Monday, November 26, 2007

Hungary on Turkey Day

Hungarian for the day: Tök jó. Literally "pumpkin good" but colloquially "cool/awesome/great."

The past 10 days were some of the my favorites since I arrived here. After a quiet week on my own I had the good fortune to welcome another friend to Hungary. Gayle took the week of Thanksgiving off and dedicated it to coming out and visiting me and my new home. This event, which I had been looking forward to since I arrived in August, began last Saturday when I arrived in Budapest and made my way to the hostel where Gayle and I were staying for the next few days. She had just come off the plane so we went straight to a nearby Hungarian restaurant to catch up and eat before we began our exploration of Budapest. Though our meal was only a late lunch it was dark by the time we were finished - ever since daylight savings time a few weeks ago the sun starts setting at about 3:30 and it's completely dark by 4:30. It's annoying in general, but that day I didn't mind because our first stop was nearby Hero's Square, which looks quite impressive in the evening.

Hero's Square at night (a bit before 5PM)

We spent a while admiring the statues on Hero's Square and reading the background history of each provided by the guidebooks before going on a long walk. We were mostly just catching up but along the way we glimpsed some of Budapest's best sights, including the city park, Andrassy Avenue, and the evening panorama of Buda from across the Danube. After enduring the cold for many miles of walking, we decided to make our way to a cafe to catch up in the warmth. Eventually we decided we'd had enough coffee but not enough being out and yet being warm. We spent the rest of the night in a nice little bar near the hostel before stumbling home at some unknown hour.

Gayle and the Palace on Buda's Castle Hill both looking lovely in the evening.

The next morning we were a bit slow getting up but when we saw the day we'd been sleeping through we almost went back to bed. It was a real nasty day - cold enough that no sane person would want to be outside but just warm enough to keep the dreary rain from turning into pretty snow. Having only limited time in Budapest we braved the weather and embarked upon another day of walking. Because Gayle had under three days to see Budapest I figured that we should hit the highlights, and in Budapest that means soaking in some great views. We began by crossing the Danube on Szechenyi Bridge and catching the view from there:

The Danube still looks beautiful on a gray day.

Once across the bridge we walked up the river's banks before turning inland to one of the quieter Buda side's few really throbbing centers - Moszkva Ter. From there we climbed up the Castle Hill to enjoy the view as the day turned into night. By the time we climbed the hill daylight was already fading but we did have enough time to enjoy a few views.

Gayle and I with the Buda hills in the background after our climb up Castle Hill.

The Fisherman's Bastion is primarily just a place to take in the view but during this trip to Budapest it struck me for the first time how nice the structure itself is.

Gayle taking a closer look at life across the Danube.

After spending some time enjoying the scenery we decided to take a look inside Matthias Church, an important part of the castle complex that I had never been inside. Though the outside is currently covered with scaffolding because of a reconstruction project, the ornately mosaicked interior was absolutely beautiful to see:

The alter of Matthias Cathedral

Beautiful mosaics

After spending some time in the warm quiet of the cathedral we decided to rest our feet for a while and recharge with a few coffees at a cafe. Night fell as we relaxed over our cappuccinos and when we went back outside some impressive night views from the castle awaited us.

Parliament's dome shining over the Danube

Szechenyi Bridge with St Steven's Cathedral in the background

Gayle doing her best to stay warm and dry in very problematic weather

After we were finished looking around Castle Hill we decided that we'd had plenty of sightseeing in hostile weather for one day and went to a nice restaurant to get warm and sample some very traditional Hungarian food, meaning we only finished half of our meals and nearly died trying to get that far. We then waddled back to our hostel's neighborhood to lay low for the evening in a local bar where we watched the Cowboys v. Redskins game. It was so awesome to see football again, though it was sad to be reminded of how embarrassing my hometown's team is. I think I taught the people in the bar some bad (but useful) English vocabulary every time the Redskins fumbled.

