What I Like About China: More Pros than Cons

  1. PROs
    1. Great metro
      Lines are well described, color-coded. Tiny lights show you your location on the journey, a voice tells you in Chinese and English where you are, where you will be, whether you can change to another line or not. In addition, there is an animated screen, with pictures and the written text of what is spoken.
    In the metro

    Handle to steady yourself in the metro, while learning Shakespeare.

    1. Descriptive signs
      Chinese people use cardinal directions – the four points of the compass – in the metro and in everyday life. Metro exits are always well described with cardinal signs; a simple stop with four exits (People Square has 22!) will be signed A for northwest, B northeast, C southeast, and D southwest. Major landmarks are associated with a particular exit.  In Paris, metro signs give you the name of an adjacent street, depending on the chosen exit, but if you don’t know the area, the name of this unknown side street doesn’t help at all.
    1. Inspiring names
      In the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and other monuments, the places are not only beautiful, they have very Zen and inspiring names: Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Preserving Harmony, Hall of Heavenly Purity, Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, Hall of Abstinence, Hall of Eternal Protection, Hall of Ten Thousand Happinesses, Hall of Eternal Harmony, Hall of Heavenly Kings, Longevity Hill, Garden of Virtue and Harmony, Temple of the Sea of Wisdom, Hall of Happiness and Longevity, Temple of Heavenly Tranquility, etc. It brings internal peace just to read these names.

     

    1. Helpful people
      Structurally, the tactile paving on the sidewalks or in the metro is very common to help visually impaired people follow a street or be warned of an intersection. They are more prevalent than in most large cities in the world. Even when the sidewalk is in marble, there are tiles with long lines to follow and dots at intersections and before crossing a street.  Culturally, people are kind and helpful.  Even with complete ignorance of the Chinese language and no English language on their side, we managed to communicate with signs or pictures.  On several occasions, a person even accompanied me half way to make sure I would not get lost again.
    1. Extreme multi-tasking
      Dexterity in millennials is known. In China, I have noticed it also in older generations. Chinese people read on their tablet, play games on their phones, or watch TV while walking extremely quickly in the packed corridors of the metro. In Hong Kong (the New York of China for speed) I even witnessed people eating with chopsticks while walking – a far more difficult feat than eating a sandwich in the street! I admire the agility, while not necessarily condoning the simultaneous practice of these, especially eating mindlessly.

     

    1. High-speed train
      I knew the high-speed train in France, so I did not expect to be wowed. Beyond the high speed, China has excellent customer service. High-speed stations are designed like airports with enhanced security, modern well-lit facilities, and uniformed hostesses.  Train tickets bear your name and a passport check is performed many times before you are allowed to board the train.  Luggage is x-rayed.  Once on the train, there is much more leg room even in economy class than in any plane, even domestic business class.  Hot water is everywhere to be found at the station, not only for tea but also the ubiquitous Ramen noodles.  On the train, there is also a hot water faucet but why would you only eat noodles?  Every ten minutes a hostess passes with a little cart loaded with different choices:  cooked chicken, cut fruits, cut vegetables, drinks, cookies, etc.

     

    1. Consular team spirit
      Now for U.S. diplomats only. Consular sections usually have the best team spirit – I had noticed it in Mexico. In Beijing, and even more so in Shanghai, the team spirit was at its best. Consular management welcomed us, temporary employees, upon arrival with a private meeting, and thanked us at the end with personalized certificates and a party.  A teacher advised us to ensure our accent was understandable.  Managers assigned us special projects to make us shine beyond the tiring biometrics. We felt truly appreciated.  I would love the opportunity to serve again because, whether they say thank you or not, we are absolutely needed in large missions at peak season.

     

    CONs

    1. Air quality
      On the majority of days, the air quality is very unhealthy in Beijing or Shanghai. Beijing’s air is worse than Shanghai’s on average. Immediately upon arrival at the embassy, besides giving you a badge, managers brief you on what website you should consult to check the air quality, and advise you to stick it in your favorites.  I was shocked to see American families with young kids in these cities.  I believe it should be an ‘unaccompanied under 16’ post.
    1. Cuisine
      Are you surprised it’s a con? I was. When I told people I was going to China, the very first thing they exclaimed was “oh, you will eat so well there.” Exactly what I thought.  I love Chinese cuisine so I was thrilled to discover the real thing.  What I really discovered is the outrageous amount of oil they use to cook.  I tried the cart-street food, the small-no English-sign restaurant, the fancy restaurant, and each time I had to fish my food delicately with my chopsticks out of an ocean of oil. After a few times, I stuck to the Marriott or Ritz food – with international clientele they had learned to temper their natural oily inclination.  Or I simply went to the Korean or Vietnamese restaurants.  In Hong Kong, I had a delicious fondue, with food cooked by myself in lean broth.

