Wednesday, July 30, 2014

It IS a Wonderful Life


For more than two decades, I have watched the movie It’s A Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart, usually right around Thanksgiving time. It is a sentimental movie, but the underlying theme is more than pertinent as a memory refresher for love and friendship. With each viewing, I fantasize about the movie ending similarly occurring in my life. Of course, tears stream down my eyes with each viewing. My romanticized thoughts don’t necessarily have people pouring money on a table to get me out of financial trouble, but pouring an abundance of appreciation.

Last night was my magical moment. One of my former students, Balázs Varga, invited us to try a new restaurant in City Park. Knowing that we were leaving Thursday for Spain, dining out was not high on the priority list. However, we had recruited him to do the ‘meet and greet’ with the Spanish ladies involved in our home exchange. Obligation prevented me from negating the offer.  We in turn extended the invite to some friends, one of which was also a former student, Szilvia Zörgő and our American friend Kat McFadden.

If I were still writing for Frommer’s, the restaurant would never get a nod for inclusion, but it was passable for a breezy light-hearted night with good people. It was rather surprising when the check came so soon after eating, not a typical Hungarian trait. One of our merry-makers, Szilvia suggested we return to the old ELTE campus at Ajtósi Dürer sor to see how the building had been converted into a pub. Strangely, her reasoning for visiting the campus never raised any red flags in my mind.  Coincidentally, I had met up with a student from my 2nd year of teaching; he initially wanted to meet in the garden area of the same campus. It was only a thunderstorm that thwarted that plan. I had not been back to the campus since we moved from there six years ago.

On the way to the campus, our friend Kat did an Oscar winning performance of needing a bathroom, which took us across City Park in the opposite direction of the campus. Later it was discovered this was a purposeful time waster for others to arrive where they needed to be. After finding a small dive with questionable bathroom sanitation, we stayed for another beer in payment for the use of the facilities. My desire to return to the campus was dwindling by the second. I wanted to please Szilvia, but Kat expressed such an intense interest in seeing where I once taught, refusing was not an option. Why didn’t it strike me as strange that Kat has been here over a year, but never cared before?

By this time, we were so far away, we waited for the bus. Much to Ron’s protests, but at my insistence we got off at the wrong stop, causing us to walk one additional bus stop. As we approached the building, Sylvia Finali another former student was standing outside texting on her phone. It was astounding to run into her, but she invited us in to join her gathering.

I was so overcome with the transformation of what once was the cafeteria and coffee shop it took more than some minutes to realize there was an extraordinarily large group of people in the direction we were headed, yet there was no smaller group for Sylvia to include us.  As we moved in closer, Aaron Hunter came into view. He was my first teaching partner at ELTE and I missed him dearly ever since he left. He stood up as did everyone else around him; each person started clapping. Talk about clueless! It still had not dawned on me what was happening. All the mystery books I read, I should be ashamed.

Aaron and Sylvia Finali devised this good-bye party in my honor. Secretly sending invitations through Facebook, they cast the net wide. Students from my first teaching year, 2002 were mingling with students as recent as 2014. They later apologized saying they found out too late that due to a Facebook glitch a number of people invited never actually received the invitation.
Needless to say, my sentimental nature took over and I started tearing up, not a shock to many of these dear people. Aaron gave a short speech extolling my teaching qualities that positively influenced his own teaching. Sylvia added to this from the students’ perspective. Then it was hug time. Being hug deficient, the evening replenished some of the lack. It was incredible.

Then there was the cake! Enormous, extraordinary, and finally delicious, each layer was a different flavor with the top one being sugar-free.
As I spoke with small groups, I had to eradicate traces of the rumor that we are moving back to the U.S. as well as other strings of untruths roaming around. This provided lively conversation hearing what others had heard and deconstructing it. In addition there was the opportunity to catch up with what they are doing in their lives.

So many students had wonderful anecdotes of things that I said or taught them that they have never forgotten. Best of all, there was an overwhelming sense that what I provided was supporting their self-worth and ability to succeed. It was exceptionally fulfilling to hear their stories of how their lives have been shaped since we last met. There was so much pride in all of their accomplishments. My favorite mantra “Think outside the box” was chanted too.

