Water Chess and Socialist Happy Meals

It’s funny how when you’re abroad you find yourself way more open to new experiences and ideas. For instance, back home, if you invited me to buy tickets to swim public baths with a bunch of old dudes stuffed in speedos, I might politely decline and smirk inwardly. Lesson learned! I would have missed out on a fabulous experience!

After our long afternoon of pounding cobblestone at the castle in Buda, Chris and I made our way to the end of the M1 line to Szechenyi Baths. Nestled in Budapest’s City Park, these baths aren’t just rows of clawed porcelain tubs or murky well springs. This is a freakin’ resort with all the amenities one could ask for!

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The only drawback is being an American girl in a bikni next to a smokin hot Hungarian girl in a bikini. How do they do that on a diet of smoked meat and meat and beer and wine and meat?!

Across the street from the zoo, you enter the grand grounds whereupon at the cashier’s window you purchase your waterproof magnetic bracelet that grants you access to all the pools and spas as well as a few saunas.  Each pool varies in temperature with the hottest baths indoors with one very cold bath. The idea is that you start out in the moderately temperature bath and work your way up to the hottest bath and finish off with the freezing cold bath. If you know me, you know I skipped the cold one.

P1030564 Outside there are three pools. The Relaxing pool which is quite warm and features a lovely fountain that sprays out into the pool to refresh swimmers. The middle pool which is strictly for lap swimmers (Columbia HOA just went nuts, huh?) and requires all guests to don an Esther Williams like swim cap, and the last pool is basically a night club in the water. Decked out with lights that change color and a swirl pool that propels swimmers in a circle with the help of powerful water jets installed in the wall, you can enjoy a hilariously intimate waterborne carousel with strangers while you are all barely dressed! Honestly, it was one of my favorite parts. After 9 pm, the dj sets up, the bars open and this place becomes one of the crusiest meat markets I’ve ever seen.

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The Relaxing Pool, which is the warmest one outside…which is where I spent roughly 2.5 hours wrinkling up my skin in fabulosity.

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Night fell and the club kids came out in their sparkly swimsuits and the cocktails flowed. That is the jet propelled water whirl pool which made Chris and I giggle uncontrollably like school children.

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Notice that when booze and music appear, the lap swimmers go home.

P1030576 P1030583 P1030581Meanwhile, back at the Relaxing Pool, we felt a bit more at home in this scene. To be honest, I didn’t bring my club swim suit so I felt oddly under dressed. Also, I don’t own a club swimsuit. My swimsuit came from JCrew so you can imagine how that work out.

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Ahhh! Much better.

And, if you still need entertainment and would like to work your mental muscles while relaxing, you can always challenge a local to a chess match.

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If you would have told 16 year old Mandy that she would one day spend Saturday night in a bath with 4 old Men in speedos playing Chess she NEVER would have believed you. I still don’t.

P1030566So, after three and half hours soaking in the mineral pools, it was time to get out and let our poor pores recalibrate to their natural state. Off to the hotel to change. However, the time had gotten away from us and most of the restaurants had closed their kitchens for the evening. So, we did what every American does in this situation be it here or at home: McDonald’s. But not just any McDonald’s! This particular restaurant was the first one to break through and establish itself behind the Iron Curtain! So, we felt better about our gastronomical choices once we decided that our dinner was more or less a historical landmark/experience.

IMG_2872Really, you can’t top a socialist happy meal so it was time to call it a day. Besides, we had a heavy day of cultural awareness ahead of us.

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The Terror Haz- Museum of the Nazi and then Soviet occupation of Budapest. Not for the faint of the heart.

Day 2: A Visit to the Castle in Buda

Wow. I just re-read my last post and please forgive me for my lack of proper grammar and English! How is it possible I hold two degrees? Ah well, let’s chalk it up to travel exhaustion and jet lag. And maybe a cheese hangover.