     

    BOTTOM LINE
    I also loved the variety of landscapes, the amazing Great Wall, the bargain shopping, the great museums, the customized clothing, and so much more.  I would love to go back but not for more than six months – out of consideration for my lungs.

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A rugged part of the Great Wall

The New Diplomat’s Wife has More Pros and Cons posts.

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Raising Bilingual Kids

While growing up in France, I developed a surprising love for the English language. I don’t know when it began. I officially started to learn it in 6th grade at age 10. To compensate for the only three hours per week of English I received at school, and for the abominable accent most French people – yes even graduated English teachers – have in English, I started to go to the movies a lot, two to three times per week, to see American movies in their original English version. I learned at least as much from the cinema subtitles and accents than formally. Before my twenties, I had determined to raise my future kids in English. The father would probably understand. And then by a twist of fate, I ended up marrying an American.

When I met hubby, he did not speak French. Therefore English was the home language, which was perfect. Once pregnant, we researched best practices to raise bilingual kids. Linguists and psychologists had a clear theory. I was supposed to speak French, and hubby was supposed to speak English. Yet, I wanted more than theory. I wrote to the two most prominent French baby magazines and asked real parents for their advice. They advised to take into consideration the ‘weight’ of the country in which you live. If you live in a third country, you may follow the rule of one parent-one language, and the kid will also speak the country language, becoming trilingual. There is some balance in this solution. On the other hand, if you live in a country where one of the languages is spoken, you create a large unbalance. To remedy, we were advised to both speak English since we lived in France.

Along came guinea pig number one.  English was the home language; French was the outside language (nanny, grandma). I had to warn French family and friends not to give our daughter any Disney movies or books, since home was English-only territory. At age one, our daughter started to speak well in both languages. When she was three, two events occurred at the same time. Guinea pig number two arrived, and our daughter began school.

Instead of having two parents who spoke English and one nanny and one grandma who spoke French, which seems fairly balanced, she found that the entire school population spoke French – we were greatly outnumbered. And she spoke more. Learned more. In French. Meanwhile hubby’s French was getting very good, to the point where it was natural for him to respond in French when first addressed in French. Back from school, our daughter started to tell about her day, in French. Little brother heard a lot more French than she did during his first three years. This muted him for almost three years. At age two, he was not speaking and we were worried. We tried rationalizing, putting this lack of language on account of being bilingual and a boy. When he finally spoke, instead of a few words, he pronounced entire grammatically correct sentences! In French only of course.

When we visited the American grandparents, our kids clearly understood them but did not speak English to them. We redoubled our efforts. We could not go back to the U.S. as often as needed for language immersion, so we went to England where we would fill our children’s brain with television. Imagine! Parents insisting that their kids ‘gobble’ television programs all day. [This obviously dates us because today one can get English-language programs without actually going to an English-speaking country.] We continued our life speaking English (parents) and French (kids), occasionally mixing some sentences (the four of us).

After few years, we joined the Foreign Service, and all of a sudden they arrived in their new house in Virginia in May. They were enrolled at school immediately in 5th and 7th grade. We were a bit worried that they would understand but not be able to express themselves. Once they realized that the new normal was to speak English, they simply spoke English. It just flowed naturally. Their accent was light and gradually disappeared. Our efforts were rewarded! Yet, since we were now in English-speaking country, we had to reverse our approach and make home a French speaking territory.

We later moved to a Spanish speaking country. By this time, our children mastered equally well both English and French languages. They joked, mixing them all the time, mid-sentence, or just inserting one French word in an English sentence or vice-versa. They even started a game to conjugate English verbs in French!!! We had just developed our own family dialect.

In summary, raising bilingual kids is possible – and of great benefit to them, but it is a hard job that requires dedication, consistency, and perseverance even when you don’t see immediate results. The rewards in time are well worth the sacrifice.

