Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of Santa Claus arrived to Amsterdam this morning. Of course, he did it in the most Dutch way possible.
When I moved to Hungary in 2010, I planned to stay for a year. The theory was that I would hate teaching English and head home, or I would like it enough wander off and continue with adventures in different foreign lands. But, I threw the plan in the trash, and Hungary was my adopted home for four years.
After years of teaching and being a student, I packed my bags in late 2014, and started moving on. I noticed that expats who move to Hungary often stay either one year or multiple decades, but I still think four years was the right amount of time for me.
But, I haven’t escaped Hungary. Not by a long shot. Following another common trend, I wasn’t able to avoid falling hopelessly in love with a beautiful Hungarian girl. She was convincing enough to get me to tag along to Amsterdam, and my wanderlust was beginning to find its cure again.
Unfortunately, loving someone with a different passport has some downsides, and I’ve had to head back to my native country while I continue to try to figure out a way for the two of us to live in the same country.
So, my website is not dead, but it will no longer be primarily about Hungary. However, I haven’t yet shared all my past experiences, and I’m sure to have many future visits to Hungary where I can happily indulge on the delicious food that I already miss.
Hungarian word of the day:
This is pronounced “Vee-sont-laa-tash-rah,” and it means goodbye. In this case, it’s a little harsh and inappropriate, but I don’t have the skills to say “until we meet again” to the land of the Magyars.
Let’s face it, Europe was designed to be a perfect setting for the holiday. Most of our classic horror stories originated here, and the spooky feeling is based off of old, strange buildings. Add some changing leaves, gloomy weather, and shorter hours of sunlight, and the recipe is complete.
That’s why it’s more difficult to ignore this one. Thanksgiving doesn’t bother me so much because I often forget it even happened. Most of the other holidays are either celebrated or boring (and therefore irrelevant to me).
Of course there are parties or other events if you look hard enough, but it’s not the same as having costumes, pumpkins, and candy shoved down your throat despite any and all protests. One promising fact is that I’ve been seeing more and more shops with Halloween window displays blocking their normal products. On the other hand, a lot of Christmas decorations are getting put up, so that kind of destroys the scary vibe I was hoping for.
The good news is that I don’t have to figure out a costume and stock up on candy. And, I could be somewhere much worse, so I think I’ll wander the canals of Amsterdam tonight and look for and ghouls, goblins, or other monsters that may be about.
Dutch Word of the Day:
I’m still struggling with pronunciations, but this is probably the word for “pumpkin.” They do sell these in the grocery stores, but I’m not sure I they’re to make jack-o’-lanterns or pies. I’m going to stop complaining and take what I can get.
Amsterdam, and the Dutch in general, are famous for their bikes. The two wheeled monsters are everywhere. You know those iconic pictures of bikes locked to every railing and canal bridge? Those aren’t exciting – they’re just Amsterdam.
I’m going to say it (probably not for the last time):
Bicycles are the pigeons of Holland.
Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Batman lives in Amsterdam. As evidenced by the following photograph, he forgot to lock the Batbike in the Batcave, but it does appear that there are one or two Baby Bats riding along with him. Or, is Robin smaller than we all thought?
Dutch word of the day:
I’m still struggling with this whole Dutch language learning task, but I’m fairly certain that this word means “Bat,” and that it’s pronounced somewhere along the lines of “F-leer-mouse.” Dutch speakers and/or billionaire superheroes are encouraged to make corrections.
It would be tough to say what Amsterdam is most famous for, but I’m sure bicycles make it into the top ten. Creating a strong cycling infrastructure is something that’s admired around the developed world as a civilized, responsible, and environmentally friendly way to transport citizens from Point A to Point B. However, it’s my opinion that the developed world needs to rethink its value system because a city full of bikes is TERRIFYING.
Before you start to think that I’m being sponsored by an oil company, let me explain it in an easy way for you to understand. Have you ever played the classic game Frogger? If you haven’t, I would advise that you don’t admit it to your friends, but you continue reading so you can at least join the conversation about this later. It’s a game about poor little frogs who seem to desire incredibly dangerous daily commutes. They’re forced strategically maneuver through cars, floating logs, and other types of deadly items, and their timing is absolutely critical.
Amsterdam is the game, and I am the frog.
Pedestrians, bikes, motorcycles, cars, trucks, and trams all share the same streets. I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure that the boats sometimes use the road, too. All of this wouldn’t be so alarming, but since the street is usually crammed between a canal and an ancient building, it’s usually about wide enough for a narrow car or 1.5 cyclists.
Fortunately, Amsterdam is a civilized city, so there are rules to keep everyone safe and in order. Unfortunately, no one seems to care about the rules.
