Category Archives: Hungary

On my 1,000th Geocache

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A little over four years ago, while killing time before class in my M.Sc. days in Cleveland, I was looking around for new apps for my iPhone and remembered a thing I’d heard about called geocaching.  It was the idea that a person would hide a box somewhere (the geocache) and upload the GPS coordinates to the Internet, and then other people would find them in a bit of a scavenger hunt.  It was an idea that I found interesting when I first heard of it in college, but a GPS was too pricey for me as a student (and I had no car, making me a lot less mobile) so I promptly forgot about it.  But a search that day revealed that in the smartphone era one could go geocaching via a smartphone’s GPS, and there was even a free app, and hey there are a lot of these things around Cleveland!

I promptly went out that weekend to start finding a few of these things and the rest is history, as it turns out geocaching is a great thing to do when searching for an adventure.  The thrill of the hunt aside (and occasional swag to trade), they tend to be hidden in interesting locations that someone wants to bring you to, so a little research before traveling to an area on popular geocaches there rarely disappoints.  So far geocaching has taken me to extraordinary viewpoints from Italy to Tanzania…

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Re Teodorico, Verona and NgoroNgoro- A Big African Caldera Continue reading

Photo: Tokaj Vineyards, Hungary

IMG_0679I went to Hungary last week on yet another random Dutch holiday- seriously, all our holidays are in springtime except for Christmas- and one of the things we had to do was a pilgrimage out to Tarcal, the small village both sides of my family are originally from (Tarcal is on the south side of Tokaj mountain, and where all the best Tokay wine comes from as a result).  And after things like visiting our great-grandparents’ graves we had to do an equally important task of going up to the family grapes which my uncle still runs every year and sample his latest wine.

I’ve been here before, obviously, but not in a few years and it is always such a nice, pleasant thing to sit with a glass straight from the barrel and contemplate the scenery.  It just looks so lovely and right, and I always idly wonder if that’s because generations of my ancestors looked onto the view here and thought the same thing…

Photo: A View of Budapest

So here’s a curious detail of my life during the past year: I have visited Hungary four times, most recently this past weekend, and don’t think I’ve mentioned it once here.  Such is the curious nature of familiarity, and the nature of going somewhere when the primary intent isn’t so much to explore it so much as to visit your relatives (in my case my brother in Budapest and my grandmother and cousins in Miskolc, two hours train ride east).

Not like we just sit around at home of course- in the past year I’ve toured the Hungarian parliament twice (once in Hungarian, once in English), climbed the hills on the Buda side to the old castle four times, clambered around the Bukk mountains in the northeast, took a dip in the Cave Bath (as awesome as it sounds, a thermal spring in a natural cave), sample the local nightlife as well as the local wine and palinka

Ok I guess we do a lot of exploring but in familiar-to-us places so it never gets mentioned, so here’s a nice view of Budapest with a statue of King St. Stephen and the Freedom Bridge spanning the Danube with my brother’s university in the distance.  Cheers!

On Dual Passports and Secret Agents

I can’t quite recall if I ever officially mentioned it here, but a few months ago I finally officially received my Hungarian passport.  This statement probably confuses many people who know me in the real world who always just assumed I had it (Hungarian isn’t one of those languages you just pick up usually), but the long and short of the situation is when my twin brother and I were born in 1986 all male Hungarian citizens were required to enter the army.  At the time no one thought the communist government was going to topple in a few years, so what was the point of registering two American-born children for their Hungarian citizenship with a nice requirement like that looming over one of them?

Fast forward about a quarter of a century, and it turned out that one of those twins was getting tired of paying exorbitant visa fees on her American passport, and both of those twins were considering moving to Europe.  So I decided to get that ball rolling, which turned out to be a mess of a process that dragged on for well over a year due to a mountain of paperwork one would expect from a former communist country. Lots of forms in Hungarian that at times made even my mother pause to understand their meaning (to give you an idea, my favorite was one just to confirm I wanted my name spelled “Yvette” instead of the traditional “Ivett”), all of which disappeared into the consulate… and while the process was supposed to take six months, it dragged on to over a year.  Klassz!

