Sunday, November 26, 2006
Flew out butt ass early on Thursday morn. Had purchased a return train ticket to the airport but apparently the return is only good if you are return the same day. What the hell point is that? Ahh well. The flight was really easy. Wizzair is probably the nicest value carrier I have been on out here. It reminds me a bit of Jet Blue (but no TVs).
The hotel was a bit less central than I would have preferred. I took a lastminute.com deal. In retrospect, the deal was pretty bogus. I could have done much better having just bought a flight and hotel. Ahh well, it was clean and the goulash was very good.
After I checked in to the hotel, I gathered a bunch of brochures and started leafing through my options. One of the guided tours offered a free pickup. I figured this would be a good way to get into town and maybe I would meet some people. I went down to make reservations through the hotel and got some lunch. I had searched and asked around for a Thanksgiving dinner in Budapest but I was entirely unsuccessful. Instead I had goulash and the only turkey thing on the menu, Turkey Kiev. The goulash was excellent. The turkey kiev, well, I guess I have been spoiled by Anne’s chicken kiev, this didn’t hold a candle to hers. Finished up and the tour guy picked me up.
The tour was a bit more intimate than I had expected. Basically, it was me, an older woman from California and an older couple from Greece in the guide’s minivan. Ahh well, the guide was obviously a student of history and he took us to the major spots.
The Magyars are still very concerned about losing most of their population in 1920 (Magyar being the local name for what we call Hungary). According to the guide and most of the little blurbs I read, they lost 70% of their land and population under the Treaty of Trianon. As far as I can tell, after WW1 the state was a battle ground between various influences. The communists took power but lost a war to Romania. This led to the treaty in which they lost so much of their state.
I think part of the reason this is so prevalent in the Magyaran psyche is that they were in something of a Golden age in the 19th century. WWI was the start of a very rough period for Magyar. As the guide put it, they “had the money and interest to build art into their structures”. This is seen in the many, many great ornate buildings around Budapest. After WWII they were under the Soviet influence and that also shows heavily. From the general feeling of fear of the police to the break up of many of the great old houses in to apartments to the Soviet looking transportation and buildings, the legacy of communism is still very present. The first free elections were held in Hungary in 1990 over a state that was declared independent as of late 1989. They recently (2004) joined the EU.
One lament of Hungary is the trend to bring all the EU states under the EU Union. As one local argued, they were well on their way to that in the 19th century w/ a few states holding vast amounts of land, Hungary being one of them. This was at the height of their power but the trend then was to small independent states. Now as it trends back towards unionization, Hungary is beaten down from the communist era and is not playing from the position of power they once had.
One of the interesting things on the tour was a castle that was built in 1896 for the 1000 year anniversary of the founding of Hungary. The castle was built in three styles to pay respect to the three major architectural styles, gothic, baroque and Romanesque (I think). The interesting thing was that they originally built it out of paper and wood as it was only expected to only stand for the 1 anniversary year. It was so popular though, that they later rebuilt it out of stone.
Also remarkable, was just how many public statues they had. Most EU cities have a bunch but they had a lot even for EU standards. What makes this even more impressive, is that after the fall of communism, they took all the communist statues to a park outside of the city. I didn’t make it out to the park but even w/o the communist statues, there were great figures around every corner.
The tour left us in downtown Pest (pronounced Pesht, town is actually two villages across the river from each other, Buda and Pest). The last thing the tour guide pointed out was the First McDonalds in the eastern block. I went in but couldn’t bring myself to eat anything out of a McDonalds when there was local food to be had. This was also the first McD’s I have seen w/ a McCafe attached. A somewhat separate area that is laid out like a coffee shop, apparently Ronald is trying to take on the Starbucks crowd.
Wandered through shopping district that could have been in any town in the western world. Foot Locker and Versace. Pfft. Got dinner at a weird piano bar w/ more good Goulash and similar looking foods.
Next day started w/ wandering through a random street market and finding a large market building. A huge building, probably an old train station was a large farmers market. Upstairs was some more good golashy stuff. I wanted to buy some random liquors for presents but I didn’t know what any of the local liquors were.
