Sunday, December 28, 2014

No Boxes for Hungary


Someone corrected me stating Hungary does not celebrate Boxing Day, but rather it is called St. Stephen's Day.

Well not according to this website or this one either. Apparently, not everyone received the memo!

The point is, regardless of what it is officially named, the reality is it is a celebrated holiday.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Frozen More Than a Movie


It had been a week to the day that we were without gas, but a semi-Christmas miracle happened. They installed the new meters in each apartment and turned the gas on. It was tough going getting the stove top to light again, but eventually it did. The hot water heater sprang to life once a torch provided the initial flame. Yet, the one piece of equipment we really need is the one holdout. Our thing for lack of a better word or is it a furnace, regardless, it is what heats the water for the radiators. There is still no life visible.

We called our friend Andrew who rents out apartments and has workers on call. He arrived last night to see if he could fix it himself, but when he couldn't he promised to return with a mechanic in the morning. That was today.  

After a careful examination, the repairperson explained that a necessary part has been broken. He showed that it was obvious by the small pieces left behind. Attached to this inside part is a small red button on the outside that once protruded from the surface of the machine. After we had Budapest Repair out to service this heater a few months ago, the red button had been permanently shoved back with no wiggle room to be effective for any reason. We didn't know the function of this button, but we hadn’t even noticed until after they had left. Back then, we were grateful for heat. Little did we know the importance this was going to have in the future.

Today is December 23rd. Tomorrow most things will close for the holiday which extends through Friday as they celebrate Boxing Day here. Then we have the weekend extending the shutdown until normal activities resume on December 29th giving us a short window before our next go with a long holiday weekend. We have B and B guests coming on the 28th.

You know what happens to men’s genitals in the cold? Well, we may expect to see ours again by Ground Hog Day.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Give Me Credit Even If I Have a Stupid Moment


I had one of those "I am overwhelmed" moments. I just received my new MasterCard to replace the one due to expire while we are still in Ecuador. It arrived via UPS.

I called to activate it as instructed. The credit card phone system robot asked me to enter the 16 digit account number twice before finally saying, "I am sorry. I cannot locate that account. I will transfer you to a representative." I really wanted the system to activate it so I could move on with other things.

The rep comes on the line and asks me my name and the account number. Now I am getting testy. I had to enter the 16 digit account number twice already, yet this representative is asking yet again for the number.

He too has a difficult time finding my account, which is causing me great distress and I am about to say something uncouth. He preempts me with a question. Are you sure you are calling about a Capitol One account?

Mercifully, this was not a video call. It was not my Capitol One MasterCard I was calling to activate; it was my Diners Club MasterCard. I fessed up to the mistake giving the representative a hearty laugh and a wish for a good evening.

And to think I have been taking vitamin D to help improve my memory, now I need something to improve my awareness. Anyone who calls this a senior moment is going on Santa's naughty list.

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No Gas Until Christmas


Last week we received a notice there was going to be a house meeting. We never attend knowing we will not understand, but our next door neighbor said we should. He explained based on the square meters of our apartment, we had great influence in the decision making. One agenda item was replacing gas pipes. It seems the BKV building across the street from us, the company responsible for all public transportation in the city, has discovered a gas leak in their basement. These pipes needed to be replaced. They continued under our building so all of us were affected.

What we did not realize was the timing or the impact. On Monday, Ron was up early to shower before his appointment with the anesthesiologist for his Tuesday surgery. When I went to shower, there was no hot water. I immediately blamed some downdraft blowing out the pilot light on the hot water heater, but then I noticed the light was blinking on the heater for the radiators. Bother were avoiding being relight.

No gas! Our neighbor came running over when he saw the whites of my eyes, chattering a mile a minute in Hungarian.  I must have looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights, but it did not stop him from continuing to ramble on. I started calling everyone I knew who could possibly translate. Of course, most people did not answer their phone, but thankfully, our friend András did.

What I learned was that the gas was being turned off that day, Monday. Men from the gas company would be coming to remove the gas meter. There will be no gas until December 23rd. This was not good news under any circumstances, but in December it does send a shiver down one’s spine.

As of Monday, we have no heat, no hot water for showering or washing clothes, and no stove for cooking. Due to my newly renewed culinary interests, we do have an electric crock pot. It will be a savior keeping us from having to eat out. Monday was our first night without heat; it was not too cold. We did fine.

Tuesday, we were up at 5:30am to get Ron to the hospital for his surgery. He was to be there by 7am the latest. Our kitchen sink has an electric water heater, so we were able to get hot water for his sponge bath. I could not go that route, so I took a freezing cold shower. Truly not an experience one wants to repeat.

Tuesday, we were up at 5:30am to get Ron to the hospital for his surgery. He was to be there by 7am the latest. Our kitchen sink has an electric water heater, so we were able to get hot water for his sponge bath. I could not go that route, so I took a freezing cold shower. Truly not an experience one wants to repeat.