A Sunday Afternoon in Hong Kong

A good friend of mine works for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, better known as HSBC. I thought it could be interesting to go see the original HSBC building in Honk Kong and I discovered more than I was expected. This visit allowed me to discover an original facet of Hong Kong, a facet tourists going to the Peak, Madame Tussaud, or even one of the temples, will never experience. When you say bank you think serious, or work, or money? Well, my association of ideas will be from now on quite different.

I decided to go take a picture of Sir Thomas Sutherland, the founder of HSBC in 1865. I started to walk towards the HSBC tower, which is known for its distinct architecture. In 1986 a new building designed by British architect Norman Foster was erected to replace the 1935 building. The address is Queen’s Road Central #1. Little did I know that the statue of the man was not in front of ‘his’ building but in a nearby park. What I did find at the building was much more interesting than a statue actually. I had read that many Filipino maids gathered on Sundays in Statue Park, a park between Chater and Connaught roads, south of the bank. The HSBC building being on pylons, anyone can walk under it and discover an exhibition which explains the growth of the bank together with the economic growth of the island. It also shows the original shoreline of the island being at Queen’s road which explains its curvy shape when all other streets are cut straight west to east and north to south. Then it depicts how, in 1863, the shoreline had moved to DesVoeux road, then to Connaught road in 1904, and much further in 1964 after the construction of more land to create the piers. Brass lions, symbols of the bank, stand proudly in front of the building. They have been named Stephen and Stitt. Stephen was the Bank Chief Manager from 1920 to 1924 in Hong Kong while Stitt was the manager of the Shanghai branch.

hsbc

Building and lions are interesting any day of the week, but on Sunday the show is right there on the floor, occupied by hundreds of Filipino women clattering under the shade of the building. They are very organized. They have placed cardboard under themselves to avoid sitting on the floor and many groups have ‘sewn’ cardboard together and have erected them vertically to protect themselves from any draft. It sounded like an aviary. Being under the building amplified the echo. The buzz almost felt like a mantra.

Emerging from this peculiar atmosphere, I realized that I had admired the lions Stephen and Stitt, discovered the history, the expanding shoreline, the women, but Sir Thomas was missing. I had to cross DesVoeux road to find his statue in a park in front of the Legislative Council Building which is a very nice colonnaded and domed neoclassical building. Going north I crossed Chater road without having to look neither left nor right since the street had been closed to traffic. Is it like this every Sunday or because there was a gathering to promote gender equality that day?  In Statue Park, Filipino women could be counted by the thousands. Chirping among them or on the phone, sleeping, eating, just being together. The community gathering has now expanded all the way to Connaught road and the IFC Mall Plaza. The IFC mall is where the high speed train departs for the airport.  It was time to go back to Shanghai!

To conclude, here is a nicer view of Hong Kong!

p1130922

Interesting Gift: a Soldier’s Ration

At Christmas time, a thought about gifts, and an anecdote about a certain gift.

There are gifts that are like perfume samples, we do not use them either because we love them too much to consume them and see them disappear or we do not like them at all. Sometimes we want to keep the gift intact. With our Foreign Service nomadic life it is impossible to keep consumables without consuming them. Otherwise the result would be too many boxes on our next move. That day hubby reminded me that it was necessary to consume a Christmas gift that our son had received from his cousin now in the French army: a single day’s ration!  I found this an excellent idea, wishing to know what they feed soldiers.

The ration is packaged in a cardboard box half the size of a shoe box. The inscriptions are in French and English, but clearly it must be provided by a French supplier since there is a spelling mistake in the English, ‘NATO APPROUVED’. Packaged on 1 July 2014, the box promises that the included food can be consumed until 11 January 2018. Imagine the number of chemicals necessary to ensure such a long shelf life! Despite the menu description outside the box, it is not easy to picture what I will truly find inside.

There are many small boxes and cans inside but the entire amount seems to be more appropriate for a woman on a diet than for a young soldier who needs more than 5,000 calories a day – probably doubled during combat. Alas, none of the meal boxes mention any calories nor carbohydrates, fiber, fat, etc. We will have to speculate and guess. The heating device fits in a tiny box, the size of two decks of cards. It includes a disposable container, grasping pliers, matches, six fuel pellets, six water purification tablets and a garbage bag.

The menu is fittingly French! For the two main courses, we may feast on Marengo veal with potatoes and pork with mushroom risotto. As the veal is cooked in white wine, a Muslim soldier would go hungry. And, were our son a soldier, he would only have one main meal since he hates mushrooms.

