Friday, February 28, 2014

What I Have Learned


One must learn something new each week if not each day to keep one’s mind fresh and active.
This is what I learned in the last week give or take a few days.

1.    If you have lived outside of the U.S. for more than 3 years, you are not eligible for a Fulbright.
2.    My Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 can be used for Skype calls and even video calls.
3.    Some of my friends will not or cannot figure out how to use Skype.
4.    The rest of my friends have not accepted my Skype invitation. :  (
5.    Budapest has the worst selection of men’s ties providing the most unfortunate experience of shopping for me, ever.
6.    Trying to plan group events when you are 5,030 miles away is nearly improbable.
7.    Booking a tour of the Iowa State Capitol guaranteeing 10 people is risky when you have 79 guests coming to your event.
8.    Dueling Pianos Restaurant will not hold a table for one minute past 6pm if your entire party is not present. It is totally impossible to guess how many people will want to join us when DP wants the reservation this week. Then again, it is even more difficult to trust that those who say they want to join in are going to be on time. Apparently, they fill up weeks in advance.
9.    If someone at Eötvös Loránd University can shift the blame to you, they will.
10.    My new friend Andi, the Fulbright professor has met two Hungarian former Eötvös Loránd University instructors who have quit due to the workload and lack of respect.

It was an enlightening week.

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Two Men Collared in Mall


Dress Shirts
Dress Shirts (Photo credit: Robert Sheie)
There are traces of my DNA and shoe prints at WestEnd City Center, Corvin Plaza, Allee, Mammut I and Mammut II. Last week I went to these malls doing the great hunt. Within each mall I walked slowly scouring every inch of the retail space visually ravishing one store at a time stalking any sign of dress shirts and ties. These are the last pieces needed for our special April day.

It was easy to immediately eliminate any store with that youthful sounding name, knowing they would not carry a dress shirt any sooner than they would have suspenders. Stores like Pull and Bear make you wonder what they could possibly stock, but certainly not dress shirts and ties.

When I did strike gold, most of the time it was only fool’s gold. It muddles my mind that the majority of dress shirts stores, who do in fact grace their shelves with them at all, only have plain white or shades of blue. Is this a retro thing or did we pass through a time warp back to the 50s?

After an exhaustive search, I found a shirt and tie for Ron. Not really knowing his size, I didn’t buy the shirt. It seemed only right that he have the option to view it before being forced into wearing it.

On Saturday, we went to a few men’s specialty shops including where I bought my suit. We knew already it was worthless to go to the store where Ron bought his. I had ravaged their shirt and tie offerings already and left dismally depressed. We retraced some of my steps at one mall and then on to a sixth mall: Aréna Plaza. This is the newest and largest mall, but quite honestly, when you really pay close attention to the retail space, it is not as large as it appears. It is only two floors. There is a vast amount of wasted space in the center of the upper floor. The lower floor has a good sized food court, which is not shopping area.

After bringing Ron to the chain store similar to the one where I had seen the shirt and tie, but in another mall, he tried on the shirt. He loved it. The collar rounds rather than points and the tie is just flashy enough to appeal to him. One less headache, but I still did not find a thing that floated my boat. Our friend Andi suggested I buy online and have it sent to her husband who was coming to visit, but that seemed extra risky. Colors online are never true.

Finally, we ventured into Peek & Cloppenburg, a store created by two Dutchmen in Hamburg, Germany. Go figure! They have one of the largest selections of men’s clothing in the area, outshining a number of the men’s specialty stores. Surprise, surprise! I found two different shirts that I liked.

Stores here have an interesting way to handle trying on shirts. Most dress shirts are properly folded, pinned, and bagged, so they don’t want wayward consumers to dishevel the merchandise. What they cleverly do is have one sample of the different styles in different sizes to be tried on. I am not certain, but the one shirt which had a well-known designer label had wayward shoulder seams. One side fit perfectly, while the other shoulder drooped like a hound dog’s eyes hanging partially down my arm. I bought the Calvin Klein, but I am still without a tie. The hunt continues.

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Short Term Summer Rental


Budapest summer short term rental Feri Flat - for July and August. Three night minimum.

Featured on House Hunter's International March 2013. A professional video of this 3 room apartment is on the site below.

Owned by the Frommer's guide "Budapest & the Best of Hungary" 7th and 8th editions.  


