As my time here winds closer and closer to and end (Friday is our going away boat party! And marks exactly ONE month until my own, real going away. Eeek!), I find myself going into premature nostalgia overload. “I need one more of this…and this.. and this… ”  runs through my head about 20 times a day — everything from the sight of the Chain Bridge to the cute little dinging sound the M1/Yellow Line metro makes when arriving at a station is enough to send me into peals of sentiment.

This is not uncommon for me and my many-times-moved self: I did the same thing at the close of college, before I left D.C. to come here, and even before leaving my stint at The Beaver County Times (and trust me, if you can find yourself getting nostalgic and saying “oh, gee, my last Ambridge Council meeting!  Better enjoy the near-fistfight between Mayor Buzzy and whomever comes in to complain about hookers on Merchant Street while I can!” you can count yourself certifiably over-emotional)

But Budapest is so truly wonderful a place to live — and this year has been such a crazily cool experience — that even chores can spark some nostalgia. Yup, today while doing that task known as “running errands” , I realized how much I will miss going grocery shopping in Budapest. Now, I have to say, while I occasionally missed things (or, more often, people) from the States, I never sat back and reminisced about all the great times I had at the Wilson Blvd. Safeway or fighting off G.W. undergrads for a sale on 2-buck Chuck win at the local Trader Joe’s. But grocery shopping, for me, means going to the Central Market.

My Family Loves the Central Market!

My Family Loves the Central Market!

The Central Market is always well-marked in tour books for Budapest — and now that it is tourist time, they are all there, taking pictures of those of us “regular” shoppers who just need our produce. But it attracts the visitors for good reason: it is big, gorgeous building, with high, vauled ceilings that cover row upon row of delicious fresh produce, meat, cheese and, on the second floor, every type of Hungarian kitsch your could ask for (who needs a peasant woman-shaped wine opener? There are plenty There is even both a langos stand and a retes stand — fried dough + pastries under one roof? What else can a girl need for true happiness?

The market also offers a chance to feel like you really get to care about what you put into your body. In America, we tend to be really bad at that — home of fast-food, home of pre-prepared. But when you get to walk from stall to stall, looking for whose asparagus looks the freshest, or feel like you have a relationship with the butcher (or, in my personal case, the all-women manned butcher stall to which I always return) who sells you one fresh chicken breast at a time (not a giant bag os salt-injected, pre-frozen stuff), that feels like a different variety of good food. And, it generally also tastes great.  You see a bunch of just-in-season veggies — right now, it is asparagus — that looks great, and even if it would not make your normal shopping list while at one of the mega-stores, you buy it.

Sure, one can find this experience in the states — certainly, in hip-to-be-healthy big cities like the Washington area. But you can only afford to do that, in most cases, if you’re of the more moneyed type (there is a reason, after all, we all call Whole Foods by its alternate name, Whole Paycheck). Today, at the market, I walked out with a giant bag of fresh veggies, some cheese, this awesome whole-grain bread from one of my newest favorite vendors and some fresh chicken — and I spent maybe the equivalent of $10. Plus, the Central Market is one of the few places in Budapest’s center city where everyone humors my bad Hungarian. I think this might have a great deal to do with the fact that most vendors don’t speak much English.

And, unfortunately, even if I could drop money weekly for the Whole Foods or fancy-pants Arlington farmers’ markets back home, I don’t think those vendors will let me practice my budding magyarul skills.

So, if you’re coming this way, definitely go — and understand why running errands will be one of the things I miss most from my beautiful Budapest year.

To top off a year spent hosting visitors of every type, I recently finished hosting the most important group: the family (családom, if my Hungarian is correct…which it likely isn’t, considering a spent the better part of their visit introducing my younger sister as my older brother. Jaj! Hungarian defeats me again!)

I won’t claim it was perfect — my family is as dysfunctional as the next, and I highly recommend against ever trying to share a bathroom with my older sister — but it was certainly special. Namely, what made me excited was getting to see my mother enjoy her first trip abroad.

