Monday, December 31, 2001

New Year's Eve - Big Whoop!


There is something about a nun riding a segway that arouses ones curiosity, and that is exactly what happened with me. The City and Sea Museum here in Wellington used the painting of a nun on a segway to advertise their current special exhibit. When we left Rotorua, the taxi driver told us to make sure we went to the 3rd floor video presentation at The City and Sea Museum, but would not tell us more than it would surprise and entertain us. This really made me curious, so we had to go. It sits on the waterfront; we walked there, a considerable distance, but the best way to view the city when you are not familiar with the transportation system.

As one enters this museum, there is a display of 100 years, each year providing an achievement in the city’s history. Some were memorable by tourist standards, while others were local knowledge/interest only. Either way, one hundred exhibits to get through it is tiring regardless. By fifty, we skipped out and moved on to the temporary exhibit with the art work. There was an explanation of each piece is a special booklet. I took it along and read each piece as I viewed the fifty plus pieces individually. It was the nun on the segway that intrigued me most. Perhaps because they have segway tours in Budapest and I have been invited to try it, but have yet to do so. The do look like fun.

As the name of the museum intimates, it is about the city and the sea around it. Not being a person interested in sea culture, most of it was zip past through without paying much attention. There was a documentary movie on a ferry that never made it from the north to south island, which we did watch intently. We were taking that ferry crossing ourselves. Finally, when I  had had enough, we went to the top floor to see this video we had been advised not to miss. It was worth the efforts. Using holograms, they did a presentation of a Maori mythological story that lasted for 9 minutes. It was quite well done and highly entertaining as well as educational. Strangely, there were only adults in the audience, but this is not a museum one would think to bring children to.

Outside there was a shiny red helicopter ready to give rides. My fantasy for decades has been to take a helicopter ride. As fearful as I am of heights, there is something about a helicopter that gives me chills in a positive way. This is on my bucket list for before I die, but it was not to be today.

We still had a number of things to do, the next being the Botanical Gardens. To reach it, we took the Wellington cable car, a major tourist attraction. However, after living near San Francisco and now living in Budapest, this is not such a thrill. What they call a cable car, I would call a funicular or a cogwheel system. It was fun, more so because of the excitement of others than the ride itself. Once at the top, we were loose in the botanical gardens to do as we pleased. It is a public garden with no closing hours, so we could stay as long as we chose. Up and down like San Francisco hills we walked looking at flowers, trees and beautifully appointed gardens. Being a holiday, many of the buildings within the gardens either closed early or where closed for the day.

Leaving the gardens, Ron wanted to see the bee hive. This is actually a parliamentary building, but it strongly resembles a bee hive. As we walked, it was apparent that this was a holiday. Strangely, most places received holidays for both Monday and Tuesday after Christmas because both Christmas and Boxing day landed on weekend days. Now with New Years they are closing early for the eve and will be closed for the day itself. It is yet to be seen if they will close for the following Monday to make up for losing a weekend holiday or not.

Like moths to a flame, we returned to Cuba Street for a beer at the Hotel Bristol. We debated having dinner there, but we enjoyed the food at the Asian place last night and it was so cheap, we decided to return there again. We were not disappointed. Dinner again was excellent.

Just out of curiosity, when we stopped for something to go without our after dinner tea, we asked how much cigarettes were selling for here. We were told they are $NZ 14.90 a pack, one box. OH MY GODS IN THE UNIVERSE. How do these young people afford it????

So what did we do for New Year's Eve? Watched a movie and went to bed by 11pm. Talk about being dull. There were two reasons for this. One, we did not hear of anything fun to do in the city that did not require we shave forty years off of our ages and second, we have a very early morning to get the ferry to the south island. Basically, NYE is a boring holiday.
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My Last Entry of the Year


My Last Entry of the Year

I had to muster all of my mental energies to feel better for today. I refuse to start a new year being sick. It was a slow start, but I was able to gather enough strength to go grocery shopping with Ron. Like Christmas, stores will be closed by 2:00 pm, the latest and will not open again until the 2nd of January.

Some things can seem amiss, but you do not realize what they are for a while. I mentioned to Ron that a pork roast sounded good for dinner. When we went to the grocery store, I went for some things and he went for the roast. When he returned empty handed, it was because the grocery store does not sell meat. What they have is bacon and cold cuts, but not a fresh meat section. It had not occurred to me on earlier trips, probably since we were buying at the butchers anyway. They also have one of the smallest produce departments I have ever seen. It was an eye opening experience. Hey, but I do know what pepper looks like in its little envelope and I know that vaj is butter and tej is milk in Hungarian. Speaking of pepper, after I arose this morning, Ron sheepishly admitted he broke the peppershaker. Funny how that followed his reading about my reporting his not knowing how to cover the holes before filling it. Just means another trip to Amsterdam to buy a replacement.

After putting the groceries away, we went to Stardust Coffee Café. They are trying to become the Starbucks of Hungary, before Starbucks gets here. They even tried duplicating the interior somewhat. Do not order their large coffees unless you are really running on empty. They are so large; a duck could swim in them. It was packed, so they must be doing well and they are only a long block from our apartment.

Both old dogs learned lessons today, hopefully. One of us learned that if you try and stuff two sheets, two pillow cases, two towels, and a pair of socks in a washing machine that has a cylinder the size of a hamster’s exercise wheel, they are not going to spin dry and you will have to mop the floor under the drying rack. The other of us learned that just because laundry detergent has the word color in English on the front, does not necessarily mean that it is not going to bleach the color out of your clothes.

