Welcome Kit

When a regular person moves, it usually takes place in one day. You may pack for several days but eventually in one day you are across town or state. Upon arrival you unpack the basics and voilà!

With the Foreign Service when you pack, you move across countries, continents, oceans. You never – never – get your stuff the same day. Heck, you usually don’t even land in your new country the same day. How do you manage in your previous house, after packing for two to four days, and supervising packers and movers for two to four days? Your house is bare except for the timeless Drexel furniture we all cherish.

Our General Services Office (GSO) puts together a Welcome Kit which may slightly vary from post to post. In some places the welcome kit is given for good. Stuff in it is so cheap, it cost less to give it to the families for a one-time use than to have people collect it back, inspect it, inventory it, store it, and lend again. Actually a two-time use: once you arrive and your own belongings are not there yet, and later when you depart. Then you have a happy housekeeper inheriting all!

In general the Welcome Kit is well thought with the basics: sheets and blankets (don’t ask me about quality or allergy to acrylic!), pillows, towels, plates, glasses, silverware, pots and pans, coffee machine. The devil is in the details. In Budapest we have only ‘whisky’ type glasses, no wine glass – then again better than to only have long cocktail glasses I suppose. This is minor. But no kettle! An appliance I use (need) ten times a day. Yet we have a mixer, so it was not a question of space in the Welcome Kit. I have never used a mixer in my life – I am not a baker. No place mat or table cloth! No bath mat! Two slotted serving spoons but no ladle? Worse: no broom, no mop, no bucket – yet the place needs to be spotless clean when we depart – at 3 a.m. Pans are tiny, good for a single person, not a family of four. And we definitely need to travel with our own knives.

As I go through the Welcome Kit I re-create my own because for the first time in this second career we are not going to a welcoming overseas Post with free rent, free maintenance, and nice GSO to welcome us. Did you guess yet? We are going back to the mother ship. Washington, DC. The first few days we will be in a hotel room but when we move to our permanent residence, there will be no Welcome Kit. Only that box that I am putting together, aptly marked “Welcome Kit – UAB DC – Open first”!

Another major thing that will be missing in our future residence is furniture. In our first overseas house we had our UAB (airfreight of about 600 lbs) upon landing and then I had ample time to play around the given furniture, change it to my liking before being invaded by 300+ boxes of HHE (slow freight three months later). I am dreading the day when we ask to receive our HHE the day we move in – otherwise we’ll sleep on the floor!

Lunch at the Hold Street Market Hall

The market behind the U.S. Embassy on Szabadság Tér has changed tremendously in 2015. This little brother of the large Central Market opened in 1897 and feels inspired by Gustave Eiffel as well. Now fully renovated it offers a dozen restaurants for literally all palates: Hungarian, Chinese, Italian, Vegetarian, Scandinavian, etc. One person can choose Chinese, the other one Italian and you can eat together in the common area.

Last week we had the great surprise of finding also an offer of Vietnamese and Thai soups, Pho and Tom Kha Gai. Both were delicious and very authentic. 1,000 HUF for the small bowl and 1,400 HUF for the big one.

You pay at the restaurant A Séf Riksája and get served at the soup cart. This restaurant serves a Hungarian specialty changed daily. It is located with all the restaurants, upstairs, at the end of the market, near the very good Vörös Homár (the Red Lobster).

Vörös Homár also proposes, on the ground floor, the best quality fish and seafood you can think of, and if you don’t see what you need, they take orders.

Belvárosi Piac / Downtown Market
Hold utca 13 – Budapest 1054
www.holdutcapiac.hu/en

BKK Tip in Budapest – The 5/30

The BKK ticket 5/30 (“öt harminc”) cost 4,550 forints for 5 periods of 24 hours and is valid for 30 days. We find it more flexible than the weekly pass (4,900 forints) which gives you transportation rights for seven consecutive days. The 5/30 does not bear any ID number and is therefore transferrable, unlike the pass.

Here are some examples on how we use it:

  • Husband travels a lot, finishes his monthly pass and needs 3 days in Budapest before his next travel. Use 3 days and keep 2 for when he returns – then repurchases a monthly pass
  • Visitor comes for 10 days but some days you take them visiting by car, and some days they wish to rest at home. The 5/30 would be probably a better option than the bi-weekly pass (6,900 forints)
  • Visitor comes 2 days and then another visitor comes 2 days within 30 days. They can use the same pass, a much better option than individual tickets.
  • Since it works for 24 hours, if you start your ticket in the afternoon to visit a museum and then go the next morning to the Gellért spa, and then return home, you have used public transport both days with only one ticket!

