Feeling Young in Hévíz

Hévíz is known worldwide for its lake, the largest biologically active, natural thermal lake in the world. Boasting 4.4 hectares (almost 500 000 sq. ft.) in size and 38 meters in depth, its source is exceptionally powerful, delivering 410 liters per second enabling the entire lake water to be renewed in only three days. Its temperature reaches 38 degrees Celsius in summer, and never drops below 24 degrees Celsius in winter, making it a year-round activity.  During mid-February, we enjoyed the water at 27oC outside and 37 oC inside the pavilion. This magical water is reputed to be good for arthritis, rheumatic, and motor diseases.

Besides the lake, there are many activities we enjoyed during our stay in Hévíz: the quiet provincial city and its colorful churches, the many bicycle tours available (with bicycle paths or not), the beautiful city of Keszthely with its majestic castle only 5km away, and Lake Balaton, to name only a few.

Lake Hévíz
At Hévíz, like many other thermal baths in Hungary such as Gellért or Széchenyi, the menu encompasses several pages,  covering every possibility of timing, age or family size. We arrived within two hours of closing time (3:00-5:00 pm in February), so the fee was only HUF 1,600. We enjoyed the sun casting a soft light upon the lake, the lilies and lotus flowers. As our interest was specifically for the lake and its sulfurous waters, we didn’t need to add the ‘sauna world’ option. Besides, our hotel was fully equipped with sauna and hamam. A complex of several little square houses all intertwined is built on stilts over the lake. From each house, several flights of stairs allow you to access the lake. Since the lake is deep and not everybody comes prepared with ‘noodles’ (foam floating devices) they have installed a few metallic rails that you can hang on to in order to rest. The submerged part of these rails is viscous with algae and when you swim your feet might get tangled in the roots of the lilies. It was wonderful being there off-season, as we felt we had the lake to ourselves.

For warmer water, we swam under the main pavilion, past a half-submerged door of heavy glass and metal, past a plastic curtain. This barrier keeps the source water at almost its original temperature. We were immediately intrigued by some people standing under signs featuring a bell and an arrow, which meant ‘move in this direction when you hear the bell’. So we queued like others to understand why this activity had so much success. They are seven signs and under each sign there is a hot underwater massaging jet. After about three minutes the bell rings softly and everybody moves from one station to the next. The first jet is at calf level, the second jet is at knee level, then thigh, and so on until the last jet reaches your shoulders or neck depending on your height.

The city
Hévíz is a very quiet little city with many pedestrian streets bordered by cafes, restaurants, stores selling swimwear and antiquities. It hosts a farmers market near the lake on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings. Besides the museum and the Roman ruins, there are four main churches which are very different from each other. In the Egregy part of the city (north), in the middle of vineyards and wine cellars, lays the oldest one from the 13th century, or Arpad time. It is a tiny white church surrounded by a large cemetery. The view on the valley is beautiful from there. The Calvinist church has a triangular façade made of brown stones with a small white tower. Then the two newest churches are green and blue. The Heart of Jesus is apple green with a bright orange roof and shiny copper gutters. The Holy Spirit church is blue and boasts seven towers, symbols of the seven gifts to the Holy Spirit. It was recently consecrated in 1999.

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Bicycling
This area is best discovered on bicycle. The Office of Tourism (OT) in Rákóczi Street can give you a free Hévíz Card. The main advantage of the card for us was to get 4 hours of free bicycle rental for one paid day. So we took our bicycles at 11:00 am one day and had them until 3:00 pm the next day for only HUF 2,200 per person (some hotels rent bikes for HUF 800-1,000 per hour). The card also gives discounts at the lake or in restaurants.

The OT gave us a map with many bike tour routes to choose from, depending on the bike paths, length of tour or incline. We first visited Kis-Balaton, or small Balaton Lake, which was a mere 40km tour! To reach it, we cycled through Alsópáhok and Sármellék, both elongated villages with houses lined up along the main street. For some reason, houses on the east side were more rural (animals, farm equipment) while the ones on the west side were more urban (manicured lawns), yet all were of similar architecture. Just before reaching the small lake we saw a strange church with a single pointy black dome surrounded by wings like shark fins. When we reached the lake the wind was bending the reeds along the shore. Fishermen were trying their luck. From there we took the bike lane along the canal, through the nice landscapes of rolling valleys and vineyards, to finally reach Hévíz.

