Saturday, December 2, 2006

Dubrovnik notes from a broad

Dobar dan!
That's hello in Croatian. Kako ste? How are you?

Dreamy Dubrovnik
I couldn't have asked for a dreamier welcome to Dubrovnik. Crystal clear weather and water, and a sunset wedding in Stari Grad (the old walled part of the city). Beautiful bride. Everyone in the wedding party looked like a Mediterranean model. Well, Adriatic (technically), I suppose. Musicians escorted the newlyweds, guests, and tourists down the Stradun (the main drag) as the guests and the musicians sang some sort of song that sounded old and one can only assume traditional. In addition to singing, the wedding party guests danced and love-jones-ed as the trail of bliss floated outside the city walls at a snail's pace and then into cars and off into the twilight. All the while hordes of swallows swooped and sang from the rooftops. It was way cool man. To say the least. As for Dubrovnik. Perfection. I love it there. The people are wonderful as the city is beautiful. Which is to say, very. Looks kinda like the French Riviera to me, both in terms of the vegetation and the architecture. With a little Italy thrown in for flair.

Save the Kittens
Like Greece, and to a lesser degree Venice, Dubrovnik and the surrounding area is littered with feral cats. And where there are feral cats, there are kittens. My mother used to feed the feral cats at a local park when I was a kid and she firmly instilled in me a bleeding and soft heart for the furry creatures. Especially the wild ones. So it was deeply difficult for me to resist spending all of my allotted money to burn on the wild and wildly adorable kittens here. I'd focus my efforts on the grown ups, but the kittens are just too cute and skinny to ignore. All my concern was for them! Some people (locals) do put out a bit of food and water for them, but if I were here 24/7 these little guys would be heaps plumper. I saw a grown male cat attack a sweet little kitten over some food that was left by a bleeding heart. I didn't think twice before batting him away and trying to coax the kitten back out of the rocks so s/he could eat. To no avail. Another adult lunged and the scraps were gone. Sigh. And this guy is a member of the cutest litter possible. One white and orange, one black, one black and white, one white and tigerish. All with brilliant blue eyes. They are uncannily cute and I wish I could take them all home with me. Seriously thinking of relocating to the area so that I can look after them. And get them all spade and neutered.

Death in Dubrovnik
I watched a dim dove get run over by my slow-moving bus. It waited until the bus passed over it and then tried to fly up, no doubt. As the bus drove off it was trailed by a tail of feathers. No body though. Guess it's still under the bus...

Arguments in Paradise
As you may have learned by now, I like to eavesdrop. It's part of the fun on any good vacation to Europe, in particular. With so many people and languages swirling about, no one knows what you speak or comprehend until or unless you open your mouth. So if you pretend not to understand, people will often keep talking. And louder even. I've heard lots of good arguments in Budapest and Dubrovnik now, but my favorite was the old couple on the bus the other day, on their way into Dubrovnik (I'm staying just outside the old town). The husband apparently assumed they were headed into town to watch the sunset. The wife thought differently: "I've seen a sunset before. I've seen lots of sunsets. It's my 80th birthday and I want to have dinner in peace." The husband: "I know you've seen a sunset. So have I. But sunsets are peaceful. Romantic even. What if we had dinner at a restaurant with a view of the sea and the sunset. Would you like that?" The wife: "I told you. I've seen a sunset. And romance. Ha! Don't make me laugh. You don't know the first thing about romance. So I'll just go with the original plan. Dinner." You get the gist. It got uglier and then I didn't get to hear the end because we reached our stop and all got off the bus.

TV Time
I love satellite TV. It's such a treat since I don't have cable at home. And no, I don't want cable. It's too expensive and all I'd do every night and weekend is sit on my already fat ass and watch shit like 24/7 Law and Order, Flavor of Love, music videos, movies, etc. Anyway. CSI with Croatian subtitles. Ahhh... Gary Dourdan. Glad they don't dub it. But I'm sure he'd still be just as sexy. Even in Croatian (which to me sounds like Slavic Italian and is slightly sexy in and of itself). Next we have German MTV. Huh-larious. You get to see German rappers and hear stuff like, "und meinen homies..." There's weird English peppered everywhere. It's highly entertaining. I also watched a half hour of Pimp My Ride International.