The next day, Monday, we got a much earlier start. It was our last day in Budapest because I had to be back at school the next morning - indeed that was actually a school day but I'd found people to substitute all of my classes so I could show Gayle around Budapest a bit longer (it was easy to get out my classes after subbing so much recently). We started the day with the first good drip coffee that I've had in Hungary at a place near our hostel called California Coffee House. Coffee here is served basically as espresso, and while I like espresso fine I sometimes miss my 20 ounces of happiness that got me through college each and every day. Feeling great after my favorite day-starter we began another busy day of sightseeing. We walked through the city park and then up to the outskirts of the downtown where we could cross the Arpad Bridge and get access to Margaret Island, a 2.5 kilometer long island in the middle of the Danube that serves as a park and a great resting place from the hustle and bustle of big city life. Walking around Margaret Island you can hardly believe that you are in the middle of such metropolis.

A picturesque pond where we relaxed and watched the ducks for a while

One of Margaret Island's many walking/running/biking paths

After our walk through Margaret Island we emerged on the park's south end to enjoy the view of the Danube panorama from Margaret Bridge. Then we crossed back into the Pest side to get a closer look at Parliament and then find some food. Parliament was beautiful as always and then we found a great and cheap lunch at a cafeteria over the Picks Sausage store.

Parliament looks good even in bad weather
Pick Sausage is a serious Hungarian tradition and it is seriously good. By the way, my vegetarianism is on hold while in Hungary for practical and gastronomical reasons.

After lunch we did some more strolling around a few of the places to see in Pest, such as Liberty Square and St Steven's, before it was almost time to get on the bus back to Szentes. We gave ourselves some extra time because we had some seriously heavy luggage - Gayle had very kindly brought me some items from home that I dearly missed. Being the nerd that I am, these items were pretty much books, and there were over thirty pounds to be carried to the bus station. The transit was a bit strenuous between the weight of all of my "necessities" along with how crowded Budapest's metro gets at rush hour, but we made it and then the bus ride back to Szentes was comfortable and easy.

On Tuesday and Wednesday I went to school early each morning as Gayle stayed home to sleep in and enjoy a vacation from her always frenetic life in Baltimore. In the afternoons and evenings we went for walks around Szentes and I showed her my new home. Being the quaint place that it is, this didn't take much time.

Gayle met me here at Kossuth Square at the center of Szentes after school in the afternoons

On Wednesday night Gayle was subjected to Goulash a la Paul

On Thanksgiving Day, just another work day over here in the Old World, Gayle joined me at school for a few classes. I was very happy with my students for talking to her and behaving themselves, but then again I didn't take her to any of the classes that misbehave. It was nice to have her along to talk about Thanksgiving with me to my younger classes and then discuss her life working in finance and going to school for her MBA with my business students. I don't think I was so subtle when I asked her "And can you tell them how important it is to be PUNCTUAL and DO YOUR WORK and BE ORGANIZED, please?" At least they got the point. Gayle was sneaky and got a few pictures of me in action teaching:

Inspiring young minds and all that jazz

A colleague of mine was kind enough to snap this pic as we left school

That night, Taylor, Gayle and I did our best to have a real traditional turkey dinner. Taylor actually deserves the credit because he took it upon himself to look up the recipes and hunt down as many ingredients as he could so that when Gayle and I arrived at his place on Thursday evening all we had to do was give a hand in the preparation. The meal was excellent: roast turkey, mashed potatoes, corn muffins, squash, brussel sprouts, and even stuffing! We did our patriotic duty and ate ourselves stupid. We added a Hungarian twist by seasoning with some tasty paprika and taking a few shots of the delicious yet potent national drink, palinka. We had a great time celebrating and then when Gayle and I returned home I called my father's cell phone and was lucky enough to talk to many of my family members who I was missing so much on this special family day.

Taylor outdid himself with the Thanksgiving preparations

Gayle carving our modest little turkey

The next morning I was up early to get to class. The day went well, despite my ever so slight hangover from our Thanksgiving celebrations. After class, Gayle met me at Kossuth Square and we went to Taylor's place to help clean up a bit and have the traditional Thanksgiving leftover lunch. Then we were off to the neighboring town of Hódmezővásárhely (say that ten times fast!) where my colleague Kata lives. Kata had invited me down to spend time seeing the town and getting to know her family. I was very excited about this rare opportunity to hang out with a Hungarian family and Kata was kind enough to invite Gayle and Taylor as well. We had a nice time walking around the town and then hanging out with her and her two charming toddlers, Lila (2) and Benedict (3). We spent a few hours back at her place playing with the kids, who have lots of personality and were fun to be around. They even gave us a Hungarian lesson, pointing to pictures in a book and telling us the Hungarian words.