More than once, when a student thanked me for teaching them how to write, sharing how it has advanced their career, I had to add a quip of my own. There is a former student who reads my blog posts and then sends me the list of corrections for the mistakes I made. Some of this gang thought this was hilarious while others were appreciative that the table has turned, but they too still found the humor in it.

In retrospect, it boggles my mind how many people were in on this planning to get me to the venue, including Ron, yet I was oblivious. There was a definite Jimmy Stewart sensation or like Sally Fields is often misquoted from her Oscar speech “You like me! You really like me!”

As a last note, I have NEVER had a surprise party before in my life. What an amazing feeling. My heartfelt thanks to Aaron Hunter, Sylvia Finali, and all those who made this a lifetime achievement award evening.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

I Sense Debt Looming Around


Remember the movie The Sixth Sense (1999) when the kid’s classic line was “I see dead people”? When we were in Belize, on the way to the bank machine, a local was wearing a t-shirt that said “I See Debt People”. This struck me as so funny, I asked permission to take a photo.

In today’s news, neither the slogan nor the reality is very funny. A news article states that 1/3 of the American people are in debt delinquency. They don’t just owe money, but they owe so much that the account has been closed and sent to collection. I used to be a credit collection agent for Sears, Roebuck after graduating college. This is nasty stuff. 

It is incomprehensible to me how one-third of the US could be in this situation. Just to drive the point home, 77 million Americans each have debt in collection that averages to $5,200. Wowser! is an understatement!

More than 40% of the population of thirteen states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Nevada, New Mexico and West Virginia plus Washington, D.C. has debt in collection. We have friends in each of the italicized names. 

These statistics don't include the poor or the working poor who do not qualify for a credit file.

Those Americans who have a credit history, but are not in collection, average a total debt balance close to $54,000; much of this is attributed to a mortgage.

Hmm…this certainly explains why so many say they cannot afford to travel. My heart breaks for them, but hey, we are leaving for Cádiz, Spain on Thursday morning. 

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Monday, July 28, 2014

No Flying Pigs - No Flying Horses Either


Even if this URL includes flypgs, don’t mistake it for flying pigs. When pigs can fly, not one of them is going to get you from BUD to SAW. However, if you click here, you will find that Pegasus Airlines, a Turkish low cost carrier is now flying between Istanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen Airport (SAW) and Budapest (BUD).

In spite of the airline name Pegasus, the mythological flying horse, is conspicuously absent from their advertising. If you want to check out their website, click here.

Pegasus will be flying the BUD - SAW route 4 times a week, competing with Wizz Air’s daily trips. Alternatively, kind of, Turkish Airlines wins the competition; it flies BUD to IST (Istanbul Atatürk) 3 times daily.

Turkish Delight anyone? For me, I prefer good old NJ salt water taffy!

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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Corporations Move Out of the US - Goodbye Tax Base


As many political pundits say “What the American people need to know…” This is followed by whatever they believe the American people need to know or what they want the American people to believe. Today I read a news article in USA Today about Walgreens. I for one did not realize that Walgreens is the largest pharmaceutical chain the United States. The article explains that the Walgreens chain started in Dixon, Illinois. The company which now has 8,500 stores across the United States is making a decision about whether it should save billions of tax dollars by using a tax loophole called an inversion.

According to this article, the inversion loophole allows any company conducting its primary business in the United States to bypass major taxes by merging with or buying into another company located in a country with a lower tax base. Walgreens may be buying controlling stock in Alliance Boots, commonly known throughout the UK as Boots UK, a pharmacy and more. Even I have shopped there when in England, but had no idea that this was a Swiss owned company. Additionally, it seems strange to me that the Swiss would have a lower tax rate than the United States.

The article discusses the fact that people in Dixon, Illinois are more than upset about this potential move, but this addresses a larger issue. With so much political discussion about “Made in America”, bringing jobs home to the United States, and creating jobs, the unruly power of corporations allows them to manipulate all of these concepts by moving out of the United States further depleting the tax base.

Why isn’t somebody petitioning Congress to close this loophole? According to the article this year alone multiple companies are planning their moves for the same reason. All this, while Americans who live abroad are being monitored and harassed over every bank account that they hold in a foreign country, while these corporations are getting away with billions of dollars.

The story is here.

