Thursday, December 13, 2001

Eastern European Living

Eastern European Living

My preconceived notions of what living in an apartment in an Eastern European country have been temporarily put to rest. I had fears of not having enough hot water for both of us to shower in the morning or to wash dishes and clothes. My greatest concern, no my greatest fear was the vision of inadequate heating. I prefer to be too hot to too cold. We, fortunately, don’t have these issues to deal with. Lastly, security was also a thought that had crossed my mind, since I had no intention of carrying my computer around with me each day, all day.

Our apartment door like all of the others in the building face a central, somewhat circular terrace that is on the ground floor. In Europe, the floors do not begin with one until you have climbed one flight of steps. Everything on the ground floor is the ground floor, and then you start counting. On each floor is a walking area the goes around the building to reach each apartment. We are the first apartment to the left once leaving the elevator or the staircase and once on this walkway.

There are two front doors, similar to French doors, but only one opens for daily use, the other being for moving furniture in and out. They are about seven feet high and have iron bars on them as well as three locks. The bottom lock is a steel bar that enters the wall on the inside when locked. Above the doors are two windows. All of the glass is double paned and in between the glass are mini-blinds. The controls of the blinds are outside the windows, so they are convenient for manipulating. The windows open outward using long metal handles that twist down to open or up to lock. There are similar long windows on the doors, but they are frosted glass and sans the blinds. If someone appears at your door that you have not buzzed in the front door, you can easily open a window to speak to the person, protected by the bars without risking the security of opening the door. From inside looking out, there are two more windows to the right of the front door, a smaller window above a larger and longer window on the bottom. These two have the double glass and the mini-blinds. Facing the open terrace, there is plenty of light to shine in during the day, when the sun is out.

As you enter the apartment, you are in the kitchen/living room area. To the right is the kitchen counter, cabinets, sink, stove/oven, and refrigerator. The stove only has three burners and the oven will never accommodate a twenty-two pound turkey like our oven in California did, but it will suffice for us. The stove is gas as is the heating and we need to use matches to light the stove or oven. We are retraining ourselves to cook with gas after so many years of electric cooking.

The refrigerator is about four feet high with a freezer that is the size of a mailbox. The egg compartment in the fridge will hold about six eggs at the most and the shelves are so compact, a carton of milk has to sit on the door. This explains why you do not see large economy size products in the grocery stores and also why a store can have twice as many products in half the space we are used to. If we had an ice cube tray, it would consume half of the available space of the freezer.

We put our ‘kitchen table’ and chairs that were provided next to the refrigerator to separate it from our ‘living area’. The table is a plain white painted wood table with unfinished legs, but the top flap will flip over to open for four people to have a really intimate dinner. The chairs are black finished wooden folding chairs. This makes up our breakfast nook.

To homey up the kitchen area, we bought our coffee pot, which made both of us feel at home as soon as the first pot was brewed. In Holland, we had bought a material bag that is open on either end with elastic binding on both sides. It is decorated in different wooden shoes of various colors. The purpose is to store plastic reusable bags. You stuff them in the top and pull them out of the bottom. It has come in handy since we use the bags again for our garbage.

Hanging from one cabinet handle is a little wooden angel that was given to me by my former co-worker, Ruth. She had brought it back from a trip to her homeland, Germany, a couple of years back. It is our Guardian Angel of Travel and looks over us during our time away.

The refrigerator is decorator with magnets that I had made from inspirational cards I found in San Francisco before leaving home. I cut the cards, laminated them and put magnets on the back. The sayings are reminders that this was a beneficial idea. For example, one proclaims, “Why not go out on a limb? That is where all of the fruit is.” To add more color, I had purchased some ceramic magnets of different Dutch store fronts, while we were in Holland. And on the table are salt and pepper shakers with a Dutch theme that I bought there also.

On the other side of the room is the gas heater under the window. It is a metal rectangular box with a holey front to allow the heat to escape. It is regulated with a knob to adjust the heat from one to five, with five being the hottest. We have not moved it from one yet. Our new permanent fixture in front of the heater is the drying rack for clothes. It looks like a multiple little clothes lines on a metal frame that can fold up for storage, but fat chance that it will ever be put away.