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Friday, February 21, 2014

Planning a Wedding


Planning a wedding is a bit like being Santa Claus. We have checked our guest list to see who has been naughty or nice. Initially, we asked people to respond by March 1st to the RSVP e-mail. Okay, it is not March 1st yet, but here is the deal. By now, everyone should have some idea whether or not they are coming. I sent this out as a reminder with the days getting shorter until March 1st even if the days are getting longer as we approach June 21st for the solstice. 

If they gave a clue, it would help in planning. The one ballroom only holds so many people, but the next ballroom up is $1,300 more.Today, the US Embassy really set my Italian temper on edge. We had to pay $150.00 to have three signatures notarized. It turned out that Iowa has a 3 day waiting period for licenses. We will not arrive 3 days early. The waiver of the 3 days that the state mentions, which costs an extra $5 has in fine print that you need a judge to sign the waiver. Since we are staying with Ron's friends, it was ludicrous to ask them to run us around to find a judge. Not just any judge could sign the paper, it had to be a family court judge and there were no guarantees. 

Plan B was to return to the courthouse on Monday morning, pick up the license, run to the minister's and have him sign it retroactively. Then the airline changed our flight from a 6pm departure to a 9am departure. That shot the opportunity all to hell.
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Cutting the Cord


Hindsight is 20/20. I was contacted by an editor of my former publisher to write current content for their new website. I was charged and over the top over the prospect. I thought after their sale, there would be nothing left but memories and books yellowing with age. Patiently, I waited for the contract.

In the meantime, we had scheduled our trip to Ghent and Brussels. I had mentioned it to my new editor, who in turn asked if I would be willing to do some reviews of Brussels while we were there. She was offering $200 for 15 reviews, mainly of restaurants. Explaining this was basically a long weekend get-away with most of the time in Ghent, I declined. Had I done the math then, I could have saved myself some time, energy and aggravation regarding the Budapest project. There was that niggling voice in the back of my mind whispering “Don’t do it. You will be sorry!” However, ego took over, prompting me to plunge forth.

When the contract arrived, it stipulated 80 reviews with a breakdown of hotels, restaurants, museums, and nightlife. Each category had a specific target, but the contract did say the number was the suggested quantity as long as the total was met. Communications with my editor assured me that the hotels should be middle class as they were avoiding the high end traveler. The pay was to be $1,100.

The contract was signed and submitted. My copy returned in the mail. A couple of weeks later, the editor informed me that it should have been 82 reviews with remuneration of $1,200. Two additional reviews meant nothing, no big deal.

Part of the contract stated I had to prove I had been to all the places reviewed and none of the content could be similar to the writing of the past. The deadline for submission was November 1, 2013 ‘time being of the essence’ according to the contract. Really plugging along all of August and the beginning of September, I wanted to get this off my plate before school started. I also shared with my editor that come December, I would be out the country for 7 weeks.

Early October, I submitted my work. I can honestly say the tone, the style and the writing was identical to what I had submitted to 6 different editors in the past. My current editor sent me an e-mail that crossed with my submission. Her mail stated that I shouldn’t worry about the deadline as they were swamped with submissions, causing them to be behind in editing. This had me wondering about the wording of the contract “time is of the essence…” A couple of weeks later, her next e-mail assured me she looked over the work and it was magnificent.

Right before we left on vacation, another voice was heard from, this time the owner of the site. She was not at all thrilled with my content and wanted higher end hotels. Our e-mail conversations were succinct, but hers were dripping in attitude. She suggested we revisit this when I returned from Central America.

During the time away with an Internet connection slower than a sloth, there was an e-mail from yet another editor. All authors were to upload all their materials into a program called Zoho. We were to look for an invitation. When we returned home, I still had not received the invitation and more than one request was forwarded to the person in charge. Then when I did some checking, the work could not be uploaded to Zoho, but had to be copy and pasted. This would take more than a few hours, time no author was being compensated for beyond the initial work. There was nothing in my original contract about Zoho.

This was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. It was easily recognizable that once the materials were in Zoho, anyone with an 8th grade education could do updates without ever having to pay an author again. Paying for the dining we did at the various restaurants cost us about $400. This would net me $800 for about 60 hours of research spent in museums, touring hotels, and checking out nightlife options. When I added in the writing time, it came to less than $5 an hour. Now they wanted major editing since the voice was not what the new editor envisioned AND I had to copy and paste the work into their program.

It was time to cut the cord. I did. There was a sense of relief in doing so. My time as a travel writer may have come to an end, I don’t know. However, I know that I am not going to be abused.
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Monday, February 17, 2014

Reader Feedback


Árpád Farkas has left a new comment on your post "Eight Weeks Without a Minute of Time":

I know that some people have their heart set on a digital dial, and that’s fine, but I must say I love the simplicity of an analog watch, which can be set very easily.