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Friday, July 25, 2014

Been Busy~


Lest anyone think that I have not been busy, thus ignoring my blogging regularly, it is untrue. Many of the things other than writing have been consuming my time. In addition to that, there hasn’t been much to inspire me to set the keyboard to type or even to put my headset on to speak to Dragon Naturally Speaking. The things that have been happening in my life have had questionable qualities as to whether they were worth writing about or not.

One day, as I was sitting at the kitchen table reading a book, someone rang the doorbell downstairs. When I answered it, all I heard was Hungarian. When I said I do not speak Hungarian, there was no English prompting me to open the door.

About five minutes later, our apartment door doorbell rang. Two men were standing there. They had ID tags hanging around their neck, but holding them up for inspection while saying something in Hungarian. For all I knew, they were Jehovah’s Witnesses; Mormons were ruled out due to their clothes. After saying I do not speak Hungarian yet again, I was ready to dismiss them and walk away. No, I did not want a super deal on Internet service, nor did I want to put a new roof on our apartment. Leave me alone!

Then one of them spoke in halting English. He told me that they were from the district office and were here to investigate our bed and breakfast. Any official in this country or anywhere I don’t speak the language, intimidates me. They spent over an hour asking questions, looking over our business corporation papers; all the time they were extremely pleasant. The end result was that even if our company has court ordered permission to rent out rooms, we never received direct permission from the district. The entire hour I sweat through this non-hostile investigation, while Ron was napping in the next room. I insisted he find a translator to accompany him to the district to get this cleared up on the following Monday. All through the weekend I mulled over and worried about the consequences; though the gentlemen here were extremely kind and considerate could we expect the same from their colleagues?

Prior to and continuing during this same week, I was in the middle of a battle with the university. The Dutch Department hired a new lector was to start in September. Due to the poor wages that lectors receive, the university tries to supplement it by providing housing. Their list of available housing list was depleted; no offerings were to be had. Instead the university housing department decided to offer him 50,000 forints to pay towards rent. It was their expectation that this was all he would have to pay for rent. However this is totally unrealistic in today’s real estate market.

The secretary in my department believed that since I had quit, my apartment would be available. She did not realize that we owned it with intentions to stay, while continuing to live in this apartment. I corrected her mistake, but also informed her of our other apartment. Then after conferring with the head of the Dutch Department, they gave the information to Arnold their new hire.

The Feri Place apartment more than appealed to Arnold. Our place easily rents for 85,000 forints. We have had multiple offers each time it becomes available as a long term rental. Looking through the advertisements on Facebook we can probably even get more. However, we have stayed with 85,000 forints for the last two years. The tenant has to pay their own utilities and the building fees, but we pay the water bill as well as the Wi-Fi.

Arnold realized this was an excellent deal, even more so after seeing the apartment. He saw the video on our website, but when we took him there to see it in person, he was ecstatic. He said he couldn’t wait to tell his friends. After showing them the video on our website, they said we probably only videotaped the good parts ignoring the bad. He couldn’t wait to tell them that there were only good parts. He wanted to move immediately, but of course that was not possible. He will move in on August 19.

The head of the housing department didn’t think it was ethical that I should collect rent for another lector when the university had been contributing to my rent in the past. I turned it over to the head of the Dutch Department to fight the battle, stating that I had given up; it was out of my hands. It finally worked out with all the papers signed. Arnold has signed his lease so we are good to go.

The deciding factor was when the Dutch Department called around to various apartments finding no one wanted to rent to the university. There were a couple of exceptions, but the apartments were so horrid that the head of the Dutch Department would not allow any of their employees to live in them.

Arnold will pay 35,000 forints plus utilities with common costs. The university will pay 50,000 forints. He recently sent me an email stating he was informed his contract can be extended six times bringing him to the year 2020; he continued to say this could be good news for our rental.

While all this was happening my doctor decides I need to go for my annual bloodwork and urine test. I had labored over this point for a couple of weeks when I finally decided to go July 1st. What I didn’t realize was that all medical facilities are closed on July 1st.  It’s Semmelweis day, apparently making this is a medical holiday. I had strategically planned for this day in particular, because it was Ron’s birthday. With my bloodwork out of the way I could celebrate worry-free when we had his beer party at the beer pub.