I can hear the arguments now. “Alex, you just arrived in Amsterdam, so you don’t know how it works. It’s very organized – you’re just ignorant.” That may be true… But, I must remind you that central Amsterdam seems to be about 60% tourists who also don’t know the rules, and many of them have recently consumed one of the city’s other famous products which has caused their brain to be temporarily incapable of though (if it ever was before).
Anyway, the more time I spend here, the better I get. We’ve started thinking of it as different levels of the video game, because we move to more challenging situations as we become numb to the fear. I’ve yet to ride a bike down a busy street while using both my hands to apply makeup to my face (yes, I saw that last week – and she was doing a pretty good job), but I’m on track (for the bike skills, not the makeup thing). It will just take time, practice, and dedication.
But, do you want to know the most impressive part of the whole situation? I’ve yet to see a dead frog on the street. They seem to be better at this than my little friend in the video game.
Dutch Word of the Day:
In a not very impressive way, I’m using a dictionary to find this word that is supposed to mean “bike.” Therefore, I don’t know if it’s correct, and I’m not even sure how to pronounce it. If you speak Dutch, any help would be appreciated.
After a summer busy with writing an MBA thesis, and the other stress that follows finishing grad school, I find myself in Amsterdam. So, you should prepare for some interesting stories and lots of pictures.
The ironic part is that even though I’m in one of the more photogenic cities in the world, I’m attracted to pictures of graffiti type art on walls. Yeah, the canals are super beautiful, but my pictures just look like everyone else’s (and the cover of every Amsterdam guidebook ever written).
So, let me get some grungy stuff out of the way, and I’ll share more words soon.
Dutch Word of the Day:
This word literally means day, but seems to be used as a pretty general “hello.” Basically, you say “dock,” but pretend you choke on something as you get to the C. It’s not so graceful, but at least it’s easy…
Time doesn’t fly when you’re hungry, but it does when you’re in Hungary! It’s been a while since I’ve (publicly) made one of those jokes, so I thought it was about time I do it. Feel free to laugh and tell your friends.
The reason I’m thinking about time flying by is that it just hit me that this is the fourth summer I’ve been in Hungary. It takes noteworthy occasions to point this out, and for me, that was the 4th of July (aka Independence Day in the USA).
Four. Four summers. Four periods of unrelenting heat with virtually no ice cubes. And that doesn’t even count my initial arrival in August, so really it’s more like five. Most people spend summers in countries with beaches or nice climates. Well, most people aren’t very creative.
Anyway, I wanted to talk about July 4th. It’s weird spending your big national day in the borders of another country. The internet allows you to see in real time that your friends are holding flags, sitting at baseball games, and doing other patriotic acts. Yet, the people walking down the street next to you seem completely oblivious.
To make it worse, the World Cup is going on. I grew accustomed to seeing American flags waving on this particular day, but this year it was mostly the three horizontal German colors waving around. Maybe it’s a geographical location issue, but out of the four important games yesterday, I’d give the Cup to Germany and second place to Brazil based on fans wearing their support. Maybe the French are boycotting Budapest because of its lack of croissants. And what is Colombia’s excuse?
But, soccer wasn’t on my menu yesterday. Actually, my menu seemed to be set with a single option that wasn’t very tasty: my MBA thesis. With the deadline approaching, it seems to trump most other social activities. It’s pretty cool.
In order to spare me from my pain, I’ve been able to escape the distractions and heat of the center of the city in favor of a house in a nice quiet neighborhood in the hills. The nights are quiet, the air is clean, the wasps are making nests around me, and it seemed almost perfect for July 4th. But, I forgot my baseball bat, so my options were limited.
In a kind gesture to make me feel at home, it was arranged to have a little Hungarian style American cookout. The conversation went a little something like this:
“So, in America, what do you do to celebrate this day?” I was asked.
Starting to get excited, I said, “Blow things up, grill hot dogs, and play baseball.”
“OK, we can grill hotdogs…”
Notice how she left out the blowing things up and playing baseball? That’s what you get for hanging out with women. They always skip the important stuff.
So, we set up a little charcoal grill. After some confusing time spent on opposite sides of a language barrier, I finally got it across that I had no idea how to do it because I always used a propane grill. I was then politely banished from attempting to ruin dinner, and I took the opportunity to get some pictures to capture the moment.
The “hot dogs” were good, and the onions were even better. Since proper buns are scarce, we improvised with “kifli” or crescent shaped rolls (that, for some reason, are super popular and can be found everywhere). To add a Hungarian touch, we had to throw on some “szalonna” to give the meal some more taste. Szalonna, in my part of the world, is called “bacon fat.” But the Hungarians love it, and I’ve been told I’ll never understand because it’s not in my blood.
So, Happy 4th of July, everyone!
Hungarian word of the day:
This is pronounced “Veer-sh-lee,” and it’s a kind of sausage food. Wikipedia describes it as Vienna sausage, but I would say it’s the closest thing I can get to hot dogs, but still not quite right. No problem, though, they made for a great (and delicious) grilling experience.
