Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Budapest and the Best of Communism

By Claire
April 12, 2010
We arrived in Hungary after stopping at a gas station close to the border to buy our motorway vignette. We loved having one in Austria—no more toll booth stops and scrambling for money. This one cost us €7 for a 4 day pass. We’ve decided this part of Hungary is the Iowa of Europe. It is very flat and very beautiful with farms all along the way, their fields ready for planting. The colors of the soil went from golden brown to coffee brown. The roads are great too.

Hungary’s latitude is similar to Seattle—maybe that explains the fairly constant rain we’ve encountered. The country is about the size of Maine or Indiana and though surrounded by mountains, it’s mostly flat. The Hungarian Plain stretches all the way from Budapest to Asia.

We stopped in the town of Gyor, hoping to find an ATM. That’s when we realized that we were up against some challenges. We thought (read? heard?) most people could speak English. Not. Driving through this town trying to spot an ATM was especially challenging when everything is in Hungarian. Nothing was recognizable. Our brains were in overdrive. Somehow I noticed a tiny sign on a wall, “0-24.” Below it was an ATM, tucked into the wall. Screech! We found a place to park right across from it, unheard of. I jumped out and then jumped back in. How many thousands of Hungarian forints do we want? We decided to start with €300 for our 4 days here. That worked out to 80,000 forints. I was afraid I would receive a stack half a foot high—but no, out popped 8 crisp 10,000 forint bills. As we drove off, I noticed an incredible building and forced Chuck to drop me off and circle around for awhile so I could get a picture.

Hungarian city hall

We drove on and finally made it to Budapest and what did we see? IKEA Hungary! Of course we had to stop and, unlike Italy, we were able to get off the motorway easily, following wonderful signage that actually directed us to IKEA as well as other stores. It’s funny how once you’re inside, everything is the same as all the other stores except the language.

We found our camping ground—Camping Romai (no website)—easily with the help of Susannah; but it was closed when we arrived at 5:30. I wandered around a little, then spotted a woman walking towards me. Thankfully, she was able to let us in even if she didn’t speak a word of English. She gave me a key to the bathroom, opened the padlocked gate and waved us over to an area to park. We were the only campers. Later that evening when Chuck went over to do dishes he found an Italian couple desperate to get inside, hoping he could open up for them. He tried to explain about the woman but they spoke no English and he speaks no Italian. We’re really experiencing the difficulties of communicating without a language. Strangely enough, we do manage.

This morning, we saw that the couple had parked outside the gates. It must have been a very cold night. It rained all night and it isn’t much warmer here than it was when we left Austria.

Our gas heater stopped working about a week ago and we had contacted a place in Budapest to get it fixed. They sent us their GPS coordinates and off we went to find them. Who knew they would be all the way on the other side of the city and it was commute time Monday morning when we left. The good news is, we did find them quite easily and they quickly identified and fixed the problem.

On Sunday I had made ferry reservations from Calais to Dover for our trip to England May 26. We had actually pulled into a rest stop while we were still in Austria so I could use our little “mobile partner” to access the Internet. I searched through a few ferry companies and finally found one that had a decent price and good sailing times going and coming back in August. All was well until the very end when I realized that they had asked for our address and never asked if we wanted the tickets mailed or picked up. Complete panic! I had just given them our credit card information and had visions of them mailing our tickets to the U.S. I frantically checked customer service but the only way to contact them was by phone and any changes would cost an additional 25£. Now all we could talk about was where to find a phone card. We read up in Rick Steves and kept our eyes open for a newsstand or kiosk. We found nothing.

But, after Jozeph was finished working on our heater, I told him we had another problem: we needed to call England and didn’t have a phone. He immediately offered the use of his phone. I thanked him and told him we would pay for the call. He nodded. We went inside and I made the call. It went through without any problems but they were closed! Then I realized that England is an hour earlier. We were in luck because it was just a few minutes before 9 am their time. We strolled around looking at all the interesting gadgets available for campers until the time seemed right. I called again, they answered and a very helpful woman told me all I had to do was show up at the port with my reference number and they would produce the ticket. OK, so I know that worry is a useless emotion but how do you make it stop? I wasted a day, an evening and a morning worrying about this. The phone call was a bazillion forints. Peace of mind? Priceless.