The veal can comes from a ‘Daniel and Denise’ brand (absolutely unknown) and mentions that it is Joseph Viola, best cook in France, who created the recipe. Whoa! Will soldiers really care? Since we never buy canned meals I do not know if it is normal to find carrageenan in it. Never heard of it? Me neither. What I read on Wikipedia is instructive: “Carrageenan is a polysaccharide (galactane) extracted from red seaweeds and used as a thickening and stabilizing agent in the food industry.” It is notorious for causing diarrhea – not really the most comfortable condition on a combat zone – and it is also used in shampoos, fire extinguishers, toothpaste, etc. This meal also includes xanthan gum (a more familiar name) which comes from polysaccharides excreted by various soil microorganisms (including bacteria). Our appetite is now completely whetted!

The mushroom risotto includes pork cheeks and smoked bacon and its can mentions an even later potential expiration date – until March 2018. Its maker, House Larzul (unknown brand again), does not mention any dye, thickener, gelling agent nor preservative (is that legal?), yet the ingredients include butter and sour cream.

For appetizers, there is a small can of roasted chicken rillettes, branded Hénaff (a known brand), and a small can of melted goat cheese, also branded Hénaff. When I say small, I mean small. They are only 78 grams each (2.75 oz). Where am I to spread the cheese? On so-called ‘campaign cookies ’in French, translated in English by a plain ‘army biscuits’ – this does not sound as appetizing. They are packaged in a box, four sachets of two salted crackers and four sachets of two sweet biscuits. All of these contain 11 grams of fat per 100 grams which is bad from a nutritional point of view. There is also a sachet of instant dehydrated potato-leek soup.

A French soldier has many choices for breakfast. He can choose between ‘cocoa aroma’ powder or two instant coffee doses packaged in 70s style which looks very cheap or two tea bags almost luxuriously packaged, Royal Ceylon and China tea with mint from Max Havelaar, all of them accompanied by two white sugar packets. For solid food the soldier can count on strawberry muesli manufactured in Germany, and Andros strawberry jam.

For snacks between meals the soldier gets a 70% dark chocolate bar, a coffee flavored rice bar, a fruit pulp bar, a bar of nougat with fruits, and four vanilla caramel candies. Finally, to complete this varied meal box, there is a powder to make an isotonic drink, a packet of tissues and two packets of salt and pepper from Alicante in Spain and written exclusively in Spanish.

Then our son returned and, as I was just finishing examining the contents of the box, declared that he refused to share his daily ration with us as an experiment. He stated that he had planned to eat it all when he goes camping with his friends. I already regret the sweet taste the carrageenan must have…

Back in the U.S. – Crazy Fast Food!

We are still on home leave, I have not settled yet in our permanent quarters (note the use of the word quarters because I don’t know if it is going to be a house or an apartment and the term residence seems a bit posh for what we will actually be able to afford back in DC), but I am already re-americanizing myself at full speed.

Ah – a little context for newbies. Home leave is a period of vacation mandated by Congress for diplomats after a certain time spend abroad. Every three years maximum. You gain three weeks every year and however well it may be described in the official text [Codified in Sections 901 and 903 of the Foreign Service Act of 1980] its purpose is to make sure that even if you have “gone local” (not loco although it could apply sometimes), you have not forgotten to be an American and you keep up with American values. In summary, it is to re-americanize oneself or to have a ‘re-learning Americana holiday’.

When we are posted to a new country, since our residence is usually within U.S. standards and offices at the Embassy could also be in the U.S. look-wise, what usually strikes us most, besides weather or smells, are different foods. We are foodies. Back in the U.S., for the first time after three years overseas, everything looks the same as in my memories except the food offering at fast food restaurants. Let’s cover a few novelties.

