Chain Bridge, Budapest

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Week 2, Belatedly

Howdy. I'm sorry for not updating my blog this past week. I've learned that people are actually reading this, so now there's a fire under my rear to get me to post, which is nice since it got even colder this past week. A lot has happened and I'd like to share it with you, day by day. You can see all the pictures from these first two weeks in Budapest by clicking here. You can also view my entire collection of pictures from the trip by clicking on the permanent link on the right hand side of the webpage. Feel free to comment on the pictures as well as the blog posts. I'll try to write descriptions for each of the pictures, but this will be hard since I'm putting them both on Photobucket and on Facebook. But now, here goes the long post, so get ready.

Thursday, January 21

Thursday was the second day of the language course and my roommate Mike's 21st birthday. During a lunch break a few friends and I went on a hunt for a Hungarian birthday card. There are several bookstores (konyvesbolt) near the language school so headed to those first. After Brittany, who was part of our cohort, managed to communicate "birthday card" to the bookstore employee in French (it was only our second day learning Hungarian; we had just learned how to pronounce the words, not understand what they meant), the employee said that they didn't have any cards and that we should check the Kaiser Supermarket down the street. We went to Kaiser's and found a card that was themed with the Pixar movie Cars. We figured it was a birthday card since it was right below other cards with numbers on them, such as 30!, 40!, 50!. Our Hungarian teacher, Erika, confirmed for us that it was a birthday card. So I then managed to get most of the BSM'ers to sign the card for someone that they had barely met.
Later that day, about a dozen of us walked over to Brittany and Bridget's place to have birthday cake. They baked a delicious strawberry cake and covered it in candles. They weren't able to find easily-distinguishable icing mix at the grocery store, however, so they used Nutella instead. For those that haven't tried Nutella, its a chocolate spread with the consistency of peanut butter. You can get it in America, but its very hard to find peanut butter over here, but that's another story. Anyway, so the cake was great and Mike had a great birthday with people he had just met the day before.
We decided that we should go out to eat at a restaurant that night instead of going to a bar again. We would save his birthday drinks for the next day when it wasn't a school night; we are still math majors. Mike didn't care what kind of place we went to, as long as it wasn't Hungarian or Indian or otherwise ethnic food. We consulted Budapest guides and online searches for reasonably priced non-Hungarian restaurants in the city. Plagued by indecision, which I am finding at least for these first few days is a common disease among BSM'ers, we discovered a listing for a Tex-Mex restaurant called The Iguana located in downtown Pest, right next to the Parliament building and a metro stop. Perfect.
I was excited to see American vehicle license plates lining the walls and a large marianet hanging in the corner of the ceiling. The decor was spot on. The food was good, too. They had chicken fajitas, quesadillas, enchiladas... the works. What this place did not have was spicy salsa (they said it was spicy; it wasn't) or tres leches desert cake. It didn't matter because everyone had a good time and Mike had a great birthday.