Keszthely
The next day we rode to Keszthely, which is only 5 km from Hévíz. This is the largest city on Lake Balaton. I particularly like the Helikon Castle also known as the Festetics Palace after the name of the Count who built it. The interior is lavishly decorated with original furniture. In the park there is another building hosting a very large display of old wooden aristocratic coaches and sleds. Other buildings will charm model railway and hunting fans.

Lake Balaton
This lake has the particularity of appearing to be of different colors, depending on the weather and your perspective. I’ve seen it clear kaki green on the south side near Zamárdi, creamy turquoise on the north side near Tihany, and blue-grey in Keszthely. Swans are frequent everywhere and they are hungry!

swan

Lotus Therme Hotel
We chose the Lotus Therme Hotel among the many other spa hotels for a number of reasons:
o   Rooms are equipped with a king size bed with a canopy and you get a kettle to make tea.
o   Five pools: one regular pool indoor, one regular pool outdoor, two thermal pools at 36 oC and one thermal pool at 38 oC; sauna, Turkish bath, salt grotto, etc.
o   Full spa services with massages, facials, mani-pedi, etc.
o   Daily gym program every hour.
o   Isolated in a large quiet park and forest, yet only 10 walking minutes away from Lake Hévíz.
o   Best of all: high quality buffets at breakfast and dinner.

To prepare your trip:

www.heviz.hu
http://www.lakeheviz.com/
http://helikonkastely.hu/en/
http://lotustherme.net/en

Winter Sports in Budapest

Last Saturday 16 degrees Celsius big sunshine, yesterday 3 degrees some rain. This morning I opened my curtains on a big blanket of snow – surprise! It had not been announced. I can already hear some lament that it is too cold here, getting colder, too grey, getting darker so early in the afternoon. This is snow and snow lifts my spirits. It is joyful and playful. When you say snow I think winter sports, ski, snowmen, snow ball battles, sledding, and ice skating. I think hot chocolate and roasted chestnuts. I love the warm fuzzy feeling when your body melts, feet first, once you come home after an hour outside in the snow.

So when I saw the snow this morning I knew it would be part of my day. Part of my dog Venus’ day too. Someone had given me dog booties and although my tiny Italian greyhound had showed adverse disposition with shoes before I thought that with snow on the ground I should try this new model. I had barely finished equipping her fourth paw that she had shaken off the first bootie. Then she looked miserable and refused to move so I took the booties off, put her coat on, and off we went.

Hungary is a flat country but Budapest is a hilly city. Half way up the Martin hill I thought that maybe if it continued snowing a few days there would be enough snow to go sledding. Then I reached Normafa – almost the highest point with asphalt, the hill which leads to János hegy, John’s hill, the ‘summit’ of Budapest at 528 meters. No need to wait for one more day of snow there. Suddenly in a few minutes it was like I had been transported back in the Alps in a winter station. Not only people had sleds, but skis, not only Nordic skis but alpine skis too! Some people even wore their full ski gear with flashy colors.

Multicolored flat plastic sleds and classical wooden sleds where competing on the hill, adults and kids alike were enjoying what could be labelled by many a sad cold grey day. Venus was not the only dog running fast and being all crazy about the snow but she was certainly the smallest and the fastest. I took plenty of photos just in case it would not last like last year when winter came for less than two weeks.

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After strolling in the woods and meeting a few skiers we started our way back home. The GPS told me that it was at about 4.4 km and that it should take me 46 minutes walking. I chose a road that I didn’t know to avoid the major fare with too much traffic for my taste and Venus’ security. After ten minutes my GPS vanished because my phone was out of battery. Ha! Anywhere in the desert or even in New York if you want to go south, you go south, there will always be a straight way to get from point A to point B. Not in in the Budapest hills. Streets curve and a street which starts going south will then curve east and finally take you north. Some streets lead to dead ends or huge detours that are perhaps feasible with a car but not by foot, not if you wish to be home before dark. So I had to rely on instinct and a few foot prints to dare take snowy dirt ways until I finally reached Agnes, a street I knew.