  • On the Dunkin Donuts cup, among the many choices to tick, the weirdest ones are for sweeteners. They don’t name them by their brands or by their poisonous ingredients (saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, maltodextrin…) but by their colors: the pink sweetener, the blue sweetener, the yellow sweetener – how sweet – no pun intended.
  • Jalapeño poppers. CheddaPeño. Different names depending on the restaurants. From a healthy jalapeno the Mexicans have made it less healthy (but sooo good) by stuffing it full of cheese. Then, the Americans have covered it in batter. Calories times ten at least!
  • MacNCheetos. Take about three or four Mac&Cheese macaronis and hold them together with a giant Cheetos all around. Your kids dreamt it, they made it!
  • Crunchy wrap. Double or triple at Taco Bell. Wrap a hard tostada in a flour tortilla – hello carbs! Some tacos even have a shell that tastes like Dorito chips.
  • If you are from the East Coast, you may have not heard of the In-N-Out fast food place which is mostly implanted in the West. For a non-connoisseur it could be weird when you first walk in such a fast food restaurant to discover that they only sell a simple burger, a simple cheese burger, and fries. No fancy names, no colorful Photoshop’ed photos. In fact they have a ‘not-so-secret menu’ which tells you (online) that you can have many variations of the above. You may double the meat & cheese, triple it or even quadruple it (they call it the 4×4). For a really good sauce – they say mustard but it does not taste like mustard, more like the secret sauce of the Big Mac – ask ‘Animal Style’ with a choice of tomatoes, pickles, grilled onions, special sauce, or all of the above. Like many of their competitors now, they are also proposing a healthy* choice by replacing the bun by lettuce leaves; it is called the ‘Protein Style’. Animal & Protein Styles are compatible!
  • Recently, Burger King has invented the whopperito – whooper + burrito. Replace the bun by a tortilla, the ketchup by some melted cheese, and wrap the ingredients of a whopper in a tortilla.
  • The burrito is the new fad here. In August Taco Bell released the cheesy core burrito, either crunchy or spicy. Take a perfectly healthy burrito and add, in its center, artery-clogging orange-plastic-like-cheese. They call it three-cheese blend but it is the sort that movies theaters smother your nachos with – sorry as a French native I cannot call it cheese.
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OK – Not that crazy – this was in China!

I’d better post this before they invent any more of these weird combination foods. I am sorry that I will not be your guinea pig anymore; I have shipped my teenage boy off to college (yeah- there was a reason I was haunting the fast food joints this summer, his giant bucket list) and now I have a waist line to watch!

*healthy = messy. I love burgers in lettuce wrap but there is no bun to absorb the sauce so it is extremely slippery. Extra napkins required.

Habitat for Humanity in Budapest

Habitat for Humanity is an international NGO dedicated to improving housing conditions for poor people, fighting for a fair housing policy and decent homes for everyone. It was founded in 1976 in the U.S. and in 1996 in Hungary. It has affiliates in more than 70 countries and can count on thousands of volunteers. The organization has built or renovated over 800, 000 houses, and provided simple and affordable homes for over a million families. In Hungary, Habitat has helped 2,000 families.

Among the many programs that Habitat develops in Hungary, this Saturday we participated in the Housing First program where Habitat renovates vacant social rental housing units for homeless people, and support them with social work in order to help them keep their homes after moving in.

At 8:30 a.m. sharp we all gather in front of a house in Ujpest, in the 4th district of Budapest. We are nine including Sandor, the foreman, and Betty the representative from Saint Gobain, the sponsoring company. Proudly representing the Embassy there is Chris, Edward and Catherine.

Sandor gives us some background. In Hungary there are 383,000 empty houses or apartments and 300,000 families in need of decent affordable housing. 170 000 children live in a home with no indoor toilet, almost 200,000 in a home with no electricity, and 620 000 children (30% of all children) live in damp, moldy, unhealthy homes.

Above the porch it says ‘Tiszta Udvar, Rendes Haz’, which is a plaque you receive when all houses are in order and the garden is neatly arranged. A plaque they would never receive today!  After the entrance door and a short corridor there is an open air corridor leading to small houses with tiny weedy gardens on both sides and at the very end there is a piece of abandoned grassy and weedy land. The house we are going to renovate is the third one on the right. Sandor started yesterday and already removed all belongings and the old shower. Despite the open windows the stench of mold and mildew is strong. I wonder what had been stacked there and for how long. This house belongs to the municipality which is too poor to renovate it, therefore it has been abandoned. Once renovated, this house will be rented at lower-than-market price.