My mom is, in a word, awesome. It sounds Hallmark-card cheesy, but she is my best friend: caring, loving and 100°% supportive of me, even in situations where many parents might put pressure on one (such as one’s Georgetown freshman child, who is currently sinking the family and herself into debt, calling to say she is dropping out of the business school to pursue the ever-financially unwise field of English literature. Most ‘rents would at least flinch. My mom? I want you to be happy. Simple as that).

The Best Mom Ever at the Prettiest Bridge Ever

The Best Mom Ever at the Prettiest Bridge Ever

But my mom and I are also extremely different in many ways, not the least of which is how we have approached our lives as women. Mom, despite coming of age in the hip-to-be-feminist 1960s, could be textbook Traditional Wife and Mother: married high school sweetheart, stayed at home for 12 years raising 3 kids, takes care of house and constantly self-sacrifices, and lives in the same zip code where she grew up.  Whereas Mom was all settled down with Dad by the age of 15, my life has been a bit more…well, un-settled (I suppose that is what you call more than 15 moves in less than ten years). As such, while for me, my greatest ambition in high school was to get a passport and stamps in it, mom’s was the white wedding she got as soon as she graduated college.  So, international jet-setting was sort of out of the question for her. At 57, then, this was her first trip outside the U.S., Niagra Falls notwithstanding.

Baby Sis (not Big Brother) and the famous Trabi

Baby Sis (not Big Brother) and the famous Trabi

And for me, being able to show her Europe for the first time was wonderful. Seeing the sights I have already become accustomed to — St. Stephen’s cathedral, the Chain Bridge at night, Castle Hill and the Central market — through her eyes made me love them all the more.  her excitement made mine increase tenfold. It also felt like I was able to “explain” myself to my family better. They know, and I know, that I am the black sheep. I always have been, from my decision to spend a high school summer taking extra school for fun to the fact that I am the only one who has not (and will not) settle in Pittsburgh, I stick out; I remain the geeky-bookish-city type in a family of suburban non-nerds.  By taking them through Budapest, showing off the new home in my ever-unstable existence, I feel like I was able to let them in, a little, on what makes me tick.

And, if they left with nothing else, I at least can say with certainty that they, too, are lovers of langós and pálinka.  What else would do for my “cultural ambassador” mission?

… but you should go to İstanbul, at your earliest availability.

(Why yes, I do recognize the shamelessly cheesy They Might Be Giants reference.  But you know you think the same thing when you hear İstanbul. Don’t hide it!).

Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque

To end the Spring Break touring, Carolyn and I hopped an overnight bus to İstanbul. And it was amazing from the first second. I mean that quite literally: we stepped off of the bus, stiff legged and sleepy, at 5:30 a.m., to be surrounded by the call to prayer — beautiful, echoing strains of Arabic —  coming from mosques all around us.

Good morning, İstanbul!

[NOTE:  Bulgaria is not yet on the Euro. Turkey is not even in the EU. However, should you be an American, on a bus to Turkey from Bulgaria, have 15 Euro with you. Why? Because you have to buy a visa, and pay in Euro. Why? I have no clue. Yet, I assure you, it is better than nearly being stranded on the Turkish-Bulgarian border whilst your friend finagles a border guard into selling you some Euro for some Bulgaria leva. Trust me. You don’t want to be stranded on the Turkish-Bulgarian border]

From the towering minarets to the men selling little round loaves of bread from tall stacks on their heads to the sparkly, turquoise Bosphorus to the huge billboards advertising fashionable versions of the traditional Muslim head scarves, İstanbul made me feel like I wished I had more eyes, as if my own two were insufficient to take in all the beauty around me.

Inside the Harem

Inside the Harem

We walked into mosques, such as the famous Blue Mosque, which were covered with the most intricate tilework, shining with deep, rich colors and swirls of Arabic lettering in gold. We stared in awe at the cavernous Hagia Sophia, where the sun streaming through the windows onto the ancient tile was enough to make you forget what year it was. We took boats across the Bosphorus, watching the blue water stream by the steep shores where sun-bleached houses seemed to sprout out of one another. We ate fresh fish, flash-grilled along the shoreline. We pondered whether it really would have been that bad to be a courtesan when we saw the harem at the Topkapı Palace. We smoked too much nargileh, or flavored tobacco in a water pipe,  for two girls who do not smoke at all.  We emptied our pockets on the wide array of glittery goodness at the Grand Bazaar, even managing a hand at bargaining while sipping apple tea, and bought our weight in Turkish Delight (that stuff they sell in most US stores and call Turkish Delight? Not even close!) at the Spice Bazaar.  We drank numerous cups of the dark, sludgy, delicious Turkish coffee.