After Ron was taken off to surgery at 7:45, I went home again. Our neighbor showed up again chattering like a magpie. Again, I called András. People from the gas company were going to be in and out all day. First two men came to take pictures of our meter and then remove it. A bit later, another man came with a new gas meter that is now sitting on the floor. Because I wanted to be at the hospital when Ron’s surgery was over; I gave our neighbor keys.

Back at home I found that one of the gas pipes had been cut off. Thankfully, it was in a closet where the meter lives, so didn’t matter. A different worker made an appearance to perform the soldering task on a cuff put on the new pipe. He tried to explain it may damage the outer wall. What I thought this meant was that they would have to break through the cabinet. It seemed the original pipe was too close to the side wall. When I yet again returned home, it was apparent it just created small burn marks in the paint, but it is low enough that our shoe stand will cover it.

Ron is various stages of grogginess as I went back and forth to the hospital. His doctor looks like a teenager, but is from Chicago, so English is no problem. His surgery went well, but they were keeping him overnight.

Today, Wednesday he was able to return home leaving a warm hospital for a cold apartment. He is not allowed to shower until the stitches are removed on December 24th. Merry Christmas! In the meantime, he has to administer a shot in the arm each night.

Dinner is in the crock pot cooking. Last night I survived the cold with a couple of extra layers of clothes so it should not be too bad. A hot meal makes all the difference. A second blanket does wonders as well. Friends have offered a shower, so I will take them up on the offer.

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Saturday, December 13, 2014

Quick Trip to Vienna


Our friend Margie from CA had arranged to take a river cruise ending in Vienna. She suggested we meet up if possible. Thinking that Margie was leaving on Monday morning, we made arrangements to train up to Vienna on Friday, the 12th and come home Saturday evening. Our other friend Kat, who is living in Budapest, had never been to Vienna so she came along. We booked the 7:10 am train going and the 7:48 pm train returning so as to maximize Kat’s time seeing the city.

It was more than fortunate that we had seat reservations. There were mobs of people standing in the aisles the entire trip. Strangely, the Railjet, a nicer train cost us about 2,600 Huf for the reservations for the 3 of us, but the lesser older train cost us over 4,500 Huf for our return journey.

Margie met us at the train station. We stopped at our hotel to leave our things, but at 10 am it was too early to check in. From there we toured around, visiting Christmas markets, a major disappointment still after all the years we have visited here. Hawking more junk than Christmas related products, it was a letdown yet again. Christmas related items for sale are so commonplace; there is no reason to pay these inflated prices. Those vendors who are really making a killing are at the food booths. Lines are ten deep to fill up on grease, sugar, and salt. Interestingly, I have eliminated all sugars and grains from my diet. Though I had some fears that the temptation would be too great, but as it turned out, watching grossly overweight people pigging out made it extremely bearable.

Ron tried to show everyone a good time and valiantly attempted to find the tram we remembered as circling the city. Either they discontinued this route, changed it for the season, or something was posted we could not read, but it never happened according to plan. Regardless, Kat and Margie did see parts of the city they would not normally get to view in such a short time.

As it turned out, Margie was leaving very early Saturday morning, so we basically had the entire day for the three of us. I like Vienna, but it leaves me cold. Others have said this as well. Perhaps it is the ultra-white buildings, but it was fine to go, but not a thrilling experience.

Joining Kat, we went to the Schönbrunn Palace where we did the Imperial Tour for €11.50 each. They would not discount me with the press card and there were no concessions for Ron. Ron received an audio guide that had to be replaced twice; it malfunctioned. Rococo to me is gaudy, not attractive, but of course this was the style of the time.

We managed to fill our day, but closer to the train time we were all running out of steam. We left our things at the hotel at 9:30 and did not return until an hour before the train. I was more than ready to return home.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Opps! There Goes Our Window to the World


During our now regular Sunday dinners, after announcing this happened to be our 13th year anniversary in Budapest, we moved on to the topic of Internet connections. Sharing our experiences back in 2001, our friends were in awe over the advancements. We moved from a dial-up modem paying for every minute of telephone time except between 11pm and 7am to a full-fledged high speed cable connection.

It must have been a hex or a premonition. Monday morning our Internet connection stopped. I did all the things I normally know to do before calling the cable company, one of which is to wait an hour to see if any changes have taken plus. Then I powered everything off, rebooted the computer, and went through the checklist. No luck!

I called the cable company. Press 7 for English, press 2 if you have Internet connection issues, then the message is “You may find what assistance you need on our website.” Duh!! If I could get the website, I would not need to call in the first place or at least not by pressing 7 and then 2. I waited in the cyber-line for my turn. When I spoke to a human and explained the problem, he had me do all sort of things, although I had explained I did them already. Then he reset the connection from the office.  It did not work. He said he had to transfer me to another level tech person who answered my call, but could not hear me. “If you don’t answer in 3 seconds, I am cutting this call” he announced. The line went dead.