To prepare, I had abstained from all alcohol the entire weekend, I was religiously adherent to a diabetic diet, and even threw in 30 minutes of exercise each day. I was all set for bloodwork, but the best laid plans of mice and men went down the drain. It took me another two weeks to recapture the motivation to recreate the pre-bloodwork routine. Once the bloodwork was out of the way, it then took me another week plus before I went to the doctor for the results. It was a great relief when he said my tests came back like a normal healthy human being. There was no other discussion or anything else that needed a follow-up; he seemed to be perfectly happy with the results. We celebrated with beer that night.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Wizz Air Up for Grabs?


For some inexplicable reason, every time I write about Wizz Airlines, I feel a need to use the urinal shortly thereafter. Well, I may cut this short to do just that, because Wizz is in the news more than once this week.

First and most horrifying is that KLM-Air France is bidding to take over Wizz Air, which seems that eventually it will no longer be a budget airline. That said, there are so many add-ons to the fees now, it almost is not a budget airline any longer. Air France has HOP, a budget subsidiary. I wonder if they will be combined.

Wizz cropped up in the news again with an announcement that it will start a Budapest - Kutaisi route with twice weekly service. If you are scratching your head wondering where Kutaisi is, it is in Georgia, the country. 

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Monday, July 14, 2014

Aussie Aussomeness


Yesterday, I arrived home to get an inquiry about accommodating a couple from Australia. Having hosted numerous Aussie and Kiwi guests in the past, this was not earthshaking news. What Susan Packer added to her note was quite awesome. She read about us in the Travel section of the local newspaper. This is what she included:

“The article was a full page feature in the weekend Travel section of The Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne's Age newspapers, so it's about the biggest travel-related coverage that you can get in Australia!”

Needless to say, it brought tears to my eyes that we are continuing to receive far flung coverage. We have had fabulous reviews written about us in the largest travel magazine in Africa, based in South Africa years ago. Now our coverage has spread to another continent.

This is the quote from the article “Buda B&B (; $65 for two, $21 supplement for one-night stays) spruiks itself as "The Best in Pest"; the owners have an incredible knowledge of the city.”

The online article from the Melbourne's Age newspapers is here. You can read all of their other recommendations.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Not Free for You


I just read a short article about Italy changing its museums pricing policy. As of July 1, 2015 free admission to museums will be restricted only to students under 18 and teachers (no age restrictions offered). Those who fall within the ages 18-25 will be receive discounted admission, but there are no details what the discount will be.

Those over 65, both Italian and foreigners will no longer receive free admission after July 1, 2015, with the exception of the first Sunday of each month. It seems the Minister responsible read the data that showed discounted or free admissions were applicable to more than a third of the population, both local and foreign. Big bucks, er… euros being lost there.

I had to chuckle at this news. A few years back, Ron and I were at Pompeii. When I went to buy tickets, there was a sign offering free admission to teachers. When I asked for my discount, I was asked for a teacher ID. I had two with me; one ID was the STA International Teacher ID Card, the other was my ID card from my university.

The ticket seller took my International Teacher ID Card and threw it back at me saying it was not acceptable. Being nonplussed, I handed over my university ID card. He looked at it and said “The discount is only for EU countries.” Suppressing laughter mixed with anger, I shouted through the PlexiglasHungary IS in the EU as of 2004!” In his lackadaisical Italian manner of not giving a damn, he then countered with “Well then it is only for elementary school teachers.” That ended the argument, but I did secure a discount on Ron’s admission.

End note: As an instructor both in CA and here in Hungary, I have never once received any discount using my STA International Teacher ID Card. It was wasted money! 

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Cash & Card: Dealing With Money While Traveling by Susie Staff


I am happy to say that today's post has been contributed by a guest travel writer. Susie Staff asked if I would consider a piece she has written, so here it is.