Once home, the first thing I did was to drink a hot cup of chocolate.

No? You want the truth? Really? OK – the first thing I did was not watch my milk carefully and make a big spill all over the stove.  I did curse a bit but I am still happy I enjoyed the snow today and walked over 12 000 steps!

Logistics: use bus 21 or 21A to reach Normafa or legs or bike or chair lift (Libego) or – last resort – car (on days like this car parks were full). I count my steps with Withings.

Ode to Winter in Budapest

On this first day of December everybody complained all day. We have just entered real fall/winter weather after a mild month of November: temperature hovering just above freezing and it has been raining all day. Locals complain, expats complain, tourists complain – boohoohoo!

It should have been snowing – which is actually preferred by many – it is only raining, not even enough to provoke deadly inundations like in the south of France. It is not like nobody knows rain in Budapest but today everybody made it a big deal. Buses were absent or late, drivers could not drive anymore and even the biggest school in Budapest sent its 800 students back home because electricity did not work.

All our posts before Budapest were in warm countries, countries where even in winter the mercury does not go below 20 Celsius (68F). It is great to a certain extend. When do you get to show off your superb leather boots or crazy rain boots or cozy up in a warm angora sweater with a cashmere shawl? When do you light a fire in the fire place and glow, eyes half-closed sipping mulled wine and munching roasted chestnuts? People complain about the short – replace short by dark – days, but if it is not dark outside there is no reason to light candles and give the house a magic look.

Out of all places where to spend a cold winter, Budapest is probably the best. Besides all the Christmas or Advents markets (Vörösmarty tér, Basilika, Gresham Palace) and street lights, this is the only city that I know boasting an entirely lit Christmas tram. For the 6th year tram 2 in Pest and tram 19 in Buda, both running along the Danube, will be decorated with almost 40,000 LEDs starting on Saint Nicholas Day, December 6th for about one month. Tramline 2 is one of the most famous tramlines running on the bank of the Danube, between Jászai Mari tér and Közvágóhíd (the bridge south of Petöfi), which means from the Parliament to the Great Market and beyond. It runs usually 4:00-8:00 pm on weekends and holidays. Personally I like Tram 19 better since it runs on the Buda bank of the Danube which means a much better view of the Parliament. It runs usually 4:00-9:00 pm on weekdays.

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Winter is the perfect time for kürtőskalács, the famous ‘chimney cake’ baked over charcoal in front of your eyes after the dough has been worked into a fine strip spun around a wooden cone-shaped spit. It is covered in sugar which turns into caramel so that when it is golden, it is removed from the coals and you may add anything that will stick to it: coco, chocolate, cinnamon, crushed almonds, or plain additional sugar. Töki pompos is another very Hungarian treat when it is cold outside, it is the Hungarian version of a pizza, baked in an oven contrarily to the lángos, which could be assimilated to a fried pizza.

This winter Christmas will be even more fun in Budapest  with the first Santa Claus run, oufit and beard included! It will start at 3:00 pm on December 6th from Fövam tér. More details (in Hungarian) on: http://www.futanet.hu/cikk/spuri-mikulasfutas.

And to not miss anything this holiday season in Budapest, check http://budapestchristmas.com/.

Now, let’s get ready for some snow!

Diplomatic Fair Budapest 2014

A very specific event that is usually unknown outside the diplomatic circle is the ‘diplomatic fair’ – although most of them are open to the public but generally poorly advertised outside this circle. Before joining the Foreign Service I had never heard of this type of event.

A Diplomatic Fair, as I had the pleasure to witness it four times already, is a fun giant bazaar recreating a mini world in one given place. It can take place in a big field in Africa or Mexico or a large venue in an international hotel. Imagine your school fair at the end of the year and multiply by 50 or 80 nationalities!

The association of the diplomatic spouses is the organizer of this event which is a fund raising event supporting one or several vetted charities among the ones that have more needs in a given country: children’s education, women shelters, orphanage or even a training center for dogs which will be placed with blind people.