Two more calls were unsuccessful, but four was the charmed number this time. Again, the tech ran me through the paces, but could not find any errors on their end. It is always the computer’s fault; never the responsibility of the cable company. After pushing for more service, he finally agreed to send out a technician to look at the wiring to see if that was the culprit. They were due today between 8am and noon.

If the meanwhile, I left the computer on all day long to see if anything would change. 

What we did all day without the Internet:
Head to the computer for researching some movie then realize it is not working.
Read books
Sit down to write e-mails and then remembering they cannot be sent yet.
Took naps
Flip on the tablet to read the news, but only finding “No Connection Found”
Went out on errands we would normally put off
It was a long day!!

By 10pm, the icon previously showing no Internet connection made the conversion to being connected to the wider world. Hooray, but do I cancel the technician coming? No, it could have been a fluke that it started working. Why risk losing a house call if it turned out to be needed.

As it turned out, it was necessary. There was no WiFi anywhere in the apartment. When the technician came of course his English was limited, but we managed. He saw the computer was now connected, but I told him there was no WiFi. He booted his netbook and showed me there was. I booted up my tablet to trump his bid and there was no connection. A smile came over his face. It turned out that when the office reset the connections from the office, they reset everything back to the default, which included our connection name and password. To be fair, the man told me it would revert to the default, but it did not occur to me what was included in this.

When I asked the technician in our living room to change our connection name back to BudaBaB with our original password, he agreed to do so. However, it turned out the cable box had other ideas. In the end, he had to replace the entire cable box. Job well done and problems solved!

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Sunday, December 07, 2014

Yet Another Anniversary - 13 Years


Today marks yet another anniversary for us. This date is a ménage à trois celebration if one wants to be anthropomorphic with Budapest and consider this as celebratory. Some may call it a major triumph. 

September 11, 2001 we were in New Jersey at my father's. We had flown into LaGuardia airport the week before. I was on the phone ordering our Eurail passes when the Eurail operator told me of an incident he heard about on the radio sitting on his desk. I immediately went to turn on the news after finishing the call. Our scheduled flight from Newark airport to London on September 14, 2001 was delayed until the 24th.

On December 7, 2001 we arrived in Budapest and rented our first apartment with all good intentions to stay for 3 months before continuing a year of travel that started in July of that year. 

Our first apartment is not where we are currently living. We moved into this place on February 14, 2002.

Thirteen years living in Budapest!

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Saturday, December 06, 2014

Some Things Are Too Good to Toss


Ron pulled out some Xmas things to spruce up the place since we will be here this year, much to my chagrin. This card was in one of the boxes. Some things are just too good to toss! If you remember Dick and Jane I hope your memories are as good as mine are. Sally and Spot helped millions of US American kids read. In storage in New Jersey, with thousands of other books, I have a copy of Dick and Jane Grew Up

What really is funny about this is the bottom picture. Quite coincidental!

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Did Szent Mikulás Visit You?


Did you polish your best boot(s) and put them on the windowsill or in front of the door to be filled by Szent Mikulás? If you did and you were good, you name will be recorded in his ledger. Szent Mikulás will fill your boots with presents from his great bag of presents and treats.

Unless you are wise enough to get extra-large boots for the occasion, there will not be much room for the candies, tangerines, oranges, walnuts, apples, and chocolate Mikulás figures that the saint leaves behind. There seems to be a bit of egocentric behavior going on with the chocolate selfies.

Krampus (Krampusz) is the ugly devil who accompanies saintly goodie man. He is supposed to be a frightening figure with horns and chains, dressed in fur. That is old school. After the series of horror films like Silent Night, Deadly Night, it is challenging for any devil to outdo scariness. For those of us who prefer naughty things in life that bring some unadulterated pleasure all year round, we subjected or treated to, depending on your point of view, to receiving a golden wad of sticks or a wooden spoon. For the bawdy among us, this could be much better than an orange!

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Larnaca > Limassol > Paphos


Breakfast at the San Remo was a little surreal. Some of the guests looked like escapees from various reality TV shows, while others could have been cast members from previous seasons of American Horror Show. Add in the fact that the lobby and breakfast room are the only places where the Wi-Fi works and the coffee is instant only, it is true, 'you get what you pay for'.

We needed to get to the bus station by 10am for our first leg of our journey. The clerk said it was a 20 minute walk without suitcases. Okay, taxi please! Six euros later, having traveled through a maze of streets, we were beyond thrilled we didn’t play pauper and try to this by walking. We would still be hunting for the spot.

Buses here are huge, modern, and confortable. Our one hour 45 minute ride cost us 4 Euros each. Our stop was Limassol. We needed to wait here for an hour to change buses; the next leg would take us to Paphos. After walking about 3 blocks, we found the correct stop to catch the next bus and across the street was a cute café where we could hang out until the golden hour.

I am pretty certain I have failed to mention that we are a threesome. Our friend Kat, who did the Cadiz, Spain journey with us, decided we are festive travel mates, so has joined us for this one too. Our finally journey took us to the heart of Paphos, not near our hotel. Another taxi ride costing us 8 Euros brought us to the Daphne Apartment Hotel. Having been the one to make the hotel reservations this trip, I was thrilled to see that I will not be victimized for my hotel selections. There was a moment after the San Remo, where things were rather bleak.