Friday, January 22

After three days of Hungarian language school we were all exhausted. Good thing it was Mike's "official 21st birthday drinking night", so it gave everyone a great excuse to go back to Katapult bar. The bar was especially packed. It's already very tiny and a lot of floor space is taken up by tables and chairs, which you don't see much in Austin on Sixth Street. They have a small upstairs, which is just an open lofted balcony-type area with a few tables and couches. BSM'ers kept pouring into the bar and soon we had the entire upstairs to ourselves. I was able to meet nearly everyone in the program and they are all cool people. I hope the second batch of kids to show up after the language school is just as awesome.
...Let me digress a bit here while I talk about one quick thing that I have learned about life in Hungary: anywhere indoors is liable to be hotboxed with tobacco or other smoke at any time of the day. I expected it in bars at night, but I had to get used to the second-hand smoke in small coffeehouses in the morning before school. There is this one place that is only large enough for seven people to sit inside, and six out of those seven are smoking a cigarette. Besides health concerns, I'm conscious of wearing particular clothes that I know will inevitably smell after fifteen minutes inside one of these places. If you want to try to wear clothes that don't smell, you need to rotate the ones that you have. Washing them overnight isn't an option since we don't have dryers and my winter coat takes longer than one day to dry out. Anyway, let me get back to the story...
So after we had taken over the upstairs of Katapult for an hour, we decided to get a change of scenery and go to another nearby bar called Mumus (pronounced: Moo-moosh). Mumus was much bigger. The ground floor was full of tables, all of which were occupied. Upstairs was pretty funky. It probably used to be a large family apartment and was converted into a bar. Each room was decorated differently. It reminded me of the 21st Co-op back in Austin, except that this place was even more wacky. There seemed to be an endless amount of rooms and that each time you thought you had reached the end of the bar, you saw a small door in the corner that opened up into another whole set of rooms filled with people hanging out on old couches. We chatted and drank for an hour in a dimly lit blue room featuring a paper stalagtite and stalagmite; one came up from the floor in a kiddie pool filled with some sort of liquid and pointed up to nearly touch the other one hanging from the ceiling. A single tiny light bulb illuminated most of the room in the middle of the two faux rock formations. Around 1 a.m., people started to fill the small dance floor in front of the upstairs bar. A few of us danced to a handful of songs, the highlight of which was a peppy Hungarian song played with an accordion. It reminded me of Gogol Bordello. The chorus went something like "Magyar! ... Americai! ... Magyar!... Americai!" Those were the only words we knew, but it was really fun to dance to. A dozen locals put their arms on each other's shoulders and danced in a circle, singing the chorus. I knew it would only be a matter of time before I headed back to that place for a Friday night.

Saturday, January 23

The night before, Mike and I had the idea of throwing a party for all the BSM'ers at our place the next day, Saturday. We announced it at Mumus and I posted the information on the communal Facebook page the next day when I woke up, which was considerably later than I intended to. Surprise. After lazily starting my day in the late afternoon, I found myself having to scramble to go buy a Metro pass, buy palinka, buy cups, ping pong balls, beer, and clean my room before people started to show up at 9:30 p.m. I took the red metro line to the Keleti train station where the big Plaza Arena Mall was located. Inside was the Super Tesco, the equivalent to our Wall-Mart. I managed to get what I needed and get back to the apartment with 30 minutes to spare.
Of course, as soon as I walk in the door eight friends decide to show up early. Whatever, roll with the punches. After moving chairs, couches, tables and computers every which way, I take a deep breath and our apartment is suddenly filled with 25 people having an awesome time. I take great pride in being able to throw a good party, no matter the circumstances. That pride comes from my days as a pledge in AEPi, when it was our job to entertain 300 people every three weeks. First Budapest apartment party of the semester: SUCCESS. New best friends made: +25. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Sunday, January 24th

..... to be continued

Sunday, January 31st

I'm now almost caught up with my blog. Yesterday, I was determined to check out the semi-frozen Danube River along with Hero's Square. I knew a group of people were heading to a museum next to Hero's Square later that day, so I figured that I'd join them after checking out the river and Varolisget Park, which abuts the large monument of Hero's Square. I took the metro to Erzsebet Bridge and walked to the middle of it. It was about 15 degrees Fahrenheit outside. I wore my ski jacket and leggings under my jeans, but you can only do so much. I needed at least two more scarfs on (I had none) and one more pair of gloves on (I had one pair). Of course, the wind on the bridge made the cold even more biting. I took some great pictures of the icy water and the Chain Bridge and Palace up the river. I asked a nearby woman who was also taking pictures to take one of me since I was alone. She spoke good English and took this picture.