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These fairs have at least two components: national booths selling specialties from a given country and a food corner either common or again divided by countries. The Diplomatic Fair organized by the Diplomatic Spouses of Budapest is by far the most complete of the fairs I have witnessed so far since it adds many more components to please and entertain longer a more diverse public:

  • All-day performances. Today it started by dances from India with four gracious ladies in colorful outfits; then there was a children’s choir; a folk dance from Europe; an energetic flamenco dance performed by mother and daughter; three muscular dancers from Nigeria who fired up the dance floor inviting people to dance with them at the tune of the drums; a folk dance from the Middle East which got everybody clapping; rock and roll and caroling from the United States (yes this was our team!) and many others that I missed because the place was extremely crowded
  • There was an instant raffle where you knew immediately if you had won a small prize from about $5 to $30 and then at the end of the day there were the results for the big tombola with dozens of big prizes which value was considerably above $200 sometimes even $1,000.
  • Second-hand corner. Used clothes, jewelry, DVDs, books, stuffed animals…
  • Kid corner. This is a great idea both for the child and the parent. Kid doesn’t like to be dragged, parent likes to shop in peace – perfect win-win situation.

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It was interesting to discover the empty room this morning at 7:00 AM. Some booths were entirely set up and decorated (which had to have occurred between 9:00 PM and 11:00 PM yesterday) and some were bare and some remained bare until 15 minutes prior to the grand opening. Different nationalities, different habits. Where it is truly a diplomatic event is that all countries exist, whether they have been recognized officially or not yet.

Soon the diplomatic spouses will gather and see who made the largest contribution. It is a matter of national pride to be among the top donors. I have a rather competitive spirit but for this occasion I would say: we all won because everyone who participated in this great even is already a winner, no need to count anything when it comes from the heart!

Climbing the highest mountain of Slovenia – Day 2

Comfort stops at our cozy bedroom. For 100 people, there are only three Turkish toilets in outdoor sheds and one of them is out of service. When it comes to running water, there is a really tiny sink with a stream of water so thin it takes more than a minute to fill a small glass. It is therefore hard to brush your teeth let alone wash anything else.

Some people have left before dawn to be able to see the sunrise from the summit. The plan of the day is to climb to the top then back down to Planika and continue on all the way down to the base. Depending on strength and people it takes one to two hours from Planika to the summit. In many places of the ascent there is only space for one person either going down or up.

Until Planika there are flowers of all sorts: ‘hairy’ cottony flowers, flowers in shades of intense purple or vibrant pink, simple daisies. Today the landscape is more lunar and arid.

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We meet all sorts of characters along our ascent. The mountain tribe with solid shoes, thick wool socks, pants with pockets, Gore-Tex parka and their accessories: walkie-talkie, carabiners and rope. The urban tribe with glossy black skinny pants like cyclist, fluo tops, walking shoes with neon stripes and their accessories: bandanna and golden tan. The ‘hotel rat’ tribe dressed all in black from cap to slim shoes, more ready for stealth theft than rugged mountains. The hip hop style tribe with tight pants covered with floral underwear and plaid shirts. We even cross path with a crazy guy who is actually texting, nose on his cell phone while going down on slippery downhill gravel. Our son is part of a non-tribe. He does not walk any more slowly because he wears regular jeans and a normal tee shirt!

The climb is steep at over 35% and there are many via ferrata cables to help ascend. We do not have the equipment with carabiners and harnesses but they are not necessary. We can just grab the cable with a gloved hand and make sure our grip is tight.

The first step is to reach the Mali Triglav – Mali means small. We reach baby Triglav in an hour, then we walk for about 20 minutes on the crest of the mountain and finally during the last ten minutes we have to climb a pure vertical 90-degree slope.

We finally reach the summit of Mount Triglav where a fantastic weather welcomes us and we can see very far. The plateau at the top is very narrow which makes it quickly crowded. All sorts of people have made it all the way up: from 6 to 80 years old! Hundreds of photos per minute are shot here and then it is time to go back to our base.