Sandor tells us: ‘you came here to build, well today is demolition day!’ He explains that when people are poor, they don’t try to renovate well because it costs too much and/or they lack the skills. So they just hide what is wrong instead of fixing the problem at its root. For example there was a leak here; it made the lower walls humid. Previous tenants just covered it with a carpet which prevented the water from evaporating so it traveled upwards until the entire wall, all the way up to the high ceiling, was damp. They did the same with the flooring. Yesterday Sandor and his volunteers removed the carpet and the flooring. Now we even need to remove the tiles, the stucco and the base floor completely and let the bricks breathe and dry. This is why Sandor works on two projects at the same time: to let enough time to dry when needed.

Besides destruction, there are also three truck-loads of aggregate for concrete that has been dumped on the sidewalk and needs to be brought to the end garden where it will be mixed with cement. About 30 fine cement bags are also stacked on the sidewalk, 55 pounds each, and about twenty 88-pound bags of mortar also wait in the truck.

Sandor gives us legal papers to sign. Everyone does so without reading much but a mention catches my eye. We have to ‘destroy’ our tee-shirt, the Habitat volunteer tee-shirt! Sandor explains that if we don’t, it has to be taxed!!! We all sign the paper … for the government. Then he hands us protection gloves, masks and goggles. I know goggles will fog with the mask and I might faint standing still all day hammering a wall not to mention my legendary clumsiness with a chisel and a hammer. When Sandor asks for wheelbarrow volunteers for the cement, aggregate for concrete and mortar I immediately raise my hand. Nobody else does. Then Edward joins me and then András. Chris will be on destruction duty with the others.

All day Edward, András and I fill wheelbarrows and carry them to the end garden where we build a neat, new pile. Since we only have two wheelbarrows for three, we rest in turn and when I rest, I garden or more exactly I weed! I discover a lot of purslane which most people don’t know about, or if they do they think it is a weed and don’t know how to name it. My grandfather taught me it was comestible, quite a delicacy even. Since it is a succulent, you find it in arid places, often between old stones or pavement.  Only in Mexico did I find it in supermarkets between lettuce and parsley! Quick recipe: blanch it, and then add your favorite sauce, for me a mixture of crushed garlic, mustard, Maggi (a specific wheat protein sauce, a bit similar to soy sauce), balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Let it cool and eat as a salad.

Our arms are aching but our legs are doing a big job too. I finish the day at over 17,000 steps!  At the end of the day Chris comes to help us with the cement bags that he loads on each shoulder. We leave just in time before Edward breaks his back. We ache all over but we feel good and will sleep like babies.  Till the next time!

Erdöfi Major Guest House: an exceptional chef south of Mohács

The UNESCO appraised Busójárás festival in Mohács takes place six days before Lent, from the end of February to early March depending on the year. Yet, usually by November all hotels are full in the city, together with all the private rooms which only rent for at least three nights. Determined to not miss one of the most original festival-carnival event of Hungary, we looked for an accommodation a bit further. South of Kölked, in the heart of the Duna-Dráva Nemzeti Park, we found a little house with great hosts: Krisztina and her husband, the park ranger. Their domain is called Erdöfi Major Vendégház and comprises a little house for guests and a little farm with huge Mangalica pigs, turkeys, geese, chickens, etc. They offer three bedrooms of 3, 4, or 5 beds (perfect of families or a group of friends) with shared kitchen and living room. Each room had its brand new bathroom. They can be rented separately or all together for a discount.

The best of this address is not only its proximity to Mohács (16 km without traffic) and total silence, but the skills of Krisztina who is a real chef. Her food is so good – fresh homemade ingredients cooked to perfection– that we promised to come back and we did this August. We called two days prior and asked if she could cook lunch for us. She proposed a menu for an incredible price (HUF 2,500), and we gladly accepted. She served us a creamy cold peach soup – accompanied by more homemade cream. We usually do not pick cold soup on restaurant’s menu but knew it would be special, and it was. So good we had two huge plates each! Krisztina serves you like home guests; she leaves the entire dish on the table. Our main course was chicken breast stuffed with liver, herbs and bread, accompanied by freshly picked green beans and sautéed potatoes. And finally dessert was a homemade warm cottage cheese dumplings served with honey, sour cherry marmalade, brown sugar and cream. Our throats could not go dry either as shepier served us homemade apple juice. We drove home crazy with the smell of a fresh baked onion bread loaf!