We had intended to go to the mall, which we understood would have one section open for the cinema and for TGIFridays restaurant, so we took the subway there for an anticipated dinner and a movie, which would have given us plenty of time to get back to our area where all the action was to be. It was blistering cold, not so much the temperature, but the wind chill factor was severe. When we got to the cinema that is of course at the farthest end of the mall and farthest from the subway, it was locked up tight. Freezing, we tromped on back to the subway and went home, but there was a Chinese restaurant open across from our apartment. We ate there and went home for a couple of hours of Euro coverage.

At 11:20, we bundled up again for the cold and went out to the festivities. People here were wearing devil’s horns, Halloween type masks, and everyone had these huge conical noisemakers. There were a few firecrackers, but not enough to be threatening. There were thousands of people out on the streets. The streets were closed and a large stage was erected with live singing and dancing. Some of the poor women dancers were wearing spaghetti strap dresses to dance in. The entertainment was quite lively and people were dancing in the streets. There were a few stands selling food, drinks, and more noisemakers.

As 2002 was getting close, a group of people walked out of a truck with four individual numbers a 2-0-0-2 that looked like they were made of Styrofoam. Each number had three huge white helium balloons attached to them. When the clock struck 12, they set them free and although independent of each other, they managed to get quite high in the sky showing 2002, before they took their own flight paths. Then the fireworks display started, in two areas.

The display closest to us was white fireworks that shot into the black sky and burst into hundreds of white starfish, then seconds later the hundreds of starfish would explode yet again and create a full ceiling of tiny white lights. Neither of us had ever seen that type before and they were beautiful. At the same time at the far end of the street, there was sky filling chrysanthemums of green, red, white, blue and purple. Again, neither of us had seen purple in those types of fireworks, so they were really impressive. Then there were daisy types of sky displays, followed by these strange bulbous flower types that looked like they were coming at you. It was the same effect you have when wearing 3-D glasses when you think something is going to hit you in the face. The finale was rockets creating vertical showers of color in the air. The cold penetrated our bones, though the excited penetrated our spirits, so for the last five minutes of the twenty-five minute show, we watched in spurts as we walked home again.

In the warmth of our apartment, we watched London and Edinburgh ring in their new year, since they are one hour behind us. Of course, CNN had coverage of Australia, Hong Kong, and other cities for a brief moment and it was also ringing in the Euro.

I probably will not write again until after we return from our little get-away. We will be leaving on January 6th and returning very late on the 12th. That will give me something new to tell you.

We wish all of you a healthy, happy, prosperous, and well traveled New Year!

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Sunday, December 30, 2001

Life Returns to Normal Almost


Life Returns to Normal Almost

December 26th to 30th

Yesterday at the festivities, I could hear Ron getting raspy voiced. It was no surprise when he woke with a full blown cold the day after. I did my pampering and fulfilling all requests routine as well as nagged him to drink plenty of liquids like water, not diluted wine and drugged him with Sudafed. We both read most of the time, he taking time out for naps, which I highly advocated, since it kept him quiet while I got mine in.

I had a suspicion that the cold was symptomatic of his unrest. Now that he has this new identity of being ‘retired’, he does not know what to do with his time. I can spend hours writing or reading, but he reads, then goes for a walk, then reads some more and we both nap. With my various writing projects, I am feeling productive and satisfied. When someone asks us how long we will be here, his response is that, “We have signed a six month lease, but can get out of it with a month’s notice”, as if they are offering us something better. When he first made this comment, I came back with, “And go where?” I have not received a response yet. He has no one to have camaraderie with. We had thought we were going to have three different friends come to visit and he was soaring with anticipation surrounding those events, making plans to be Mr. Host and Tour Conductor, but when they were postponed he was left with a need to make plans on his own again. I have some interviews coming up for teaching jobs, so if I find one, he will have to find something part-time also, just to get the work visa.

Some of my theories surrounding Ron’s psychosomatic illness were laid to rest the next day when I got sick; sicker than he was at his worst. I had a miserable sinus infection. Normally, I take Claritin-D twice a day and I use Becinase nose spray. The nose spray was available over the counter in England and I bought an extra bottle, but the Claritin was not and I started to lower my dosage to make them last longer. It did not seem that I needed it as often with the cold weather and I was not getting the usual symptoms. When I was down to my last fifteen pills, I really put the brakes on them. When I had not had one for five days and this resulted overnight. It gave Ron purpose though, he reversed the roles, and he pampered me. Since I was totally lacking energy and could not go fifteen seconds without a tissue, I napped and read. I read The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant. This was on the New York Times Bestseller list with good reason. It is an incredible story. Death at a Discount by Valerie Wolzien, one of my favorite female mystery writers, and Death At High Tide by Beth Sherman. The last one was fun since is takes place on the Jersey shore about seven miles from my hometown. So, this is why these days are a blend. I have been out of it most of the time. Ron knows I am sick when I am not at the computer at least once in a day. I could not sit upright for more than ten minutes without getting dizzy.

Ron has wanted to see a movie for the last couple of days, but I just could not make it out. I suggested he rent a DVD and we could play it on my laptop. I had done this before and know that it is possible. He rented the DVD, I mustered the energy to prepare myself to watch the movie, and the movie would not play. I received some strange message about my computer displaying too many colors and other things that I had no clue what it was talking about. When I took the DVD out and looked at it again, it had DVD – PAL. I knew the videos here are a different format than our VHS and are called PAL format, but I had no idea that the DVDs were also. I was disappointed for Ron and felt that I had let him down by leading him to believe that he had an out for his movie fixes.

Through all of these other things, I have been watching faithfully everything on the news about the Euros emergence on midnight of the 1st of January. You would think we were involved the way I glue myself to the television, but it will have impact on our travel, for the good, I hope. It is just so exciting to realize that over 300 million people will be giving up their national identity currency and sharing one currency.