It’s my 5th day in Budapest and I still haven’t blogged about the weekend! So, let’s hop to it.  Even though due to a lingering National Holiday observance that shuffled Hungary’s workweek to include Saturday, Chris ended up not working the holiday and was able to spend Saturday and Sunday exploring this amazing town with me.  Despite this being his 6th or 7th trip to Budapest, work demands have prevented him from enjoying many of the sites the city has to offer.  We decided to start our Saturday off by exploring the Buda side of Budapest.  After filling up on another hearty breakfast at the hotel buffet, we set out for the Chain Bridge to cross the Danube and make our way up the hill to the Castle.

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Lions perched on the Chain Bridge linking Buda and Pest over the Danube.

After crossing the bridge, tourists have the option to take a funicular up the hill to the top of the Castle courtyard, or if you are like Chris and I and tend to over eat at breakfast, you’ll opt for the cobblestoned switchback, which rewards the hiker with lovely scenery and quiet atmosphere.

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Lovely mosaic on the rampart wall below the hill that the castle rests upon. The crown is St. Istvan’s, the patron saint of Budapest who christianized the Magyar Empire and was presented the crown by the Pope.

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P1020745 P1020741 P1020747   P1020749We reached the top and meandered our way through the derelict courtyard until we saw a sign that seemed to ensure a proper direction.

P1020748 P1020756 P1020754 P1020752 P1020753P1020750Moving through yet another courtyard, we skipped the national museum and decided to wander the grounds and take in the scenery. Besides, the garden provided plenty of art and statuary to appreciate. For example, the heartbreaking King Matthias Fountain that illustrates the legend of a common peasant girl, Ilonka, who came upon the handsome hunter as he tracked the woods near her home. Immediately love struck with the hunter, she tracked him down and was crushed to discover that not only was he out of her station, but pretty much as far out as he could be, being King and all.  Like many tragic romantic legends, Ilonka couldn’t bear the class division so she took her life.  Normally I’d tell a girl like her “Forget it! There are plenty of other guys out there!” but when your’e a lowly peasant girl in the medieval ages who lives in the woods, that might not be the case.

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Matthias at the apex and the tragic Ilonka on the bottom right. The King’s scribe and entourage tier below him on the left.

P1030533We moved along through the courtyard and right towards and archery clinic.  Chris volunteered to be a tribute in the Hungary Games by rockin’ a crossbow. He fared well given that the arrows were pretty beat up from previous “archers”.

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Making our way along the footpath we passed an apothecary museum, cafes, gelatarias, and icon shop until stood before an ornate Plague column in front of Matthias Church, named after the aforementioned King because this is the church where he was married…twice. But not to Ilonka.

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Love! Love LOVE! The tile of the roof.

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Sadly, due to it being Saturday and a gorgeous location, we were deterred from entering the church because of back-to-back weddings. I’ll let it pass. We busied ourselves with admiring the exterior of the church; particularly the brightly tiled roof and after a quick refreshment at a café in the park, we set out for the Fisherman’s Bastion that traces the slopes of the hill behind the church. Before entering the wall of the bastion, you are greeted by yet another imposing statue, but this one of St. Istvan, the patron saint of Budapest. Istvan was the father of King Matthias and the first Christian King of the Magyar Empire. Hence, being beatified.  He sits tall, atop his horse in front of the bastion that is anchored by 7 turrets, each turret representing a tribe of the Magyars. Walking along the bastion wall we were treated with a lovely view of our side of the Danube, Pest, and a great shot of the Promenade front of the Parliament building.

P1020782 P1020787 P1020785 P1020776 P1020794 P1020795 P1020796 P1020802 P1020807Satisfied with our gaze on the city skyline, we made our way back down the hill and towards a destination that would soothe our aching feet. But that, that I will save for another post. In the mean time, here is a spoiler.

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I’m Hungary!!!

When I woke up the morning of my departure I was greeted with an email alert from United informing me that my flight has been delayed 3 hours. This meant that there was no way I would make my connection in Frankfurt to Budapest. Fortunately, I remember this Louis CK bit and that fact I lead a fairly lucky and priveledged life so I shined it on, made a few calls, secured an alternate connection and embraced the beginning of a typical European Adventure. Chris was already in Budapest, working hard for the man. My folks kindly drove me to SFO and after a breezy entrance and exit through security, I was settled into the terminal, anxiously eyeing the dude on my left in the the restaurant who was inhaling a plate of refried beans. Thank God, I didn’t see him on my flight.