Erdöfi Major Vendégház
http://erdofu.hu/
+36 30/ 846-6017
erdofu@erdofu.hu

Pros and Cons of Living in Budapest

Pros

Cost of living
The best restaurants cost a fraction of what you would pay in DC. You can have lunch at a Michelin-star restaurant for under $20. Fruits and vegetables cost much less than in the U.S., for example apples are 60 cents a kilo, oranges $1/kg. A kilo of pork is about $4. A maid costs less than $7/hour and she does more than vacuuming and dusting. She cleans windows, irons, cooks, etc.  Gas looks expensive but you get all the taxes back so it costs no more than in the U.S.

Endless travel opportunities
Hungary is so small you can reach most cities in two hours, perfect for a day trip or a weekend. Seven countries are neighbors (Austria, Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia) and four more don’t have common borders but are very close: Czech Republic, Poland, Bosnia, Moldova. There are endless possibility for weekends or three-day trips. Wizzair has also many connections from Budapest so you may fly to Italy or Spain for $50!

Food & Wine
Being foodies we are so happy to be posted here where food is delicious and abundant. Hungarian specialties are tasty (Goulash, grey cow, Mangalica pork, paprika, foie gras, beef cheeks, lecso, etc.). Hungarian wines can easily compete with French or California wines. Hungarians are also the best at making freshly squeezed lemonade, simple or with ginger, etc.

Public transportation
Being able to go everywhere by foot, sometimes with the help of a tram, bus or metro is bliss. No more car to park. We use our car only to travel outside the city. Public transportation is plentiful, regular, very safe, and decently priced – about $40/month. Budapest is bliss for teenagers who can go see their friends without needing their parents to taxi them around.

People & culture
From festivals in Mohacs (end of February) to Easter in Hollokö to many beer & wine festivals to music festivals (Sziget, Sopron), occasions are endless to share the Hungarian culture and meet friendly people. They also love dogs – you can take them to restaurants (they also have a ‘cat’ bar for cat owners).

Good  Schools
One American school, two British, 2 Christian, 1 French schools are used by the community at present but there are more international schools available. They are all very good.

Cons
It is hard for me to find real cons particular to Budapest.

Embassy community
Not as tight as what you get in Africa because there is so much to do here that people are constantly out of the city or the country.

Language
One of the hardest to learn after Chinese and Arabic. Extremely few cognates and rules that exist just to be broken on your next sentence. Illogical rules like using the singular when you use a number or ‘lots of’ in front of a name – obviously in English the name and the verb would be in plural form. Imagine that instead of saying ‘These five books are old’  you need to say  ‘This five book is old’.

VAT
The highest in Europe at 27%. Even food gets taxed that high. Few items like bread are taxed at ‘only’ 15%. By doing lengthy paperwork we are able to recuperate it in most cases though – so the con becomes a pro!

Weather forecast
While in most cities you can trust the forecast about one week in advance, in Budapest, even two days in advance it will not be accurate. Weather changes all the time. Yet we have more sunny days than in Barcelona so that is great.

Tons of work
Coming from Pakistan where it was common to work 50 to 70 hours a week we could not believe our colleagues when they said that Budapest was overly busy. Yet after two years we can attest to a level of work that is simply insane compared to other places. It is a small 10-million inhabitant’s country, yet it is in NATO between the West and Russia so it has more share of mind than its size might suggest. Also if you have a regional function and no direct flights to go to your destination due to historical Balkan reasons, travel time adds up.  I wish we could have time to produce better quality instead of always feeling we are running behind.

Five Pros and Cons of Living in Islamabad

A few other bloggers in the Foreign Service are posting their Pros and Cons for their current Post.  I am re-visiting my four different posts to write my lists.

Five Pros

Endless shopping opportunities
Some will tell you that you can save a lot of money when you get 35% danger and 35% hardship – well Islamabad doesn’t get the maximum 70%, I think when we were there the figure was more like 60%. You can also spend a lot of money on expensive items: jewelry (lots of stones), furniture, and carpets to name a few.

Customize everything
Because labor is cheap and artisans are very skilled, you can buy unique pieces or even design them to your taste. We designed: a 100 plus-year-old carved door into a magnificent bed, an armchair, a chaise longue, about 80 outfits from day-to-day woman ensemble to silk dresses, from dressed men shirts to cashmere coat, and many pairs of shoes.

Cost of living
Food costs a fraction of the price in DC. House help costs about $300 a month for a full time person – and at that rate they are in the top 10% earners in the country!