The sad events in the news are certainly the destruction of Sydney, Australia with the out of control fires. Having lived in the western States, we can certainly identify with wildfires and the destruction of homes, lives, and animal life. The fire in Lima, Peru that destroyed four blocks of buildings because of a firecracker explosion was devastating personally since we had been there and really loved the area. Adding a more tragic note, though, three hundred people were killed in the basement of a department store that caught fire and were not able to escape. I am thankful that we made our trip to Argentina a couple of years ago. The country is wracked with problems and the people who are fed up with their government are destroying the city of Buenas Aires. They are getting their fourth president in four weeks, tomorrow. Their economy is like ours was during the 1929 rush on the banks. Then there is India and Pakistan, each with nuclear weapons at each other without resolve. All of this makes me grateful for what I have, but makes my soul cry for the losses of others. We can only prayer for better in the New Year, but how many years have we said those same prayers?

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Tuesday, December 25, 2001

Christmas Day and No Santa


Christmas Day and No Santa

It is difficult to get enthused about Christmas when it is just the two of you. We do not exchange presents since our travel has always been the gift we give each other. We had our hand crafted, quilted stockings hung on the lights with care in hopes of St. Nicholas visiting, but we must have been bad when we weren’t looking. The old geezer never showed up. It was a lie, Virginia, it was a lie!

Not having a schedule, we are lazy most mornings, watching CNN, BBC World Report or writing and reading, so this morning was not much different except that Ron went to the Mozart Christmas mass at the cathedral. He reported that Mozart never showed either. He is as reliable as St. Nicholas, however, they did perform his music without him. We were invited to Hugh and Mark’s for a Christmas Tea at 2:00 pm. It was supposed to be a potluck, but Hugh called yesterday with the change of plans, but we had already shopped so we would proceed as normal. Ron cut up fresh veggies, we had different cheeses, Christmas cookies from the Christmas Market, pickled onions and pickled cauliflower.

The subways were not running, but the buses were. We took a bus close to their area and walked about five blocks from there. They live right across the street from the mall where I bought my coat, so we were familiar with the area. We found the apartment building without a problem and rang their buzzer. Mark answered and buzzed us in. He yelled out over the railing in the center courtyard that the elevator is not working, so we would have to walk up the stairs to the third floor.

The hallways looked a bit more run down than ours do and had more of an old Eastern European flavor of deprivation to them. Hugh and Mark both greeted us at the door and welcomed us to their home. The old Eastern European flavor almost came to an abrupt halt once crossing the threshold. There was almost nothing European about the apartment at all. I have been to private apartments in Italy, Holland, France, and Belgium and this apartment was huge by European standards. During Communist times, you could picture either a very high-powered political figure living here or a family of fifty.

As you entered the apartment, the entry hallway is wide and long. To the right is the kitchen. A separate kitchen all to itself with room for a table and three chairs to fit comfortably with room left over. The only evidence of its European heritage is the lack of cupboard space, the three-burner stove, and the old fashioned sink. Back in the hallway, as you walk forward, there is a door to the left, which is the bathroom. We will journey in there later. Keep walking forward and you will be in the living room. The living room is actually large enough to provide living space. They have two small sofas, enviable wooden bookcases, a matching CD case that they have bric-a-brac on, and a large Christmas tree. They have the walls decorated in South African artwork, mainly hand carved masks. Mark is the collector. On either side of the living room is a bedroom that is equally large. Each bedroom has a huge almost floor to ceiling wardrobe that is about five feet wide. Going back to the powder room, there are two doors so it can be entered from either one bedroom or from the hallway, which made it a large room. A large room with built in wooden shelving for storing towels, toiletries and assorted other things. In some of the European apartments I have been in, the kitchens were smaller than this bathroom. Now that I think about it, my entire first apartment would have fit in their living room. Mentally, I was transformed Eastern Europe where we lived to some exotic country where space was in excess. At the same time, I was embarrassed for a moment that we had had them to our apartment. When I caught the thought fleeting through my mind, I waved it away as ridiculous and rationalizing it by thinking about how labor intensive their cleaning must be compared to ours.

Trying not to feel like Jed Clampett and Jethro visiting the Drysdale’s for the first time, I put on my party smile and met their guests. They had a friend, Marvin, who is from South Africa, but is living in Germany and a friend Yanaslav who is a Ukrainian immigrant to Hungary. Yanaslav does not speak much English, but is fluent in Hungarian, not a great help in the communication arena. So, it was the six of us, not for a Christmas potluck, but for a tea, four who knew each other and us. Everyone was very nice and we had tea and Christmas cake, but I felt like we were on club membership interviews without questions being presented. We would be judged on performance only. I do not feel when we are the guests, it is our job to keep up the conversation, but it seemed to happen that way. There were long pregnant pauses of silence and you can only admire a Christmas tree for so long before you start the needles of each branch or redecorate it with your eyes. In order to smoke, we had to go to the kitchen, which is fine with us. Mark smokes, but was out of cigarettes and without any stores being open, we were the nicotine saviors. Going to the kitchen started to be a test to see if discussion would begin in the living room once one of us left. It did not seem to matter much. Conversation did seem to flow freer in the kitchen. I guess when you are smoking someone’s cigarettes you feel a sense of obligation to speak with them. No, that is too critical, the discussions seemed to be easier in dyads rather than small groups, and it was easier to focus on common interests.

After hours of meandering back and forth from the kitchen to the living room maintaining a inventory of how many cigarettes were left in the pack and realizing we were not getting anything close to additional food groups than sugar and flower, we suggested they set out the cheese and veggies we brought. I was fading in need of a protein fix.

