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Arriving in Budapest
• Olivia R Holcombe
Where to begin? We got here after 30+ long, severely sleep-deprived hours via Philadelphia, Frankfurt, and finally, Budapest, the only help coming from the extremely Aryan flight attendant who formed an immediate crush on Candace and was therefore more than happy to cater to our every need (sparkling wine and chocolates not the least of them - and, p.s., you can drink for free on international flights. Who knew?)

Upon our arrival in Budapest, our first step was to navigate the train and tram system with minimal instructions available in English - it's interesting what one can accomplish simply by blindly putting money in a machine and praying for understanding ticket-takers, should they even come by.  The initial train was very Soviet-era, as was the trip from the airport into the city center - I began to fear for a year of industrial buildings and cement blocks. Thankfully, the tram, metro, and most of the city itself are very modern and Western European looking - and no surprise at all, there are now shopping malls, 100% of which are styled after Western malls. Ha!

Our hostel was lovely, though the single Korean man who runs it was rather depressing, only in the fact that he literally never left - he ran the thing by himself (in order to save money), was constantly there as a result (and also constantly cleaning, the cleanliness of which I appreciate, though his appearance instantly at the conclusion of one taking a shower was rather unnerving), and was also, as a result, exceedingly lonely, so we spent lots of our time there chatting with him. He is hoping to rent out the entire hostel to a school group or such for the month of January so he can go home - so think good thoughts for that!

Budapest We spent the first several days walking around the Pest side of the city (which is divided into two parts by the Danube: Buda and Pest), in order to get a feel for the different districts (the city is divided into approximately 13) so we'd have a good idea of where we might want to find an apartment. 
After meeting with two different realtors and seeing a number of places, we ended up with one in a fantastic location - right on a main street with a tram line, metro stop, grocery store, coffee shop with Wi-Fi, and within walking distance to most everything else.

An interesting nuance to the apartment-rental scene here is, in addition to rent & utilities, we pay a "common cost" - I 'm assuming for trash pickup (trash bins on the bottom floor by the escalator) and maybe elevator maintenance?  Not quite sure what else, as there is no cable or internet...

The apartment itself smelled like old pickles upon first entering - tantalizing, I know - and the remnants of that smell remain even after an extensive bleaching. Thanks to IKEA and Vanilla-Scented candles, we are able to avoid feeling trapped in an abandoned concession stand!  Other quirks (a huge part of making the most of this adventure is putting a positive spin on things) in the apartment include a toilet room, utterly separate (not even sharing a door with) the shower and sink room; a shower head that is detached, such that it is necessary to hold it between my knees while soaping up; a hot water heater that is dependent on a gas-powered flame, such that hot water requires turning the hot water knob all the way on, hearing the flame light up, and waiting for the water to become warm/scalding, which it will do only for a moment before becoming ice-cold, and then heading back into scalding territory again; the gas oven/stove that requires matches to light (please let's not tell Grandmother about this particular detail ...)), and the gas heater that manages to keep the 5-feet closest to it warm, not including the shower room/toilet room, leading to some very interesting mornings ...

Oh, and did I mention that all of the apartments seem to come equipped with a washing-machine (yay), but no dryer - so our clothes are positioned on a clothesline attached to a pulley-system that allows them to dry over the course of approximately two days in the upper reaches of our 15-foot tall kitchen?

As hard as it is to believe, it's quite charming!  All part of the Candace and Olivia adventure, which is what we signed on for when we boarded this crazy train.

In good news, yesterday it snowed!  Though it is shockingly, horrifying cold - and Candace has no snow boots, only canvas tennis shoes that have done anything but keep her feet warm. There are Christmas lights everywhere, and Christmas music blaring at every available opportunity, which suits me fine, though I find it greatly entertaining that it would seem America is the only place in the history of the world ever to create Christmas music, as I've heard George Michael and Mariah Carey Christmas tunes and more than anything else thus far (with a bit of The Rat Pack thrown in, thank goodness).  People are very friendly, though the amount of written and spoken English is far less than I naively supposed.

Szia!  Means Hello in Hungarian (Magyar), in case you didn't guess.  Of further interest is the fact that I am writing from an internet cafe, typing on a keyboard where z and y are switched, the zero is before the 1 (rather than after the 9), and the punctuation marks are all over the place - @ is on the v button,  and commas are all on one button. I have the ability to type Ö ? and É without using a toolbar.  Ha!  It's an interesting thing to guide one's fingers away from directions they've gone since the 7th grade.  So if too manz of mz sentences come out looking like this, donát judge...

Christmas was interesting - a whole new adventure in this travelogue of ours.  I bought a Christmas tree from a street vendor, a gentleman who spoke not a bit of English but was able to understand my fairly direct indication of what I desired (I pointed).  Finding a tree-stand was a whole other story - IKEA didn't have them (I know! What is the world...), the department store didn't have them, the grocery stores didn't have them.  I started to wonder if this were a purely American idea, until two days before Christmas when suddenly every street kiosk and florist seemed to have them overflowing onto the sidewalks, and then I realized that no, in fact, the American part of this mystery is that we put our trees UP so early.  In any event, because I am American, our tree went up much earlier than that.  It remains standing where we put it.  In our mop bucket. 

Which happens to be red, so there!