Beyoğlu at Sunset

Beyoğlu at Sunset

But I think the aspect I loved about  İstanbul most was not a view or a dish or a museum, but an attitude, how it seemed to literally teem with life. Like walking into Times Square on a warm spring evening, going to the neighborhood called Beyoğlu (a steeper-than-steeply hilly ‘hood, directly across the Bosphorus from all the “big” tourist sites) meant walking into a crowd.  Sometimes, I hate crowds — like August in Washington, when the number of belt-pack-wearing Midwestern tourists (who always refuse to stand on the right side of the Metro escalator, so those of us D.C.-ians in a rush can pass on the left!) is enough to make me want to strangle them with their recently purchased “You Don’t Know Me: FBI Witness Protection Program” (why, oh why, do those keep selling?!?) or “God Bless America” T-shirts.  But at other times, when you find a city just hitting its evening, work’s-done-fun-get-together time stride, the crowd can be electric and energizing. It pulses; it makes you want to get out and join it. It makes you want to be part of the action. İstanbul’s got that kind of vibe. The streets are so crowded around 7 p.m. that you almost feel pushed by the swell of people behind you — and yet, it seems to be exactly the kind of push you want, to start your own fun night.  (more…)

The Hotel de Russo — also known as my 32 sq. m. studio — has been very busy lately, hence a long interruption in updates. But before spring totally fades, I want to add in my last bits of reminiscence about a spring break now far gone.

After tackling the joys of Sofia, my dear friend and guide to all things Bulgarian — the incomparable Carolyn — agreed to one of my main requests for the journey, which was to see some “real” Bulgaria. And by “real” Bulgaria, I mean all those things the average American, Lonley-Planet-clutching/Rick-Steve’s-Reading folk can’t find.

And Carolyn didn’t disappoint: we headed for an overnight in Kazanlak, (in Bulgarian- Казанлък, thank YOU Wikipedia!), a small town in the central region of Bulgaria.  The town lies in the famous “Valley of the Roses” — that’s where all those pieces of tourist kitsch, the wooden dolls filled with Rose Perfume, hail from this region.

Carolyn LOVES history!

Carolyn LOVES history!

But the big draw here is the Thracian Tomb, which was built in the 4th century BC, near the ancient Thracian capital of Seuthopolis. The tomb — which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 — is best summed up by Carolyn’s comment: I can’t believe we are standing somewhere so ancient, and just looking at it. Indeed. I can’t post pictures because you cannot take them inside, obviously, as it would destroy the fine paintings, but it is amazing. The tomb itself is small — Carolyn and I filled the space pretty well together — but the paintings preserved inside are amazing, depicting an ancient wedding feast. To stand there, my international cell phone in my pocket, in my mass-produced jeans and T-shirt did certainly invoke that feeling of insignificance — but in a good way. We are but blips on the radar; our time here is small compared to the great spector of history.

And, it is just freakin’ cool, period. Even without the philosophical blather.

And, crazier still: the tomb was found accidentally, by soldiers during the second World War. Could you imagine? Whoops, what is that hard surface? Egads, it happens to be a FREAKING FOURTH CENTURY TOMB! No, I have to say, of all the interesting things I have dug up helping my dad with his garden, 4th century tombs, unfortunately, do not make the list.

Overlooking Shipka

Overlooking Shipka

We followed the trip into the ancient world with a stopover in nearby Shipka, a tiny town about a 20 minute bus ride aways you can see from the picture, Shipka, as viewed from the hills around it, is postcard-perfect: small, red-roofed houses, teeny-tiny twisting lanes, even donkey carts roaming the streets.