The conversation started in movies and the possibility of going to see one. The options were bantered about, but there was never a consensus. We stayed out of the conversation for the most part, since we were not sure if that was a cue to part or if we were being invited to be part of the crowd to hit the cinema. Before our answer could be answered, two more friends arrived.

Gabor is a native of Budapest and was heralded by Hugh and Mark as the best tour guide of Budapest that they have ever met. His is a student of history and knows the city like the back of his hand. They encouraged us to use his services in this capacity. This raving recommendation was before we met him that afternoon. We were anxious to meet him and to engage his services ourselves and if he lived up to his reputation to continue to use him when and if we ever received company. Gabor, I was assured was the one to ask my other questions of too, like where to buy a printer and other computer supplies and which cell phone company to purchase a cell phone from.

Gabor and his friend arrived and we were all introduced. His friend was a Parisian who is living in Budapest and was not known to anyone, but Gabor. He was friendly and perky. He lives not far from us and mentioned that he was lacking friends to go to the theater, opera, ballet, concerts, and movies with. I told him he could find a willing volunteer in Ron for the opera and concerts, and the both of us for the other events. He was taking off for Paris for a family visit the next day and said he would get our phone number from Hugh and Mark when he returned.

In passing Gabor in the hallway, I mentioned hearing of his talents as a tour guide and said we would like to utilize his services. From the expression on his face, you would have thought that I just shared with him that Hungary returned to the Communist fold. Hugh was standing nearby, but never said a word. Realizing that something was uncomfortable, I let it pass and asked about the computer needs. He gave me the information that I needed and answered my questions about the cell phone too. Then he joined the group in the living room insulating himself in my mind from further inquisitions.

Shortly after they left, we decided we had better go to. As incredible as it may seem from what I experienced, we left at 9:00, seven hours after we arrived. It was difficult to believe. As they were saying good-bye and seeing us to the door, Hugh made a strange remark. He said, “We’ll be in touch.” As we walked home, I mulled that comment over and over in my mind. It sounded like one of the last things you hear at a job interview that did not go well, similar to “Don’t call us, we’ll call you” sort of responses. As I reviewed the time spent and our ‘performance’, his response did not sit well with me. Did we act like star-struck fans at a rock concert in order to make friends in our new city? And I really did not think that giving them each a pedicure was overboard, we just wanted to be their friend and get to do stuff together. Maybe it was our choice of nail polish that did us in. It is lonely being new in a new city. Stay tuned for further developments.

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It Is Beginning to Feel Like Christmas


It Is Beginning To Feel Like Christmas

Christmas Eve is the big event here in Hungary, the day that is celebrated with fun and festivities. Since we are not anticipating any friends calling on us, nor invitations to any Christmas parties, it is another day for us. In years past, we did not have a grand social calendar outside of our own Christmas parties, so this was not a major adjustment. Our big event this year is going out for dinner tonight. We booked a table at the Inter-Continental restaurant for their Christmas Eve buffet. I saw it advertised in the Budapest Sun and thought it would be nice to have a really nice meal. Ron went to “investigate” and this is the menu as they presented it.

I am allergic to most fish and I despise the taste of most of the others. Generally, anything that spent its life underwater is not going to be martyred for my dinner plate. Ron, on the other hand will eat anything that swims, walks, flies, crawls, or hops. He is still working on the slithering things, but that will probably come eventually too. At the first glance of the menu, it looked like an overeaters prayer, especially one with returned taste buds. It was the second look that the choices narrowed quite a bit. With the idea that this was Christmas, it was easy to settle for what I could and would eat and allow Ron the opportunity of the full banquet.

Goose liver pate with cranberry sauce

Stuffed eggs with caviar

Breaded marinated carp fillets

Smoked salmon and swordfish with creamed Japanese horseradish sauce

Gallia ham with melon and blueberry sauce

Caesar Salad

Hungarian fish soup

Ujhazy chicken soup

Steamed shrimp with chili sauces and wild rice

Breaded filet of carp with chive scented potato salad

Catfish stew “Dorozsma” style

Sesame seed scented chicken bits with barbeque sauce

Veal stew with gnocchi

Whole turkey on carving board

Roasted pork bits “Brasso” style prepared in wok

Parisian garnish (Assorted grilled and streamed vegetables, buttered Brussels spouts, spinach pudding, potato croquettes, etc.)

Salad bar with two kinds of dressings

Fresh fruits

Christmas pudding

Chestnut variations

Cheese plate

Homemade bread and rolls with butter

Cost 6,000 Forints per person

When people ask why we have not been to the Scandinavian countries yet, the reason is that I am afraid of starvation. They are heavily dependent on fish for their diet.

Our reservations were for 8:30 pm. We left our apartment at 7:00. Since the subways were not running, we had to walk. It is not a long walk, about twenty minutes, but it was cold, about twenty degrees Fahrenheit. The plan was to go to the bar first and have a beer before going on to the restaurant for dinner. We stopped at another hotel lobby halfway there ostensibly to see their Christmas decorations, but in reality to feel the effectiveness of their heating system. As soon as you entered the lobby, there was a huge real Christmas tree beautifully decorated, but what drew our attention was over to one side, there was a Gingerbread House about the size of a large child’s playhouse, with fake snow surrounding it. The house was decorated with frosting and candies just like in the storybook version of Hansel and Gretel. As in the story, there were two children in the yard approaching the house with sparkles in their eyes from the sight of the candy and gingerbread. However, standing guard over the house was a nasty looking strega as the Italians call her, an old crone. We did not ask questions from anyone, since we did not want to be asked questions in return. Questions like, “Can I help you? Are you a registered quest?”