The Daphne Apartment Hotel is all that I have read about it. It sits a block from the sea. Our apartment has 2 bedrooms, kitchen, and a humungous dining room/living room combination. There is a balcony off of the dining area that overlooks the pool and each bedroom has its own balcony as well. The kitchen is fully equipped with a double hot plate on top of a large toaster oven, a hot pot for coffee and a microwave. There are plenty of dishes, cups, glasses, etc. to live here comfortably. There is a supermarket right around the corner.

Ironically, when we went for a walk along the shore line, we were starving. One restaurant that caught our attention was the Captain’s Way with their 11.95Euro three course meals. There were plenty of choices for each course, so we decided to gamble. Good choices were made by all. We were stuffed.

Continuing down the shore, we went to the Nea Pafos, a fort built during the Frankish occupation in the 13th century in order to replace the Byzantine castle of 'Saranta Kolones. Views from the entry made it look like an admission charge of 2.50 Euro was extravagant; climbing the stairs to the top level offered exceptional views. By this time, it was getting cold or closer to frigid, but we hoofed it along the walking trail along the water for another ½ mile, before turning back.

We walked back to the hotel finding the supermarket around the corner. Supplied with tea, peanuts and some cheeses, we were ready to welcome the evening. That lasted for about 2 hours, when we decided we needed another walk before bed. One would think that this being a Mediterranean country, it would be warmer than it is. All three of us wish we had brought heavier coats, but still we are grateful we are not walking around in the shorts and short sleeved shirts that others are. They look like one giant goose bump.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Hello Greek Cyprus!


We landed here at 8:45pm their time, an hour later than Budapest. The airport is wonderfully modern, yet being we came in on WizzAir, we had to walk from the plane to the airport and climb a flight of stairs before Passport Control. This was a surprising simple process at both ends, Budapest and Larnaca. No one asked us why we entered the EU in April and stayed beyond our 90 days.

From the airport, there are two choices of transport ~ airport express which runs about $9 per person or a taxi, which was $15 total. When the driver asked if we were spending our entire stay at the Cactus Hotel, our destination, I became a little concerned. Banking on the fact we were only there for one night, it seemed we would be able to cope with whatever arose.

Blindly, I booked the room through, requesting one single and one double room. With the vouchers in hand showing the rooms were paid in full, we attempted checking in. Apparently, the Cactus Hotel had some prickly issues with the reservation, so there were not two rooms at the inn. Politely, the desk clerk asked that we follow her as she marched us across the street to the San Remo Hotel.

We were given our keys for two rooms and told where and when breakfast would be in the morning. The room was objectively clean, yet upon closer inspection, there were dirty corners in various places that were decades overdue for meeting with a good scrub brush. Strangely, the toilet was blue until a few flushings turned it to its normal white color. The downside of this was that the tank never stopped running, causing a bit of plumbing surgery to be done by our own Schmitz the plumber’s assistant.

We did find a delightful restaurant not far from the hotel on the waterside. We were the only patrons, but honestly, none of the surrounding establishments had any guests either. It was cold and blustery out. The walk back was quite chilly.

All night long, there was a boom-boom-boom sound that was mechanical, not musically instigated. Hence, the clock mocked me at 2am and teased that I would never get to sleep. We knew we were taking the 10am bus to Limassol and then to Paphos. Not even my Tylenol PM is cutting it tonight.

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One Turkey's Life Has Been Saved


What is wrong with this picture? It is close to 10am, our flight for Cyprus is today, but I have yet to get into the shower. Finally, after years of travel, we have a flight that does not leave at some ungodly hour. Past trips have departed as early as 5:30am, which basically doesn’t even qualify as a night’s sleep the day before. We need to be at the airport by 4am the earliest.

It is with great gratitude this flight doesn’t leave until 5:30pm. The taxi is arranged for a 3pm pick-up, getting us to the airport an unusual 2 hours early. For the first time in years, we are initially flying outside the Schengen Zone, so there will be Passport Control to navigate and adding to our airport time.

Starting with Thanksgiving 2002, we have celebrated the holiday with 6-8 others here in our home. We scrambled around to find a whole turkey; they are as rare as fur on a chicken. For a few years, we had an in with a US Embassy employee who would take pity on us and get one at their commissary. When they were transferred, we were relegated to rolling the dice and wishing for good fortune. It worked, but the effort was similar to an extreme sports competition.

Next was finding cranberries, since ready-made sauce was totally out of the question. When we first discovered them in 2005 at the great market, they were averaging $6 for a half pound. Gritting our teeth, we paid the price. It was similar to getting a bandage ripped off.