On a related note, I find it interesting that mobile phones have largely superseded wristwatches, which, on reflection, is a reverse path of development. Pocket watches, after all, used to be ubiquitous, but then a smart pilot (allegedly) came along and requested that a timepiece be strapped to his wrist, thereby making it possible to consult his watch in virtually any situation. The innovation literally proved handy. Now, however, watch-eschewing mobile users are back to square one: They don’t know what the time is unless they can fish the device out of their pockets and read the screen.

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Friday, February 14, 2014

Happy Valentine's Day!


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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Eight Weeks Without a Minute of Time


A few years ago, I replaced my inexpensive twenty year old Casio digital watch after it finally died. I replaced it with another Casio digital watch. This one has the ability to ping itself with a satellite three times a day via Fort Collins, CO.

When we went to Panama in December, I reset the watch to local time. It did not work. I pinged and pinged until I thought the battery would be on its last leg. For 8 weeks, I had to go without a watch at all. It went berserk. The year was set to 2005; the day was Sunday even when it was Wednesday. The time was hours off, regardless of how many buttons I pressed.

The instructions are kept in my Dropbox, accessible to me wherever I have an Internet connection. Reading, rereading, analyzing, deconstructing, and then rereading once again, was a total waste of time. Nothing worked including the section that stated “if this doesn’t work…” It didn’t!

After resigning myself to never having the time on hand again, Ron took the watch to the watch repair around the corner. After fifteen minutes, he had it fixed. Well, almost fixed. I use the 12-hour clock. He set it for the 24-hour clock. When I am feeling arithmetically challenged, the watch sits on my bed stand or I need a calculator close by. Otherwise, challenge my thinking to do the subtraction needed to figure out the time.

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Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The Creation of Custom Wedding Rings


Almost 20 years ago, Ron and I designed this ring. This was the rough sketch Ron drew for it. As it turned out at the time, when we approached a jeweler, we couldn't afford to have the rings made. 

When we decided it was time to make our relationship legal, thanks to the Iowa and US Supreme Courts, we approached another jeweler about creating these rings. This is diagram she created. The sad part of the story is that she wanted such an exorbitant amount of money to create these, we still could not afford them.

Through an intensive Internet search, I came across another custom jeweler and truly admired the rings he had created. Our thought was if we cannot get our rings made, there were unique alternatives as a secondary option. This is how we came upon Kelly Kerkes of Kerkes Goldworks in Evan, CO. Telephone: 970-218-5522.

After some discussion back and forth, we realized Kelly's fee was something we could afford and have our dream rings made. Kelly sent me these pictures as the creation process proceeds.

These symbols may confound all who look at them, but for us they are significant.

Kelly explains:
This is the set up and wax carving process.
The first few photos are on a wax "tube" that allows for some of the layout to be done in tandem. The tube also allows for some use of a small hand turned lathe to keep the shoulders of the rings squared to the inside. I use a wide range of small files and "chisels" to shape the
detail, just like a wood carver, but under magnification. Most of my hand tools are made from modified crochet hooks, as seen in the second image.

(It's okay to laugh, I get that from students who see my wax kit) Eventually, the models are cut from the tube and brushed with various nylon makeup brushes to give them a polish. Then a few rounds of touch ups. Lastly, the inside diameter/size are checked, and a little bevel is added to the inner lip.

More pics closer to finish. And "posed" for artistic consumption. Please let me know what you think, and try to remember there will be no translucency in metal, just contour and texture.

I will round the edges of the "shoulders" in the metal finishing phase. Also, the inner
lip gets smoothed out a great deal at that time.

These are ready to cast if you like what was done.

Kelly Kerkes of Kerkes Goldworks in Evan, CO. 
Telephone: 970-218-5522.
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Monday, February 03, 2014

Friendship is a Single Soul Dwelling in Two Bodies. Aristotle


For 11 years, we have cultivated a close relationship with the Hungarian Fulbright office. One of the first FB’ers we had met back in 2002 was Jennifer Norcross, an exchange teacher. She has continued to be a good friend ever since. From then on, every semester when there are Fulbright scholars, teachers, researchers, or students coming to Hungary, we have been provided with the list by the FB office so we can send out a welcome letter. For the first 3 years, the majority of the group had no or little connection with Hungary, so they depended on us for guidance in day to day planning. That has changed over time with many of the grantees having Hungarian roots, family here, or even own property here.