It was only minutes more to the Inter-Continental Hotel bar, where we were assured warmth and a wonderful view since the hotel sits on the Danube River. As we sipped our drinks, we talked about Christmases past and the memories that we have created through our travels. Our first Christmas, we did not leave on our vacation until days after Christmas and celebrated the holiday in our home in Modesto, but then took off for France, Italy and Greece. The second year was more exotic. We maximized my frequent flyer miles and went to Japan, China, Thailand, and Singapore. Christmas, New Years, and my birthday were all celebrated in Thailand. Our third year was Ron’s homesick year, so we stayed domestic and went to Iowa, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Florida. We spent Christmas in New Jersey with my family and it was yet another reminder why I moved 3,000 miles away. It was the last time my mother and I spoke to each other, but we ended the vacation with a full week in Disney World, where I celebrated my birthday and had the freedom of being a child once again. Year four, we decided to learn Spanish, so we went to Costa Rica to a Language School. We stayed with a family, but there too, the main celebration is on the Eve. So on Christmas day, Ron and I and four other students went white water rafting. It was only after we were finished that we were told that it is one of the rivers that the Olympic teams uses for practicing, being rated advanced. That was also the day that my contact was cemented in my eye from river water and I had to have the school take me to an ophthalmologist to have it removed. Enjoying the taste of the Latin culture, we followed that up the next year by going to Peru and Chile. One of my life long dreams had been to go to Machu Pichu. Christmas Eve was spent in the only hotel in Machu Pichu and cost so much that we could not afford to eat dinner in the restaurant that night. We had hiked Machu Pichu earlier that day, so we ate snacks in our room, watched the clouds dancing on the mountains in the moonlight, and watched “Christmas Celebrations Around the World” on CNN International. Needing a Europe fix, in 1998, we traveled to Germany, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. That was our first Christmas in Hungary. At the pension, we stayed at the, the owner told Ron he should have a tree in our room if he wanted one and gave him decorations to cover it with. He then had us and the other guest for a traditional Hungarian dinner on Christmas Eve, since the restaurants would be closed. The following year, we took our first cruise. We chose a small ship that would only accommodate one hundred and fifty people and the course was that which followed Darwin’s route through the Beagle Channel and visiting the southern most settlement in the world. We started in Ushuaia, Argentina, but after the cruise flew to Buenas Aries and then on to Chile. Last year, we were on our second cruise, but this time in Egypt floating down the Nile. That was another life long dream come true. After spending two weeks in Egypt, we flew to Turkey for another two weeks. The joke of the years is that after our first trip to Europe, as we were traveling home, Ron dreamily shared “That was so wonderful. We will have to do another trip someday.” Since he had his eyes closed at the time, he could not see the reaction on my face at the word ‘someday’. Little did he know what life with me was going to involve. We were fortunate too that between Christmas, we were able to fit in many domestic mini-vacations besides.

Here we are again, back in Budapest. At 8:30 pm, we moved from the bar to the restaurant. Our table was perfectly placed directly in front of the castle on the hill on the Buda side of the city. It was lit up like a fairytale palace and was a stunning and romantic panorama to be eating by. Surprisingly, the restaurant was not as busy as I had expected it would be. We ate in total leisure one course at a time, returning for an additional bite when we chose. Each time we returned to our table our used plates had been removed. There were plenty of choices that appealed to me and I felt no need to feel deprived by not eating fish, having had equal choices. And I had my first Christmas pudding cake. It was sinfully rich, devilishly heavy, and heavenly delicious.

The walk home was cold, cold, cold, but the air was so crisp and there was a light dusting of snow falling without much enthusiasm. The Christmas lights were lit all through our path back to the apartment. It was some enchanted evening for sure.

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Sunday, December 23, 2001

Almost a Holiday


Almost A Holiday

The stores will be closing between 1:00 pm and 3:00 pm today. That will be the last of the shopping until December 27th. We decided that we had better run off to the market and get our goodies for the potluck tomorrow. The best place to go is the big market.

We bought a large chunk of smoked cheese, fresh red and yellow peppers, pickles, radishes, both red and white, cookies from the Christmas market and wine. We are set to make our snack tray.

We get it all home and put away. Ron goes out again hunting for the schedule of Midnight masses. His information gathering is diverted by rectory receptions that do not speak English and cannot understand what he wants. He returns home frustrated and lacking the information that he desires.

The rest of the day is spent reading, writing, and watching BBC News along with CNN. They are running a number of specials on the Euro debut on January 1st, and I am fascinated by the topic. What interests me is what this will due to national identity. The Germans interviewed are the most upset about losing their marks. Many nationalities are concerned about the prices being rounded up and being cheated, a real concern that each countries government has sworn to monitor with a close eye. Over three hundred million people will be using the same currency as of January 1st and the logistics of it are overwhelming. If anyone is interested in seeing the new money, both bills and coins go to for a preview.

Ron’s assignment the last few days has been to plan a trip to use some of our train time before we lose it. Tonight, I started the search of finding hotels. After reading Miss Garnet’s Angel, we both wanted to visit Venice again. I have been there three times in the past, but only for one day each time. Ron has only been there once for one day. We are taking off on January 6th for three nights in Innsbruck, Austria and then going to Venice for another three nights before returning home to Budapest very late on the 12th. We will be initiated to the world of the euro since both Austria and Italy will be among the converts. I for one will be pleased not to have to bring a calculator along to decipher that 1,792 lira equal one dollar, hence I will not pass out when a restaurant bill comes out to be in the high thousands. During one day in Innsbruck, we are planning to take a day trip of a couple of hours to the country of Liechtenstein. It is probably one of the smallest countries of the world, just larger then Vatican City. It is .9 times larger than Washington, D.C., but is one of the richest countries in the world and has a royal family. Due to their size, they do not have their own currency, but use the monies of Switzerland one of their bordering neighbors. The hotel rooms were over one hundred sixty a night, being it is such a rich country, so we bypassed staying within the principality and agreed on a day trip.

