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!

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

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!

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.