Bird Watching
Before leaving the Bay, I thought I'd seen the world's largest hummingbird at my local Longs Drugs. If you're into birds, the one near where I live is the spot. Its huge indoor-outdoor garden selection of plants both local and exotic draws quite the winged crowd. My mom and I asked our cashier if the birds could go in and out: "Oh yes. They have the doors timed. They love it here. Build nests and frequent aisle 11 for birdseed." And just when I thought I'd seen it all, a huge red-breasted hummer cruised the length of the store from gardening down to the pharmacy. Looking for cold medicine, I imagine. Later my mom found the little guy feasting feverishly on five varieties of flowers. She motioned to me to come over and I could hardly believe what I was seeing. This kid was huge and so into his flowers that he could care less that we were only inches away from his royal redness. It was the coolest hummingbird experience I've ever had. Until now. I was sitting on a rock outcrop near my hotel (the Hotel Zagreb in Lapad, which is perfect, by the way and I highly recommend it if you want to visit Dubrovnik), watching the sun rise and shine on the serene blue-green water of the Adriatic when a mammoth hummingbird floated by - hovering low, just above the water. He was majestic. With the golden morning light on his back his feathers blazed a bright turquoise blue - almost the color of the water below him. He later zoomed by me again, headed in the opposite direction, disappearing directly into the blinding sunlight.

On one of my day trips to the crazy-cute town of Cavtat (pronounced Tsavtat; the 'ts' like that in 'cats') I walked straight through the city, which is to say I hiked over it. Cavtat town is mostly on hill. All stone houses and small lanes. All of these towns here remind me of Venice, except for the hills, because Venice is 100% flat (save the bridges and plentiful stairs in all the buildings). Anyway, on this hike through town, I'd reached the top of the city and started down the back way. It required I go through a narrow lane, a stone stairway really, passing by vegetables, figs, and flowers in what looked like a community garden. The garden was to my right, the flowers to my left. It was a little loud and scary because the flowers were being worked over by what sounded like thousands of busy, buzzing bees. It might well have been thousands. But i didn't bother to count. I've never been stung and I was hoping to keep it that way. Just as I was starting to dart cautiously down the hill, a HUGE bee caught my eye and I froze. I'd never seen a bee, bumble or otherwise, that beefy before. And what a weird tongue... I leaned in a little closer and realized it wasn't a huge bee, but a teeny-tiny hummingbird with a tail colored to look like that of a striped bumble. Amazing! After that sighting, I saw another in Dubrovnik (nearly caught and consumed by a hungry little hunting kitten), and one more in the little walled town of Ston. It's the only time I've really wished I had a zoom lens so I could get a good picture of something so small and wonderful, like this. Oh well. I even tried to Google this little guy for you, but came up with nothing.

A special shout out and thank you to Jason for finding images of these mysterious and elusive little creatures. You rock. Click here to see pictures of the wild bumbles. Find even more images and info by surfing on over here.

Inquiring Irish
On my 25 minute walk around the peninsula of Cavtat (amazing panoramic views of Dubrovnik, other towns, and islands in the Adriatic abound) I was stopped by an old Irish man. He wanted to know where I was from and when I told him near San Francisco. With that out of the way, he then wondered if I'd ever been to "Lake Tay'oh" (that's Lake Tahoe for those of you who don't speak Irish; neither do I, so it took me a long pause to compute and respond, "No. Never actually been to Lake Tahoe.").