DISCLAMER: I’d like to make it perfectly clear that I think Hitler sucked. So, if you’re looking to join a Nazi fan club, I suggest heading back to google and trying your search again. This article has the intention of making fun of that angry little man.
So, I recently spent some time around Lake Balaton which is frequently referred to as the “Hungarian seaside.” It seems to have a wide range of things from palaces to tourist traps to wineries, and it all blends together in a strange way. This keeps you on your toes because you’re never sure whether to feel like an aristocrat or a redneck (or, a Nazi, but keep reading for that…).
Last weekend, I was bumping around the town of Balatonlelle, and it had that feeling that can only be achieved by a town which people visit until they’re too sunburned to remain. There were a lot of beach town essentials around: restaurants with greasy food, hairy men wearing nothing but a speedo on a public street, and plenty of junk shops.
We had a brief period of aimlessness between our morning coffee and our artery clogging langos brunch, so we decided to look for souvenirs and have flashbacks to our childhoods in the trinket stores. Shockingly, the boy in me wanted the bow and arrow while my female companion was much more interested in the elaborate bubble making toys.
Anyway, we stopped at one shop where I was drawn in by a cultural lesson on some “very Hungarian” little clay pots that were suggested as souvenirs for my friends and family back home. Then we drifted past the matchbox cars, more bubbles, and wandered into the Adolf Hitler section.
I’m not joking, you could by your mini Adolf in whichever outfit you preferred, and he even was locked into his famous saluting pose. Next to him, for the man who wants to complete the set, was Rommel and some other members of the Nazi All-Star Team. Charles de Gaulle and other less controversial figures were further down the line, but they obviously weren’t what draw in the customers.
Now, it could be argued that I shouldn’t pass judgment because I don’t know what they’re for. They were very small, so they weren’t any toy (sorry young Nazi children, you have to look elsewhere for those), and my guess is they are used for creating some kind of historical diorama or something. Perhaps my friends are boring, but I’ve never been sitting on the beach and heard someone say “I’m heading over to the shop for a Coke and I’m going to check if they have the khaki-uniformed Hitler, do you want anything?”
So, if you know what these are for, I’d be happy if you shared it. Until then, I’m going to be reading up on beach etiquette out of fear that I’m missing some critical part.
Hungarian word of the day:
This is slightly different because it’s a name – not just a word. But, it’s said to be the biggest lake in Central Europe, and it’s a pretty popular summer spot in Hungary. So, if you need a place to cool off in the summer, or just want to by some mini Nazis, you have found your destination.
I haven’t posted anything in a while. I’m, unfortunately, aware of that. Finishing my exams, writing my thesis, and searching for a job seemed more important (even if more boring…).
Anyway, I did make it on a cool trip a few weeks ago. I can say with almost 100% certainty that you don’t know anyone else who has stayed where I did. I have some nice pictures and interesting stories, and this is picture is a reminder to myself to share them with you.
So, new story, coming soon…
Hungarian word of the day:
It’s pronounced “faw,” and it means tree. Rarely are Hungarian words this short and easy.
If you live in the same city for a while, you start to know it too well. You have trouble exploring. After all, how can you find something new when you’ve already found everything? To make it worse, you know the most efficient way to get everywhere, so you rarely have to try a new way or take a wrong turn.
I don’t know everything about Budapest. I haven’t been everywhere, and I haven’t seen all there is to see. Plus, even if I had, things change so there’s always something new to find. But, I tend to have to go farther and farther away to find areas that I’m not familiar with. It’s hard to find the motivation to do that when I live and study right in the middle of some really cool neighborhoods.
So, in the spirit of my Innovation class (which only has a small amount of homework – you’ll understand this reference if you keep reading), I decided to innovate my exploring. I bought a longboard.
Suddenly, I can go farther at much faster speeds. I just explored a big park that I’ve been to a bunch of times, but this time I saw more than ever before. Instead of thinking, “no, that way looks like a long walk to nothing, I’m not going to bother,” I found myself just taking it and finally seeing what was at the other end.
Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to explore as much as I would like. The gods of school seem to frown upon fun, and they took this opportunity to send unprecedented lightning bolts of homework. Also, my body is struggling to keep up with the new muscles needed to travel this way. It seems they’re slightly different than the “metro riding muscles.” Shocking.
If anyone knows of places with long, smooth sidewalks or roads, let me know! I’ll check them out.
Hungarian word of the day:
I don’t feel the need to translate this for you. It seems that it’s a new enough concept that the Hungarian language didn’t find it necessary to make a new word. But, if it makes you feel better, “skateboard” is “gördeszka.”