Now for the interesting part. She asked me where I was from. I said Texas. Then she said that she thought that the Texas climate and the Budapest climate were similar and asked me if that was true. After rubbing my hands together to regain feeling and brushing snow away from my face I said, "Not exactly." So we talked for a bit more. She wore a furry hooded jacket with a thick scarf and thick gloves and repeatedly asked me if I was cold. I was freezing, but I told her I was okay, that is as long as I could get off the bridge in the next two minutes. I told her I would be living in Budapest until June studying math. Her son was studying to be an English teacher here. Then she said that he could relate to international study since he had previously lived in Jerusalem learning languages for six months. Hmmm, I thought. I told her my brother had lived in Jerusalem studying for three months after high school. I wondered if she knew Eran who I had Shabbat dinner with on Friday night, but I didn't ask. Then we shook hands and walked to the opposite sides of the bridge.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Let's Conjugate

Today was the first day of the Hungarian intensive language course. About 40 BSM kids came out of the wordwork of Budapest to attempt to speak their first few words of the hardest language in the world. The classes started at 9 a.m. and we were split up into smaller groups of 7 to 10 people. Each group was assigned to a small seminar room and a Hungarian teacher. It was a breath of fresh air for someone to sit there in front of me and explain the different pronunciations and give examples of simple Hungarian sentences. I have found Rhyme and Reason! though apparently they don't understand what I am saying. The first few words we learned were easy:

diak vagyok, es angolul beszelek = I am a student, and I speak English
o Sam van. Sam magyarul tanul = He is Sam. Sam is learning Hungarian.

Of course, there are several vowel punctuation marks that I'm omitting since I don't want to go type on the Hungarian keyboard. There are 14 different vowels in Hungarian, each with its own unique pronunciation, and a few have sounds that aren't in English at all. We learned a handful of verb conjugations and expanded our vocabulary to 30 words strong. At the very least, I've started to properly pronounce the street signs that I walk by on the way to school. I was the only one in our small group who didn't already speak another language besides English. Several people speak French, a few speak Spanish and German, and even Elan speaks Hebrew. The teacher said that my Latin in high school would help me learn Hungarian, though the languages aren't related, so that's a little comforting. However, I didn't come to Budapest to learn Hungarian, I came to challenge myself.

That's why I'm going to make a concerted effort to study the daily lessons, do the assigned homework, and learn as much Hungarian as I can in these few weeks. I don't want to be visiting Budapest, I want to be living in Budapest (Budapesten elek) for these next five months. To do that, there's no way around the challenge of the language. The only way to overcome it is to tackle it head on. I'm excited of the opportunity to learn a foreign language and directly apply it in my environment. I know it will be difficult, but hey if it was easy, then everyone would do it.

One of the more anticipated parts of the first day of language school was meeting the other BSM students. Everyone was very friendly and eager to meet each other. We are from all over the country and all different backgrounds. There are people from Minnesota, Virginia, Philadelphia, Denver, Los Angeles, San Fransisco, South Carolina, Chicago, and Texas. We go to public schools and private schools; big and small. Some of us are seniors and some of us are freshmen (wow). After the language school ended for the day, several people met up at 7 p.m. to walk around Budapest and go to some of the pubs with the local Hungarians. I showed up a little late and joined seven other people at a pub across the street from the Dohany Synagogue called Catapult. By the way, Dohany means tobacco in Hungarian, and the "y" is silent.

After the pub, we walked around looking for a place to eat. I came across a Burger King, across from a McDonald's no less, and decided to get a Whopper. The burger and fries reminded me home, but then it made me miss it more. They just can't make fast food in Europe the way they do in America. You might wonder, How could they possibly mess that up? Isn't it only six ingredients? Well, you can mess up a Whopper and fries and Coke. Now I understand why In 'n Out only opens restaurants within a short distance of its meat factories: to preserve the integrity of the taste. Shame on you Burger King. You need to stick to what you are good at. I don't know what that is. Let me go get a breakfast taquito from Whataburger while I think about. I'll get back to you.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

How 'Bout Them.... er.. Cowboys!

Yesterday I had woken up at 11 a.m., my normal time on a non-school day, so I thought I had overcome jet lag. I was wrong. Last night I went to bed at 3 a.m. and woke up at 3 p.m. By the time I rolled out of bed it was already dark outside... again. I had thought that today would be best spent shopping for groceries and other apartment essentials, such as toilet paper and laundry detergent. But there was really only one thing on my mind after I finished my chocolate-nougat-filled cereal: find a place in Budapest to watch the Dallas Cowboys take on the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL playoffs. I had searched online last night for possible viewing locations, but had come up short. It was hard to get the English language Google website since the Hungarian one automatically comes up when you enter here. The search was made more complicated since the results kept talking about the Budapest Cowboys American Football team.