This semester, two FB’ers reached out. One was Dr. Janet Holmes who will be teaching with me at ELTE and the other was Dr. Andrea Mitnick.  Janet had a connection for an apartment as she is friends with a former FB’er, Dr. Karla Kelsey (who has also remained our friend). Andrea needed help with apartment hunting, but since she was coming at the end of January and we were going to be gone, I suggested she use our apartment until she found something suitable.

Over the course of months, we had a gadzillion e-mails back and forth. We knew immediately we would love each other as soon as we met. On Sunday, Andrea was here to greet us when we returned from our 50 days away from home. She had some basics on hand for us to survive our first day back. There were eggs, bread, butter, cereal and other things so that we did not have to run out immediately for food. She lovingly had a large pot of homemade soup ready for us. We sat and talked for some long, even though she has found an apartment, she did a sleepover.

In the morning, we picked up where we left off until I had to leave for school, but we know we will all see each other soon and often.

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A Very Expensive Blunder - When the Rat Race Traps You


Sometimes what you force yourself to believe is that you have thought things out carefully. Then you are surprised when this “best” thinking really goes haywire. Those are times when it goes wrong, derails, crashes, and makes you feel lucky to have financially survived at all.

When we were planning this trip, the airfare from Budapest was outrageous. I always look at alternate airports: Vienna, Munich, or other places where there are budget airline flights. Vienna is only 3 hours by train, Munich is 8. The best deal I could locate was from Munich which shaved about $300 from each of our plane tickets. MÁV, the Hungarian railroad has specials for €39 for a one-way fare to Munich. We booked one night at a hotel near the Munich airport where we would get their shuttle to the airport in the morning. So far so good.

What was not factored into the equation was getting to and from the hotel. Okay, it was a subway and then a bus ride, so not a great expense. Their courtesy airport shuttle was not a free service, so we paid something like €15 for the ride.

While still in Nicaragua, I got to thinking that after two long plane rides lasting over 13 hours, one night in Munich on the way home may not be sufficient. We opted for two. Now this is an interesting tidbit. Ron had used to book our Munich hotel for the first night and paid $77. When we decided to extend it to 2 nights, I did it directly with the hotel and paid $69.

Munich is behind the times with hotel services. WiFi cost $5.99 an hour or with a minor discount if you opted for the 7 or 24 hour plans. I refused to pay it mainly due to the fact that they had 2 different plans, one being faster than the other and of course more expensive. When I balked at reception, the young lady gave me codes to access the complimentary version. Needless to say, you type in the code, which releases a carrier pigeon to deliver your e-mails and a tar coated funnel that allows your incoming mail to enter your inbox. Every ten minutes, I was knocked off of the connection. Was I ticked!

Our first night we went to the Hofbrau Haus for a beer. Some costumed Bavarian men shared a table and chatted away in good English. One has a cousin in Erd. It was too noisy and busy to have dinner there. We ventured over to Paulaner im Tal where we had a great dinner, excellent service and delightful surroundings.

The next day, we went to the train station to book our tickets back to Budapest. When we bought the outgoing ticket they would not sell a return for 2014. We went thinking €39 each, €78 total, so I would pay cash. Up to this point, we had only used the credit card once the entire 7 weeks, a fact I was proud of accomplishing. We asked for our tickets and the ticket seller said €240. WHAT??? What happened to €39? Well that is if you buy 3 days in advance. If we could leave on Monday rather than Sunday, we could have snatched that fare. I had to go to school on Monday. I had taken off more time than anyone appreciated, so I wasn’t about to risk the ire with another day. We had to use the charge card again.

Our second night, we went to Hacker Pschorr Brauhaus for dinner. We have eaten here on prior trips for Munich and for what you get, the food is good, plentiful, and reasonable considering this is a major tourism city. We really like the atmosphere of the outdoor area, which they cover and heat in winter time.

Three things about our waitress set me off. First I ordered a beer from their menu. She shouted "What is that? I have never heard of that." Suddenly, I felt transported back to Budapest. I pointed to the German menu and she shrugged her shoulders and wrote it down.

When Ron later ordered a 2nd beer, he repeated which of the beers it was that he had the first time, requesting a second of the same. When she returned we immediately realized it was the wrong beer by the color. She took off so fast we did not bother to try to get her back to remedy it.