Lila building up Gayle's Hungarian vocabulary

My colleague Kata and her two adorable children, Lila and Bendi

After out time in Hódmezővásárhely we took the bus down to Szeged where we were staying with my new friend Julianna, who Tim and I had met through couchsurfers two weeks earlier. We met her at her nice apartment in downtown Szeged and she guided us to something that Taylor and I had been craving for months - Mexican food!!! It was absolutely incredible to get some Mexican food and a few margaritas and it was also great to get to know Julianna better. After our late dinner, Julianna showed us around Szeged for a bit. We made our way to Dome Square, where the basilica was looking absolutely beautiful lit by the floodlights. Dome Square is also home to the panorama of statues of those who have contributed to Hungarian history and culture. Julianna, an extremely knowledgeable person, was able to explain the significance of all the statuary and I feel like we got a lot of perspective on Hungarian history from her.

Julianna explaining the significance of the statues to us in Dome Square

The Dome Basilica glowing across the square

A nearly full moon over the rear of the basilica

After our walk in the frigidly cold evening we decided to retreat into a cozy pub to talk over a few drinks. Sooner than later we were all nodding off after our busy day so we went back to Julianna's and got some sleep. The next morning we woke up and Julianna was off to a symposium for school while Gayle, Taylor and I went around exploring Szeged. It was very cold, but at least the sun was out. We took in some of the sights, thought the most fun we had was probably at a playground on the banks of the Tisza River. Gayle wanted to do some souveneir shopping so between that and getting some food at a nice little restaurant we had a busy but fun day. Soon Taylor was off to the bus station to return to Szentes while Gayle and I were on our way to Julianna's to meet her before taking the train up to Budapest with her.

Gayle and Taylor showing us that life is full of ups and downs

The train ride up to Budapest was smooth and comfortable. Gayle napped in an attempt to rest up before a long day of traveling on Sunday while I chatted with Julianna primarily about transitioning to life in a new country because she understood the feeling well having herself spent a year living in New Zealand. She has done some work for her psychology degree on what she calls "cultural homelessness" which applies to people who spend long periods of time living outside of their own cultures. She warns me that despite how much a person idealizes their native land while living with the day to day in a strange new place, upon returning to the States I might find that parts of me have changed and don't gel with my homeland like they once did. I've heard the same from a number of people who have spent long periods of time living abroad and I guess I'll find out for myself in July. Talking about it on the train, however, my feelings were extremely mixed between being jealous of Gayle for boarding a plane back to BWI the next morning but knowing that there is more to gain by staying here to figure out life on my own in this place that becomes a bit less foreign every day. After the heavy conversation of the train ride, Gayle and I checked in to our hostel in Budapest and spent her last night in Hungary in a cafe trying to fit eight months of conversation into the time it takes to drink two beers.

The next morning the alarm went off at 4:30AM and Gayle and I were outside the hostel by 4:45 waiting for the airport minibus to whisk her away to Ferihegy International. The bus came and we said goodbye. Alone again in Hungary I returned to bed to sleep until I woke up naturally for the first time in a long time. Then I set out on foot to do some exploration in Budapest on my own. Unfortunately, the weather was again abysmal and after about 30 minutes I was drenched and frozen. I figured it was time to try out the baths that Budapest is so famous for. The cheaper and more authentic Turkish baths all seemed closed because it was Sunday so I was forced to make my way to the more expensive Gellert Baths. By that time I was so wet I didn't care. I got kind of fleeced there because the woman at the ticket counter told me that towels were included and I didn't think that bathing suites were even allowed so I wasn't worried that I hadn't brought one. Unfortunately upon paying my nonrefundable entrance fee and making my way to the changing rooms I learned that towel rental was extra (and more than 2 towels would cost in a store...) and that the traditional baths were closed so I had to rent a swim suite for the mixed gender baths. Oh well, soon I was a bit poorer but I was at least in the warm water. I enjoyed the warmth and the people watching as tourists of all backgrounds and shapes passed through the Gellert's cathedral like baths. When I emerged into the cold and wet weather once more I felt completely recharged. I had some time to kill so I figured I would go for a hike around the Buda hills and then make my way up to the Castle Hill to take in the Contemporary Art Museum. I had a very nice time walking around Buda and it actually felt good to be climbing up and down hills for once. Unfortunately, when I made it to the Castle Hill I found that my guidebook was a bit dated and that the museum I had planned on seeing had moved across the city. Since I only had 2 hours before the last bus to Szentes departed I didn't have time to make my way to the museum or to get my money's worth from the entrance fee to the Hungarian National Gallery which had swallowed the Contemporary Art Museum so I just caught an earlier bus back home. By the time I returned to my apartment I was thoroughly tired and happy from the events of the preceding week so I passed right out to rest up for another busy week full of Hungarian students.