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This about sums up this leg of the trip.

The flight was fairly uneventful. Sadly, due to my first world problem of the flight delay and thus change in aircraft, I was booked on a United plane and not a Lufthansa craft. This meant that I didn’t get my own tv monitor. However, there was a much better alternative outside my window.

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Flying over my hometown with Lake Chabot prominently featured.

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Even at our elevation, we couldn’t avoid the haze and smoke of the fires near Yosemite.

P1020574 We arrived promptly on time at Frankfurt and I spent a good 3 hours at a bar in the terminal with two women who were about to begin a “Bucket List” adventure of a Mediterranean Cruise. They were both from the Bay Area as well and the three of us enjoyed swapping stories about our gastronomical adventures abroad.

Nearly 20 hours after I set off, I finally touched down in Budapest and promptly secured a taxi to the hotel that Barra secured for Chris.  This is easily the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed at. Thank you, MSCI!!!

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It’s pretty much nicer than my own bathroom.

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Whew. That’s C’s toiletry bag. Evidence that I indeed have the right room.

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I would later be embarrassed about eating all three of those myself when Chris comes home to inform me that these refershments are provided at check in only. And I ate all of them. With out him. He chose it! He married it! ;)

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I may or may not have jumped ont he bed…

P1020578 P1020576Not even 20 minutes after I arrived, my hard working husband came home took me on a stroll down Vaci Utca.

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Fairly certain the play on words is supposed to be “Represent” but I like to think that this is a store that specializes in re-gifting unwanted gifts.

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Have you ever had “chicken essence”?

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Enjoying a cocktail as we decide were to grab a late night bite.

  The next morning, Chris had to get to work which meant I had the day to myself to explore this gorgeous city. We shared a delicious and expansive breakfast in our hotel (I will write a separate post about this later) and joined him in his commute to learn the logistics of the subway system and get my bearings on the city lay-out. I also got more time with my beloved. ;)   Budapest is divided by the Danube into Buda (eastside of the Danube) and Pest (the westside). We are camped out in Pest which is more of the modern/finanical hub of this captial city.

Thirty minutes later I was once more a Solo Traveler and strolling along the Danube towards my first stop, Budapests Market Hall. But first:

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The Castle in Buda from Pest.

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The Chain Bridge

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I’m definitely coming back for this, but I need my Thanksgiving Pants.

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Main entrance.

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Some bad-ass honey.

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If your’e a tourist like me, and you feel like you’re missing out on the experience due to lack of a kitchen, never fear! There are delicious food vendors on the top floor to satisfy any craving. Due to the aforementioned breakfast, I was sated.