We then scaled the hill to what was my favorite sight in Bulgaria: the Shipka Monastery. This Monastery sits high above the town, so that as you approach it, the huge, gold onion-shaped domes leap out at you from the moutainside. It is impressive from a distance, but even more so close up, where you can see the gorgeous colors and rich, warm gold accents. (more…)

… of Spring Break Reminiscence to bring you breaking news of a rare sighting in Budapest:

Today, at approximately 5:49 p.m., while on my way to catch the train home from a day at Pázmány, I spotted the POPPED COLLAR POLO SHIRT on a Hungarian.

The popped collar, or the collar of one’s polo worn flipped up, was a sad scourge upon my Georgetown education. Yes, despite an excellent education, a kickingly cool faculty (Madeline Albright, anyone?), great alumni network (our best native son, Yes-He-Was-Slutty-But-Still-a-Damn-Good-President-Hey-Remember-That-STRONG-Economy Bill Clinton?), Georgetown, as a wildly expensive school in a wildly expensive city still attracted its fair share of students known, for lack of a more diplomatic term, Over-privileged Tools.  Now, on one level, I appreciate the O.T.’s existence at such schools — hey, you pay full fare so I don’t have to — but somewhere around my sophomore year, the collars started to turn up.

I don't actually know these guys. But I very well might have "accidentally" poured a beer on them during college.

I don't actually know these guys. But I very well might have "accidentally" poured a beer on them during college.

I thought it was a joke, an bit of irony in a throwback to Zach Morris-style preppiness. But no. These kids were serious as a Pittsburgh Steelers fan is about his Terrible Towel: they meant it.

The collar-popping began to creep around, sucking more and more people into its vicious cycle. You’d be talking to a guy in class one day, he’d seem intelligent and interesting — then, come Saturday night, under the influence of Miller Lite and the glisten of the Potomac River viewed from a rooftop party, poof, you’d seem him: collar popped, and your hopes dashed, for he was one of Them. Despite heckling from some pretty harsh critics, the popped collar endemic seems lasting at my beloved alma mater. I once, as a graduate student, even saw one on a student working at my old student-run coffee shop, a place where we once had your respectable, crunch-alt-anti-establishment employees who would have seen a popped collar O.T. and refused him a caffeine fix. (I shed a single tear)

But I though Pázmány was better. European students are so much more sophisticated, on the whole, that us coddled Americans — and, even in a globalized world, I expected them to still have the market cornered on fashion.

So I say this to you, young Hungarians: one popped collar might not seem like a big deal. But it takes just one bad seed to start a cascade of tool-ish dressing. Soon, your hip bars, your grungy-proud Szimplas and unassuming Potkulcs could be filled, not with people dressed in the requisite crumpled black of Euro cool, but in the over-J.Crew-ified world of well-pressed polo shirts.

And need I even warn you about the evil which is soon to follow the popped collar? Yes, even to you, the Critter Pants could emerge.

Let’s not take any chances, shall we? Should you find my rogue collar popper, kindly turn it down for him. Then slap him upside the head.  I — and your country — shall thank you for it.

One thing which caught my attention as an immediate difference between Hungary and Bulgaria was how each approached their Communist past. Of course, I know I am speaking about this as an outsider, and as someone who is not trained, schooled or otherwise an expert in any way about this history. But, when Carolyn took me to the main city park in Sofia, we were greeted with this:

Socialist Realist Statue

Socialist Realist Statue

close-up

close-up

It was strange, for me, to see these Socialist-Realist pieces right in the “regular” city.  In Hungary, the statues were all pulled down, and now most of them reside at Memento Park, an outdoor museum located outside the city center. We also have the Terrorhaza, or House of Terror, museum in Budapest. Located at the former headquarters of the secret police, this museum is an excellent walk through the two oppressive regimes in Hungary, the Arrow Cross (Hungarian Nazis) and the Communist party. With extensive descriptions of each time, the museum is as informative as it is moving (I particularly like the room dedicated to propaganda, where one is literally surrounded by the ideology, as the whole room is papered in advertisements. A clever curatorial decision, to make literal the feeling many must have had).