Susie Staff contributed:
Some people have travelled the world, from country to country, by cruise or airplane or train; others are only just taking their first steps out of their own country, uncertain of everything on this first time in a foreign land. However, it doesn’t matter if you’re a world adventurer or travelling for the first time - everyone always worries about dealing with money in a new country. Once upon a time the best or only option was traveller’s cheques, along with all their associated costs, frustrations, and the hassle of spending time on your holiday trying to find a place to cash them (or, god forbid, losing them). International banking, debit cards, and credit cards have taken the place of traveller’s cheques in most places, but there are still reasons for travellers to worry about whether or not they’ll be able to access their funds. Some credit cards are rarely accepted in some countries or cities, cash is king in some places but not others, and there’s always the spectre of thieves to keep travellers holding tight to their wallets. Luckily, by taking a few simple steps, it’s easy to ensure you’re never short on funds while you live your dream vacation.

Navigating Exchange Rates
The first choice you have to make when it comes to travel money is deciding whether to take advantage of a low pre-trip exchange rate, or rolling the dice and choosing to take the exchange rates as they come in return for the convenience of being able to take money out only when necessary on your trip. Even the experts can be caught off guard by the confusing fluctuations of exchange rates, which can vary wildly based on small and seemingly insignificant details. However, no matter which decision you make on whether to take out money before or during your trip, you can still make sure you get the best deal for your exchange. At home, your bank may have the best deal for withdrawals in foreign tender, although larger amounts are unwieldy to travel with and may require your bank to order in your money ahead of time. Once at your destination, your choices are primarily banks or specialised exchange centres - each has its own negatives and positives, so make sure to do your research (either online or in person).

Official and in-house exchange rates should be clearly posted, in addition to any going fees. If your bank has a branch in the region you may be able to get a better deal there, but it depends on the branch’s relationship to your home bank. As a rule, avoid cash points unless necessary - these can have steep fees, either as a rule or due to your own bank’s fees - and airport foreign exchange booths, which often have skewed exchange rates and very high fees.

Credit Or Cash
It is vital to always carry enough cash on you to get safely back to your hotel if your cards are lost or stolen (preferably in a place other than where you keep your cards!). Beyond that, how much cash you need to carry on you is dependent on your destination and what you plan to do. Even in large cities many places have minimum spends for the use of credit cards, or may not accept cards at all; likewise, public transit, where available, used to depend on cash. (This has changed with the slow move towards transit cards like London’s Oyster Card.)

When it comes to credit cards, Visa and Mastercard are the most widely accepted, followed by American Express, Diners Club, and similar cards. If your card is one of these, be sure to bring another method of payment along. Furthermore, make sure ahead of time that your PIN and card are acceptable at your destination. Chipped cards are quickly becoming the standard, and four-digit PINs are the most commonly accepted varieties, but check to ensure that you’ll be able to use your card before you plan to depend on it. As always, use common sense with both cash and cards - look for modified credit and debit machines and refuse to use them, do what you can to reduce your attractiveness to thieves, cover your card while using your PIN, and don’t carry large amounts of cash on your person. With these tips, you’ll be saving plenty, and you don’t want to donate it to a thief.

Thank you Susie!

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Sunday, July 06, 2014

An Almost Tearful Goodbye


Two years ago short of a month, Jamie and Bill Hoversen arrived in Budapest. After doing a meet and greet with dozens of Fulbrighters over the past 12 years, when I went to their aid getting these things out of the taxi, I went into full stomach wrenching laughing spasms. When we left the US with the intent on traveling for a year, we had one suitcase each and one backpack between us. When I was able to catch my breath, they both took my guffaws in stride.

With all of their things sitting in the bedroom of their new temporary home, Feri Place, we gave them a walking tour of the neighborhood. As many times as we have toured people around, it still is exciting to share this gorgeous city with someone for their first time. It feels like it was last week.

In the beginning of their great adventure, Jamie was a Fulbrighter on a student grant, which included her teaching some classes at ELTE in my journalism program, but she also worked part-time for the Fulbright office counseling students. Bill found a teaching job with a local high school. 

At the end of Jamie's Fulbright grant, they decided to stay another year. Bill's school was thrilled to have him stay on. Jamie found work with an educational component through the Aquincum Museum and continued part-time at the Fulbright office. We were delighted to have the apartment filled for another year.

Being the adventurers that they are, they covered a tremendous amount of territory during their time. They are fearless travelers, not having extensive bus rides impede their discovering destinations where cheap airfares don't exist. Just getting a tiny review of their wanderings, it is clear they should write a budget manual for those that follow them. We have been envious more than once, but for an extended period on a bus, I would need to be shot with a tranquilizer gun. If not for that, we could replicate their journeying.

