Home in Hungary - Budapest, Hungary

Greetings! We are dedicating this to Balazs and Zsusanna, our wonderful new friends and hosts in Hungary.

Ah, Budapest, Hungary - what a country, what a city. Hungary is unique in all of Central Europe (more PC these days than saying Eastern Europe) First of all, they are not Slavic, like their neighbors, instead they descend from the Magyars, and the most obvious reminder of this is their tongue.  They speak a language unlike any other in the world, bearing only a passing resemblence to Finnish.  Communism was ushered out via economic collapse in 1988, and the doors were thrown wide open. Hungary was the first country on our trip that we really began to know.  Their history is fascinating, and unfortunately has not been too kind in the last hundred years.  Hungary in the nineteeth century was part of the vast Austrian Hungarian empire, but that all collapsed in WWI (bring out the history books here) and Hungary was carved up like a steak. They lost two-thirds of their land, as well as trapping many ethnic Hungarians in the neighboring countries. Then in WWII, they found themselves on the wrong side, and when they tried to revolt against Germany, their Jewish population was slaughtered. After WWII, they were served on a platter to the Soviets and the wonderful economic model of communism was installed.  

Life has been hard here and it continues to be hard with a growing gap between the haves and the have nots. While the young here are adapting well to the new capitalist system, many older people have no idea how to deal with it. Used to having a life long job by the state, they have now discovered insecurity, stress and depression like never before. But as this country is changing, it will take a generation or so and that is what we mostly felt. A country of hope for the future, and the new millenium.

After our disasterous arrival in Hungary, we arranged to meet up with a couple there.  Before we left, we joined a program called Servas, whose mission is to foster peace and cultural exchange between the people of the world.  Once you apply and are accepted, you gain access to a vast network of hosts in every country that invite you into their home for a few nights to learn about them and to gain insight in the culture. This would be our first experience. And it was better than we could have expected.

Balazs and Zsusanna are our age.  He is an economist for IBM, while she is in HR at a big telecom company. We stayed at their place in Budapest, just a bit outside the downtown, and it was just like home.  They fed us til we burst, lots of "typical hungarian dishes" like homemade goulash and dumplings and bean soup and casseroles and the most amazing dessert, baked, breaded cottage cheese balls covered with sour cream and powdered sugar. mmmm So good, but maybe I'm not describing it in the best way.  Cottage cheese is big here. They kept trying to feed it to us.  And its not like in the US.  Its closer to the cream cheese that we know. Balazs loves these little ice creams that are mini cottage cheese balls dipped in dark chocolate.  And I even had cottage cheese flavored ice cream.

We were only going to stay two nights, but they insisted we could stay the entire time we were in Budapest, so we loafed around at their place for almost a week.  What horrible guests we are, overstaying our welcome, but we were having such a nice time we didn't want to leave. There is something special about staying in a real lived-in home rather than a hotel. 

The Danube separates Buda on the right and Pest on the left

We saw much of the city which has a spectacular layout. Budapest is split in half by the mighty Danube, with Buda on one side and Pest on the other. Buda has the castle, high on the hill overlooking Pest.  While Pest fronts national monuments like the Parliment Building along the Danube. And the city is huge.  Two million people in 24 districts. 

We spent an afternoon at a turkish bath. Hungary is known for its hot thermal springs, and while the Turks occupied Hungary in the fifteeth century, they built turkish baths everywhere. So when in Hungary ... The baths are very elaborate tributes to the art of steaming.  All marble and columns and stone beasts with water pouring from their mouths. Thermal pools come in pairs. One being cold and the other hot, with the idea that you alternate between the two pools to get the blood flowing.  They are outside as well as inside and in the winter, old men in woolen hats sit outside and play chess on waterproof cork boards and pieces with only their heads above the water.  Most baths have men and women only days but we visited a bath that was co-ed. After we had begun to shrivel up like a raisin, we saw a door marked thermal bath. (I thought we were already in one?)  So we investigated. 

I rang a bell and it was answered by a women in a lab coat. "Undress! Shower! Thermal bath that way!" Yes ma'am! I entered into a domed pool that was again divided in half and crawling with naked women of all ages, but especially large elderly women with especially buoyant breasts, that resembled misshaped floatation devices.  This time the pools went from hot to hotter than hell. And I spent my time sweating under a fountain, naked.  I had purchased a massage so I waited my turn, and then went into the room.  I laid on a wet foam pad and instead of the deep muscle massage that we are used to at home, I received a good old fashioned scrubbing. The lady, using a bar of soap and hot water, scrubbed me pink with her pruny hands that felt more like a puckered sponge. ok, that was different.

I went and told Doug that he had to try the men's thermal baths and this is what he thought. I had a very similar experience, except the men were a bit more modest.  Only about half the men were naked but the ones that were, were either body builders or fat old men.  I decided not to get a massage, leaving such pleasures for Ann.  From what I could see, it appeared the massage for men consisted primarily of the rubbing of buttocks with no soap involved. In addition, there was a certain vibe with a particular segment of the bathers who were clearly taking the opportunity to check out the merchandise, especially the bodybuilders.  It was a real eye opener for me, no pun intended, I can't wait for the Turkish baths in Turkey.

Balazs and Zsusanna took us to a movie, all part of the experience.  Same, but different. While we were getting seated, I was looking for the best ones, while Balazs was checking out the seat and row numbers. He stopped and pronounced that he had found our seats.  They actually assign seats at the movies here. We saw a Hungarian subtitled Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.  It was great, although occasionally I envied our friends being able to read the dialogue. Some of the accents were so thick as to render them incomprehensible to my ears. As a special installment of movie corner, we highly recommend it, it was a British Pulp Fiction. Also, prior to the previews, they showed a number of cigarette and liquor commercials, which you can no longer do in the states.

One night they took us to a 'hungarian pub' to meet some friends. A night on the town with local yuppies. They were meeting some friends at a place called Harley Cafe, as in the motorcycles. It was decked in American memorabilia.  So much for authentic hungarian. The soundtrack consisted of disco, that horrid brittany spears song, TLC and interspered with Hungarian pop songs.  We danced the night away, anyway.

Three times we tried to visit the amazing Parliament building, the equivalent of the Congress building. It is very closely guarded and difficult to secure tickets. One morning after being told to show up at a certain time, we were greeted by the military band and honor guard.  Seems they forget to mention that there would be no tours that day because the President of Latvia was coming.  But we watched that for awhile. It was like a Notre Dame Half time show, with the band playing both sides alma maters and then the presentation of flowers and the ROTC honor guard, with the flags and marching and stuff.  After two more trys we did manage to see the interior.  One interesting detail.  Just outside the legislative hall was a cigar holder that held over a hundred cigars. Seems that when a speaker is interesting, the ashtray is full, but when he is boring, everyone leaves and has a smoke.

We want to thank our generous host for their hospitality. For showing us a different side of Budapest and treating us like family. We hope that maybe they will travel to the states sp,eday soon. so that we may return the favor.

Next episode - The adventures with the fam

over and out

ann and doug

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