Wait a minute, the Budapest Cowboys American Football team? Yes. I also found the official website of the Hungarian American Football League which has about twelve teams scattered throughout Hungary, including at least two in Budapest. I know what you're thinking: Dude, you should go to a Cowboy's game in Budapest. This is what I thought, too. The 2009 schedule ran from April to October, and I couldn't find a 2010 schedule since the website was entirely in Hungarian. Google translate helped a little, but not what I needed. I was able to read a blurb about a team from the league that had made it to the European American Football Championship game, but -- get this -- had to forfeit the championship because the team waited too long to apply for their visas to the foreign country where it was being held. I'll inquire about this later.

This afternoon, I finally found a place that was showing the game: Champ's Sports Bar on Dohany Street. Mike contacted Bridget and Brittany from yesterday and they agreed to meet us there at 7pm to watch the game. I tried to call my friend Christy, who is on the BSM program and goes to the University of Texas, but we were limited to Facebook messaging since her phone wasn't working. A funny moment was when she suggested I call her friend's phone, but the number she gave me was my Hungarian landlord's phone instead. Some confusion there. I'm still not sure how Christy has my landlord's number, since she lives in another part of town. Whatever, her and her roommate, Sarah, met us at Champs to watch the game anyway.

In order to get to Champs, Mike and I took the subway to the Astoria stop, which is a block away from the bar. Walking to the bar, we passed the Dohany Synagogue, my first time seeing it. It's very impressive. It was lit up from floodlights and took up nearly the whole block. Its the second-largest synagogue in the world, and the largest in Europe. Its the capstone of the well of Jewish history and tradition that once and still exists in Budapest. It looks like our school and many of the BSM students live in the Jewish Quarter of Budapest. I plan on exploring it extensively when I get the chance, and maybe when it gets a little warmer.

Champs was perfect place for the occasion. They had a projector set up with the game and there were several dozen Americans there watching it, most of whom were Viking fans. A few people wore T-shirts that said "Budapest Wolves," which I think is another American football team. Mike, myself, Bridget, Brittany, Christy and Sarah ate and drank, though it seemed that only I tried to watch the game. Christy ordered Unicum, which is a brand of Hungarian liqueur and is very similar to Jagermeister. By itself I think its a little too medicine-tasting, like Jager, but should be good mixed with things. Of course, Dallas ended up loosing the game, 33-3. Pathetic. At least this year we made it past the first round. Jerry Jones wouldn't agree with me, but baby steps. Next year the Superbowl will be in Dallas, so we are just getting ready for the Fall.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

We´re Not in Texas Anymore

Szervusztok! (Howdy ya´ll!)

I've made it to Budapest in one piece. I landed yesterday at 7:30 pm and was met by a BSM staffer named Peter who took me in a taxi to my flat. By the way, Im typing this from an internet cafe near my apartment since I need an additional grounded adapter to plug my laptop into the wall socket. I tried to type a quick email on it, but it quickly ran out of juice and died. This is fairly hard to type since the Hungarian keyboard is so different from the American one I am used to. For instance, the y and z are switched, and there are about seven different characters that we dont have that have their own key, such as ő ú ű á í ö ü ó. To compensate, the usual characters that are in those places can now be selected by hitting shift and tapping the numbers and a few of the letters in the middle of the keyboard. There is also an anti-shift, which selects the character that is written below the main character. Therefore some of these keys have three different characters on them. Regardless, this is tricky.

Im pretty sure that we are not very far from the center of Budapest. We are also right on the subway line which takes you to the center. By coincidence, I hope, our flat is literally right next door to the Budapest Holocaust Museum. I plan on checking it out soon, though since today is Saturday everything seems to be closed. Ive been walking around for the past 30 minutes and the only stores that are open are the grocery stores, gas stations, and this internet cafe. As soon as my suite mate, Mike, wakes up from his nap, we are going to take the subway to the other side of downtown where there is a mall. There there is a store called Media Mart where I can buy the adapter.