Our return is slowed by a large group of young children. The queue piles up behind us but we cannot pass since the ridge is too narrow. People are starting to growl and finally the chaperons push the children safely aside to let adults pass them.

Back at Planika we nibble and continue our descent to the Vodnikova cabin where we have a late lunch. The menu could not be simpler: cabbage soup with or without sausage. No more pancakes for dessert. After the meal, the descent becomes more difficult because it is sometimes quite steep which taxes the knees and toes a lot but also the thighs. We are trying to avoid slipping on the gravel. Walking eight hours in extreme conditions is tiring but to do so after a six-hour day of walking and climbing is another matter.

Our electronic apps tell us that our average speed ranged from 2 to 9km/h. My Withings pedometer showed 24,000 steps the first day and although we added almost three hours of climbing today, it shows only 23,000 steps! It apparently does not record climbing softly nor slow descent because it is not a steady pace. We finally arrive at our apartment in Bled where a hot shower is all we need.

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The next day a massive snow storm engulfed Mount Triglav!

Climbing the highest mountain of Slovenia – Day 1

Where is Slovenia? Between Italy, Austria, Hungary, Croatia and the Adriatic Sea. It is a very small and extremely beautiful country having it all: sea, mountains, sunshine, lakes, forests … Triglav National Park covers 84,000 hectares or just over 4% of Slovenia. The jewel is Mount Triglav, which at 2 864 meters (9,400 feet) is the highest point of the country. Reaching Mount Triglav is our primary purpose this weekend although we will also discover Bled and Ljubljana later, to rest!

Via friends known in Islamabad now posted in Sarajevo but previously in Slovenia we have a contact. Their former neighbor and friend Janez not only has proposed to brief us about the hike but to also accompany us. It is said that a Slovenian can only become a real Slovenian after he has climbed Triglav once in his life. At this rate Janez is at least 30 times a proven Slovenian!

Janez will be our guide in our reckless journey. I say reckless because we are not exactly sports fanatics, we do not exercise regularly and besides climbing easy hills in Pakistan for 2 hours every week we have no training for the mountains. Until 48 hours prior to the trip we did not even know if we could do it since the weather is a huge factor and changes fast all the time in these mountains.

We meet Janez near Lake Bled, one of the major tourist attractions of the country about three quarter of an hour from the capital, deposit our luggage in the rented apartment we will go back to the next day and follow Janez by car for about half an hour. We reach our base, leave the cars, gear up and off we go.

The base is at 1 360 meters, so there is 1 500 meters (5,000 feet) to climb under the sun with an ideal temperature of about twenty degrees (70F). We will actually not go all the way to the top today. It is possible for well trained and resistant people but it still would take them a good 10 to 12 hours.

The path starts in the forest and since it has rained yesterday the path is rather muddy and slippery. We also need to be careful about the slippery roots and branches. Eventually we emerge from the forest and discover Mount Tosc, the mountain we have to skirt around to see Mount Triglav.

So far the path climbs gently, sometimes a bit steeper but nothing too strenuous. The muddy path was soft for our soles but after two hours of walking the path becomes paved with sharp uncomfortable stones. When we finally see Mount Triglav, a cloud hides it partially. We pass a grassy plateau where friendly cows pasture peacefully. As we continue, the landscape becomes bare and rocky and some cables attached to the rocks help us get a better sense of security.

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In six hours, including a picnic stop and drink breaks we reach the Planika rest cabin at 2 408 meters. Sheep and goats welcome us. Planika is one of the closest mountain cabins to the summit. It is also the most comfortable and caters for ‘only’ 100 people, the nearby cabin welcomes 300 people.

After a few minutes of rest, the boys go for a beer while I use tiger balm to massage my thighs in a vain attempt to prevent cramps.Then I join Janez, my husband and our son for dinner. Our dinner is fast because the choice is excessively simple: goulash with pasta or polenta or only goulash or only pasta or only polenta! You may buy bread by slices if you wish to complement this.

By eight o’clock we are all in bed!

 

Foreign Service – Expect the unexpected!

