One of the odder … and more amusing … moments of my time here occurred when an average bus ride turned into a musical adventure…

While riding the bus down from Castle Hill one night with my visitors Emily and Arianne, the BKV (the acronym for Budapest public transport) employee driving it began to take on a role as a disc jockey.

Friends on Castle Hill

Friends on Castle Hill

I knew something was up when he greeted us getting on the bus with “jó estét kívánok“, the very polite form of “good evening” … and a form considerably more polite than what one might expect from your average grumpy bus driver. Then, as he drove, he began announcing songs. From my limited understanding of Hungarian, I could understand that he was saying where the artist was from and a bit about each singer’s style. After this bit of background, we would get a snippet of song… everything from techno, to what sounded like Hungarian country-western to an odd German song (which Emily, a German speaker, translated as a man saying he was “crying beans”)

Decidedly, the most enjoyable public bus ride EVER.


Should anyone out there have access to the BKV, please pass on my gratitude to the driver of the 16 bus between Castle Hill and Deák Ferenc tér!


Just when the sudden decline of the dollar (what’s up Feds?!?!? I was enjoying my 205 forint-to-the dollar rates of last month), the nonstop gray rain of Budapest (not sure I will ever feel properly dry again), or the surge of transit strikes (unfortunately, the Magyar folk take striking a lot more seriously than the Italians, whose regular sciopero generale were always quite short and really seemed more of a way to get a Friday afternoon off ) were threatening to dilute my burgeoning holiday cheer, Christmas-y relief came in the form of impromptu caroling.

Although I have never actually caroled in the States, I have to say my first experience here was exactly what was needed, and I am ready to revive this tradition when I get back. Fellow Fulbrighter Eric, and his girlfriend, Jenny, invited me to their flat for dinner and coquito, the Puerto Rican version of eggnog. Once inside (and one glass of the frosty, delicious stuff later) the two sprang the idea of surprise caroling on me. They had assumed –correctly — that of all the Fulbright group, I’d be most likely not to turn and run at the suggestion (being that I have never shown any aversion to making a fool of myself, a skill I find quite  handy as a teacher.)  So, we plunked a few bottles of coquito in an old T-mobile bag, pulled on hats and umbrellas, and headed to Sarah’s house. The look on her face when three dripping friends sang off-tune “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” was more than worth the walk. Then, the four of us headed to do the same for Natalie, who seemed much more happy to laugh at us (and accept a free gift of liquor) than to finish her latest math conquest.

Sure, the gray rain wasn’t as nice as glistening snow and the hookers hanging around Nyugati Pályaudvar metro station weren’t exactly as cute as the cherubic English children normally pictured in cards of carolers. But the point of caroling is to bring warmth and smiles … and that it did!

In other news of good cheer, after much metric conversions (and one tray of burned cookies), I successfully managed to render my Grandma Greenwald’s Christmas butter cookies.

Huzzah! Cookie Time!

Huzzah! Cookie Time!

What you can’t see from this picture is that due to my “snug”  sized studio and small table, I actually had to leave cookies drying on bookshelves as well. Looked weird; smelled heavenly.

Finally, some new holiday traditions I have learned:

  • From Hungary: Santa Claus is called Miklaus and comes on December 6. Good kids get candy and nuts. Bad kids get a bundle of twigs, which the Krampus will take and use to smack them (which seems, to me, a much better way of getting kids to behave. “The Krampus will beat you!” somehow packs more punch than “Santa will put you on the naughty list”)
  • Also from Hungary, St. Luca’s Day. For this occasion, girls s-l-o-w-ly build a stool, from Dec. 13 on up until Christmas Eve. Then, they take the stool to Midnight Mass, stand on it … and can see the witches in the congregation. One then must run out of church to escape said witches, but if you throw poppy seeds on the ground, the witches will stop to collect them (Sarah and my feminist interpretation: perhaps said witches are really just women who live an unconventional lifestyle and happen to be thrifty about spilled poppy seeds…give them a break!
  • – From Baldur, our resident Icelander: Iceland has 13 “Yule Lads,” … which are like a meaner version of Santa. They do leave gifts…but they also play tricks on people, and might also give you to the witch Grýla. They also have Grýla’s cat, the Christmas Cat, who will comes down and will eat kids who don’t have new clothes to wear for Christmas.

Now, I am all for appreciating different cultural traditions, but (A) of all, Icelandic Christmas seems a bit harsh and (B) of all, what with the country being bankrupt, won’t that be one fat cat this year?

Being one who likes to think of herself as very media literate and rather unaffected by the glut of advertising that urges us to buy-buy-buy — I have bragged, for instance, that my whole apartment’s worth of belongings can be packed in a small Nissan as proof that I don’t need all the “stuff” which weighs us modern folk down — it is a little embarrassing to admit that one of   the tiny, little things I miss about Christmas time back in the states is a commercial.

Pathetic, but true: the holiday commercial for a small chain of Pittsburgh-region diners — Eat N’ Park — gets me misty-eyed and sugary-sappy every year.  I think it has something to do with  Eat N’ Park symbolizing “home,” the comfort of familiarity. The food there isn’t even good (though it is the best diner coffee I have come across in my many journeys into Americana diner-land), but in the small Pittsburgh suburb where I grew up, it was the only thing open past 5 p.m. Indeed, open 24 hours a day, it was the sanctuary for the bored Sewickley teenager. It was where we met for a pump-up breakfast the day of the A.P. calculus exam (I credit said good coffee for the high score); where we dissected every look, move, smile and choice of Green Day t-shirt of  my friends’  junior high school crushes; where I cried and vented and agonized over (and eventually made) my then-controversial (in Dad’s eyes, anyway) college choice. And although my adult life has been spent almost entirely in D.C., the first sighting of the Eat N’ Park Christmas commercial always felt like the sure sign that I was back in the old homeland, that I could relax in a way that is just not the same as in the high-ambition Beltway area.

But thanks to the wonders of YouTube, I can get the warm-fuzzies even while in Budapest. Because, apparently, I am not the only misplaced yinzer (a.k.a. former Pittsburgher) to miss it: several people posted it, and tens of thousands have viewed it.

And, hey, that little star thing huffing and puffing…even if you’re not from Pittsburgh (poor you!), you have to think it is cute.