Today, we went to pick up the keys to the apartment. As true explorers, they are not leaving Europe just yet, but returning to Riga and then busing to a national park outside the city. July 16th they will be reacquainted with US life for a short time before heading off to China to teach.

They have been great tenants and though we did not see much of them, we will miss knowing they are around. "Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say goodnight till it be morrow." Though there will be no morrow for us with them, we wish them the best. They have been inspirational.

After a couple of summer guests visit Feri Place, our new tenant Arnold from The Netherlands will be moving in around August 20th. He will be teaching full-time in the Dutch department at ELTE. We are looking forward to welcoming him and giving him the extended neighborhood tour.

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Friday, July 04, 2014

For Sale - One American Dream


There has been some past harping on this topic in the past, but then again, new information comes to light, so I feel obligated to touch on it again. Oh, and yes, today is Independence Day in the USA, but not here in Hungary. Happy 4th to all Americans - those by birth or those by choice.

Today in USA today, an article addressed the American Dream as costing $130,000 a year. Can you afford it? I know there is no way in hell I could. Okay, to be fair, this is for a family of four, but let's do a little breakdown with their figures.

$17,062 - Median housing expenses - Now you may say this is cheaper for one or two, but no necessarily depending on where you live. A single person living in NYC could easily spend more just living without 4 roommates. They didn't mention taxes or housing insurance.

$12,659 - Groceries - This seems low to me. Ron and I were spending as much as this back in 2001 in the Central Valley of California. Had we lived in someplace more alluring, the cost would have doubled. We didn't eat high on the hog either. 

$11,039 - Car expenses - Another category that strikes me as low ball. They based this on one 4 WD SUV. For a family of four, you would need at least 2 cars. In CA, your car registration is based on the value of your car. One year, my registration alone was over $2,500. Add to that gas, maintenance, highway tolls, and so on, It is adding up.

$9,144 - Healthcare - We were healthy when living in the US, but Ron did have kidney stone attacks 3 times, causing him to spend a night in the hospital more than one. He also had a sleep study done. Between us, between paying co-pays, minor prescriptions on occasion and our share of medical insurance premiums, we came up to about $9,000 without two additions.

$4,000 - Educational expense - What world do these researchers live in? After public school, there are no free rides. The average tuition for universities in the US is $33,716 a year, but then you add on other fees, books, meals, and so on. My doctorate degree started at $60,000 and the interest is pushing it to over $80,000.

$2,631 - Apparel - Perhaps 2 people could get by on this if they never bought new things, but a family of 4? Hardly!

$1,956 - Home utilities - They include gas and electric in this. When we were in CA, our electric ran $100-160.00 a month. Anyone who knows me, knows I am continually shutting off anything that is not in use. Gas ran about $100 a month for the water heater and dryer. That adds up to $2,400 a year if you use the low end of each, but doesn't include water, sewer, or garbage.

The other sub-groups are "Extras", "Taxes & Savings", before finally giving you their faulty calculation of sticker shock. You can read the article here with eyes wide open.

If you choose not to read the article, know that the term The American Dream was coined in the 1931 book Epic of America by historian James Truslow Adams.

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Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Happy Beerday to Ron


Yesterday was Ron's birthday. Rather than have a cake and ice cream, I decided to do what most people would like better, go drink beer.

There is a great beer ruins pub that we discovered, where they generally have 15-20 beers on tap at any given time. Best yet, the types rotate, so you can frequent the place and try new beers all the time.

I had invited a small group who I knew would not be on Facebook, but also sent a general invite to those on Facebook as well. We were lucky to get a good table, for the 7 of us who made it. It turned out to be a good number but both Szilvia and Sylvia were missed. 

A good time was had by all, especially the birthday man who left the pub walking a lot less steadily then when he entered. 

Address: Tűzoltó utca 22
Hours: Monday to Sunday 3pm to 3am.
Élesztő, the newest ruins pub, is dedicated to craft beer. For starters, you can find 17 craft beers on tap. Unusual beer offerings include millet, blueberry, cherry, elderberry, and 'Korty', a unique choice of Hungarian beer made with fermented Tokaji Aszú.

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