Life in the Foreign Service brings many unexpected moments and crazy memories and this is the way I like it.

Nobody told me I would …

  • Pilot a Cessna over the Sine Saloum Delta in Senegal – I don’t even have a pilot’s license!
  • Glide from baobab to baobab like Tarzan near the reserve of Bandia.
  • Eat ‘yassa’ chicken with my hands, sitting on the floor in a tiny village near Joal.
  • Take West African businessmen and women to a trade show in Las Vegas and be their nanny 24/7.
  • Drive from Dakar to Bamako on the side of the road, in the sand, because it was safer than dealing with the potholes on the road.
  • Meet Madeleine Albright at breakfast during an American Chamber of Commerce event in Mexico City.
  • Take the kids to Acapulco and learn that, just near us, the narco-traffickers had chopped a dozen heads.
  • Meet and kiss Margarita Zavala, a federal deputy, wife of then president of Mexico Felipe Calderón.
  • Welcome musician and singer Seal at the consulate, chitchat and take photos.
  • Enjoy a lucha libre show with its masked warriors. Lucha libre is a very well-choreographed wrestling competition with heroes and villains. The fun was also among the spectators, for example grandmothers gesturing and yelling chinga tu madre and all other kind of nondescript foul language.
  • Meet and kiss vice-president Biden after his speech at the Embassy in Mexico City, and later receive a letter of appreciation in Pakistan, letter forwarded from Mexico even though it had a wrong address for the Embassy in Mexico.
  • Be car-chased by a crazy man in Chiapas where hubby had to remember and apply all his classes of Crash & Bang defensive driving.
  • Eat powdered ants in a wonderful Mexican dish.
  • Participate and rank top 2 in the first ever triathlon of my life in Islamabad at an age when some of us are grandmothers.
  • Climb the full size brass antelope in the Karachi airport on a dare given by my female boss – who did it too!
  • Be called daughter by a toothless Pakistani villager, thankful that via USAID we brought her electricity.
  • Hike the Margalla hills every week and befriend Pakistani girls in the mountains.
  • Become a designer and invent many unique dresses and shirts thanks to the sewing skills of my Pakistani tailor.
  • Plant my own tree to celebrate the end of a successful project. I was a drop in the ocean of that project but as a representative of USAID, I was treated like royalty.
  • Feeling like a rock star or the Queen of England when I entered a classroom and was “showered” in rose petals Pakistani hosts had laid on the blades of the fan.
  • Sleep on the floor of the hut of unknown Thai mountain villagers.
  • Buy a beautiful and unique piece of embroidery in Thailand that the embroiderer consented to sell only because I was married.
  • Eat in bamboo plates from bamboo dishes with bamboo chopsticks that had all been carved in front of my eyes a few minutes before the meal.
  • Taste savory dishes of the curly-haired Mangalica pig during the Mangalica festival in Budapest.
  • Celebrate Valentine’s day in Bosnia (usually more synonym of war than love, unfortunately).
  • Visit an exhibition in total darkness, led by a blind guide and experience like a blind person what life is like, dinner included.
  • Hike to the top of Mount Triglav, the highest mountain of Slovenia at 2864 meters (9,400 feet).
  • Eat foie gras in a special ‘Magyar’ McDonald burger, the libamajjal, where liba means goose, maj liver and the –al suffix with.
  • Climb a Via Ferrata for the first time in my life: the steep via Ferrata Hans-von-Haid-Steig trail to reach Mount Rax in Styria, Austria at 2 000 meters.
  • Learn a few words of Chinese because I am working as a TDYer in Beijing, China, in the middle of the summer – yet the weather is not as hot as in Budapest or Paris.
  • Three years after doing a TDY in Beijing, being assigned to Beijing and invited to model a qipao dress (also called cheongsam) at a fashion and culture show in the Silk Market.

Some friends tell me ‘I didn’t know you were doing these kinds of thing’ and I answer ‘me neither’!

Hotel Rant

Where to sleep in Pécs?