We drove back to the campground, bought tickets for the suburban train into the city and took off. While waiting for the train, we noticed there is definitely graffiti in Budapest.

Figuring out the metro and tram system took a little doing but I was able to figure it out and got us to the House of Terror Museum in no time, only to find out that it is closed on Monday! Our disappointment was great; we’re trying to be efficient and fit as much as we can into the time we have and still have some time to crash and burn. I haven’t had time to read for more than about 10 minutes at night before I fall asleep.

We decided on the Statue Park, a.k.a “Memento Park.” It was a struggle to figure out how to get there. Some people at a table selling tickets to a sightseeing bus wrote down what they thought was the tram and bus we would need to take to get there through two valleys. On the #49 tram, an older woman sat down across from me—these were single seats facing each other and Chuck doesn’t like to sit backwards so he was across the aisle. She smiled at me and asked me something in Hungarian. I asked if she spoke English and she replied, “Oh I’m sorry, I was asking about your hat.” She wanted to know where I had found my rain hat and asked where I was from. She smiled ruefully when she realized she probably wouldn’t be able to find the hat in Hungary. She liked the neck strap and decided she could sew one onto her own rain hat. We chatted for quite a while and I asked her if she knew how to get to the park, just to get another opinion. She turned towards the other passengers and asked if anyone knew the way. When she didn’t get a response, she called out to the crowd and asked several times. Very few knew how to get there but a couple responded with some kind of information. She confirmed what we already knew. I asked her if she had ever been and she ran her finger across her throat and said, “We are fed up with it all,” while smiling at me. This is a park with statues from the communist era.

Soon, it was time for her to leave the tram. I was very sorry to see her go. Of this entire day, she is what I will remember.

We found the bus and eventually made our way to the park, with the help of yet another woman—young, but the mother of 6 children: ages 6 down to 9 months. I hope at least 2 were twins. She didn’t look old enough or tired enough. She was wonderful and told us when to get off and assured us that any bus would take us back.

The park was small and full of left over monuments from Eastern Europe’s oppressors. The first thing we saw was the infamous Trabant, a terrible car from that era.

We made our way around in the rain and mud looking at these statues dating from 1948 through the eighties.


Statue of Russia

Republic of Council

At the end of our tour, we stopped and looked at some of the souvenirs available, including a CD of Communism’s Greatest Hits.

It was now time for a break and some Hungarian coffee and cake. We took a bus, a tram and a metro to Vörösmarty tér (square) where we found Gerbeaud, a coffeehouse recommended by Rick Steves. He didn’t let us down. Our desserts were exquisite, so much so that we didn’t even share.

Gerbeaud Coffeehouse

Esterhäzy Torte (Chuck)

Schwarzwälader Torte (Claire)

Inside—note the chocolate cherry stem

Cherry filling

Sated, we headed for home, just a metro and suburban train ride back to Homer, less than 30 minutes. We walked half a block to the Spar Market and picked up a few things, including some Hungarian beer to try with dinner. We’re puzzled as to why the label is stuck in the bread; it appears to be baked in, and the seeds attached to the label can attest to this.

Communism is like one big phone company. ~ Lenny Bruce

1 comment:

Elisabetta said...

"Professional Mothers" is the phrase my 17 year-old translator used when I, too, asked how her mother (Budapest, 1996,) could manage five children: apparently the State paid women to take-up their maternal duties with professionalism! (You jarred my memory w/ the mention of the young mom you met.)
A few days ago here in Passignano (Italia) I ran into a friend's sister who had A FIRE IN HER BELLY re: women's rights! She was furious about her exhaustion from, as usual, the "unfair choice" of having to choose either "work or child" b/c managing both left her running-on-empty every day. When I suggested she solicit help from husband, she said she'd get a "long face" which gave her a stomach ache, so she opted for just doing it herself. Then (get this!) she said the State should provide more assistance ~ eyes lit up and she coined the inglish word, "WELFARE!" Oh boy...all b/c I'd brought up my Berkeley daughter's Women's Empowerment Group!
Dunno if this is apropos of a travel blog, but maybe you'll get some women's responses, as under Communism, help from the State was not considered shameful; as my Italian friend said, "we need to be paid for doing TWO jobs!"
She also said it was "easier years ago" when roles were defined.

Ah, yes ~ Rose-Colored glasses came with the corrugated scrub board!! Have fun, E*