the Italian alternatives and maybe this will actually be enjoyably edible. And spicy! Wrong. Soy sauce city. Barforific.), my friend and I made it home and to bed around midnight. At 4 o'clock in the morning the alarm went off and it was time to get going. So sleepy. So sick. So ready to be home already. When are they gonna get that whole teleporting thing off the ground?

The Malev (Hungarian Airlines) flight from Budapest
to Amsterdam was an hour or so late but without incident and (thankfully) without conversation. My seatmates were an elderly Romanian couple who rubbed the Hungarian stewardesses the wrong way. I think mainly because they spoke neither Hungarian nor English and were asking for wine with their breakfast. Wine and then coffee. Oh, the EU is just one big, growing, happy family. Not! No one I've talked to is jazzed about Romania and Bulgaria joining in January. And Turkey. Turkey. Given the strong feelings Western Europeans have about each other, Central Europeans, and Eastern Europeans, I think there'll be riots if Turkey "gets in." There's a lot of joking, but all "Europeans" have strong and deep feelings of discord for one another. There's a lot of history here and a lot of hard feelings, to say the least.

Lucky for me, Schipol Airport
is well designed. Making it easy (albeit something of a distance) to sprint from one gate to another. Because transfer passengers have to go through an additional security checkpoint, my flight was "boarding" an hour and 20 minutes before takeoff. This wouldn't have bothered me half as much if I were feeling healthy (the run nearly killed me) and if I hadn't spotted a Paul at the outset of my jog to gate E28. French pastries. Mmmm... Hungary has great cakes at their many coffee houses, but not great pastries. Not like in France. Croatia was a bit better, but not by much. Anyway, the delights of Paul were not to be mine this day. Just as I was making peace with this painful reality, I passed through security (and received the Schipol special pat down, again) and was asked (along with many others) to open my carry-on bags. I forgot about the no liquids going to the U.S. rule. So did everyone else. Many of us sick, there was a congregation of folks around the bag screeners downing liters of liquids. Not only did they try and take my water (I'm sick so I downed it) but they took my cheap and pretty lip gloss that I bought in Dubrovnik. C'mon. Give me a fucking break! I'd like to see what inventive new rules are instated when terrorists find a way to make clothing explosive. Or some other such thing that will only make travel that much more of a laughable hassle for the masses.

Four hours of sleep. Two hours of waiting at the airport in Budapest. Two hours to get to Amsterdam. An hour and a half there. Followed by a sleepless and snotty ten hour flight home. The woman to my right was none too pleased with my coughing, hacking up goodies into my plastic Hungarian Szupermarkt bag, and the endless blowing of my nose. The twentysomething surfer boy who looked to be from Hawaii, sitting to my left, could care less and was possibly even impressed. Five hours into the flight and after getting up countless times to let me out for a bathroom break, he struck up a conversation. Turns out he was Hawaiian and 20 from Kaneohe on Oahu. Looks just like my youngest brother (and in fact the stewardesses asked if we needed just one Customs form, since we were clearly family). He was a sweetheart. Told me all about his month long travels in Europe, his first time. Though he was robbed of everything in Barcelona (he and his friends decided to save a little money by sleeping on the beach), he said that he'd met so many amazing people and made such good new friends from all over that he didn't mind losing all of his possessions and having to call home, beg his parents for money, get a new passport, etc. That's definitely the attitude best taken while traveling. He couldn't wait to get home and "jump in the ocean." Europe had been wonderful, but his skin was itchy and flaky all over after a month out of the idyllic Hawaiian humidity. True that. My skin and hair are never so healthy as on a visit to Hawaii. He showed me sketches of his soon-to-be first tattoo (paid for by a biker uncle from Texas) that will cover the entire real estate of his right arm. I had to stop myself from attempting to talk him out of it and constantly mutter mentally, "This is not your brother Brandon. Tell this kid the tattoo will look great. You're not his big sister. This arm is of no relation to you."

We tried to sleep through Cars and Nacho Libre (ah, Jack), but watched Mission Impossible 3 and agreed that without the sound and with the Dutch subtitles (it was a KLM flight) the movie was actually entertaining. And then, bam. Bounce landing and we were home. Well, I was home. My Hawaiian friend still had a five hour flight to Honolulu.

Questions? Ask away! Please use the comments feature to ask questions rather than contacting Marisa directly. That way everyone can learn a thing or two, too.

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