For American visitors to post-Soviet countries, there is a whole market of “Commie Kitsch” — tours in Traubis, the ability to buy giant Lenin-shaped candles, and oodles and oodles of stands at the flea markets offering vintage pins from the Socialist era. (Berlin, for instance, really capitalizes on this in certain places). And I suppose I can understand why, from a certain angle, people might “sell” this idea: it does indeed sell, because for a certain age group (of which yours truly belongs) in American/Western society, the Communist countries are that recent past for which we have such big blinders – that time too “new” to make the canon of compulsory history lessons like the Revolution or the Civil War, but still having occurred so young in our youth that we remember only blurred news photos, if we remember it at all. Yet, that kind of thumbing-your-nose at the idea still leaves me feeling a bit creepy, a bit put-off, as if we who didn’t suffer are getting our giggles of those who did. It is kind of like how I felt about that certain set of Serious Graduate Student who would self-proclaim themselves “Marxist” because it was seen as a super-hip, anti-establishment stance.  (more…)

Coming back from 10 days of Spring Break-ing, which came on the heels of a short jaunt to London, means the old blog has been pretty thin on the ground, particularly as I have tried to catch up in terms of my “homework” and other responsibilities. But I have returned, with some lovely stories from Bulgaria, and from Istanbul.

To start with, Sofia, Bulgaria — where I met up with, Carolyn, another Fulbright ETA (and the main reason I have my Fulbright, as she was our fellowships advisor at Georgetown. img_1666 Before I came to visit, Carolyn had blogged about wanting to “sell” Sofia to me, worried that the city — and indeed the whole country — were viewed negatively in the imagination of Westerns (and particularly us hard-to-please Americans).  Well, after looking at some of the material published on Bulgaria, I have to say Carolyn’s worry is valid: it doesn’t seem those who are supposed to be promoting Bulgaria do all that good a job of it. Her Lonely Planet guidebook is full of negative comments and asides about the country, claiming you can see Sofia in a day. The only English-language magazine, Vagabond, which I perused while sitting in Carolyn’s apartment, was liberally sprinkled with cutting jokes and Debbie-Downer-style language about the country.Now, I know I have been prone to pointing out my beloved Magyar people’s seeming inability to say anything nice about their own country, but the things written about Bulgaria make the Hungarians look cheerful in comparison.

And, what is more, the claim isn’t true: Sofia definitely deserves more than a day!

Carolyn and I started, after she picked me up at the strangely-bare airport (it was actually nice not to have so many stores calling for your attention, but it was kind of eerie to walk through such open halls — not like at Ferihegy in Budapest, where you HAVE to walk through the giant Duty-Free store to even get to your gate!), by heading back out for some shopping around Carolyn’s  neighborhood. Sofia, it turns out, has an abundance of great stores — in the picture above, yours truly is wearing a scarf (bought for us 4 Bulgarian lev…or something like $2.50).

Alexander Nevskiy Cathedral

Alexander Nevskiy Cathedral

The scarf, however, is not the true story — that is the Scarf Lady, who sells them. A thin, willowly older woman, topped with a beret, and, of course, a jaunty scarf, this woman greeted Carolyn and I as if we were visiting dignitaries, clasping both of my hands in her wrinkled ones while Carolyn introduced me. We bantered a bit in French — she speaks only Bulgarian and French — and then she began to display her wares. Carolyn, through her previous talks with scarf lady, had discovered she was once a ballerina, and she moved with all the grace of one. While her scarves are in expensive polyester (Dolce and Gabbana this is not), she treated each as if it was a precious piece, walking outside to fling the scarves we chose over her shoulder and show flashy ways of tying them. I’d defy anyone to not be charmed by her!

Following scarf lady, we enjoyed some more shopping, particularly Paradise Garage, a store which displays the work of young Bulgarian designers, where we each picked up some hip, urban-chic gear and had a lovely chat with the fashionable owner (check out Carolyn’s review here)

Relieved of some lev, we began doing the more “touristy” things, including checking out the town’s main cathedral. Since Bulgarians tend to be Orthodox, I found peeking in churches here particularly interesting — the Orthodox style, all covered in gold. In the plazas nearby, vendors sold scores of gold-painted icons, and the last of the martenitsas, a Bulgarian tradition for spring. These are little pins and bracelets made of red and white string, which one picks up on the first day of March and wears until one sees the first blossoming tree. Then, you hang your martenitsa up on the flowering tree, bringing in good luck for the new season.

(more…)