Food
Being foodies we are so happy to have been posted here where food is so good and varied. It is similar to Indian food with some variations (replace pork by beef for example). One beautiful thing to look for: boxes of cherries, presented like rubies in a shrine. One tip: the fish store in F7, Rana Market, is the best. We had sushi from this place several times, never got sick.

Fitness
I have never been so fit in my life. There is an Olympic size pool, a large gym, biking around the diplomatic enclave, hiking the Margalla hills. I even participated in my first Triathlon ever!

Five Cons

Security
Islamabad feels like Fort Knox so you do not feel unsecure at all. RSO wants to keep you on your toes and forbids many things to various degrees depending on RSO personality and real country context. For one year we were able to hike the Margalla hills every weekend, the RSO changed, it got forbidden.

It is very hard to visit the country. Even when RSO tells you it is OK, then Pakistani authorities step in and require extensive paperwork to be processed a month before (Lahore) or three months before (Karachi) – even for work purposes. This definitely hampers travels and tourism.

Embassy community
Tons of singles and faux-singles, more male than female so when you come as a couple, it feels odd. No families so parties never really start until 11 pm even when advertised at 9pm. In the Chancery people dress as if they were in DC and look at you funny if you dress like your Pakistani colleagues – which is much more comfortable considering the weather.

Heat
I like hot weather but for at least two months, you pass 100 F so the difference between inside the office and outside can be uncomfortable.

Hygiene
Or the lack there of … Latrines don’t exist in many places. Flies are everywhere on fruits, vegetable, fish or the hanging in 100 F degree piece of beef. Get used to it. Bring sanitizer!

Tons of work
Many people don’t come as a couple so for fear of getting bored they stay at the office. Many people stay at the office to get overtime even if they don’t really work. Some people really have tons of work because Washington wants constant updates. Visas are an issue so you often end up doing 2 jobs because the incumbent has not arrived yet. Whether you really have a lot of work or not, people make you feel crappy if you dare leave at 5.

Escaping in Budapest

A typical Mother’s Day might involve a nice brunch or lunch, flowers, and a family gathering. While in Budapest, here is an idea for a very different celebration: a room-escape game! We surprised my husband with such game on Father’s Day last year and had a fabulous time.

It took only a few minutes after the door locked behind us for the atmosphere in the cramped room filled with odd items to turn tense. A hasty note, left behind on a battered table, warned us that we had only an hour to escape, and it soon became clear that our route forward was beyond a second door.

This was not a spy movie, but downtown Budapest.  When we arrived in 2013, we discovered that the top attraction on Trip Advisor for Budapest was not the Széchenyi baths, the Var, the Parliament, nor the Basilica, but “Claustrophilia,” a room-escape game.

We had the choice between the Voodoo Tales and The Wickelwood Heritage which is one of the city’s more imaginative games. It is also one of its more difficult: only 30 percent of players make it out in time. It takes place in what was supposedly the home of a 19th-century explorer and treasure hunter, and the three-room apartment is filled with such travel-related antiques as maps and trunks. Escaping requires uncovering a clue that will help you find a key to the next room. Each clue requires different types of mind and different part of the brain to succeed.

We were remotely monitored to encourage our progress and ensure we were still having fun. They gave us just the right amount of advice to help us until the next step.

It is a team game. Each room stretched our brains in various ways. We also had to stretch physically. We were four and physically needed to be four to escape that first room. One had to push a button to generate light for a few seconds so that we could read parchment scrolls. One person had to advance them with a mechanism at the other end of the room. Two of us attempted to break the code.

I’m happy to report that we were among the successful 30 percent to escape, and well within our allotted hour. When we had solved the last puzzle and found the key that would let us out of the apartment, a lady came out from behind her hidden control room. “Not all the teams work so well together,” she said. “But you did well.”

There are now over 20 room-escape games in Budapest. The quality and settings vary dramatically, but all share a common premise. Lock a small group in rooms filled with clues and obstacles, and see if, through deductive logic, teamwork and a bit of luck, they can figure their way out. In other words, it is like a live video game.

Claustrophilia is the city’s top-ranked room-escape game on TripAdvisor but there are many others. Most games last an hour, cost around $40 for a group of two to five, and are as popular with locals as with visitors.

Challenge your family and friends for this Mother’s Day … or Father’s Day!

www.Claustrophilia.hu

www.escaper.hu

https://szabadulos-jatek.hu/ (E-Exit Games)

www.Lockedescape.hu