Bay of Grey
It was an unfortunately very grey day when I visited the bay and town of Kotor in nearby Montenegro. Montenegro is officially it's own country now, by the way. Literally just happened. Serbia is on it's own now, too. But it's still Bosnia & Herzegovina together. For how long, I have no idea. Despite the dreary weather, it was a lovely trip. The Republic of Montenegro is picturesque and poor. People only make 300 Euros per month, on average. Makes Croatians seem rich, which they are absolutely not. The bay is huge and amazing and the town of Kotor is wonderful. It was inevitable that I would like it because for many 100s of years it belonged to and was carved out by my favorite old republic; that of Venice. Unlike Venice though, it has hills. And like Venice, it is also an UNESCO World Heritage site. I visited Kotor and its bay via the Elite travel agency; one of many travel agencies here that arrange day trips in the region. As I suspected, I was one of the youngest (the youngest) day trippers and one of the only ones without a plethora of white or silver hair. It was a long day and I was blessed with the natural entertainment of what I regard as the world's funniest people: the British. There were two couples whom I was planted in between for the duration of the long boat ride out on the bay and they were bloody fucking hilarious. One in their 40s and the other in their 50s, they were also among the "younger" couples on this excursion. They had me in stitches with jokes ("This is the English speaking group, love. You sure that includes you?" - Poking fun at Americans and our "English") that spanned everything from politics, to sheep, to Germans, Australians, New Zealanders, and the French. There were a few off-color jokes from one of the wives about "Negroes" that I let slide because they weren't hyper-offensive and I didn't feel like getting into it since I was having such a good time otherwise. The boat came complete with a kitchen in which whole fish were grilled (with the heads) and served up for lunch along with feta, tomatoes, onions, and plenty of wine. The fish were bony and I decided to dine on the dried figs I'd brought along (typical of the region). My English friends proceeded to get sloshed and tell ever dirtier jokes and stories. It was fantastic. The one brief serious moment came when I asked what they all thought of Romania and Bulgaria being approved to join the EU in January of 2007. The former banker in his 40s quickly sobered up and let rip his disapproval and began to explain to me in strictly economic terms why the EU was headed for disaster and break-up. Each of the four agreed. And then it was back to bashing Germans. One husband told a true story of six Germans killed on a safari (via hot air balloon) in South Africa. "Bloody shame about that. I hope they were able to fix the balloon." Ouch.

Damn Them Dirty Old Men
I made the mistake of venturing into a shop at the end of a small lane of the Stradun, at the beckoning of what seemed a nice shop keep. Wrong! The nasty old man grabbed and kissed my hand, shuffled me into his store, and then tried to kiss me! Can you fucking believe that? He was mumbling something about "nero" and as I pushed him away I said "Black?" "Yes. Black. Black is so beautiful. Your skin is so... (kissing sound). I close shop at 7. May I take you for a drink?" Hell mother fucking no you can't take me for a drink! (Shudder) You're like what, 65, fat as hell, and butt ugly. What would make you think in your wildest dreams that a girl my age would consent to some sick shit like that? Men. I'll never understand where they muster the nerve from sometimes. That's now one of two little lanes I'm avoiding like the plague. The other...

Younger Man, Still Dirty
On my way to buy pastries and dinner from this great bakery (Niko) I was stopped (grabbed, really) by this guy in his early 40s. "Where are you from? Do you live here? I have seen you every day and I find you to be very interesting. I have a restaurant, just here. May I cook something for you and talk to you for a while?" Again, hell no. I get that I'm something of a pink poodle within this haven of homogeneity, but the attention is creepy nonetheless. I just can't get used to it. And the methods for getting my attention are a lot too hands-on. I don't feel unsafe, I just feel mildly violated. (Well, more than mild in the case of the old man.) Why do people think it's okay to put their hands on you? Look, talk. But don't touch. Is that not a basic, universal code of conduct between strangers?

Tiny Dubrovnik
is tiny. For some reason I was expecting something more on the scale of half a Venice, which can take at least a month to get to know intimately. You can know Dubrovnik like the back of your hand in a day. Two, tops.

Itsy Bitsy Korcula Town
I thought Dubrovnik was tiny. Well, the town of Korcula on the island of Korcula is itsy bitsy. I was worried that two hours to wander around wouldn't be nearly enough. Wrong again. You can know Korcula Town like the back of your hand in oh, say 30 minutes. 45, tops.