It took hours and hours going from one site to another looking for the best hotel deals that were available. We had originally intended to book Venice for the 2nd of January and therefore spending my birthday somewhere else. There was a good package on the web site, but by the time we figured out the train schedules and made decisions about Innsbruck, the last of the packages sold out. We did find other really good deals on this web site for Venice and they also book hotels in other countries, so the name is misleading.

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Saturday, December 22, 2001

Making New Friends


Making New Friends

With the cold weather, we have not been too ambitious to do much other than take a walk to gather some sun rays while they last. Today, Mark and Hugh were coming, so it seemed our morning was wiled away in anticipation. We productively spent the time reading and getting our clothes to smell like mandarin and green tea. Ron was soaking beans to make into chili with some of our newly discovered chili seasonings and sausage.

Hugh and Mark arrived at 3:00 pm and we all decided to stay here for coffee rather than venture out. Hugh works as an Educational Evaluator and travels to Russia and surrounding countries a lot of the time. Mark just finished his first semester at Cambridge where he is working on his doctorate in Myths and Magic of South African Literature. They have lived in Budapest for two years and still enjoy it. They are both from South Africa. Mark will be heading back to London the middle of January to begin his second semester. Both of them are laid back types, so the onus of keeping the conversation alive was on Ron and I. They were very pleasant and seemed like people we would like to develop a friendship with, so we invited them to join us for Christmas Eve dinner. Regretfully, they had made plans with others for the evening, but as fortune would have it, they invited us to their place for Christmas day. They were having a potluck. We told them of our limited tools for cooking and the inability to read packages for ingredients, so we agreed to bring the snacks. By 5:00 pm, they left and we felt the whole in our social existence once again and without mindless situation comedies and unrealistic television dramas to distract us, the evening was long.

An hour away was my relief in cyber-space, where I could wile away the hours reading e-mail and surfing. Ron has a difficult time seeing the screen when he is sitting next to me, so it is not a joint venture. He also loses interest much faster than I, until he is alone on the web and can read the San Francisco Chronicle columnists that he misses greatly. After dinner, I usually forego the computer for his needs and he writes his letters in Word, then I upload them onto his e-mail for sending.

A few days ago, as I was checking our bank account online, I was getting upset with the $3.00 charge our bank slapped on us each time we made a withdrawal. Before leaving the States, I had read that this bank was going to stop charging the Automatic Teller Machine fees in Europe, but the only evidence of this was when we used the Barclays bank in the U.K. Every other time, there was that nasty waste of money. I knew there had to be a way around this, so I thought about the possible solutions. Then it dawned on me! Our global currency cards were rechargeable online, so I went to their site to read the procedures. They could reload your card with authorized withdrawals from your bank account that has been relegated for this task. I could not remember is we had arranged for this when we initially purchased our cards or not. If we had not, it was very short sighted of me not to do so. When I tried to do a reload, however, the need of authorization popped up. I was shortsighted, damn. The form was available online, but there were two obstacles. It was in a pdf form, which means you need the program Acrobat reader in order to retrieve it. That was not a problem as the program is available free on the Internet for downloading and my computer was already equipped. The first problem, though, remained that I do not have a printer. I have not found an Internet café in Budapest that has MS Word on any of their computers, I thought the chances of finding one with Acrobat Reader and a working printer were beyond hope. Then the second problem was that the form would need to be faxed to Global Currency. That created the second obstacle of finding a public fax machine that will fax internationally, if Global Currency even had an international fax number. The number they provided was a States 800 toll free number, which experience has shown me that you cannot call an 800 number from abroad. Since I like these types of puzzles, I had to think of a solution.

It did not take long for a key to unlock this puzzle to present itself. When I was online with the bank, they had installed new software that allowed you to virtually set up a payment with anyone from your credit card company to your grandmother. It did not matter and it did not have to be a company. I went to the Global Currency site to retrieve their mailing address and phone number, then went back to the bank site and set them up as a payee. Now instead of them having to siphon money from our account, we can freely hand it over to be deposited in our Global Currency access account. The bank does not charge per transaction, there is a monthly fee of $5.95 service charge. I tested this out by sending fifty dollars to the Global card and the bank processed it the next day. Now I just need to wait for the Global account to receive it, accept it since they did not request the funds themselves, and deposit it under my account number. If this works, I can set up a weekly or monthly transfer that will sit in the Global account with withdrawal access and no fees. Travel does broaden your knowledge base in many ways.

I have been patiently waiting for a Christmas card through either the snail mail or via e-mail from my brother. Nothing has appeared yet. I have written off hope for my father sending anything, he is too buried in Michelle’s life to be bothered with flesh and blood. What I have said for a number of years now, is that your family does not have to be related to you by blood. My aunt did send us an electronic card for Christmas. Some of my closest ‘family members’ are friends who are closer relations than my own legal relatives. It does not stop the hurt that comes with being forgotten. We have sent my brother and his family gifts from Ireland and Holland without a trace of knowing whether or not they received them. It was only when I forwarded a note from my Aunt Carolyn to my brother that I received any e-mail message at all.