When you purchase this ticket, it comes as a long strip of six tickets (the front one shows the validity date, followed by five tickets), fold it as an accordion to display only the front one which you show to the inspectors in the metro or the driver in the bus. When you start your first journey, just circle the day and the time on the first ticket (the second of the accordion) and this initiates your first 24 hours. This is the part that you present in case of a control. Always keep the strip intact.

BKK Tip in Budapest – The Plus Seven

I buy often a “+7” BKK transport ticket which is not very well known even by the clerks themselves. And yet it is so practical.

The scenario is the following: your monthly pass is about to expire and you will be on holidays in a week. What do you do? Buy a monthly pass that will not be used for a large part of its validity? Buy a weekly pass which costs HUF 4,900?

The better answer is: buy a “Kiegészitö heti Budapest-bérlet természetes személyeknek“, which is just a 1-week supplement to a monthly pass and cost only HUF 2,450.

The trick is to do it the very same day of the expiration of your monthly pass, at any hour, and with a clerk (impossible to buy with automatic machines) who will replace your monthly pass by this one-week supplement pass. I advise also to write down the name and price of this great ticket because some clerks are not familiar with this request, especially coming from a foreigner.

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

Ode to Summer in Budapest

We came back from holiday missing part of the summer in Budapest. We missed the worse flood ever: something like one month of rain in two hours, and we missed the historical record of temperature at over 40 degrees Celsius. People complain about the heat but I can’t get enough of it! And what is 40 when you come from Islamabad with 48 every day for three months?!

I also missed my jogging around the cemetery of the wolf, a perfect 25-minute loop jog route from home in the Buda hills. So today I took little Venus – an Italian greyhound is always little even at adult age, a mere eight pounds – and off we went to see the seasonal changes to our neighborhood. Everywhere the leaves and grass were overgrown and wild. I was especially looking for ‘my’ plum spots. There are many fruit trees in the neighborhood and for some reasons Hungarians let fruits fall and rot on the road. This must be a rich-neighborhood in the city trend; I doubt they do this in the country side. First, I found the Reine Claude plum tree, a dark purple variety. There were some left on the tree, and many squashed on the road. I reaped a small kilo and walk to the second yummy tree, the Mirabelle tree – the tiny yellow variety. It seems that the season was over earlier as there were none left on the tree, only a few on the road.

There are many florists around the cemetery, three to five vendors at every entrance. I always chose the closest ones to home to be able to jog as much as possible before carrying loads of flowers and plants. Today I made a huge bouquet with irises and different kind of daisies for the ridiculously cheap amount of 6 euros, which mean 4.80€ after we get the VAT back. Together with high quality-cheap bill restaurants, this is one of the greatest pleasures of Hungary: live like a king for a fraction of the cost, yet being in the heart of Europe.

My day got even brighter when I arrived back home and was greeted by our red apple tree whose branches bend under the weight of a myriad of tiny red apples. They need another few weeks to be ripe. Then I went around the house to discover that the peaches on the tree are already ripe. I was also greeted by some old sad Russian songs coming from the neighbor on the south side and the new neighbor on the north side introduced himself: a Brit married to a Hungarian lady; they just purchased a house who had been on sale for over two years.

When we lived in Dakar, we were lucky enough to have a house with multiple fruit trees: mango, bananas and oranges. I also planted two papaya trees – too late for us but our colleagues who inhabited the house after us thanked us for them. In Islamabad, I planted two papaya trees immediately upon arrival, to have time to taste them before departure – alas a sudden frost killed them both before I had time to protect them for the winter. We had figs, tomatoes and basil to console ourselves!

This afternoon I planted oregano and mint in the garden, gift of a fortunate colleague who has too much in his garden to supply a pizzeria and a Moroccan tea room. I also added yellow pansies to pink carnations and geraniums to beautify the terrace. I had a thought for all my colleagues PCSing this summer, fighting twisted regulations, nasty airlines, and Drexel atrocities …

Today it is 35 degrees Celsius, the sun is high, and the sky is deep blue – I love Budapest!

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