Passegiata a la Croatia
As in Italy, everyone takes an evening stroll before dinner. It's not called a passegiata here, but it's essentially the same thing. Tons of old people, couples, and parents with kids in strollers. Strolling. And all these women with the babies and toddlers. How is it that they all have size 0 to 6 figures? They all look like models. Seriously. It's very intimidating. You'd never find this many shapely, attractive women in the States. Even in a town like Los Angeles or Miami. There everyone looks plastic. These women are au natural and they're all perfect. It's sick. In a good way.

Kids Will Be Kids
On the bus ride back to Dubrovnik from Cavtat, it was just about the time kids were getting out of school. I sat in the back of the bus with about five bad asses under the age of 13 who were throwing trash out the windows, flipping off cars and passersby, yelling to their friends and probably cursing to strangers (it was all in Croatian, mind you).

Figs, Olives, and Pomegranates Galore
The terrain here is very rocky, watery, and green. Dubrovnik and the rest of the region is surrounded by white limestone cliffs peppered with the happy apple green of the same pines you find in the south of France, the deep green of the same cypress trees you find in Tuscany, fig trees, and olive trees. In some parts there are also vineyards. The ones on the hills remind me of the vineyards in the Cinque Terre town of Corniglia. It's actually harvest time, so you see people out working in the heat, collecting the grapes.

Illegal Dumping in Plain Sight
I was on my favorite little beach one afternoon, near my hotel, and was unfortunately witness to some illegal dumping. A little Australian girl, old enough to know better, had taken a crap in her bikini and then disposed of the waste on the shoreline. Na-sty. Her mom didn't see and everyone else was too zoned out in a sunbathing stupor to notice.

Getting Treated Like a Local
I patronized Niko so many times that the ladies there all know me. One was particularly nice and told me which items were fresh and which weren't. Prior to helping me I watched her sell day-old pastries to tourists.

Death Defying Drive
I'm going to Sorrento for two-and-a-half weeks in April to explore the Amalfi Coast. My day trip to Korcula proved good prep for Italy, I think. The driving here along the coast is similarly death defying. On the way back the bus was hugging the outside lane and if you looked over the edge and down the rocky cliffs, you could indeed see many (too many) rusted out skeletons of vehicles past.

Immigration Issues
There was an interesting, though sensational, series of articles in the September 11th international edition of Newsweek that I picked up for kicks. Made me wonder if Hungary and Croatia are really as homogeneous as they seem (I couldn't tell a Croat from a Serb from a Montenegrin from a Bosnia-Herzegovian if you were offering to pay me my weight in platinum for the correct answer), and for how long this will hold true. The articles addressed the causes and effects of various international immigration (and integration) issues. Here are some stats to think about...

In 2002, the number of Moroccans moving to Spain
outnumbered Ecuadorans doing the same thing. In 2005 the Ecuadorans are now coming to Spain in larger numbers than Moroccans. Similar situation in Italy where in 2000 more Moroccans moved to Italy than did Albanians. Now more Albanians are moving in to call Italy home than are Moroccans.

In 2004 unemployment among Britain
's 1.6 million Muslims was 3 times the national average. For Muslim men in the UK the unemployment rate is 13% vs. the 3-8% for men of other religions.

600,000 Eastern Europeans came to live and work in the UK
in 2004-2005. This is the single largest wave of immigration in Britain's history. Most of these immigrants from the last two years were Polish. According to the UK's government stats, 97% of these 600,000 immigrants found employment.

Quote from a Muslim business owner in West London
, "If your name is Mohammad and you speak English, or Richard and you don't, employers will pick Richard."

Burmese are moving to Thailand
for a better life. As are people from Bangladesh, moving to Mozambique. Argentine job ads are placed in Bolivian newspapers.

Of 191 million total global migrants...