Our television sits on a black wooden stand on wheels in front of this. We put a little votive Christmas candle on it as well as a shell we picked on the beach in New Jersey, a sandbag stuffed elephant that my friend Dawn gave to me when we first started our doctoral studies, and a small silver silent butler that holds a tea candle, given to me by a long ago former co-worker. There are shelves on this cart so we are able to leave our tourist brochures and phone book (in English) on this stand as well as copies of the Budapest Sun, the English news weekly of local news only. The television is brand new with a remote and is hooked up to cable. We get about forty channels of which there are three in English: CNN, BBC News, and Fox News. The rest are in Hungarian, French, Russian, Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish, but of course mostly Hungarian.

We have a wood framed recliner with a padded cushion that needs to be covered since it was once white in a previous life. We took one of the tables from a bedroom to make a coffee table. It is pine colored and simple construction. Most of the furniture looks like it originated at an Ikea store and I did see some Ikea bags, so there must be one here somewhere. The sofa is a plain boxy construction, high back and arms with no cushions. It is brand new and was unwrapped the day we moved in. Covering it is an ugly gray, shiny nylon type cover that reminds me of sharkskin. If we were to take it off, the sofa is white underneath, but with that big security deposit in mind, we will keep it covered until guests arrive. The long wall has two wall sconces that give subdued lighting and on them are our quilted Christmas stockings we purchased here in Budapest at the Christmas market. There is a florescent light over the kitchen area which we use to read by when in this area, as the sconces do not provide enough light.

Walking through the living area, there is a hallway. When facing it from the living area, it extends to the left at which end is the bathroom, and before that to the right is the second bedroom, but if you step in the hallway, there is a closet on the right hand side. If you walk forward through the hallway, you enter one bedroom. We moved all of the furniture to suit our needs and it is comfortable looking now. Each bedroom is furnished with a large wardrobe closet since there are no closets in either. The luggage is emptied and safely sitting in one of the wardrobes, escaping a bonfire one more time, by a narrow margin. We put out everything we have and there is plenty of room left over. The beds in both rooms are double beds with surprising restful mattresses that sit on wood framed boxes, not box springs. The beds lift up for storage of linens, pillows, and blankets, but too shallow to hide luggage.

Each bedroom also has a large desk that looks like a drafting board set at a reasonable height since there are no drawers. At some point, I will leave the computer on this desk for writing, since there is an outlet and phone jack right next to it, but in the interim, I still have it on my lap while sitting on the sofa. Attached to each desk is a high-powered reading lamp and each has a functional, but yet comfortably padded desk chair. The spare room has a plain wooden bookshelf. We have computer accessories, photography equipment and office supplies on this shelf. There was also one in the other bedroom, but we took it out and put it in the hallway for our books.

Both bedrooms also have their own heating unit, so each room can be adjusted to the liking of the needs of that particular room. Also, in each bedroom, is a window that looks out toward the street, but each is partially blocked with the terrace of the apartments on either side of us. These windows, besides being double paned and having the capability of opening for fresh air, have a heavy security blind that can be raised and lowered by a thick, webbed, flat cord on the inside window frame. This allows for privacy without having curtains and also blocks the light from coming in when you want to sleep later in the morning.

The bedroom closest to the bathroom is right next to the elevator, which has not been a problem at all. What has been a problem is the apartment on the other side of the elevator. They have a daycare center there, plus one residential screamer. There is a child there that loves to scream at all hours of the day and night. From the tone of the screams and other sounds that surround them, I would guess this is a very spoiled two year old, boy. Although I have not set eyes on this child or any of the parental figures in the apartment, we can hear an older father figure speaking calmly to the child and then screams start. Then older man starts singing to the child to calm him/her and the scream stop temporarily. Sometimes in the middle of the night, the screaming with start abruptly, like the demon child is having a pleasant dream that it can’t associate with and out comes a yelp. Most of the time, for the health of the child, it stops as quickly as it starts.

As I said the bathroom is at the end of the hallway. As is common in Europe, the bathroom light switches are on the outside wall. I have no idea why, but I found myself in many pitch black bathrooms groping for something to shed light before learning this lesson. There are two switches. One is for the light and the other is for a little heater that sits above the inside door of the bathroom. The washing machine is in here and there is a stall shower with a curtain. They have ordered a door for the shower and it should be installed in a week or so. There is a hand held showerhead and it is pleasantly large. I can actually bend over and pick up the bar of soap if it drops without giving myself a concussion or worse knocking myself out. There is a temporary shelf sitting on a metal frame over the sink. They could not find a piece of replacement glass that will fit the frame, so they are replacing it when the put in the shower door. Our baskets filled with toiletries on the washing machine look like extravagantly overboard gift baskets that you find in hotel bathrooms. Throughout the apartment the floors are either tiled or parquet wood, so they are easy to vacuum and mop.