My aunt had sent me a note saying that my father called her and made some wise crack. She thinking it was another crank caller for which they had been recently plagued, she hung up on him. When he called back, she let the machine answer the call and only picked up when she realized it was her brother. As she answered, she was commanded by her older brother to say “Happy Birthday!” She knew it was not his birthday, but said it anyway. He had Michelle on the other line and she responded, “Thank you!” My aunt never clarified with him what the purpose of that was, but it was obvious Michelle was still in the picture continuing her parasitic behavior. Dad also told my aunt that he rarely sees my brother anymore since my brother moved so far away (fourteen miles). I responded to her by writing, “You should have hung up on him a second time when you heard Michelle’s voice on the line.” Then I forwarded the note to my brother for a dual purpose. One reason was so that Kevin would know what our father was saying about him to relatives, the second was to try to elicit a response at all to see if he remembered who I was.

It does not take Kevin to get his Italian/Irish up when he is confronted, but he will never do it in person; writing is so much safer. He responded within twenty-four hours stating that Dad has no qualms about calling him once a month to remind him of the loan payment they have with him, five days before the due date. Kevin also was angered by the fact that my father uses the excuse of Kevin’s buying a house for his not being in touch when we had plainly made it clear when I was still there that Michelle was the reason for the discontent. What he did not include was a thank you for the presents or even an acknowledgement of receiving them. He was too busy defending his honor to think about wishing me a Merry Christmas.

I also forwarded the same e-mail to my sister-in-law for the same reasons as my brother. Sometimes I wonder if they ever talk since information does not also seem to be communicated, especially from my brother to my sister-in-law. She responded as harshly as my brother did and included that they received the gifts that we sent and really liked them. Again, no mention of the holidays, the state of our health or well-being or anything else personal.

In cycles, I either buy presents for my nephews or not. For years, wanting to be the good uncle, I spent hours and hours trying to figure out what would please them. When they were little and Power Rangers were as rare as feathers on pigs, I called every store in the State of California trying to get them Power Rangers. I wanted to be Super Uncle and be their hero. Ron coming to the rescue stood in line at a toy store that was getting a fresh shipment and beat off fifty crazed mothers that also craved Power Rangers for their little monsters. The scenes at the stores at the time were like what we see on the news of people killing each other over food hand-outs and it makes me realize now how shallow we can be. But at the time, it was important. Since I did not see my nephews that often with them in New Jersey and I in California, I needed something to make an imprint on their minds. Ron was successful and the Power Rangers went in the mail with insurance coverage worthy of an ingot of gold. Weeks went by and I never heard a word. Now I think about it like an e-mail. You know you are sending something into the cyber ethers, but you are never really sure whether or not it has reached its destination or not until you get a response. It was not until I heard from my mother, who obviously was alive at the time, that I found out they did indeed received them and they were ecstatic. Their ecstasy never flowed over into a thank you note or card.

Two years ago, I bought the two of them a hundred and fifty-dollar telescope for a joint present and a half dozen individual presents each. The oldest nephew was in Boy Scouts and the younger in Cub Scouts and they were doing a lot with stargazing both at their local troops and at the Scouting camps they both regularly attended. Again, no mention was made of receiving the gifts from them. My brother and sister-in-law did not acknowledge the presents that were for each of them nor for the kids. In return, we did not receive a Christmas card, a thank you note, or a birthday card. I had to call to see if the presents arrived or did I have to have them traced with the post office. They arrived, but later found out the telescope went to live in the basement and never surfaced again until they moved.

Deciding that ingratitude does not deserve action on my part, I quit sending gifts to see if anyone noticed. There has not been a trace of response that it has made a difference and they still do not send greetings for holidays or birthdays. With great remorse, I get pangs of guilt that this will go down in the chronicles of time that I was a worthless uncle and their maternal aunt and uncle do give them gifts, so I bend my rules on occasion. Then I start to wallow once again in the feelings of being an orphan and stop caring materialistically once again. It is an emotional cycle that can be exhausting. The benefit of all of this is that I am truly overwhelmed when friends old and new are generous towards me/us. The rest of this sentiment should be apparent.

Speaking of which, Ron’s old friend, and my new friend Sheila and Fred, the couple that we had visited in Wyoming was planning to send a CARE package via United Parcel Service. When they went to ship it off, they discovered that it would cost $100.00 for shipping. Deciding that that was a bit pricey, they held off for the U.S. and Hungarian postal services to perform the task. Sheila picking up my loss of not having pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving was going to send us the makings for a pumpkin pie and a pound of Starbucks coffee. If it has arrived after their spending so much to send it, I would have had to hire a baker to create it for fear of screwing it up. Then I would have had to shellac it and hang it on the wall for future posterity, since a pie that costs that much should not be wasted by eating it. It is always the thought that counts.

Daphnee, my oldest friend in terms of knowing her, wanted to know what we wanted for Christmas. She wanted to send gifts like she does every year. I told her not to spend the money, thinking about the shipping costs. We settled on a phone call. She will call us on Christmas Day at an established time.

All of these thoughts do not make for a happy holiday season for me and I have to confront them year after year. It was an escape for the last seven years to take off to different parts of the world where I could completely ignore the family thing. It was just depressing since the last Christmas we spent with my parents, my mother made the trip miserable and we did not speak after that time. Traveling in different cultures at Christmas assists in diverting your attention from your own emotional voids, but this year, having a ‘home’ brings all of that to the surface once again. Ron on the other hand is able to revel in the romance of Christmas past with his family and has the notions that if he were there, everything would be as it once was. It is with great relief that he thinks that way. If both of us had my attitude, we would be taking our anti-depressants with Scotch.