To rectify this ignorance, I stopped at a small bar down a side street and decided to do a tour. Inicum is a non sweetened version of jaeger. It was nearly drinkable but just not quite. Palinka is basically the Hungarian version of Grappa though it can be made out of various fruits. The rumor is that it is better when it is homemade. It would have to be. Like grappa, it is basically drinking ethanol. Of the set of local liquors only Humberto (or similar) was drinkable. That was basically a schnapps. The next thing I saw was Absynthe. I ordered a round and took advantage of the handy internet terminal to look up more info on it.
As far as I can tell, the active ingredient in absinthe (other than alcohol) is thujone. This is the compound that is found in the wormwood and is generally thought to be the “good part”. There is some debate on this. EU law currently allows up to 25mg/kg of thujone in beverages containing a certain level of alcohol. The older stuff was once thought to have as much as 360 mg/kg but more recent tests have shown the levels to be as low as 4-6mg/kg. Apparently gas chromatography tests give falsely high readings as other chemicals appear to be thujone. An interesting thing to note is that, according to the wiki, there is no evidence that thujone causes hallucinations. Epilepsy, yes, hallucinations, no.
I wandered back to Buda over the Chain Bridge (the first bridge joining the two towns) and stopped at the famous Gellert Baths. There has been a recorded history in this area since AD 86 when the Romans built a town on the site of an earlier Celtic settlement. This town, Aquinicum, was famous for its mineral spas and the tradition still exists today. There are many spas in Hungary, according to my guide of the day before; it isn’t possible to be anywhere in Hungary without being w/I 40-50km from a spa. This bath house was segregated men from women. I had brought a bathing suit so I didn’t need to avail myself of the loin clothes that they provided. Most of the locals seemed to just use them. It was really just a cloth to hang in front w/ a string to tie it around your waist. Think of a bunch of large eastern European men lounging in a couple of large house sized pools. Set this in a large tiled cave and you are getting close. The water wasn’t nearly as hot as I thought it would be. 36 deg C and 38 deg C in the two pools. Apparently there is a coed swimming pool but I didn’t see it. One guy was in their reading (good book too, the new Hobb). I could see myself spending some time in there reading. Sitting by myself wasn’t too entertaining after the first couple of minutes.
The steam room was something else. What a steam room should be. Super intense, so thick w/ steam you couldn’t see more than a couple of feet. Just the right touch of that mentholated smell to clear your sinuses. I could only take a few minutes of it. My hair was hot, nearly burning to the touch. Those steam rooms in the gyms I have been to are as man made snow to this Rockies powder. Same idea just not done nearly as well.
To complete the experience, I got a massage. 30 mins for 3500 florint (about 17 bucks). Again, this was a bit odd. A bunch of naked men being rubbed down all over a hall. A large-gutted Hungarian guy was my masseuse. I hadn’t had a Hungarian massage before. Not bad. He even through in the chiropractic next break that I have been needing. I could get used to cheap good massages. I assume I could find a more relaxing setting.
Stopped at the hotel afterwards to drop of some Christmas purchases and get ready to hit the town for the night. I’ll just lay down for a second. I woke up a couple hours later w/ all motivation to go hit the town drained out of me. Meh, I’ll try the nightlife some other time.
Next day, I planned to go to the art museum and then find a café to do some writing. The subway here is no more reliable on weekends than anywhere else apparently. They kicked us all off halfway to my destination. Apparently this is the 3rd oldest subway line in the world behind London and New York. I wandered around the Oktogon neighborhood a bit as it looked a bit more like a locals shopping area. I couldn’t find anything that resembled a coffee shop. This brought about two firsts for me. One was that I actually wanted to find a starbucks. The second was that this was the first country I have been in that didn’t have a starbucks. Figures.
Made it to the art museum for the Carvaggio exhibit. The exhibit was really good. About half of the rest of the museum was good. The other half was Jesus art or art that’s only redeeming value is it is about the bible. Completely uninteresting to me. I don’t mind Bible art (especially some of the non Jesus tales) but the art has to be interesting as well as being about the Bible. One unfortunate thing was that they were setting up for a big party/production in a couple of rooms which looked to have the renaissance art that I like. Ahh well, still a nice time.