Never to be seen was pumpkin, at least the kind we find in cans in the US. Then again, it was not until 2010 that real pumpkins started sparsely appearing in large produce markets, but were even more readily available at florist shops, where they were sold as decoration. There are specialty grocery stores where you have to barter your kidney for a can of pumpkin or any other ingredient to make the holiday dinner seem most traditional. However, often we were fortunate with B and B guests who would generously be our mule for pumpkin, cranberries, or whatever other element was needed.

It is always at this time of year that we remember to give thanks for American ways which are infiltrating this part of Europe at last. Being an expat is wonderful most of the time, but it seems that changes in weather spark that autumn nostalgic feeling for the back home festive décor and traditions.

When we lived in the US, we hosted Thanksgiving dinner for all of our friends who did not have families close by to celebrate the holiday. Seven years of Thanksgiving feasts were spread over our dining room table in California. In 2001, we had already left the US, so we celebrated Thanksgiving at the Hard Rock Restaurant in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Nevertheless, from 2002 through 2013, we were the focal point for other Americans and some Hungarians who wished to share our tradition.

Ron suggested we bypass the holiday hunter/gather stress this year and vacation away. Cyprus is on our list of the 10 smallest countries in Europe, which we are checking off. The airfare was cheap enough, less than $130 each. Off we go…until Saturday.

This is an oldie, but goodie for Thanksgiving smiles. Click on the turkey or here. Wishing everyone who celebrates it, Happy Thanksgiving. I will be writing from Cyprus as I am able.

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Taking a Moment to Brag


A couple of days ago I checked the statistics of this blog. There are many times when I am pleasantly surprised by what I see, but this has totally blown me away.

The pageviews for last month were 10,057. The most I have reached prior to this was a little over 4,000. My own pageviews are not recorded, so I have not been able to plump up the numbers in any way, but never could I have done it to such an extreme.

The other impressive number is the all time history at 502,996. For a hobbyist blogger who is not entirely focused on a target audience, this is thrills me.

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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Ecuador Plans


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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Closing the Bedroom Door Won't Help


Remember the game still played by adults attempting to while away time with the childish distraction, “I spy with my little eye”? Well the game has gone rogue with modern technology, now including big and little brother, their sisters, and heck their entire family keeping a spying eye on the lookout. Heck, everyone and anyone with an Internet connection can spy with their little eye on ~ YOU!

In the US alone, there are over 4,591 surveillance cameras from nursery schools to private homes that at not secured with either an updated password from the default admin password or they have no password at all. If you go to Insecam, you can view thousands upon thousands of video camera shots from around the world. 

It is really creepy to see some unmade beds and children’s cribs in private homes. It would be worse if you were caught doing something meant to be private and um, not naked regardless of whether you were alone or with others.

These brands of cameras: CCTV cameras, AvTech DVRs, Hikvision DVRs, Foscam cameras, Panasonic cameras, and Linksys are the culprits. However, don’t blame the manufacturer or the camera. Three fingers point back to you for not changing the password, something that should be clearly explained in the manual.

The reason for the intrusion is because these cameras have an Internet Protocol (IP) built into them, allowing them to transmit and receive data via either a computer network or an Internet connection. They are found in all forms ranging from surveillance systems to baby monitors.

So the next time you are out at a party, checking your baby's status at home, stop to think about how many strangers are doing the same exact thing. Change your password now if you have not done so. If you lost your manual, Google is your friend. Like all things computer related, keep an eye out for software updates for your system.

Just a quick check of the site mentioned above, Hungary has 100 cameras to view. France has a whopping 2,058 surpassing The Netherlands with 1,576 and Great Britain at 584. Russia comes in last with a paltry 77. As if this would be a surprise!

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

I’m Not Straight, Why Should My Bacon Be?


Usually when I think I have come upon something really innovative, it turns out it has been around forever; it just has not filtered across the waters to reach me in Hungary. This may or may not be an exciting change for your breakfast.

Our friend Kat, lined the muffin molds of our silicone muffin pan with prosciutto ham, then added a piece of cherry tomato and a slice of green onion before filling the rest of the mold with eggs that had been scrambled. This baked for about 15 minutes and viola, we had mini-quiches.

Trying to expand on a theme, I tried lining my muffin molds with a strip of bacon by encircling it around the inside before filling the rest of the cup with my raw egg mixture. Knowing bacon would take longer to cook then the eggs, first I placed the molds in the oven for 10 minutes. Alas, the bacon refused to adhere to the sides of the circular shape, but went into the fetal position centering itself in the mold form. Back to the drawing board.

Next, after cutting slices of bacon in half, I neatly draped them across the circular indentations, plastering the fatty meat against the bottom and coming up the sides. Two half slices were perfect for creating a crisscross, lubricating the bottom sufficiently so the egg mixture would be prevented from sticking to the bottom. Again, the bacon needed a pre-cooking period of 10 minutes before adding eggs.