Also?  Christmas tree lights here are little globes, rather than the thinner, more cylindrical lights we are accustomed to, and they are on an electrical cord that is circular, rather than simply linear - i.e., there is one plug, with a cord coming out of it that has lights all over it, and that same cord then coming back into the plug - rather than the plug\cord\receptacle that we are used to.  If you think putting lights on the tree is bad at home!

Christmas shopping, it will come as no surprise, was also an interesting adventure.  It seems that the entire country is off work for the month of December (now that's the right idea!) - and they were all at the mall.  The pace of life is very different here - culturally, it seems, there isn't much rushing around or moving quickly at all.  A leisurely pace is in use at all times, whether in the mall, at the supermarket, or on the sidewalk, regardless of whom might be behind you or whether or not you are blocking the way.  There also doesn't seem to be much in the way of "excuse me" or "sorry" (when blocking the way of an entire row of books another person is trying to look at, for example) - which is very well, I suppose, given that I have not a clue how to SAY "excuse me" or "sorry" (an interesting thing to note at this point is my brain's tendency to go to words it DOES know, such as "scusi" (italian) or lo siento (spanish).  Not the right language...). 

Then there was the credit card fiasco.  After standing in line for some time (did I mention the slow pace?) at Skala (THE department store.  The ONLY department store.), I arrived at the front and handed the cashier my goodies.  We exchanged smiles, which is, of course, an international language :).  After ringing everything in and receiving my credit card, she swiped it, typed in the amount, hit enter... and then said something in Magyar - I'm guessing along the lines of "oh sX%$" - before immediately hitting more buttons while simultaneously picking up her phone and calling someone, with whom she then had a flustered back-and-forth, while still hitting buttons, to no avail..  Throw in lots of head-shaking. 

I, meanwhile, see what has happened but mistakenly think she has typed in too LITTLE on the machine, rather than too much, so I attempt to hand her a coin to make up the difference, which she brushes off with a "Nem" (no) - and then I realise that she has, in fact, typed in too MUCH - by a whole extra zero at the end!  So now I'm starting to get flustered, and wondering how difficult it can possibly be to hit VOID. 

Enter a supervisor, with whom the cashier proceeds to have a flustered conversation (I stand by, throughout all of this, not knowing one word they are saying and just smiling).  The supervisor begins hitting buttons, then SHE gets on the phone - same flustered back-and-forth, to no avail - then ANOTHER cashier shows up and they are all three chattering away, in a language I know not at all, hitting buttons and shaking heads and throwing hands up in the air.  Oh and p.s.?  When this first began the cashier waved everyone in line behind me away - should have been the first indication things were not going to go well - but by now enough time has gone by that there is a whole NEW line formed behind me, and they don't know what is going on, so they are looking at me like I'VE done something wrong (oh all of a sudden that slow approach to life is out the window, huh guys?!).  Finally the supervisor gets on her CELL PHONE (now we're calling in the big dogs), hits a few buttons, and aha!  A voided receipt prints out, with lots of smiling and sighs of relief all around.  The cashier says something to me, shows me the receipt, runs my credit card again, is very careful about the number she types in - talking away in Magyar the whole time, with me just smiling away - hands me the proper one, I sign, and the whole thing is over.  My very own National Lampoon skit - and it definitely couldn't have been any "hooter" in there!

Aside from all the head-shaking, Christmas was grand.  There was a lovely tree, mop bucket and all.  I couldn't find eggnog anywhere, so I made some - though with milk instead of cream, because we couldn't figure out what cream was at the grocery store, so we ended up with two small cartons that LOOKED like cream cartons, and were located next to the milk (called "tej"), but ultimately ended up being buttermilk, which didn't sound appealing for eggnog, but worked perfectly well for the mashed potatoes and homemade mac & cheese.  The green bean casserole came out a little soupy, as they do not have soup in cans and so the cream of mushroom soup came as powder out of a bag, which I then added too much milk to such that it was full-on soup and not condensed.  Another hang-up, in the form of scrambled eggs, resulted from the boiling of my eggnog - not recommended - and so we were left without enough eggs to try a second round of eggnog, AND make sugar cookies, AND have breakfast in the morning - and there is no Ingles or Kroger or WAL-MART) here to save us (EVERYTHING was closed - on Christmas Eve, Christmas day, AND the day after - seriously, they know what they are doing) - so we ended up with successful, non-scrambled eggs eggnog, 1 egg for sugar cookies, and 2 eggs for breakfast, which worked out fine because if you add enough potatoes to anything it becomes a substantial meal.  The cookies were not the best, primarily because in our efforts to determine which of the 8 million packages in the baking section were 1: baking powder and 2: baking soda (ultimately, I believe we were successful - baking powder only because we knew the word "pör" and there was a picture of cookies on the front, and baking soda because after looking in the cleaning aisle AND the toothpaste aisle and comparing all of the words on all of the packages in the baking aisle we finally determined there was only one thing it could be), we ended up with unsalted butter because I naively thought I had the buying of butter down pat (no pun intended) and so didn't look to see if this particular package of butter had any additional words on it, such that it might be unsalted.  Agh!

So there you have it!  And now, on to the New Year - thank heavens all that is necessary for THAT celebration is champagne, which is ALSO an international language!

 © Olivia Holcombe Jan 2010
orholcombe at
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