Stopped at the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath to see the local bathing experience. Unfortunately, I was running low on florint and they only took cards for the entrance. I squeezed out enough for a towel and a rental suit (no loin cloths here) but I couldn’t afford a safe. I had my laptop, all my electronics and my passport w/ me. I locked them in a mini locker thing but I had trouble relaxing. This bath would have been much nicer. For one it is coed. They also had chess sets set up that people could play in the baths. I hung out near an unused one hoping to get a game but the first people that came to play were a couple. Not a whole lot of English going on around here. I looked into getting a massage but there was not availability for another half hour and I was twitching too much about my passport to relax. Ahh well… I could see this being a good thing for groups of friends to hit the baths on their way out for the night or after a day of play. Kind of like having mini beaches w/ good facilities everywhere.
Went to try to figure out the “Replacement” bus service and ran into two American girls volunteering w/ (different villages of) gypsies through their church. They were on their way to a Christmas bazaar thing so I joined up w/ them and we found a great little Christmas village w/ traditional bands playing and many craft stalls. Mmmm and hot mulled wine. We wandered around for awhile and I got a bunch more Christmas shopping done.
Afterwards, they went back to their hosts for dinner and I found some more good Hungarian food. The food is really good here. A bit salty sometimes but in general excellent. A lot of stews w/ hot paprika tastes and good bread. Yummm….
Plane was leaving at 6am the next morn which meant getting up at 4 so I headed back to the hotel after a fairly successful Central EU trip. I think I want to explore this Eastern block more. I gotta look into Transylvania next. Wizzair goes there…
What better excuse to get my ass to Wales than to join a gathering of the Jones Clan? A lady from work dropped a newspaper article on my desk some weeks before explaining that they were holding the Jones, Jones, Jones Extravaganza. A gathering of Jones’s from around the globe in an attempt to beat a Swiss record held by a group of Norbergs. They managed to gather 583 Norbergs for a festival a couple years ago. This created and set the Guinness record for the largest gathering of people with the same last name. Well, the Norbergs’ time had come; no longer could we sit idly by watching them bask in their record holding glory. Or something….
After kicking around the idea for a couple months, I realized that Wales was only a two hour train ride. Well shit, I have gone to Poughkeepsie for less. I caught a 3pm train through the English countryside. The trains really are a nice way to travel. It was a very pleasant, easy ride to Cardiff through rolling green hills.
After checking into a very cool, modern Novotel, I caught a cab to the Millennium Center for the show. It was pretty easy to meet people, easy opener being, “So, you’re a Jones, huh?” I met a lady who was even a Jones2. A Jones who had married a Jones. I ended up hanging out w/ a couple of guys, Evan, a Tennessean going to school in Glasgow and Collin, a local Cardiffian. Odd as this may sound, it was nice to have somebody understand some of the annoyances of being a Jones. We all gathered around and starting bitching about the various pop culture references, “I’m Jonesing for something”, “Mr. Jones and me”, etc… Also odd, as Evan put it, was that “looking around for girls here feels almost incestuous.”
We had assigned seating for the show so we made our way to our seats. The show was presented by Jones’s and all the performers were Jones’s. At least 50-70% of the show was in Welsh (the rest in English). That was actually pretty annoying. They made a big deal about how many Jones’s from here or there, farthest away was probably New Zealand. The most spoken language there was definitely English. Really, who out side of Wales speaks that funking guttural Welsh? It seemed a bit odd to invite people from around the world and then snub them by speaking a local language. Ahh well… the performances were fine, nobody I had heard of (until the last one but more on that later). Mostly classical though they through in some comedy routines (in welsh) and a long skit w/ some trio, apparently from a popular TV show. I got the impression that this was the Bunker’s of wales. The mood was fun though and a good time was had by all.
Eventually, it was time for the official tally from the Guinness folk. We had to top 583 to make the good book. Finally tally… drum roll… 1222. Take THAT, Norberg!! I guess I have to get the book this year as I am in it and I assume the rest of the gathering will as well. Which makes this a great record for the Guinness folk. We will see how long our reign lasts. We just have to keep the Chinese from organizing (India too).