They want to know why I came to this country. The world is a big place, and Hungary isn’t particularly well known. At the moment, it’s not known as being too prosperous or desirable. A large percentage of Hungarians (especially young people) are moving abroad to find more a better quality of life. Therefore, it usually comes as a shock to people that this is where I choose to spend my time.
But, I think they’re missing the point entirely. They always want to know what made me come here in the first place. Despite the fact that I often try (but rarely succeed) to convince people I only came here because I got lost, the question actually has a simple and boring answer. I found a job. It’s that straightforward.
What people should ask is why I have stayed in Hungary. I originally came with an employment contract of one year. When I did that, I assumed I would either like teaching and move to another country to continue exploring, or I wouldn’t like it and would go home. Instead, I moved to the capital city and continued. One more year of that, and then I switched back to studying without moving to a new land.
So, that’s a much more exciting question. What do I like about Hungary? What has kept me here?
This answer isn’t so easy…
There are a lot of reasons that I like Hungary, so I have a new goal to start writing them, one-by-one.
Reason #1: I feel welcome here.
That sounds cheesy. I guess it is cheesy. I don’t care.
Hungarians often get a reputation among foreigners as being “mean” or “cold,” but I disagree with that (except if you forget to acknowledge that something was invented by a Magyar). Most people frown when they walk down the street by themselves. They don’t make polite conversation to strangers on a bus. But, that doesn’t mean they’re rude. Well, some are, but you’re always going to have exceptions (they’re probably just mad they didn’t invent something yet).
I think there are a lot of different historical reasons (that I won’t go into) of why their culture has adopted that practice, but it’s not very different from many other nearby countries. Plus, Hungarians tend to be very jolly when they’re sitting in a café with friends. They smile while they chat on trains. They even have absurdly polite (and confusing) expressions that are often used in their language.
The thing is, I feel like they don’t particularly care for strangers. But, it’s really not difficult to stop being a stranger. I’d like to compare them to dogs (keep reading, before you think this is an insult). I love dogs, and one of the biggest reasons is that a dog treats you very well if you give it a little bit of food and love in return. Hungarians tend to be the same (except, they commonly greet people by shaking hands, not the other method which dogs prefer…).
I can’t count how many times I’ve met a Hungarian, and they almost immediately insisted on doing some huge favor for me. It’s actually more difficult to get them to leave you alone. “No, it’s okay, I can take care of it myself” is a phrase that seems to have been left out of their English textbooks.
If they decide you’re hungry, they give you food (even if you just ate). If they decide the place you asked about is far away, they will drive you there right away (even if you don’t really want to go). If they decide you’re bored, they’ll start talking to you to entertain you (even if, at some point in the discussion, they forget to keep speaking in English). The list never ends...
It seems that every time I start to feel homesick or out of place, it happens. A Hungarian pushes their way into my life and immediately includes me in something that’s going on with them. I could give you a lot of examples, but mind your own business. Just go make friends with a Hungarian - you’ll see what I mean.
So if you feel unwelcome in Hungary, it’s because you’re not actually talking to anyone. That’s your fault, not theirs (but as soon as someone realizes it, they’ll start talking to you).
Hungarian word of the day:
This word is pronounced “Cho-ko-lome,” and it’s a polite greeting to say to a lady. It means something along the lines of “I kiss your hand.” I told you the Hungarians are polite. Try saying that to a lady in any other country and the year 2014…
Walking down the streets of Budapest, I see a lot of weird clothes. Between the European love of shirts with funny (and often incomprehensible) sayings, and the amount of second hand clothing stores in the city, you never know where something might come from. That’s why I wasn’t entirely surprised when I saw something from home…
I was on my way to school, and I was absentmindedly thinking about the person wearing the University of Colorado jacket on the sidewalk in front of me (here’s the logo, if you don’t know it). It didn’t feel strange to see someone representing my alma mater until I realized that it was a world away from me.
In hindsight, it probably would’ve been cool to go stop the person and ask if they were actually from Colorado, or if they just got the Buffaloes jacket somewhere.
But, I had two problems with that idea:
- I was late for school.
- I don’t like when strange people approach me on the street, so I wanted to save her the trouble of a creepy guy bothering her first thing in the morning.
So, I snapped a few quick, blurry pictures with my phone and ducked down into the metro station.
Hungarian word of the day:
This means “university.” It’s difficult to pronounce because of the impossible “gy” letter in it, but you’ll get fairly close by saying “Edge-eh-tem.”
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:
This word is pronounced like „tail,” and it means „winter.”
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.”
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.
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?
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.
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:
- Yes, they have.
- 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.
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.
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).
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:
- 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.
- If you go to Nebraska in January, bring some good books.
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.
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…
Hungarian word of the day:
You know what it means, but the pronunciation is a little different. Try “Dets (Lets with a D) – em – bear.”
“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:
This word is pronounced “TEM(like ten with an M) – plome (rhymes with home),” and it means “Church.”