The Gellert is home to both the most famous hotel and baths in Budapest

Now I'm back in Szentes and with the fun and excitement of visitors behind me I'm trying to focus on getting back to teaching more seriously and renewing my efforts at learning Hungarian. Hopefully more time alone will not be too lonely and will give me the opportunity to get to the next level of Hungarian (basic). Time will tell. I hope that everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving! Szia!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

fall break, superlatives and other adventures

Hungarian for the day: Jezus Krisztus, nagyon hideg van itt! Jesus Christ, it's cold here!

Life in Szentes continues to go pretty well. Over the past couple of weeks I've been lucky enough to do some great traveling around Hungary. Unfortunately, having not been paid yet I couldn't afford to roam far and wide on my Fall Break, but that was ok because my friend Tim was in town and, both of us being broke and worn out, we just sat around the apartment relaxing for the first half of the week. It was nice to sleep in repeatedly and take the time to study a lot of Hungarian and get some stuff done around the apartment. Our choice to shun interaction from the outside world was encouraged by the fact that my washing machine was (well, is) on the fritz, and Tim, who is on a tour of Europe by motorbike, was even more desperate for a way to do laundry than I was. Well, my landlady/boss didn't respond very quickly (read: still over two weeks later hasn't responded) to my pleas for washing machine maintenance, so we just sat around wearing our last remaining outfits (gym shorts) for a few days until Taylor returned from his trip to Debrecen and we could get some much needed sanitation done at his place.

On Thursday, after some laundry, we decided our hiatus from the world of the living had gone on too long and we set out to do some sight seeing. One of my private students had recommended to me that I visit the tiny village of Opusztaszer, a place not far away but hard to get to because it's a bit off the beaten track. Taylor had rented a car in order to visit Debrecen and was looking for suggestions of where to drive, so Opusztaszer seemed like the perfect match - nearby but not something we could easily get to without our own set of wheels. The village of Opusztaszer itself is nothing to see, what's special about it is the large outdoor museum of Hungarian history and culture located there. This unlikely location was chosen because of its unique importance in Hungarian history, and to understand this we need to take a trip back in time. Hungarians, as their charmingly beguiling non-Indo-European language suggests, are not from 'round these parts. Linguists theorize that these Ugric-speaking Magyars (as the Hungarians call themselves) originated from somewhere near the Ural Mountains. They were a wandering people, and the hodgepodge of different language traits mixed in to Hungarian suggests that they wandered far and wide for a couple thousand years. Eventually the itinerant Magyar tribes descended upon the Carpathian Basin and decided to stay here. The leaders of the tribes pledged allegiance to Arpad and hence the Hungarians had both united and found a home. The year was 896 AD, and the place was Opusztaszer. Our day there was very pleasant. The weather was beautiful and sunny, and though it's been quite frigid here for a while the temperature mercifully made it up into light jacket weather. The museum is a strange combination of weird Hungarian stuff, ranging from reconstructed ancient Magyar homesteads to Hungarian tractors through the ages. Though the connection between Arpad's accomplishments and Hungarian agriculture seem tenuous to me, it was an interesting place and a pleasant way to spend the afternoon. One of the coolest exhibits is the huge panorama picture of Arpad's conquest that was commissioned for the 1896 celebration of Hungary's 1000th birthday. Unfortunately the no photography policy in the panorama building was strictly enforced.