The biggest adjustment to the apartment is coping with communal living. It takes time to modify your life to having people share walls with you when you have not had to do it for almost ten years. At the moment, the apartment to the right of us is vacant, so that is an impermanent reprieve that will give us time to acclimate to our surroundings.

Of course as in any building, there are the internal sounds that need to be identified, labeled, and stored away for future reference. There are the sounds of the refrigerator turning on and off, the toilet tank refilling, the creaks and groans of a building settling and readjusting its posture, but the most obvious is the heating. Each heater has it’s own personality. The living room heater sometimes sounds like the Tasmanian devil is trapped inside and is clawing to get out. One of these days, I expect to come home and find the front cover of the heater with a hole in it and discover that we have a new pet running around the apartment. The heater in our bedroom has a very different personality. It makes noises like a fourth grader who has just started taking bugle lessons. A spurt of noise is followed by a couple of little notes, then a few whistles, and then a breather for the intake of more air with which to expel more practice notes. Needless to say, I find it necessary to take a nap during the day to supplement the nighttime interludes.

Getting up early, I had decided it was time to reconcile the checking account. Since having the business, it has become a positive habit, not a welcome habit, but nevertheless. Last night I had downloaded the current bank statement from the Bank of America online banking and saved it as a Word document. When Ron was up and feeling awake, he read the items to me while I entered them into the check register on the computer. Last month I had a problem with Quicken when I did this. It entered a strange amount as our beginning balance that was not associated with any other figure that I could find anywhere. It would not let me correct it to the figure I had that matched what the bank statement showed and I had to resort to doing a balance adjustment in order to override it. I hate having to do that, because months later you have forgotten what happened and it causes confusion. Well a similar problem occurred once again or so I thought. So to solve the problem, I thought it would be easier to create a new register on the computer and start from the beginning again. After I created the new register, I realized where my error was and proceeded to delete the newly created register. The warning pops up “Are you sure you want to delete this register? If YES, type YES in the box.” Why have an extraneous register that may cause confusion later, yes, I want to delete it. The box popped up again and with the thought that it did not take the first time, I typed YES again and hit the enter key. Then it became crystal clear that I had just deleted nine (9), YES, nine years of bank statements with three little letters Y-E-S. What I had done was not registering in my mind immediately, not wanting to face the reality of the consequences. When it struck me, I could feel all of the blood drain down scalp, down my face, neck and shoulders pooling up in my ankles and feet. Then I wanted to pass out from anxiety.

Trying to regain my control after letting out a cavernous moan that can only be understood if you have heard a large animal that has been mortally wounded, but death has not eased the suffering, came forth from the depths of my being. After explaining to Ron why I was paler than newly fallen snow, I tried looking in the Wastebasket to see if they files went there. They had not. I went to my recovery program and there were dozens of things that I have deleted, but not one financial file was to be found. Checking and rechecking the Quicken Help menu, there were no recovery programs there either. Before I threw myself over the balcony, I thought I had better look to see if I brought the back up CD Rom for these files. Thankfully, I did, since we are on the first floor, if I went over the balcony, I would probably only have broken a few bones or my neck, but not complete the task at hand. I loaded the CD-Rom and I could not pull up the file. My laptop did not have the program on it that it needed to read the CD-Roms copied on the desktop that is sitting in New Jersey. Being compulsive has its rewards in strange ways. I packed the program CD, for the CD Reader/Writer even though I do not have a CD Reader/Writer on the laptop. My thinking at the time was that it may need to be loaded in order to read the discs created with the CD R/W at home. After it was loaded, I crossed my fingers, toes, and my eyes cross on their own, and sent up a quick positive thought. It worked! I was able to recover all of the data up to the time we left California, which brought me up to August 24th. Now all that needed to be done was go to the Bank of America web site and download the missing statements.

On the banking site, the first statement that could be found started with September 24th thru to the current. None of the statements would download stating some problem or other, but I was without them also. Without the August statement, I could not balance the checkbook and was back to square one. E-mail is very handy for quick responses sometimes, so I e-mailed the bank explaining the situation and asking if they could e-mail me the missing statement? Knowing the banking industry, I was not hopeful for a fruitful outcome, so I e-mailed my friend Daphnee too, who is receiving our mail.