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After a few pics of the picturesque structures on the hill, I made my way down the promenade of the Danube to the market. But, then became easily tempted…    P1020590    Where ever I go, I love to visit the local market. As a food lover and a dietitian in training, I’m fascinated with the link between food and culture and agricultur, health and economy. The ways people farm, sell and prepare food is intrinsic to local culture and customs and often provides a unique lens on a city, country or people.  The Market is located at the very end of Vaci Utca and from the outside resembles a huge Industrial building that is very reminscient of a 20th century train station. Inside, stall after stall is overflowing with fresh produce, newly butchered meat, smoked meats, cheeses of all cultures, and textiles and wares to satisfy and tourists souvineer needs.  P1020598 P1020599 P1020600 P1020601 P1020602 P1020603 P1020604 P1020605 P1020606 P1020607 P1020608 P1020609 P1020610 P1020611 P1020612 P1020613 P1020615 P1020616 P1020617 P1020618 P1020619 P1020620 P1020621 P1020622 P1020623 P1020624 P1020625 P1020626 P1020627 P1020629 P1020630 P1020631 P1020632 P1020633      After about an hour of wandering up and down stalls of goods, food and wares, it was time to switch gears and head towards the Basilica.  Roughly a 25 minute stroll back up the Vaci Utca I entered the square which is home to St. Istvan’s Basilica.   Per Rick Steves, the baslica was designed by three architects over the course of over 50 years. This explains the hodgepodge of neo-gothic, neo-classical, and neo-rennaisance influences. P1020647  P1020649 P1020650 P1020652 P1020653 P1020654 P1020655 P1020656 P1020657 P1020658 P1020659 P1020660 P1020661 P1020662 P1020663 P1020664  P1020666 P1020667 P1020668 P1020669 P1020670 P1020671 P1020672 P1020673 P1020674 P1020675 P1020676 P1020677 P1020678 P1020679 P1020680 P1020681 P1020682 P1020683 P1020684 P1020685 P1020686 P1020687  P1020689 P1020690 P1020691 P1020692 P1020693 P1020694 P1020695 P1020696 P1020697 P1020699 P1020700 P1020702 P1020704   P1020707 P1020708 P1020709 A small chapel to the left of the sanctuary is home to the patron saint’s mummified hand. More impressive to me, are the gorgeous stained glass windows depicting saints of local import and reverence.  P1020713  P1020715 P1020716 P1020717 P1020718 P1020719 P1020720   At this point, my jet lag had completely set in and it was time to head back to the hotel for a brief nap. Chris was home and after a quick respite we were off to a restaurant that was suggested by one of his colleagues. Delicious! IMG_2832 IMG_2834 IMG_2835

We finished our evening out with a beer at an Irish Pub reminiscent of our first date. Also called Beckett’s, we enjoyed (yes, that’s Chris enjoying himself) a few rounds and the warmth of an evening in Budapest. IMG_2837But once again, the bed and sleep beckoned and since tomorrow as Saturday, Chris was free to partake in siteseeing with yours truly!

And with that, Day 1 down and so much more to follow up on. Stay tuned.

The Time I Thought My Husband Was Kidnapped By Gypsies

Chris and I had only been engaged for a few months when we took our first trip abroad together to his “mother country” of Slovenia. It was my first time in what is considered Slavic territory and had it not been for my new fiance, sadly I probably wouldn’t have ever considered visiting this stunning region of the world. I’m so thankful I didn’t miss out!

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The Grad overlooking Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana.

This being Chris’ third visit to this gorgeous country, the first and second trips centered around his enrollment in a language immersion program, he was more than familiar with how to get around and navigate the terrain as well as the language and cultural landscape. Another quality I was super grateful for. When Chris attended the first language program, he reached out to a local man who shared his last name and discovered that they were indeed direct relatives. Davorin was a first cousin to Chris’ father.  A friendship based on kinship was developed and it was on this trip, that Davorin, met us at the Ljubljana airport and took us to get our rental car the next day. From there we would set out for our first leg of the trip in Croatia before returning to Slovenia for the last half.

Davorin stepped in for our Dads who were back home and checked our rental car to make sure our tire repair kit was in good condition, that we understood where the gas tank was and that we were clear on our directions to Dubrovnik- a 6 hour drive through the Balkans. His last casual words of advice before we hopped in our bright green Kia Picanto were “Careful of gypsies!”. I didn’t think anything of the comment at the time. We hugged Davorin goodbye and set out for the Venetian coastal town of Dubrovnik. We anticipated a late afternoon arrival. First rule of road tripping anywhere: Don’t anticipate an arrival time.

The thing is, when you rent a foreign car in a foreign land, you have nooooooo idea what the gas mileage is like. As we zipped along on the autocesta, taking in new topography and landscapes, we paid no mind to the gas gauge needle except once to foreboding note “Wow! This car gets great mileage!”.

IMG_0026And just like that, the day quick took a turn. As we noticed that the fuel needle began to droop, autocesta exits with gas stations seemed to disappear as well. We were more than midway through our journey, and in a dry and craggy area of the passage way when we began to get nervous about running out of gas. As we passed through a tollbooth, Chris leaned out and asked for directions to the nearest gas station. The toll taker smirked and motioned that 10km beyond the toll was a small town and we could get gas there. At this point the needle was drooping below the empty line so we were quite nervous.