Sometimes translations here are (hilariously) lacking. "The garden of ruin" described in the sign references the ruins of an ancient monastery.

Traditional Magyar dwellings. The architecture gives away some of their Eastern heritage.

No joke - we found this primitive but awesome bowling lane in one of the traditional Hungarian farmsteads.

The Great Plain stretching out behind the garden of ruin.

Our drive back to Szentes on the back roads of the plains offered some beautiful, if flat, views.

The next day we decided to roam a bit more before Taylor and I were due in Budapest for a meeting of the SOL organizers and teachers. Eager for a little escape from the flatness surrounding us, Tim, Taylor, Sara (the French lecturer) and I jumped in the rented car and drove up to the Kekes, the highest point in Hungary located in the Matra mountains. Our trip up to Matra seemed like it should have taken longer because it took us clear across the country, but at just over 3 hours (even after getting lost on the way in Szolnok) the drive was a reminder of the relative closeness of everything in Hungary. We made it to Kekes with plenty of time to go for a nice long hike. At just over 1000 meters, Hungary's highest point is not so impressively high, but it was still nice to look at the "mountains" in their beautiful fall colors and go for a nice long walk in the woods. Once we'd had our fill of the great outdoors we drove Sara to Budapest to meet some of her French friends and then headed north to our next destination, Esztergom. This was a trip of superlatives, we'd seen Hungary's oldest settlement and its highest point, and now we were headed for Esztergom where we were to find Hungary's largest church.

Sara, Taylor and I about to start our hike on Kekes.

The view from the top of the other Matra mountains.

Esztergom is a beautiful small town on the Danube, which serves as the border with Slovakia here. The area has a rich history dating back to the Celtic tribes and then serving as a Roman fort. Marcus Aurelius allegedly finished writing his Meditations in this fort while he was serving in the military in the fight against those ornery Germanic tribes. It is one of the oldest Hungarian cities and was Hungary's capital before Buda or Pest were really on the map. It was here that Hungary's first Christian King, St Steven, was crowned, and even after losing its title as Hungary's first city it kept its importance as the home of the Hungarian Catholic Church. We arrived long after dark and drove around looking for lodging and food. This turned out to be a bit more labor intensive (and expensive) than we'd thought it would be, so we decided to forgo exploring the impressively glowing Basilica until the next morning. This was unfortunate because on the clear night and with the huge floodlights upon it the Basilica was more beautiful than we would get to see again. When we got up and out the next day we the fog was so thick that we couldn't even see the humongous Basilica that we knew to be there. We spent the morning walking around the pleasant cobblestone streets of Esztergom and then had a nice time up on the hill shared by the huge Basilica and the ruins of an old castle. The fog eventually lifted, but only for about the last hour or so of our time in Esztergom. Still, we had a really nice time touring the quaint little town.

Where is it?


The inside of the Basilica's enormous dome.

Scenic and quaint Esztergom from the ramparts of the castle ruins.

Just as the day became absolutely gorgeous (albeit freezing) it was time to go. Taylor and I were due for our meeting with SOL, the organization that sent us here. We made our way back to Budapest along a road that runs beside the Danube. It was a beautiful drive and soon we were back in the big city. We dropped off the car at Hertz and began walking around Budapest. My last visit to this fantastic city was in some seriously dreary weather, and though it was still beautiful, blue skies and sunshine really made it something spectacular. We weren't particularly in a rush to the SOL meeting so we decided just to walk all the way to the meeting, halfway across the city. Tim tagged along with us until we were near the meeting and then he split off to do some exploration of his own. Taylor and I arrived to the SOL group just in time for an excursion up to the Citadella, a memorial on top of Gellert Hill that offers great views of the city. Though we had done this on our last trip to Budapest, we had done it at night and I was happy to take in the view in the afternoon. We had a really great time hanging out with the SOL people. The organizers are extremely kind and they treated us to a huge dinner (for Hungarians do not know of any other kind of dinner) and lots of great conversation. After hours around the dinner table talking some went to bed while others went out to a bar on Moskva Ter for a few beers and more discussion (mostly bitching). It was cathartic for Taylor and I to talk to the other SOL volunteers from all around Hungary who had stories of bureaucratic woe and student struggles that actually made ours seem pretty tame. It was also nice to hear that we weren't the only ones who hadn't just fallen into a nice social group and that loneliness was something that everyone moving to a new country alone goes through. Some of the other volunteers are much worse off than Taylor and I, indeed we're lucky at least to be able to hang out with one another. We've vowed to visit and be visited by some of the other SOL people so that should offer some good times and good travel opportunities in the future.