With this done, we went to an Internet café that had a printer so I could print out the other three statements and have them in hand for easier reference after I received the August one from somewhere. At the banking web site, I went to the statements again and proceeded with the command for printing. Nothing happened. After trying one more time with lackluster results, I called the attendant for assistance. He tried it too, but without anything formulating in the printers digestive system to spit out at us. After he checked his printer with the care of a surgeon, he returned to give me the prognosis. The printer is dead. Yet again, I had to brainstorm a solution. The Internet did not have a word processing program, so I copied the statements and saved them to disc. At home, I loaded them into Word, but I was still without a printer version. The thought of keeping two programs open and switching back and forth between Word and Quicken to transfer the data was more than I wanted to handle. Sitting Ron down to play secretary, I read off the statements, while he wrote them down on a pad. When we had the three statements transcribed, I re-entered them into Quicken. Once I receive the August statement, I will be back in business. As soon as I finished, I went on the Internet and e-mailed Dell computers to price a CD Reader/Writer for the laptop.

I am learning the life of a stranger in a strange land. Not knowing the language has not inhibited me in the least. Few people that we have run into know our language as we do not know theirs. It hasn’t occurred to me to expect them to know English, but since I had been told by other Hungarians and my friend Dawn that so many do, it has been a surprise.

We went to the store for our daily needs. One of my visions of living here was the daily trip to the market to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. What was omitted from that romantic fantasy was that once you buy them, you have to cook them. Other than holidays and parties, my days of cooking from scratch have been years long gone. When I was working, I was working ten plus hours a day and there was no time or energy for gastronomic creativity. The burden of food preparation fell on Ron and after awhile, the frozen food section of the store was what we knew best. Here, the frozen food section is the smallest part of the store and part of this tiny space is filled with ice cream in containers that would not fit our freezer.

As Ron was looking over the breads and pastries for dinner and dessert, he had asked me to find pepper, the one spice he uses with as much abandon as I do salt. Since this was a disaster mission on our first trip, I attempted to try again since this was a larger store. I could not find the pepper yet again. So I asked in English, without the burden of ripping out a Hungarian-English dictionary, which I did not have anyway and pointing to an incomprehensible word. One clerk called another and pointed at me. She asked me in Hungarian what I wanted, I am guessing. She could have been saying, “Oh, I will be happy to help such a handsome man” or “I was just about ready to go on my break, what the hell does he want?” I prefer to think she thought she might help me. I asked for pepper once again believing that if the one clerk called her to assist, she must have a better command of English than the first. It was wrong of me to assume. We started from scratch. I never really liked playing charades with friends, but using the technique in countries where I need to in order to communicate seems more reasonable and less ridiculous. It is my fantasy that these people are so enraptured by my dramatic antics that they are not thinking about this six foot one man who is making a fool of himself in public. After many antics, body movements, recreating the sounds that I imagine pepper would make as it goes through a grinder, the second clerk had an ‘Ah ha’ look, went away and came back with a small package of what I believed to be pepper as it was pictured on the front of this envelope. At this point, Ron would eat and believe that it was Hungarian pepper if I had to hypnotize him. I am eternally grateful that the toilet paper is in plain view and doesn’t need to be asked for, but I am not sure how I will handle asking about Metamucil, but dread the thought already.

That evening we went walking to another open air market. At first we thought it may also be a Christmas market, but after walking through, we think it may be an all year round one. There are three blocks of booths, but few holiday things and no hot wine or food being sold. Some of the major streets are simply, but strikingly lit with Christmas lights. The lights are not strung across the street, but across the sidewalks, hanging in the air. Rather than being draped, they have different lengths of white lights that are streaming downward like sparkling icicles. Each old-fashioned sculpted lamppost is also strung with lights to make it very festive looking. We had had some snow the day before and it was just enough to bring together the warm cozy feelings of a holiday coming up. With a chill in our bones, we went home for some homemade bean soup. It was really quite delicious and satisfied the wintry need.

Ron has had a cold that is really not sounding that bad to me, but then again I am not the one suffering from it. He admitted to me later this afternoon that he thinks it is really a combination of feeling the short days and missing the sunshine combined with culture shock. That was his reasoning for wanting to go to the movies, but with it being in Hungarian, Spanish, and English, it did not solve a thing for his feelings of homesickness, but his nasal drip seems to be improved.

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