Apparently, pasting the bacon along the sides with its own oily lubricant did not persuade it to stay in place. Those little buggers just refused to remain straight. Who was I to force them to go against their nature? Undeterred, I proceeded with the plan. Scrambling 6 eggs together a splash of milk, a toss of grated Parmesan cheese, two tablespoons of flax seeds, and a spoonful of psyllium husk fiber, I was able top the bacon in 8 of the muffin cups. After baking them for 15 minutes, I had mini-quiches which soon deflated when they cooled. Still, the egg muffins easily released from the pan. They were firm and delicious, loaded with nutrients. Yum!

For those who forsake bacon as an evil fat, do some investigation into the numerous research studies in the harmful effects of carbohydrates from grains and the poison of sugars, before your shake your fingers.

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Saturday, November 15, 2014

Colorize The City


From the beginning of August to the end of September, Budapest was made even more beautiful than it has been for decades. Budapest it seems has a Színes Város Festival, an arts and music celebration featuring more than 100 programs, which we were not even aware of; however, street artists joined in the fun this year.

They produced ten new wall murals around the city, covering unsightly cement walls. I have not looked for all of them, but there are two on our block. You can find all of the murals and brief stories about the artists by clicking here.

Both of the Akácfa murals seem to be themed partially on rampage, yet the artists were from different countries. The “Chill vagy tombolás” (“Chill or rampage”) mural reminds me of E.T. The artist is from Poland. While the swallows on the opposite side of the building are entitled “Nyugalom, vagy tombolás” ("Calmness or rampage”). 

Rampage was not a theme to be followed; other murals do not have rampage assoications.

I have seen about 7 of the 10, only because I don't want to hunt them down. It is more fun to happen upon them as an unexpected surprise.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

Double Duty Jacket - Global Travel Clothing


It wasn’t too long ago when thoughts of going to the airport flying off to another destination filled me with anticipation and overwhelming excitement. Now, it fills me with dread and negative anticipation, created by visions of the airline check-in counter. Having to weigh my luggage and then trying to squeeze it into a metal template that I swear has been reduced by centimeters from the published dimensions of the airlines’ websites, all increases my agitata, which is followed by a sour stomach and heart palpitations. Agitata is from my Italian background.

Airlines today, utilize their marketing skills trying to convince us they are doing us the favor by limiting what we can carry-on or store in the hold. For a couple of years now, I have been looking at proposed solutions. One solution was to compact my packing to a carry-on only. A year after I paid a hefty price for the perfect carry-on that met many airline requirements; the airlines reduced the acceptable size one after the other like a row of dominoes.

Next to consider were clothes with multiple pockets. Multi-pocket pants seemed to be a viable alternative, filling up the pockets with cords, phone, and tablet, whatever can be stuffed in them. However, when it is your turn at the security line, you have to basically strip to get through the machinery. Then it takes forever to retrieve everything and hope you have not left something behind.

These pants are also a viable pickpocket risk. I had a credit card stolen from pants with a knee pocket that had a Velcro tab so efficient; it took me two hands to open. On an overcrowded trolley bus in Quito, some magician managed to extract my goods without arousing one nerve cell in my leg. Genius!

Various coats have passed through my browsing history and I have disregarded them one by one for various reasons. Those with too many pockets means many of the pockets are so small, they are useless. Some are so overpriced; you may as well pay the excess luggage fee for the next 2 years and call it quits. Just by chance, I had read a reader’s comment on a travel forum that mentioned Global Travel Clothing, so I took a look with a firm attitude that I would yet be disappointed again.

I looked at the jacket’s style and found its classic flair easy on the eyes. There was nothing about it that shouted “I am hiding the goodies under here.” There are no unsightly bulges. The number of pockets was a reasonable amount to be advantageous, yet not overwhelming. I liked the fact that it has an elastic waist band draw, which is another pickpocket deterrent. A bonus is the optional RFID protection sleeve, keeping your credit cards and/or your passport safe from being scanned from afar. This is a common tech trick for theft.

Perhaps the greatest selling point is the materials: cotton and polyester, which keeps it wrinkle free and is machine washable. No expensive trips to the dry cleaner for this jacket; this in itself is exciting. Jackets are custom made based on your measurements. Come January 2015, they will also be available in dark blue. It is too late for our needs, but perfect for others who don’t have an immediate need.

We are ordering one for Ron and me, so stay tuned for a report when they go come and then a third post of the jackets in action during our time in Ecuador.

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Sunday, November 09, 2014

A Lesson from the Ink Spots


There are many joys in planning a trip; however, as the song goes “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall”. Just the other day, I had mentioned to Ron how excited I was getting doing all of this preparation. Now that I am not teaching, there is time to focus on the particulars and share the research.

After successfully arranging two home exchanges in Cuenca, Ecuador to span our 6 week stay in that city, it seemed possible to find another exchange in Quito. It was not to be; either no one was interested or they had other plans for the time we needed. Disappointed, we turned to VRBO, AirBnB, and HouseTrip.

When Ron was busy doing other things of importance, I settled down to the computer to gather some information. On each of the sites, I favorite some potential rentals so the two of us could look at them with great scrutiny and a larger map than the sites provide. Foxy as they are, the sites do not show you exact addresses or even streets, but they place a large distinctive colored circle covering a wide area. Getting a sense of locations, we ruled out places along the way. For some of the places, it was easy to delete the ‘favorite’ bookmark, others I just didn’t bother.

