After Prague, Krakow and Belgrade, I've come to expect all large Eastern European cities to be charming and picturesque, and Budapest not only didn't disappointed in that regard -- it may have exceeded them all! Given how much I have loved just about everywhere in Eastern Europe that I have ever visited, I suspected I would at least like Budapest. Turns out: I love it. It's in the top 10 of my favorite cities, no question - and I've barely seen any of it.
Actually, I already loved Hungary per my trip to the Eastern part of the country in 2008 - Stefan and I were in Eger, Hungary, where we greatly enjoyed the wine "caves" (and the wine) of the Szépasszony völgy (cut and paste that Hungarian phrase into Flickr to see photos of the area by others -- we didn't take any, unfortunately), and to the endless Hortobágyi Neuzeti Park, a sea of grasslands, where we stumbled upon the Hortobágy Bird Clinic.
On this trip, I was again working with representatives of centers and initiatives helping local students study at colleges and universities in the USA, something I did in Belgrade, Serbia back in December 2009. These centers help students look for appropriate schools, apply for financial aid, structure their own finances in order to contribute to expenses, prepare for and take necessary tests, and prepare for the lifestyle of the USA (no, you don't have to bribe your professor for him to grade your test so you can pass a course -- at least not in any place in the USA I've heard of). As I heard a colleague say a year ago about these centers, "You know, these people are essential in rebuilding our image abroad. And, yet, many of them have never been to the USA. The USA owes them hugely." And it's true! I said this when I did a similar training in Serbia, and I'm going to say it again: the representatives have a spirit and drive I rarely saw among UN staff audiences: their desire to do a great job, their frankness, their HUMOR, and their lack of playing cultural "gotcha" (where someone waits for you to say something so they can imply that you have been culturally insensitive -- it's been only Americans that do that on these consultancies, and, yes, one of them did on this trip). Here is a bit about my presentation.
It felt great to be training again -- I really love building people's capacity to do their jobs better, and I hope that I'm not one of those blah-blah-blah-here's-the-ideal-here's-the-theory-it's-all-so-easy consultants; I hope I give them real tools and information they can use immediately.
As I traveled from the USA on this first trip to Budapest, I realized that I've never flown into Amsterdam airport. And I found it... a bit stinky. Also, I got both the naked body scan AND felt up - plus, my scan was posted for ALL to see. You get patted down immediately after walking out of the scanner in Amsterdam, and I guess it was because I was wearing jeans that I did not get felt up as much as the woman in front of me who was wearing much looser clothing (only my husband and gynecologist are permitted to touch me that close to my crotch). I didn't realize until after being reprimanded for having two bags of liquids instead of one (at least they didn't take one away) and looking back towards the scanner that the naked scan photos are shown right on the outside of the scanner -- there you are, naked, for anyone walking by to see or looking back to see. Thanks, Netherlands! Will it be posted to the Internet next? And speaking of the Internet, I didn't find out until the return trip that Schiphol airport gives travelers 30 minutes of free wireless Internet - wish I'd known that on the trip over!
Both flights to get to my final destination had LOTS of empty seats, so on both flights, the seat next to me was empty, which makes flying more than tolerable. I got to my hotel in Budapest at 5 p.m. the day after I started flying, which was 8 a.m. my time - I'd gone 24 hours with just three hours sleep (for some reason, I just could not sleep on the planes the way I usually can). I pushed myself hard to stay up as long as possible, because I knew it was the only way to maybe get on local time in one night. Which didn't work. Even though I waited until 8 p.m. to crash, and despite getting about 12 hours sleep (waking up twice) I never did recover from jet lag until, of course, the day before I left. That meant that, during meetings, I've had to really concentrate on what everyone was saying, and during my presentation, I had to have a kind of out of body experience, watching and listening to myself to make sure I didn't start rambling or mumbling. I'm OLD.
My hotel, the Starlight Suites, is very nice -- exactly what I'd expect on a consulting trip being paid for by the US government. It's in Pest, one block from the Danube and the famous Chain bridge. Buda is across the river. Before I went to bed the first night, there was a knock on my door: it was the receptionist, bringing me a pear to welcome me. I like welcoming pears. It made for a perfect supper. It's a four star hotel (you know stars have only to do with prices, not quality, right?), and the people working the front desk are SUPER nice and helpful. My room was HUGE - way more room than I needed!
