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Friday
Jan312014

First Snow Of Budapest

Fact #1:  I love snow.

Fact #2:  It has been avoiding me this winter.

Before I begin, you must know that I’m the guy who often surprises people by saying I love winter more than summer.  Many describe it as a dark, cold, depressing time of the year.  I think of it as a time to bundle up in clothes and enjoy the cozy feeling of cafes and houses with fireplaces.  Plus, my fair skin gets sunburned in the summer, and that just isn’t healthy.

This winter, I spent nearly a month in Colorado, and I only saw a few flakes.  That doesn’t mean I was climbing mountains looking for it, but I expect it to come to me every now and then.  The one time it did snow, I was visiting another state and missed it.  My bad luck is kind of impressive.

The good news is that it wasn’t snowing in Budapest either.  I didn’t miss some awesome, fun blizzard while sitting in a sunny region.  My Hungarian friends also weren’t throwing snowballs.

Then, when I returned to Hungary, the weather got really cold.  It’s been fluctuating between freezing frreezing frrreezing and just really cold, but it still has been pretty intent on prohibiting snowflakes.  It almost seemed like this winter was a lost cause.

Finally, it happened!  There was a nice (light) snowfall on the city.  So, naturally I got so excited that I grabbed my camera and got ready to go out and take some pictures.  I was really excited, and then I checked the temperature.  I don’t remember what number it was, but it was much lower than I would like to see when my hands have to be exposed to operate a camera.

So, naturally, I made a cup of tea and watched some TV.  It was comfortable, so I repeated.  Again and again.  Until the sun was nearly setting.  Uh oh.  Did I waste the day?

No.  I threw on some warm clothes and dashed out into the night.  The pictures weren’t great because of the lack of light.  Even the snow seemed to be missing.  That’s when I noticed an army of men with brooms doing their best to clear their sidewalks.  I started snapping pictures furiously.

The moral of the story is that you can’t pretend snow will just last.  Even if the temperatures are enough to make a penguin put on a coat, some flock of city workers may be doing their best to exterminate the little bit of frozen stuff that makes you happy.

 

Hungarian word of the day:

Tél

This word is pronounced like „tail,” and it means „winter.”

Friday
Jan102014

Break The Travel “Rules”

Istanbul, Turkey.

Lately, the years seem to just be flying by.  Every year I expect that I’ll do more traveling than the previous one, but that doesn’t always happen.  But, I suppose a lot of people set yearly goals of reducing things (such as body weight), so I’m really pretty awesome that I can decrease something.

In some ways, 2013 was a letdown of a travel year.  When I look at the list of countries I visited, it’s unsettlingly small:  Hungary, Turkey, Serbia, and Austria (I don’t find it necessary to throw the USA on that list).  However, I broke that down to cities and events visited, and I feel a little better about myself (but, I’m too lazy to list all that here).  Let’s just say I looked at other continents, saw furry monsters, had free tickets to see a famous rock band, drank coffee in palaces, walked by bombed buildings, saw a major river flood a city, saw protests from my window, watched a marathon finish line, and rode in a terrifying cable car up an Alpine peak.  That’s not all, of course, but I’m tired of listing things.

But, instead of listing places visited, what about a different strategy of measuring my travel?  I may not have gone as many places, but in 2013 I continued to make a lot more friends from different countries.  This, in my opinion, is an overlooked form of “travel.”

Belgrade, Serbia.

Budapest is becoming quite a touristy city.  That isn’t surprising given how beautiful it is, but parts of it baffle me. 

There are two major types of tourist that I often see:

1. Tour Groups

They file off of their buses or river cruise ships like a pack of trained animals.  Their cameras start rocketing off pictures, and they follow guides who speak to them in their language of choice.  They head to (usually) beautiful restaurants where they eat a “traditional” Hungarian meal.  Then, they head back to their hotel or ship, and prepare to see somewhere else the next day.  It’s unlikely that they ever actually speak to a Hungarian person.

Now, I do think this is a much better way to travel than staying home and watching TV, but it does leave out some important aspects.  For example, it takes away the satisfactory feeling of discovering something on your own.  Also, all of your experiences were designed by someone else, so you end up seeing a place in the way that they do.  But, most of them are old, so more power to them!

2. Party People

Budapest is starting to get a reputation as a cheaper alternative to Western European cities, and nightlife is one of its specialties.  I see a lot of people (particularly from a certain island nation which shall not be named) who come to the city and stumble over as many streets as possible.  They appear to have a great time, but I hope they take a lot of photos because someone at home may ask what Budapest was like.  I don’t think they can depend on their memories…

I’m rambling on again.

The flooding Danube River in Budapest, Hungary.

My point is that I could easily travel by following one of those methods (or something similar).  But, is that really getting the full experience?

On the other hand, I spend most of my days hanging out with people from a multitude of different countries.  In doing this, I’m accidentally having the cross-cultural experiences that other travelers tend to miss when they have their nose stuffed in a guide book.