...61 million people move from developing nations to another developing country. (poor to poor)

...62 million people move from developing nations to developed nations. (poor to rich)

...53 million people move between developed nations. (rich to rich)

...14 million people move from developed nations to developing countries (rich to poor)

War Photo Limited Exhibition Center
has an excellent little museum of war photography. There is a standing exhibit of images from the recent war, and then exhibits that come and go. I saw a really heart-wrenching exhibit here of images from war-torn Africa. Really gruesome, awful stuff. Sigh. But no one cares about Africa. As Anderson Cooper said on CNN the same night.

Anderson Cooper on Africa
He gave a great report on CNN. Discussing Chad, Sudan, and the Congo region and the worst atrocities taking place in the Darfur region at the moment.

The Whitest Person on the Beach
While I was reading one day on the beach, this Australian couple next to me got up to leave. The girl started singing, "I'm the whitest person on the beeeach! I'm the whitest person..." I started laughing and she nearly screamed. Wasn't expecting anyone nearby to speak English. We had a little chat and I informed her that, actually, the Irish couple over yonder was, technically, the whitest on the beach. And the most likely to be burnt at the end of their holiday.

You Know, the Italians Eat Cats
This old man who lives near the harbor stopped to talk to me as I was playing with four of the locals (cats). "You like cats? You want to take one home with you? Take your pick. We all love animals here. We all feed them. You know the Italians eat cats. They have a special recipe. During WWII you could get good money for a big cat. Big like a rabbit. We also had Jews in Dubrovnik in WWII. Did you know that? We had Jewish streets and a synagogue and about 30 Jewish families. We took the names off the streets and had everything Jewish removed to protect the people." After this ramble, he went on to tackle the United States for me. "America is a very bad country. You seem like a nice woman, but your country is evil. I am sorry to tell you. [Yes, yes. I am well aware.] It does some good things but many more bad things. Democracy is good, but not the American way of democracy. America is not a democracy. It is corrupt and does as it pleases. Like all other bad republics, it will pay a price. It is too bad, America." He then went on to explain to me that after a hellish muddle through miles of red tape, Croatians can still be denied entry to the U.S. when they arrive at customs. Visa or no visa.

A Silent Sentiment, Spoken
I met a very nice (and very handsome) Croatian painter from Zagreb (the capital city) who comes to Dubrovnik for 6-7 months each year to sell his work. He was 36 and old enough to remember life in the former Yugoslavia. Says it was much better than capitalism. He lit a cigarette and launched into a 30 minute tirade about the evils of capitalism (and, of course, of the United States) and how much better the former system had been. I was surprised and said, "No one ever tells you that." He said that it's a common sentiment, but not popular to give voice to. For fear that you'll be labeled nostalgic. "People used to have the money to buy a car. Everyone had a flat and plenty of food. We could all take a summer and a winter holiday with friends or family. Life was better. Now we have rich and many more poor. Too many."

Furball Fiesta
I broke down and bought a bounty of food for the local felines. Thought they deserved a free feast on my last kuna (Croatian money). Bought 25 USD worth of food and walked all over the city feeding my favorite cats. It was wunderbar.

From Me to You
My friend at the popular Niko bakery in the walled portion of Dubrovnik gave me everything I bought on my last day as a gift, she said, "From me to you."

Queue at Your Own Risk
Before I'd been to Europe I'd only ever heard the rumors that Europeans don't know how to line up according to the unwritten rules of common courtesy and etiquette. Well, that's a generalization that I'm afraid is true from France to Croatia. The Too-Short "get in where you fit in..." song comes to mind. Little old ladies will literally push you out of the way to climb ahead of you onto the bus, in the checkout line at the market, at the deli. It's a free-for-all. You've got to be either wacky patient or an asshole. When the little old lady with a cart full of groceries tried to cut me in line at the market, and I had only a bottle of water to pay for, I decided to be the asshole. I'm quite happy with my decision. She was not. She huffed off to a line nearby and nearly ran over a woman and child with her cart to fly ahead of them. I think she caught them off guard enough that they didn't protest and let her in.

Others Abroad
Short video of Michael Palin's travels in Croatia.

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.

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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