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Friday, December 21, 2001

Our Grocery Delights


Our Grocery Delights

At 10:00 this morning, the phone was ringing. It is still a strange sound to us when it happens in our own apartment. Since we know so few people, we are strangely suspicious when it rings. Who could be calling us, we wonder? It was a language school calling in response to my e-mail. The female director is interested in my skills. They offer classes to businesses, exclusively. The school only hires contractors, not employees, a move I can identify with having done the same with my own business for the last ten years. She would like to interview me around the middle of January. That is perfect timing for me. I explained that we did have Europass train tickets to use before they expired, so if I did not hear from her, I would call. Shortly after the first call, the phone rang once again. A headmistress of a gimnazium needs a teacher for September. This is a high school. We too arranged for an interview for later in January. Her concern was that I would not be around by September. I shared that my concern was not finding something in the meanwhile that would allow me the needed paperwork to stay around until that time. Hopefully, this tread of calls will continue. I did received a couple of e-mails that stated their school requires a certificate for Teaching English as a Second Language regardless of what academic credentials you have earned. For these, Ron is the perfect one to do some follow-up.

Iboyla had told us that there is still a whole other world of grocery shopping in the basement of the great market. We had never gone down there, so we were eagerly anticipating what we may find, lured with the assurance that we would find such riches as balsamic vinegar. Who could resist such a treasure hunt?

With our shopping bags in hand, off we went to the market to fill our sparsely filled cupboards with yet more staples. The market itself is huge and overwhelmingly filled with booths of butchers, bakers, vegetable and fruit stands, fish marketers, candy sellers, and spice traders. We have never completed the entire offerings, since before we were residents, the tourist novelty wore off long before we completed a circuit. Now that we were temporary citizens, we do not have the patience or memory to do the comparative shopping of the expert ladies that can make a beeline to their favorites. We are still working on determining who will be our favorites and win our loyalty for the long term.

By-passing the first floor to dig deeper into the underground of new discovered booty, we take the escalator to the basement. At the bottom of the stairs is a Smatch store. This is the local chain grocery store where we sometimes shop within our neighborhood. Fully disappointed in finding an ordinary store nestled under the non-traditional market above, we baited by and cheated by the mundane offerings of convenience. That was a fleeting moment though, as we soon realized that to the side of the Smatch store, there yet existed another world. A world that included the commonality of established shops with the diversion of sellers in their makeshift booths co-existing side by side.

It was there that we found vegetable stands that sold sauerkraut fresh from the barrel and sold by weight, stuffed peppers of various types filled with sauerkraut, different types of coleslaw, pickles, olives, and some cheeses. There was a traditional store that sold brands that we recognized and items that we knew how to use. One wall was lined with spices of every imaginable type in little cellophane packets, but identified with letter combinations that were incomprehensible to us. It was here that we found endive for twenty-five cents a head, chili spice mix, balsamic vinegar, six types of rice, couscous, and assorted other goodies that we have felt deprived of, some not until we saw them sitting on the shelves.

We filled our hand held basket and then filled our shopping bags with our reward from investigative shopping. We trolled the booths looking for more goodies that we may not have been able to live without once we identify them and the price. We bought a flecked black and white enameled baking pan for $2.00 at one booth, at the butcher’s three types of sausage found their way into our basket. It was getting close to Christmas, so we felt a need to stock up more than usual. Christmas falls on a Tuesday this year, so everything will be closed by 1:00 pm on Christmas Eve, then closed Christmas and the day after. It is not called Boxing Day like in the United Kingdom, but it is an official holiday. We will not starve for the next few days. Another discovery that was worth its weight in gold was finding fabric softener. The cute little Snuggles teddy bear picture was on the label. That was the first clue as to the contents of this bottle of lime green liquid. The Snuggles bear was caressing a soft looking blanket, so we felt satisfied that this was indeed some ingredient that would make our clothes and towels feel softer than gravel. We had a choice of Mandarin and Green Tea scent or some other exotic combinations.

With our loads in hand, we walked to the Central Café, one of the oldest coffee cafés in Budapest for a bit of relaxation prior to trekking home again. It is a beautiful building that reeks of elegance and is obviously, where the people of money congregate to sip java and tea. As we were leaving, we realized that we seated ourselves in the restaurant area and the coffee only area was on the other side. That explained the look we received when we said we did not want to order food. Now we know for next time.

On the way home, we stopped at the Christmas market to pick up some cookies. Our friend Dawn had given us the name of a co-worker of hers, Hugh, who lives in Budapest with his partner, Mark. She said they were going to be around for the holidays and we should get in touch with them. When we arrived in the warmth of our apartment, Ron made the call. They are coming over tomorrow and we will go out for coffee.

We booked a Christmas Eve dinner buffet at the Inter-Continental restaurant. The cost was about $20.00 per person and the menu was quite extensive. It will give some festivity to the holiday, we hope. Speaking of which, the Christmas market had a living crèche complete with burros, cows, sheep, and people. While we were there, they had a live reenactment of the holy scene. Two walls of ‘boulders’ covered the crèche. An adult angel opened the walls with the assistance of the littlest angel to expose Mary and Joseph with what I hope was just a doll. If it was a real child, it was a case for child abuse considering the temperature. Shortly thereafter, three wise men all decked out in colorful costumes, fancy headdresses, and dripping in gold ornamentation arrived with three live camels which looked less than thrilled to be here. They reenacted the story that we are all so familiar with and they presented their gifts to the family. It was short, but impressive as they went to quite a bit of trouble to make it look so authentic.

This prompted Ron to check out the times for midnight mass at the church that was having services in English, so I took the goodie bags home. When he returned, he was disappointed to find that the church was Scottish rite and not Roman Catholic.

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