The final performer was Grace Jones. All I can say is Wow, she has issues. The hall darkened (did I mention that it was a REALLY beautiful hall?). Out of the dark, we were treated to a full stereo experience. Random “whooshing” out of the right speaker, then random “whooshing” out of the left speakers. Wash, rinse, repeat for a couple of minutes. This would be amazing in the year or two after we invented stereo sound. The lights finally game up to Grace sitting on some big stairs thing. She started ‘singing’ (for generous values of the word sing) some song. Think of bad 80s experimental pop (I know, I know, bad and 80s might be redundant). It only took about a minute before she lifted her dress and started shaking her ass at the audience. I think we were supposed to be impressed. She did it so often as to make me think that this is the whole point of her performance, to get up and shake her ass at the crowd. Don’t get me wrong, for 50 (or whatever) she has a nice ass. As it was, it was more disturbing than erotic. A strange way to end an otherwise family friendly, light hearted evening.
After the show, I met up Evan and Collin and we wandered over to the pier for a couple of drinks before calling it a night.
I had planned to take the train back to London later in the evening which gave me the day to explore Cardiff. The Castle and St. Faggins were the planned agendas. First stop, train station to put my bag into a locker. At the Extravaganza, I had heard word of a big match the next day between Wales and Australia. Feeling very American, I had to ask what kind of match, football? No, rugby. Any tickets left, that could be fun? No, definitely not. Ok, then, I put it out of my mind. Of course, the train station didn’t have lockers. Whew, I feel safer. Leaving the station though, I noticed two things. One was that though we were still many hours before the match, there were swarms, nay, hordes of people in jerseys. Mostly Welsh red and white but a good 30% or so in the green/yellow Aussie colors. Second was the complex array of gates that had been erected for some large scale crowd control. Uh-oh. Do I really want to make that nice relaxing ride through the English farm land in a train packed with drunk rugby fans? 3 guesses and the first 2 don’t count. Talking to a cop, I figure out my last train I can catch is the 3:45. After that, the drunken hordes descend. As the cop put it, “They are alright. It shouldn’t be a problem but if you have the option, you should probably leave”. (emphasis his)
Fair enough, still time for the castle but maybe not for the St. Faggins village. The village sounded cool, old time houses from medieval times to present in some sort of Colonial Williamsburg type thing. But it was a half hour outside of town and I didn’t think I had the time. Castle it is.
The Cardiff Castle was pretty cool. I didn’t have the right timing for the clock tower tour but I did get the standard tour and the grounds pass. First stop was a wander through their little World War museum. Not too much interesting for me. More for locals who had somebody in the wars. There were uniforms, medals, enrollment lists, etc… I did get a kick out of a Russian Maxim gun. There was an inscription on this and some of the other weapons detailing who captured it and when. Valiant moments of bravery all, I am sure. The reason I liked this one though was the name of the captor, “D” Coy of the 1st Battalion Welsh Army. I hear “D” Coy does some good work.
Wandered into the Castle proper next. Apparently there has been a defensive structure here since 1081. Originally it was just a mound of earth w/ timber defenses. Expanded in the 12th century into a twelve sided shell keep by Robert, Earl of Gloucester, it served as last line of defense for the royal family. It also served as a prison for Robert, Duke of Normandy. Despite being the stronghold that it was, it was raided in 1134 and the Earl and his family were abducted. Reinforced in the 13th century, it again fell in 1404 when the moat proved no defense against Owain Glynder.
This was the first “real” castle I had been in. You could see the successive additions of extra defenses over the years. And it had a real live moat. Not sure if anything lived in there though. It was probably pretty nasty considering that it wasn’t all that big and the ‘privy’ was just a hole in the tower that had a shaft down to the moat (w/ big bars in it, in case the thought of climbing up the shithole wasn’t enough of a deterrent.)
In the larger wall around the inner castle was the living quarters, church, etc… The tour covered these. One of the coolest parts was the rooftop garden. One of the lords, after traveling to the Middle East, brought back the idea of the rooftop garden. It was quite nice and brought me back to much of the fantasy I have read, most specifically the Queen’s garden in the Hobb series. The fountain in the garden cost as much as a school. Gotta have priorities.
There were many interesting rooms. Each redone in the 19th or 20th century as “what we think it looked like”. The lords of the manors had traveled far and wide and brought many treasures and ideas back from around the globe. One interesting room was the nursery, where they had commissioned an American to paint 15 or 20 great murals depicting scenes from various fairy tales. Hansel and Grettle, Rapunzel, the Invisible Prince, etc… Also in this room was a portrait of one of the royal families. In this family, the young prince was disguised as a little girl. Apparently, young boys had a much higher mortality rate than young girls (or is that a lower mortality rate? Whichever one means more little boys died). To “fix” this, they would disguise their young boys as girls until they were 5 or so. I am guessing no one kept empirical numbers on the effectiveness of this treatment.