We found a place that looked incredible, was within our price range, and the location was excellent. She was listed on one of the three sites I had checked. We sent her a request for a booking. Three days later, we had not heard, though the site claims an owner response within 24 hours.

As I was milling around, I noticed the same property on HouseTrip, so I sent another request. The rent was the same regardless, so it didn’t matter to me. Strangely enough, I received a confirmation of the booking within 12 hours. We were elated at our good fortune. I had a suspicion that the owner pays a smaller fee to HT for booking, so was ignoring the request from the other service. Within another couple of hours, the charge appeared on my credit card online account. Fair enough, I knew this would happen.

In a matter of hours, I received an e-mail from the property owner. She profusely apologized, but stated that the HT booking system made a mistake accepting our reservation without her agreement to it. Due to it being for March 2015, she said she could not plan that far in advance, so we should try again in January. We want to have things squared away and pay for the places we need to before we leave January 12th, so we will move on to alternate choices. None of them are on HouseTrip.

I sent HouseTrip messages explaining the situation via e-mail and Twitter. I find it very strange that they have this picture on the “Contact Us” page, yet I could not find a phone number for the service anywhere on the website. This is superimposed over the photo. “We are always there for you. Our multi-lingual service team of more than 100 people is ready to assist you, 24/7, 365 days a year.” My question is why do these people have earphones on if they are not answering phone calls? Do we care if they are used for their music listening pleasure?

Bravo! They responded with their need to confirm it with the owner. They did confirm it, BUT then took it upon themselves to send reservation requests to the 3 other places I had ‘favorited’. I had only saved them to show Ron, not because we were thrilled with them. So were they trying to get my $400 reallocated to another of their properties rather than crediting my charge card? There was informed consent communication about this, so I was ticked. I tweeted them and then wrote an e-mail. 

Here is the double BRAVO!! They wrote me back about two hours later, explained they put through a refund credit on my card and added a 10% voucher for the next use.

There will be a next time, because I like their layout, but this customer service, even without a phone number has cemented the deal.

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Friday, November 07, 2014

Saint Coemgen Joins the Banking Issue


Saint Coemgen states:The reason why only a drivers license was considered valid ID and not the passport is because they wanted to verify that you actually lived in the US State where you claimed having an address. Passports do not have address information so would not work. And for the same reason, even if you had a Hungarian drivers license, that would not have worked either. Long term US expats have the most difficulty when they keep ties to the US, especially in banking. The simple truth is the US Banking system is not international friendly for private bank holders that live abroad. If I want to do an international money transfer to a US bank account from my European account, I can go on-line and make the transfer with a web browser. Some US banks may allow such e-banking also, but my US bank never did (still doesn't today for personal accounts). If I wanted to do an international transfer of money from my US bank account I always had to go into the bank and fill out a paper form and sign it.

BN Follow-up: We have successfully had online banking with Bank of America since we left the US in 2001. They even send our paper statements to our Hungarian address. However, we did have an issue as Saint Coemgen stated regarding transferring money here. When we wanted to buy our apartment, they did insist we would have to come into a branch office to sign the paperwork. After a number of calls explaining why that would not work, they agreed to allow us to have the papers notarized at the US Embassy. That solved the problem. Since then, we have transferred money for a second apartment without a hassle.

Unfortunately, we no longer have a driver's license in any of the US states. We don't have one in any country of the world, either.
Back to the original issue, I thought the Plan B would be to use credit cards as ATM cards if emergency cash was needed because of ATM card theft. This is what I discovered.

If was ironic, but I called Bank of America to see if they had a pre-paid debit card. The rationale being  we have accounts there. The auto response telephone system asked for my ATM card number and stated “If you don’t have it handy, say ‘Wait’.” I did say "Wait" and went to look for it. I have not used it for about a year and I could not find it where I keep all the other cards I don’t want filling my wallet.

When I returned to the phone, there was an live agent on the line saying "Hello, hello" and I told her what happened. She asked if I needed my card canceled and have a new card issued. I said it seems that I did, even if this was not the reason for calling.

We never accomplished anything with the pre-paid card, but when I went back to the bedroom where I had spread all the cards over the bed, I spotted the B of A ATM card. In my memory it was still blue, but the latest version is red. Too late! She told me the card would be voided immediately if I said I needed a replacement.

I called Chase Visa to see what would happen IF I had a $500 credit on the card, but then took a cash advance. My thinking was to circumvent the system, but they had another brick wall in place. Even if I had OVERpaid the credit card by $500, when I took out cash from an ATM, there is a 3% or $10 fee, whichever is higher AND they assess interest at 19.28% for the next TWO billing cycles. I was furious!!