The view from the Citadella as afternoon turns to evening

The next morning we were up early for discussion with the SOLers. We sat around the Education Ministry's guest house all morning and then Grenville and Kati, the SOL organizers, provided us with a light lunch. After that the team dispersed and most people were off to their respective Hungarian towns. I decided to stay in Budapest for a while because it was such a beautiful day and Tim was out and about. I met Tim beside the river and we spent the afternoon walking around and I showed him what I could of Budapest. Eventually, however, it was time to face the facts. It was getting dark on Sunday evening and the last bus to Szentes was leaving and my precious break was over. Sigh - back to school.

Certainly my most extreme picture of the Parliament building

My first week back from break was a good week. Having looked forward to the excitement of the Oct 23rd and Fall Breaks for such a long time it was a bit depressing to look at how far away my next break - Christmas - is on my calendar (7 weeks). At least I like the job most days. Tim spent the week on the internet at my apartment trying to plan the logistics of his trip, which he is hoping to take beyond Europe. The week progressed quickly and then on Friday night I made a humongous pot of hearty stew to fend off the freezing weather and the wintry mix precipitation and had a tiny dinner party with Taylor, Sara, and Tim. We had a nice time feasting and letting Tim try his first Hungarian palinka. The next day, once the remaining palinka had left our systems, Tim and I headed down to Szeged to sightsee for the weekend. Though this was my fourth time in the city it was my first time to really look around because during my first few visits all I saw was the walk between the bus station and the Immigration Office. We had arranged to couchsurf in Szeged and it turned out to be perhaps my favorite experience with couchsurfers yet. We stayed with a really nice guy named Zsolt and his girlfriend Kata who took us out to an artsy little cafe/bar where we met a big group of their friends. Szeged is a university town and the assembled group really reflected that. It was great to be with a big group of outgoing and funny people. They were sympathetic to my poorly-suppressed frustration with a few of the aspects of small town Hungarian life, having for the most part come from small towns in Hungary themselves, and made me extremely happy by encouraging me to start coming down to Szeged any weekend I wanted to. The next day couchsurfers did right by us again when we met Julianna, a student at Szeged who for various logistical reasons we didn't get to stay with but who still offered to come out and show us around. Tim and I went to the New Synagogue to wait for her, which was perhaps the most beautiful house of worship I've seen in Hungary yet. The inside was absolutely spectacular, and we were even lucky enough to have someone playing the organ as we walked around. Unfortunately my camera's battery ran out right after I took the first picture of the inside, but hopefully that picture of the ornate cupola will give you an idea of how nice the synagogue is. Right after we left we met Julianna, who took us to a nice cafe where we sat with her for a long time talking. She spoke flawless English, having spent over a year living in New Zealand, and was exceptionally kind. After a few strong Hungarian coffees Tim wanted to get his last bit of traditional Hungarian food before moving onwards to his next stop, Romania. Julcsi knew just the place, a tiny little restaurant called 90C, named after the bra size of the two buxom Hungarian babushka owners/cooks. The food was certainly delicious and again the conversation was wonderful. Afterwards we walked around for a bit before Tim had to hit the road and I felt 24 unplanned classes calling my name all the way from Szentes. Returning to Szentes was nice, especially because I got to reflect on the fact that my weekend in Szeged had given me a few new friends in Hungary.

The Dome Church is perhaps Szeged's most famous monument

The C stands for vitamin C! This useful vitamin was discovered by a Hungarian professor at the University of Szeged, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi.

The beautiful cupola inside Szeged's New Synagogue

Julianna and Tim outside of the University's School of Arts building. The statue commemorates the 1956 Revolution. It was in this building that the first revolutionaries gathered and started the revolt against the Soviets, about a week before revolution fever took Budapest by storm.