Figuring out the currency is a small problem for now. The Hungarians use the Forint, which has an exchange of 186 forints = $1. So 1000 forints is about $5.38. In case you were wondering, the interent at this cafe costs 155 forints for 30 minutes of use, which comes out to $1.70 an hour. I clearly wasn't ready for this when I took out money at the ATM. I took out 10,000 forints which is $53. Mike and I went out to eat last night and found a pizzeria a few blocks down the street. A 28 cm personal cheese pizza cost 690 forints, which is $3.55. I paid the woman who worked there, who spoke zero English, the smallest bill I had, which was a 10,000 forint note. She had to practically clean out her cash register to give me change, which came in three bills and seventeen coins. Now I have a lot of change. The pizza was terrible. It makes me glad that we decided not to go to the Chinese buffet closer to our flat. So far I've counted three Chinese fast food restaurants near our place.

The phone is another issue. Since our apartment doesn't have a built in landline, we are provided with cell phones, though we have to buy our own minutes. My flat is for three people so we had three different cell phones and chargers. There was only one of the phone manuals for us to look at, but it was all in Hungarian and for a Sony Ericsson, except that we had two Nokias and a Samsung. Only one phone, mine, had the number for itself written down. So.... problem solve. Mike called my phone, so now we have his number. However, we have only figured out how to call each other and no one else. Another person in the BSM program posted their number on facebook, but for some reason I can't reach him. I just hear a recording of a guy speaking in Hungarian on the line. Maybe now that I have bought more minutes, it might work. (Wow! Ya think?)

Speaking of which, I bought those minutes at a Shell gas station that I found while walking around. Out of the two employees there, one spoke a little English. I managed to get 5000 forints worth of T-Mobile minutes. The way it works is that there is a little keypad at the counter. The cashier enters the amount of money you want to put on the phone. Then you type in your phone number on the keypad, which includes the two digit carrier number (30 for T-Mobile, 70 for Vodafone) plus the seven digit personal number. In five minutes, I got a text message confirming the transaction and telling me how much money I had on my phone.

My two-week language course begins on Wednesday. Peter showed me on the map where it is, which is close to the famous Dohany Synagogue, the biggest synagogue in Europe. My math classes are at a seperate university, which is a little farther away from downtown, but still a relativley short commute, I think.

I'm excited to be here. The weather is cold right now, in the thirties Fahrenheit, but I'm trying not to think about it, which is hard when I can't feel my face from the wind. I'll post some pictures and map when I can.

Szia. (goodbye)


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Waking Up in Vegas

I wrote this when I woke up in Vegas on January 6. I was on a cross-country road trip to Pasadena, California to watch the Texas Longhorns in the BCS National Championship Game. We had to check out of the hotel before I could finish the post, so I saved it as a draft, and now that I'm back in San Antonio I am publishing it. I'll write more about that amazing soon.

January 6, 2009
10:15 a.m. Pacific Standard Time
Excalibur Hotel and Casino
Las Vegas, Nevada

It's the morning of Day 3 of the Drive to the National Championship. Will Monterosso and I have been driving since 5:30 a.m. on January 4th from San Antonio, Texas. Altogether we have driven 1,450 miles, been through 3 states, seen snow, desert, mountains, and a whole lot of empty plain. Its the two of us in my brother's hatchback Dodge Caliber filled with fold-up chairs, coolers full of drinks, suitcases, sleeping bags, and, most importantly, two tickets to the BCS National Championship Game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, to see our Texas Longhorns defeat the Alabama Crimson Tide and win our fifth football national championship. We are caravaning with Bregger, Aaron, Adam, and Philip who are riding in Bregger's Honda Civic. Our journey has taken us from San Antonio to El Paso to Albuquerque to Las Vegas. Today, we drive to Los Angeles to meet up with some friends before gameday, whose kickoff is only 31 hours away.

I have wanted to take a cross-country road trip from Texas to California since I turned eighteen. My family has spent some considerable time on the road. As a kid we would frequently drive from Fort Worth, TX to Del Rio, TX to Port Aransas, TX and everywhere in between.

To be continued...