The road narrowed to one lane as we approached the town, Vrgorac. And. The traffic came to a dead halt. Beads of sweat formed on both our brows as we sat idling, wasting precious petrol and stared at the loooong line of cars stuck behind a giant crane blocking the one way road. The only way to get to gas and the only passageway to our destination.

After watching several cars flip around and make their way to a dirt path along the base of some nearby hills, we attempted to follow suit. Sadly, our tiny Picanto couldn’t handle dirt roads and we found ourselves back in the one horse town. We stopped at a small cafe and immediately felt out of place when we entered to see a Croatian waitress serving two locals. Chris asked in Slovene about gas. The language barrier was a bit of a struggle but the waitress was sharp and very kind. She pointed towards the crane and managed to communicate to Chris that people up the street could help us. So, we walked up the road, per her directions and found ourselves standing at the entrance of what appeared to be an encampment. Men, all men, living in metal shipping containers. The dry dust was swirling around the grounds. The men were gruff, dirty and tired looking. Davorin’s farewell words of warning echoed in my brain. Gypsys.

I followed close behind as Chris was greeted by a sweaty young man from one of the container/portables. I was the only woman on the premises and man, did I feel it. Somehow my conservative khaki capries and button up oxford shirt felt too revealing. After another struggle between Slovene and Croatian linguistics, Chris managed to communicate that we needed gas. The man said he would take us to get gas and motioned to his car. His car had only 2 seats. This meant that one of us would go with him to get gas and the other would be left alone. My heart sank. Seriously. It was only day three of our romantic adventure and Chris was about to disappear in a car with a gypsy and leave me alone with scores of men.

Chris gave me a wad of Kunha and Euros and told me to wait for him back at the cafe. I kissed him goodbye and held back tears of anxiety and made my way back to where I knew at least one other woman was present. Just as I commandeered a table near the window and pulled out my laptop, I saw Chris and the gypsy speed away towards the hillside road. With that I opened a Word document and began logging the experience fairly concerned I would never see Chris again and that I would be stranded in this Balkan village for the remainder of my days.

The cafe where I awaited our fate.

The cafe where I awaited our fate.

Meanwhile, in the car, Chris nervously struck up conversation with his new friend. The man, weary and tired looking asked Chris where he was from. “USA, California.” he replied. The man squinted, “George Bush…not good.” Chris was quick to offer up his support for Obama to which the man responded with a thumbs-up. As they rounded a corner, the man slowed the car behind another parked car on the side of the road. Another man waited. Chris’ mind raced. This is it. This is where they beat me to death and steal my wallet. Chris begins to form words to ask questions when the other man reaches into his trunk and pulls out… a gas can. Ah! Yes. That is a necessary component for this trip. As the the other man exchanges the gas can and a wave, Chris and his driver continue onwards. As their journey progresses, they begin to talk more openly.

Meanwhile, back at the cafe, I’m typing out my last will and testament should anyone find my laptop and wonder what became of us. I hear a loud blaring sound  and then 5 minutes later, all the men from the camp make their way towards the cafe. “This is how it happens. I will die at the hands of a hundred gypsies.” I think.

In the car, Chris asks his new friend about the camp. And then, it becomes clear and embarrassingly obvious. These men, they were construction workers. After the fall of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and subsequent independence of Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, new infrastructure had yet to be funded, let alone built. These men weren’t gypsies, they were government workers, sent to build the connecting highways between these newly formed nations. To do so, they had to live in camps. It would be another awkward hour, alone with scores of men, before I would know this comforting fact. I know I looked like a cowering idiot to all these hardworking men.

I swear to god, I’ve never been so happy to see Chris. At this point, Chris and the good samaratain were fast friends. As they rigged a fuel funnel by sawing a coke bottle in half to refuel our car, Chris offered our kind soul money. The man refused. A beer? No. A coke. He let us buy him a Coca Cola. No joke. And that, that is the story of when I was certain I’d lost my husband to balkan gypsies. The End.