We have two accounts here in Hungary. One is strictly for the business and the other is our travel account. It is the travel account card that I am afraid to lose, thus wanting a back-up to have on hand. B of A charges $5 for every ATM withdrawal, so I was hoping to save some money. The other cards charge $2-3. My other concern is that if I had to report my Hungarian card lost or stolen, it would be impossible. Each time we go in the bank they have to get the one and only employee, who speaks English, away from whatever he does in the back area to come to help us. Calling the bank from abroad would be hell.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2014

No We Don't Want Your Ex-Pat Money


The trials and tribulations for those of us, who are not living in our home country, never seem to end. In preparation for going to Ecuador for 3 months stating January, I have been looking for a prepaid debit card. The last time we were in Ecuador, my credit card was stolen on our second day in the country, in Quito, while riding on a bus. It was not a great loss, primarily because only one card is in my pocket at any time. The rest are locked up. This does cause some inconvenience at times by having to return to the hotel for cash, the ATM card, or to call the credit card company to report the card stolen.

This last time, it was a Capitol One MasterCard stolen, which was particularly inconvenient as they would not send me a new card to Ecuador. As it turned out they wouldn’t send it to Hungary either. They would send the replacement to the US address associated with the card. This is my best friend, Daphnee’s home. If it were really needed, Daphnee would in turn need to FedEx it to me, but by the time it reached her, I would have been on my way back to Europe.

My major concern is losing our bank ATM card regardless of loss or theft. This would be a greater inconvenience with many businesses being on the cash only system throughout Ecuador, including a number of accommodations. Hence, a pre-paid credit card would have been an insurance measure for access to an ATM.

Sunday, I looked at our California bank’s site to see if they had any pre-paid credit card offering before moving on to each of my credit cards. I did a pass on American Express, knowing that there are usually limited businesses in Ecuador that accept AMEX. From our last trip, I knew the number of ATM machines tied to it would be negligible.

Four hours of researching the offerings of Visa and MasterCard sites, reading the fine print on over a dozen of those recommended by the parent credit card companies, I settled on 2 choices: Akimbo and  

First I applied for solely because they allowed a wide range of patterns for their card. This helps to identify it from the others, especially when in a rush to leave for the day out. It took a minute to fill out their form for instant approval, but I was denied. They could not verify my information. I tried a second time with the same results. In hindsight, this was for the best. Having tried to find consumer reviews for the company, all reviews were mommy bloggers who were gushing over the custom card they received. It looked like padded endorsements. They are slow to respond to Twitter questions and their phone number is only a recording that accepts messages. No human interaction!

Akimbo replied to an e-mail stating an account was possible if I had a US address and a US bank; there wouldn’t be a problem. I applied and received an e-mail explaining their need for a driver’s license and a recent bank statement. I sent a copy of my passport as I do not have a driver’s license in any country, but I did include the statement from Bank of America in CA.

Today, I received a denial e-mail. No driver’s license, no proper ID, no card.

Plan B: Call all of my current credit card companies and ask if I have a pin code set up on the card. If not, establish one. Then ask what the charge would be for an ATM withdrawal on the card if there were a credit on the account to cover it. This may be my own creation of a pre-paid card giving me ATM access if needed. It is also possible to transfer money to these cards as needed via online banking, thus keeping us from tying up money on a pre-paid card that may not be needed. A number of these cards have monthly fees in addition to other charges.

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Sunday, November 02, 2014

Differing Stories – Same Results


Okay, who went to the bathroom last?
It has peeved me to the extreme to read about the man who purposefully went to North Korea, leaving a bible behind. There are a couple of comments he made which tends to raise the issue of his mental state. This is not to say that he is mentally unbalanced, but most likely has some personality disorder.

Various reports that I have read from different sources report differing claims. Some say he left the bible in a nightclub while others are stating it was a fast food type restaurant. All seem to agree that he left it in the bathroom of whichever establishment it was, but some say under the trash container while it has also been ‘placed’ on the counter. Regardless, “Fowle said he left the Bible — with his name in it.” Um, can we see where this is going here?

Did this man run out of countries to travel to and only North Korea was left on the bucket list?

I have to wonder about the wife and kids he left behind? Did he consider at all the potential consequences of his actions? 

Six months is a long time for a family to be without a breadwinner, especially with three children. Where are the family values at play? 

Being a city employee, the city terminated his employment for his lengthy absence.  Plus it was rumored, they were really upset they didn't even get a postcard.

“Fowle said he knew there was a risk but believed it was worth taking to get the Bible into the hands of North Korean Christians.” Why on earth would he think that a Christian is going to rummage through the bathroom to find the abandoned bible? Knowing relatives of the Supreme leader have been executed, who would risk taking the bible with them?

Then there are the expenses placed on US taxpayers in order to negotiate his release, though it was finally done through the Swedish government. If a country is hostile and we have no diplomatic relations with them, you should even consider going for tourist reasons.

He was able to get his job back, but with restrictions on future travel. It will be too soon that junket is turned into a bestselling book and movie of the week. Maybe he took a page from the playbook of the Kardashians and Mama June. Stay tuned for Here Comes Something Fowle. 

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