I’ve been taught many little tidbits of language that phrasebooks don’t include.  I’ve had home-cooked, traditional foods from countries (and continents) I’ve never even been to (keep in mind, it’s not always good, but it’s diplomatic to say you enjoy it).  I’ve become caught up in elections, natural disasters, and other national events that involve people I’ve never met (and I often have to ask people to translate news stories because they aren’t covered in international media).

I could keep listing ways that I accidentally get involved in other cultures, but the point is to focus on the basis of culture.  If a goal of travel is to see culture, it’s important to remember that this is a phenomenon that surrounds people much more than places.

My advice is simple:  Be a little racist.  Go find someone who is from somewhere different than you and start being friends with them.  There’s a good chance that you can have a much deeper “travel” experience than someone who rides a boat through six countries in a week.

But, seriously, I also want to go more places this year.  Where should I go?

A cable car up the Untersberg near Salzburg, Austria.

Wednesday
Jan082014

Nebraska.

I talk to a lot of European people.  That’s not really a shocking surprise given my lifestyle.  After all, I live in Europe and it probably has the highest concentration of Europeans of anywhere on the planet.

Sidney, Nebraska from the car.

One of the first things European people usually want to know about me is where I have visited in their country.  This is always my opportunity to look like a cultured adventurer or an ignorant fool.  There’s probably a middle ground between these two, but I threw that opportunity out the window when I started telling people that traveling is my number one hobby.  I’ve gotten a lot of credibility by having been to lesser known places, and really baffled some people by liking “unknown” spots.  On the other hand, I’ve looked like a complete moron for not visiting something completely “must-see.”

Now, let me get back to my point.  The conversation often turns to discussing whether that person has visited my country.

Typically, there are two possible answers:

  1. Yes, they have.
  2. No, they haven’t.

Once we pass that terrifying boundary, we can narrow that conversation.  Most who have been want to talk about their trip(s), and most who haven’t want to talk about where they’d like to visit.  I can only recall ever meeting one person who hadn’t been and said she didn’t want to go.  She was a chain smoking Austrian who, after a significant amount of beer, said she had learned smoking indoors is banned in many American establishments and therefore has no desire to ever step foot in the country.  Shortly after this exchange, Hungary banned smoking indoors and I never had to speak with her (or go home with smoky smelling clothes) again.

Travel allows you to see terrible catastrophes.

But, everyone else tends to have the same destinations that they went to, or want to go to.  Topping the list are New York City and Los Angeles.  These are followed by other hot spots such as Las Vegas, San Francisco, Miami, the Grand Canyon, and Route 66.

I don’t give any argument that these aren’t incredible places, but when someone spends a week or two in New York or L.A., I don’t really believe that they’ve actually experienced the USA.  I’m not alone in this sort of thinking, either.  I once met an Irish guy who asked if I’d ever been to Ireland, and after I told him I’d been to Dublin he replied, “Ok, so you haven’t.”

You might wonder where I’m going with all of this… Well, so am I.

I’m trying to prove a point.  After the major city conversation, I always tell people that the best way to see the US is to rent a car and drive around.  I tell them that it doesn’t even really matter where you go, just get out of the big cities and see how the rest of the country lives.

Throughout my life, I’ve driven around much of my country.  In my mind, it’s the wide open spaces and spread out towns that make it up – not the large cities known throughout the world.  I like (some of) those cities, but I don’t think they accurately show what the country is.

Sidney, Nebraska from the car.

But, it’s been a few years since I’ve gone on any big road trip.  I always get lazy when I come home to visit, and I typically save my travel energy for when I’m in Europe.

So, last week I went to Nebraska (it’s okay, I’ll pause so you can look it up on your map).  The drive was only a few hours, but I was traveling with two crazy dogs, so it felt like a lot longer.

I spent a few days in a small town with my parents (and, of course, the two crazy dogs), and it was pretty enjoyable.  It’s the kind of town where everyone seems to know each other.  Every time I was at a shop or a restaurant, customers and workers would be happily chatting away about personal matters – the kind of relationships that you don’t find as often in cities.

The speed limits were slow on the roads, and the local police seemed to have little else to do than give speeding tickets, so the cars puttered along like snails.  Random people would wave on less busy streets.  Everyone smiled and no one seemed to be in a hurry.

It was the Small Town American as seen in 1950’s television.

I had a lot of really good food (maybe not the healthiest…), and enjoyed wandering around.  Then, the weather changed and I didn’t have enough warm clothes with me.  At that point, I had to stay inside.  That’s where I started to miss the city life, because there weren’t enough cafes to just go hang out at.  I started to get cabin fever, but I watched a lot of TV, got a lot of reading done, and had some pretty epic battles over the sofa with a  dog (I usually won).

A great travel companion (except when she barks in the middle of the night).