The streets were even more packed in red by the time I got out. Everybody was now making their way to the game. Turns out the bus stop to catch the bus to St. Faggins was inside the area that has been sectioned off for the rugby crowd. Ahh well, maybe another time. I made my way through the crowd and caught a leisurely train ride back to London. Returned w/ plenty of time to watch the fireworks. Apparently they are celebrating Guy Hawkes who tried to blow up parliament. Go Figure….
This weekend was a trip to Chapel Hill to hang out w/ the guys. Art and I flew down to meet w/ Tim and Anna who live in Chapel Hill while Tim goes to school. To get down there we had to fly. I just threw my toiletry kit in my backpack. The kit is a clear plastic bag. Apparently, only Ziplock brand clear plastic bags are acceptable so they threw away all of my toiletries. I could have put them in my pockets and walked through the security checkpoints. As per usual in our continued ruining of America, this measure makes us no safer what so ever but makes ignorant people think we are “doing something”. Ugh, when was that last time we made a decision that made sense.
Tim picked us up at the airport and took us to our hotel. We stayed at the “Home of sports”, otherwise known as Holiday Inn. They had bats for door handles in the lobby and little icons of different balls on each of the doors. We were in Soccer section. Ooohh sporty.
We spent the next day wandering around Chapel Hill and saw Tim’s school. Since we are all old men now, we needed a nap after all that activity. Around 6, Jay showed up followed shortly by Stryker. It’s like a reunion! We went over to Tim’s and BBQed for a couple of hours before we walked into Charlotte and found the bars.
The bar was basically empty when we got there but it started to fill up as we hung out. Art was in his professor jacket and was mistaken for a German TA by a cute coed. Turns out her German was pretty weak though as Stryker started saying some very uncouth things in German. She smiled and agreed. I guess she didn’t pay too much attention in class. Next fun drunken Carolina moment was when a random drunk Guatemalan telling us he hated racism but whites were usually OK. I started explaining the racism inherent in that statement but didn’t get too far.
We headed to the next bar to shoot some pool before being kicked out by the 2am bar closing. We found an oh so healthy late night food spot (staffed w/ what seemed to be a permanent detachment of 2 of North Carolina’s finest). Got my first shot of real NC pulled pork bbq. Mmm baby.
Next morning, we got a great breakfast. I had biscuits and gravy as I head through all the requisite southern foods. Gotta love the sweet tea being everywhere. After breakfast, we dropped Anna off as we headed to a gun range for some shootin. We printed out the Gun Safety quizzes and did them in the car on the way to the range. When we got there, he just wrote in the correct answers for anything we didn’t have correct. With the “safety briefing” out of the way, he asked for our licenses and gave us guns. Shot through a few rounds of various Glocks the 9mm, 40 and 45. Then we went back in for the Uzi. As casual as he was about handing us handguns, this one he actually came in and guided us through. Fun but expensive considering a clip lasted approximately 12 seconds. Mmmm deadly…. As we were leaving we got the low down on the gun market from one of the locals (who was buying rifle for his son that was nearly as tall as the kid, I might add). Apparently, you cannot buy any automatic weapon made after 1986. Anything before that is fair game w/ the correct permits. Not sure if there was a new technology introduced or it is another arbitrary limit that we decided on.
After we finished that, we finished out Raleigh by meeting stryker for a beer before heading back to get Anna and go get some real BBQ. Finished out our southern necessities w/ pulled pork, pulled chicken, smoked pork, fried okra, mac and cheese, etc… It was all fantastic and we topped it off w/ dessert before we had to roll ourselves out the door. Finished the evening playing cards and shooting the shit.
Next morning was time to leave. We headed towards the airport to find breakfast in strip mall city. “Strip malls as far as the eye can see” as someone put in and they weren’t kidding. As Tim put it, people got tired of walking from store to store in the mall so they made ones that you can drive to each store. We tried to go to Bob Evans for breakfast but ended up w/ a huge wait. Anna had the telling explanation w/ “Church just finished and you’re in a red state”.
All in all, a great visit. Always good to see old friends.