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Look for Signs

Part of being a seasoned traveller is learning to be observant and open to one’s surroundings. It’s not easy. All too often the sights, sounds and smells can become ovewhelming and processing one’s surroundings can be a difficult task. I’ve found that a small little practice that helps keep me in tune with my surroundings is keeping an eye out for amusing signage and grafiti. Part of the fascination comes from the power that language has on visual comprehension. The way a sign communicates a message through illustration can take on a whole other meaning and tone when cultural and linguistic context is absent. For example:

RoboCop Stop!

If you ever find yourself in Ljubljana and Robo Cop warns you to STOP!? You listen to Robo Cop.

Hold your pee?

In Plitvice National Park in the heart of Croatia, this area is reserved for people who are holding their pee while daydreaming about dumpsters.

Here it is totally acceptable to play in the street with out pants in oncoming traffic.

In the Julian Alps, it is totally acceptable to play in the street with out pants, in front of small children, in oncoming traffic.

Vrsic Sign NO!

Put your pants on, you’re in a pants zone!

Often, the best one’s are a translation error or bizarre association of words?

Take Asia Away!

Please! Munich Airport would like you to just take Asia away? Also, I love the woman unabashadly wearing the Brunhelda helmet.

SloWatch

I’m not sure a “SLO Watch” is a great brand name for watches. However, Slovenes do have their own time zone…

Sexy Ice Cream

Our focus group found this flavor of ice cream to be very popular among the male population in Mostar, Bosnia.

At other times, you’re just flat out bewildered…

Babysit Dating Versailles

Nothing sounds more intimate and romantic than taking someone else’s kids out together! I would have expected more from the French Aristocracy…

 

Pro Dance Gangster Show

I’ll always regret missing out on Compton Dance.

Owls are not racists, but white pride!

So, let me make sure I’m getting this right: The owls in Ljubljana may seem racists but they aren’t, but they are into white pride?

Baby whisky

Wait, Rouen. You have it out of order. First comes whiskey, THEN comes foetus and then baby. #HealthScienceGraduate

 

Redskins New York?

Although they are relatively unknown in their home country, the New York Redskins have quite the following in Strasbourg! Still not sure what sport they play…

Sometimes it’s seemingly offensive or trite?

Child Care on Tuesdays

It’s nice to know that Cal State East Bay provides adequate childcare for students on campus. Except on Mondays.

Housewives Market

I’ve been fortunate to have the priveledge of shopping here for nearly three years now!

Fou de Fa Fa Arles

Perhaps the inspiration for the Flight of the Concords melody. Or perhaps it’s a thing and I’m that ignorant. At any rate, enjoy a delicious meal here if your’e ever in Arles, France.

In the heart of Strasbourg. Also home to the European Union!

In the heart of Strasbourg. Also home to the European Union!

McDonald's Stars of America!

Sorry Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo. The rest of the world knows where it’s at.

And sometimes you’ll get unsolicited advice.

Keep on Skanking!

Keep on skanking, guys! You can do this!

Salsa Fits my life

So true. But then sometimes, after too much, Salsa doesn’t fit my pants.

Capitalism you are driving me crazy!

XOXO?

Some require not caption at all.

San Francisco, CA.

San Francisco, CA.

Bled, Slovenia

Bled, Slovenia

Apple=Jabolko

Maribor, Slovenia

Starwilly's Cafe Trieste

Ahhh! You got me, Trieste!

Some know your soul.

Time to Eat

When isn’t it time to eat? – Seattle, WA.

Unlimited Milk? This party is gonna be off the hook!

Unlimited Milk? This party is gonna be off the hook- Ljubljana, Slovenia

As far as Cults go, this one seems fairly harmless. - Bayeux, France in Normandy

As far as cults go, this one seems fairly harmless. – Bayeux, France in Normandy

I’m rusty on my Greek and Aramaic. And Hungarian. And by rusty, I mean, I know nothing. But, I hope to add to this quirky collection in the coming weeks. In the mean time, please share yours with me!