We love travels. We love travelling. We are not difficult. We can sleep in a hut if the type of travel mandates it – for example an eco-trekking we did in Thailand in 2012 (I’ll have to come back on this because it was fantastic).  We slept on the floor, just like our hosts. On a same trip in the same country we can go from hut to high luxury and hut again, it just depends on what is right at that time and what we intend to do: for example, meet local people in villages (Chang Mai region) or visit museums and palaces (Vienna).

Sometimes we find that the best fit for our family, when the four of us travel, is to rent an apartment. Actually sometimes we are five if we count our tiny Italian greyhound and more apartment owners accept dogs than hotels.  Since we like to cook it is also very practical to have your own kitchen. It also helps control the quality of the ingredients and the amount of fat that go in your plate.

As much as we look for practicality I always have an eye on aesthetics. I don’t like ugly, especially if the prices don’t match ugly. When we were on ‘home leave’– a specificity of the Foreign Service describing the extended ‘re-learning Americana holiday’ we take between two missions overseas – I was trying to get across the country for as cheap as possible. Every FS family will tell you that it can be costly to be in the U.S. for two months = 60 (even 61) days with no roof of your own. With a cheap hotel like $100 a night for four, this is already a whopping $6,000 – on only one salary. Not every FS employee has a house available, either because they are too young to have purchased one, or it is rented. Not every FS employee has parents with a mansion that can accommodate a long stay. Home leave can be nine weeks you know since the employee gains three weeks per year abroad. Some colleagues would argue that ‘yeah, but it’s impossible to take that long’. You can do it. We did it. Just negotiate!

Back on the notion of ‘acceptable ugly’. If I choose Motel 6 and Super 8 because I want to travel to major cities to show our kids the United States in all its grandeur, from Maine to California (Home leave 2013), and I don’t want to break the bank, I accept savorless hotels where we will barely spend a night. But when a hotel pretends to be ‘charming’ or ‘boutique’ with higher pricing associated with such adjectives, I really don’t appreciate that they look like having supplied their rooms with IKEA-like furniture (and at least this would have a clean feel to it), or worse that they are using old cheap 1950s furniture with a carpet so worn that you can’t tell which color it is, much less which color it was. The bed cover can also be repulsive and it is a much cheaper investment to make to improve a room.

So why am I all excited about this topic today? Well, I am planning for a trip to Pécs which is supposed to be the most beautiful city in Hungary after Budapest. I’ve asked my Hungarian colleagues and teacher about which cities not to miss and they all agree. Pécs comes first. Then there is a tie between Debrecen and Sopron. While I am dutifully making my research on Booking.com and Tripadvisor to cross-reference opinions I could only find abominable hotels in the loveliest city of the country!!! Some hotels might look good from the façade to the reception desk and dining hall, the rooms are still very mediocre. The one that dares call itself ‘boutique’ is among the ugliest one. At this point I looked for Bed & Breakfasts and they were all ugly as well.

My conclusion is if you are an entrepreneur: go open a real boutique hotel in Pécs because lovely city means romantic and romantic needs a proper nest!

Budapest, my new home town

My first steps in Budapest were in several supermarkets, not museums. Expats are not tourists. Expats need to make their nest first, then they are ready to explore. And go to work!

From abroad we say Budapest. Once we have settled in the capital city we learn how to speak like locals. You either live in Buda on the west side of the Danube or in Pest (pronounced Pesht) on the east side. It was not until 1849 that a bridge – Chain Bridge or Széchenyi Hid in Hungarian – connected the multiple Buda hills to the plains of very flat Pest. About twenty years later Obuda (the ‘old’ Buda, north of Buda), united with Buda and Pest.

In Paris the districts (arrondissements) are set in a clockwise spiral, like a snail which makes them easy to learn: small numbers in the center and larger numbers on the outside. Because of the development of Buda, Obuda and Pest separately for many years, the numbers of the districts don’t really follow each other in an easy spiral. Buda has its center, district 1 (district 12 is next to it) and Pest has also its center, district 5 (district 13 is next to it), tough logic. Obuda comprises district 3 and 4 which says that this city was developed before Pest.