Finally, the icing on the cake was when I paid the bill. It came to €38.50. I gave her a €100 bill and 50 € cents. Rather than leave my currency on the table while she made change, she immediately put it into her wallet and then handed me a €10 note. She was ready to zip off, but I stopped her saying just a minute, I gave you a €100 note. Even if I had given her a €50, the change was still not correct. Without blinking an eye and without any remorse, she said "Oh, right!" She then proceeded to give me more change, but still shorted me €2. Before this, the €2 Euro was going to be part of a €6 tip, but then I changed my mind. I said what you shorted me is now your tip.

I had a strong suspicion that this may be a way for the staff to fleece the tourists. As we were leaving, she nodded at us as she was speaking to another waitress and they both started laughing.

As it turned out the ‘savings’ flying from Munich was reduced by transport there, hotel one night before, dinner at the hotel since it was in the middle of nowhere, transportation passes to get to the hotel, shuttle to the airport, transportation passes when we returned, two breakfasts and dinners out, two nights in a hotel, and a very expensive train ticket.

I think Budapest will be our airport of choice for the future.
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Sunday, February 02, 2014

A Weak Week in Panama City at the Tail End of Our Trip


We had some concerns about how to spend an additional week in Panama City. We really nailed it at the beginning of the trip. Panama City is not brimming with things to do in the way of culture. When I read in some travel site that there are so many things to do, you could cover a year doing one a day. Really, in what universe are they living in?

We had walked the miles long Malecón walkway with the bay on one side and Avenida Balboa on the other. We had not done the miles long causeway. Attempting to visit the Museum of Biodiversity situated on the causeway was a bust, it was closed for renovation. Of course we didn’t know this ahead of time, so we had walked miles already by the time we reached it. There was no shade during this part of the walk, so we were overheated and dehydrated.

A quarter of a mile later, we reached part of the causeway that runs along with water on either side. It is a giant boulevard with sidewalks on either side. Our timing was perfect as we were walking the causeway; we noticed some kayaks floating by. Then we realized there were hundreds of them following. We thought it may have been a race, so we were concerned when one tipped over. They had to right themselves and were bailing like machines. Fearful for their safety, later we found out that this was a practice session for a great race that was to take place after we were gone from the city. The tipped boat was purposeful as they need to show they can right the boat if they should tip over during the real race.

Farther down the causeway one can find an assortment of restaurants and cafés, which are way overpriced. We paid $5.50 for one regular coffee and a small cafe late that was more like cafe au lait. There are quad bikes and duo bikes for rent, but we just continued walking to the end where there is a "Duty Free" store. It was mobbed when we walked in. There must have been a ship in port. Twenty minutes later, we were the only people around who were not employees.

We tried getting a bus back to the downtown, but after a 30 minute wait and no bus, we were about to follow the locals example and opt for a taxi. Just as we decided to hail one, the bus came. At 25 cents a person, it was much cheaper.

Much of our last days were spent in malls. It was too hot to wander for the most part, but there was not that much to do either. We did return to old town. Ron went to the fish market and had his ceviche fix. I stood far afield; I cannot stand the smell. Really what we craved most was air conditioning.

Another day, we went to the 265-hectare Metropolitan National Park located within Panama City’s Ancon district. It is the only protected area within city boundaries in all of Central America. There are four different trails that are rated easy and moderate. The claim is that “it is home to dozens of species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and trees. With lookout points, four well-marked trails, a scenic road and a Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.” All I saw were trees and two huge fungi. At one point I did spot one hummingbird, but that was the extent of the sightings. I was hot and miserable by the end of the first hour, so I found a place to sit and let Ron wander on his own. Decades of smoking have taken their toll, so going up and down hills is not my thing, especially with sandals.

Leaving Panama we had our flight booked with United Airlines. When I printed out the boarding passes, I had double checked the seating. We had the seats I requested for both flights. We boarded the plane in Panama City. The layout of the plane is completely different than the layout on the United website. Though we had the seats requested it was a 3-3-3 configuration rather than 2-4-2. The flight from PTY (the airport code for Panama City) to EWR (Newark, NJ) was 5 hours and 14 minutes long. During this time, the ONLY thing that United provided was free soft drinks, coffee, or tea. If you wanted any food at all, you had to pay for it, starting at $7.50. Beer and alcohol started at $6.99 and went up from there. To add insult to injury, there were no monitors on the seat backs nor were there any that came down from the ceiling. There were no options for video or audio the entire flight.

Our connection flight was 8 hours and 10 minutes. We were fed a mediocre dinner, but the drink selection was as on the first flight. An hour before landing, we were provided with a simple ‘breakfast’. For someone who has flown for decades, it is difficult to wrap my head around the changes in the airlines.

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