Overall, the trip made me miss some of those long road trips I love so much.  Whenever a European makes a comment about Americans only speaking English, I remind them that I can drive for days in any direction and never encounter another language (and then remind them that they started the conversation with:  “You’re American? Great, I can practice my English!”).

So I have two main points that I’m trying to make through all this rambling:

  1. If you really want to see the United States, don’t limit yourself to New York.  Yeah, it’s awesome and worth visiting, but it’s very different from the rest of the country.  Most likely, you’re going to have some really enjoyable experiences once you let yourself enjoy the freedom of the wide open roads and endless towns.
  2. If you go to Nebraska in January, bring some good books.

Such thinking requires a reward.

Friday
Dec272013

December… Again…

 The city is beautiful even when it's cold!

December is an interesting time in Budapest.  To say it in a very basic way, it sucks.  It’s really dark and always cold.  The metros seem extra crowded.  Lines in grocery stores seem longer than usual, and the frowns on people’s faces look more intense.

If you’re still reading after that paragraph, then you’re wise.  December is one of the best times to visit Budapest, but I wanted to do my part to help that remain a secret to keep the crowds down.

Really, all those negative things are true, but they are overshadowed by the beauty of a city that is preparing for Christmas.  Many of the squares have markets set up with nice little houses in them.  There are Christmas trees all over the place.  A lot of the big boulevards (especially Andrássy út, my favorite) have lights on the trees lining them.

Lights along Andrássy út.

Everywhere you go, you can smell that delicious scent of hot mulled wine.  The cold weather gives an extra excuse to spoil yourself with hearty Hungarian food and delicious desserts.  You can either go into a cozy little café, or brave the weather to enjoy the steam at one of the outdoor markets.

There are multiple outdoor ice rinks set up.  One is in the shadow of a castle in the City Park, and another lies in the square in front of St. Stephen's Basilica.  The Opera House repeatedly shows The Nutcracker (although I’ve never actually been to see it…).  Plus, I’m sure there are a lot of other stereotypical Christmas things to enjoy.

Just the other day, I saw people dressed as Santa Claus (or Mikulas, as we learned the other day) walking down the street handing out candy.  I wouldn’t really be surprised to see eight tiny reindeer walk by.

So remember, when someone asks if they should visit Budapest in December, read them the first paragraph.  That way you’ll have more room on the ice rink, and a shorter line for the hot wine.  Don’t worry about me taking up space, I’ll be inside studying for my exams…

 People enjoying themselves at a Christmas market.

Hungarian word of the day:

December

You know what it means, but the pronunciation is a little different.  Try “Dets (Lets with a D) – em – bear.”

Monday
Dec162013

Lasers And A Church

“Let’s take old, intricate buildings and project a laser show onto the side of them.  Then, we can sync it to music and give it a moving, 3D appearance.”

I don’t know who first said this, but I would give that guy a high-five.

On another cold, December night, I was walking to get some dinner as a break from studying.  With St. Stephen's Basilica being on my way to the restaurant, I decided to cut through the square and see the Christmas market.  Almost immediately, I realized my mistake.

With an exam the next day, walking quickly was a necessity.  But, if you’ve ever been to a Christmas market, you know that the people there would all lose a race to a sloth.  It’s not fair to blame them, because they are just trying to enjoy the moment.  But, fair or not, I still kind of hate everything about them.  Who cares about “Christmas spirit”?  It’s cold and I have exams to worry about…

Anyway, as I looked at the mass of unmoving people blocking the route to my destination, my vision suddenly became a lot darker.  I was pretty sure it was the beginning of my transition into a super villain, but I shortly became disappointed.  It was simply the lights on the front of the church going dark to start the laser show.

Lasers!  I guess there was another super villain nearby…

I happened to have a perfect view since I hadn’t yet entered the fray, and all the other sloth people were trapped in their web of frozen movements, so no one was able to rush in and block my way.  So, I spent at least half of the five minute show without any little kids bumping into me.

The good news is I had my camera with me.  The bad news is that I didn’t have a lens that was wide enough to take pictures of the whole building (in defense of my lens, the building is gigantic).  So, I was able get some cool picture in bits and pieces, but not the whole scene.

And if you think I would’ve moved backwards into the man eating crowd to get a picture of the whole basilica, then you’re a crazy person who has clearly never been to a Christmas market in Budapest.  In that case, I recommend you go.  They’re lovely.

Oh yeah, about the show.  It was weird.  There were a lot of snow flakes and windows that moved around.  Then lines of light would trace all the lines of stone in cool patterns.  Then a bunch of presents fell out of these imaginary windows.  More snow.  A giant Christmas tree grew in front of the place.  Snow.  The front of the building turned into Santa with a crazy mustache.  Then clouds and bursts of light exploded from the mosaic of Jesus in the center.

Then all the Italian people went back to their shopping (and standing).

 

Hungarian word of the day:

Templom

This word is pronounced “TEM(like ten with an M) – plome (rhymes with home),” and it means “Church.”