District 1 is dominated by the city’s main castle surrounded by ramparts. Locals call it the Vár district and it is about 100 meters above sea level. We live in district 12, a residential district, one of the largest, with the greenest hills – also the highest: this is where you may climb the highest point of the city, the János Hegy (John’s Hill) at 527 meters. The President, Prime Minister and many ambassadors together with only 75,000 others inhabitants live in district 12 out of almost two million inhabitants. Some time ago it was covered with vines. District 5 is where the magnificent parliament and our embassy are. It is also the most touristic district including the Basilica, the main pedestrian street Vaci utca, a huge Eiffel-inspired covered market ‘Vasarcsarnok’ and many five-star hotels.

From our new house to the embassy we take a tram for 15 minutes and then the subway for six minutes. There are four subway lines in Budapest. The Budapest subway was the first on the continental mainland, the second in Europe after London. Line 1 is yellow, line 2 is red, line 3 is blue and the brand new line 4 is green. The nearest subway station to the parliament is named Kossuth Lajos (pronounced Koshout Lah-yos) after a famous lawyer, journalist and politician considered the father of Hungarian democracy. On April 14th, 1849 he proclaimed the independence of the Republic of Hungary and the downfall of the Habsburg dynasty. Alas the Austrian Chancellor refused and Kossuth took exile in England and died in Turin.

The parliament, a major symbol of Budapest, is inspired by the British parliament. Near it is Szabadság tér (pronounced ‘Sobodshag‘) which translates as Liberty or Freedom square. The embassy is located in one of the beautiful old buildings which line the plaza.

Our surroundings are beautiful and our commute is short. This is a good start!

Budapest introduction: food first!

Late in August 2013, we started our journey to Budapest. Our first stop was Houston where we learned that our son’s luggage was going to Budapest but ours would not! We had to fix this in Frankfurt. Between Houston and Frankfurt our son was upgraded to business, we were not! At this point our dog decided to literally do what we thought … although I had taken her out to relieve herself she decided to let it go (all of it) only once we were back inside the airport. Right there, on the smooth marble floor.

We arrived in Budapest one plane later than planned and a very cold rain greeted us that Thursday night. Guess what our first introduction to our new home city was? Tesco!!! A British supermarket. Our house had furniture and was supplied with a welcome kit (sheets, towels, kitchen appliances) but the fridge was empty so the colleague who came to greet us took us to the supermarket.

It was actually a good introduction to the language. The vegetable and fruit section is like a children’s book: an image with a tag describing what it is. Everything was written in Hungarian only. Obviously. We were glad to discover that a zucchini is a cukkini and a lemon is a citrom. Almost the same. Alma means apple. Simple enough. It became trickier when we had to name the garlic: fokhagyma – pronounced fokhojmo. I immediately liked the tomato word because it sounds like paradise: paradicsom. Butter is vaj (pronounced voy), milk is tej (tey). Some things ended up in the caddy on the basis of their appearance without us having a clue what they were!

Early Saturday morning – that is to say about 30 hours after our Tesco adventure, our neighbor took us to Auchan, the French supermarket! Us? Me and my nine hours of jet lag … I was born and raised in France. I know Auchan. This is Budapest. I don’t know Auchan anymore. This supermarket was bigger than two regular Auchan in France. It had over 60 cashiers!  Between the size, the language and the jet lag it was overwhelming and after two hours I was lost, my caddy full but I still didn’t have what was on my list – sounds familiar? Just like home!

In the afternoon my husband and I went by foot to a tiny mall near our house called Hegyvidék Központ. The mall of the country hills. It is a gourmet center where one can find a wine shop, a fine chocolate shop, a baker, a butcher, a fishmonger, a deli selling high-end products – a bit like Hédiard or Fauchon. We learned a few more words at the butcher’s. Marha for beef, borjú for veal, barany for lamb, sertés for pork, csirke for chicken, kacsa for duck and liba for goose. Pork, duck and goose are staples here, beef not so much. Even huge Auchan and 24/7 big Tesco don’t really supply proper beef.

So 48 hours after landing I still had no idea what Budapest looked like but I was learning a lot of food vocabulary and in a sense Hungarian culture. Hungarians are gourmet people who love to eat good meals: a perfect country for us.