My first day was spent mostly in a coffee shop on some sort of massive, important plaza that I can't find the name of (it's the one crowned by the magnificent St. Stephen's Basilica), talking about the issues faced by the education centers we were there to assist and how we could help. The coffee shop is called the California Coffee Shop, and it is definitely the very hip place to be. The highlight of the day was when a guy came in with his two dogs, one a very large retriever mix and the other an oh-so-sweet beagle who loved me to pieces. I sooooooo love being able to take dogs into restaurants!!
I noticed very quickly that everyone in Budapest is oh-so-fashionable. It reminds me of Belgrade in that regard. This is not a place to go grunge. It is also a young city: everyone seemed to be under 40!
As lovely as the city is -- and I will talk about the sites later -- what struck me about Budapest, what left the most lasting impression, was the food. Oh, the food. No one told me the food of Hungary was going to fraking BLOW MY MIND. Budapest may have the best overall cuisine I have ever encountered anywhere on Earth:
The night before, we ate at Centrál Kávéház, where I had "free range chicken paprika with noodles" (not sure if the chicken or the paprika was free range), which was actually in a beautiful paprika sauce, and was absolutely delicious. And the night before THAT, I had pumpkin soup with roasted seeds at Menza which also rocked my world (we talked about it all week).
For lunch one day, we at the Hummus Bar and Restaurant, where I had the best falafel EVER. The restaurant says it serves "Israeli cuisine", and if this is how one eats in Tel Aviv, I'm moving there! I like vegetarian food, but only two restaurants -- Mother's Cafe and Garden in Austin and the White Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant in San Jose (now closed) have FULLY satiated my palate with a vegetarian meal. I have to add Budapest's Hummus Bar to that short list. I also loved the quotes all over its walls (from everyone from Albert Einstein to Dolly Parton). We also ate at a Hare Krishna restaurant near the Danube, which was good vegetarian Indian-style food, at reasonable prices, but it wasn't as flavorful as it should have been and, like most vegetarian meals, left me wanting.
Even my quick Wednesday lunch was memorable: at an Italian sandwich shop called Pomo D'Oro (next to the formal restaurant of the same name), where I had the best lox sandwich of my life!
My first two days in Pest, it was cold but sunny. I should have taken a few photos then, but didn't, and regretted it because the good weather didn't last - it began snowing the third day and either snowed or threatened such for the rest of the time. The skies stayed very gray, which wasn't good for the photos I did eventually take. I have great admiration to those two bicycle messengers and two or three bicycle commuters, as well as those dozen or so motorcycle commuters or delivery people I saw out on their two-wheels in such slippery conditions (and even if it was dry and warm, you couldn't pay me enough money to bicycle in this city - the traffic is crazy!).
My intent had been to take two days off to see Budapest. But I needed to be online the morning after my presentation, so I sat in on the next day's training. I should have left and seen what I could that afternoon, but jet lag was continuing to kick my butt! I just could not shake it. So I ended up sight-seeing only one day. Unfortunately, the Roman ruins I had intended on seeing are closed November - April. DANG IT! So I had to content myself with the Castle Quarter that sits high atop a hill in Buda overlooking the Danube, and a visit to the Central Market (where I SHOULD have eaten lunch, instead of the mediocre tourist trap in the Castle Quarter).
I have to give a shout out about the exact, miniature replica of Matthias Church/Cathedral atop Castle Hill in Buda. I think it's made of brass. Around the display is Braille. So someone who is blind can experience the design, height, contrasts and shapes of the building for themselves. How awesome is that?! This should be done for the Pyramids of Giza, the Eiffel Tower, The Tower of London, the Great Wall of China, and on and on!
Here are all the photos from the trip.
What I didn't get photos of: all of the art work on the second and third floors, and above, on the streets of Pest. Much of it is Soviet era, and it's fantastic. What a shame I never got any photos of any of it.
I have to add that I was LOVING being able to watch CNN International! To know what's happening in the world, and to see how the world views events in the USA - it's just so enlightening, and so sad that Americans don't know any of this, since the vast majority of Americans have no access to this TV station. So many things happening in the world that I had NO idea were happening... How different Americans would be if they could get WORLD news!
For some reason, in the week before I left, I kept saying I was going to Bulgaria -- probably because it's my favorite Eastern European country. Wishful thinking. So I've had a running joke with Stefan about "loving it here in Bulgaria!" Typical American -- I also still confuse Sweden and Switzerland...
You know, my dog is from Hungary...
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