But in the end it all worked out, I finally had the Hungarian passport itself in hand in November, and it’s around this time that I discovered my new travel hobby.  Because you see, I now have a passport from a former Soviet Bloc country that is as yet not scanned or marked in any way, on a citizenship that a few months ago did not yet exist on paper…

That’s right, now when I go to the airport I alternate between my Hungarian and American passports when asked for identification to ensure the bad guys can’t trace me.  And I’ve been pretty successful shaking them off so far, except of course for that one gun fight on a speedboat racing through the Amsterdam canals that I don’t like to talk too much about.

Plus hey, my flirtations as an International Woman of Mystery aside, the visa fees to many a country just got a lot cheaper and the E.U. can now never kick me out. Win! As for where it may take me, I will just refer all curious folks to the cover of my passport holder:

2011: A Year in Review

When I think back on 2011 it will undoubtedly go down as the year where I did more in 12 months than most people do in a lifetime.  If I didn’t personally already defend a thesis, become a published author, move to a different country, and explore 20 countries on 4 continents along the way I would accuse myself of lying because I’m tired just thinking about it.  But I apparently did because I lived through all of it! Continue reading

On Moving to Europe

One of my favorite words in the world is a Hungarian one, világgá.  It comes from the root word vilag, or world, which is the source of all sorts of fascinating words if you add suffixes to it- add an “-os” for “have something” turns it into világos which means light or illuminating, and while világegyetem is a mouthful that means “the world’s university” literally it actually means the universe.  Hungarian has a bit of poetry to it that most people never stop to think about even when they speak it every day.

But anyway, világgá translates literally as “of the world” really means something that doesn’t have an English equivalent but translates something like “to go off into the world and seek your fortune.”  The heroes and heroines of Hungarian fairy tales go világgá all the time- of all fairy tales really but most languages don’t have a word for it- so it’s really not surprising that I daydreamed a lot about adventures as a kid and then decided to go világgá on my own a few times already.

Tomorrow I’m about to go világgá again to find a new home in Amsterdam, by way of a week in Hungary in case anyone’s wondering why I’m parsing Hungarian tonight. (It’s a habit that finds magic in the strangest of places.  Did you know that “sibling” in Hungarian is testvér, which literally means “body blood” and hence what you share with your brother and sister?   Or that the only difference between “lion,” oroszlán, and “Russian girl” is the latter has a -y on the end of it?)  I’ve done this before- I did a semester abroad in New Zealand, and I’ve flown to an exotic continent with no plans to return twice now- but the longest of those was six months abroad.  This time I’ll be abroad for at least four years, and while I’m sure I’ll be back there’s no way around how they’ll be visits.

For me, going abroad is the right thing to do- I am ready to spend years in a new place to get to know it really well, and my work there gets me as excited as I was about astronomy when I first read a book about it on the school bus 12 years ago.  It is a new adventure that I am ready and excited to experience, even though I know all adventures have bumps along the way the storytellers like to gloss over in the telling.

So time to go világgá.  I’ll catch you guys on the flip side.

Photo: Pécs, Hungary

It’s not hard to see why Pécs (pronounced “paey-ch”) is a 2010 European City of Culture- the main square is dominated by an old Turkish mosque that now functions as a Catholic Church, and you can explore treasures like the earliest Christian cemetery dating from the 4th century and the Vasareley museum.  I don’t know anyone who’s visited and didn’t love this gem of a city!

Summary of Hungary

It’s difficult for me to write a  ‘normal’ country summary for Hungary because this is the country that is a second home to me more than any other.  Even if I have never actually lived there.

Highlights:

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- Spending time with my family over the Easter holiday!  We don’t get to see each other very often, so when we do it’s obviously very special.

- Subsequent daytrips to Tarcal, the Bukk Hills, etc.

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- The language: Hungary was the first country on this trip where I spoke the primary language and could assume everyone would know what I was saying, which was wonderful in ways I’d completely forgotten.  You mean people normally conduct conversations without expecting to get by on pointing and excessive body language?!

- Pecs is a lovely little city that I’m glad I finally got to see after so many years of only hearing about it.  Even if the Vasarely museum gives you a headache in its awesomeness.

Lowlights:

- Saying goodbye to my family- we’ve been doing goodbyes for years and years never knowing how many more it will be until we see each other again, but saying goodbye is something that never gets easier with practice.  If anything, each time seems harder.

- There was an elderly lady in my hostel room in Pecs who, I swear, wins the loudest snorer award after three months of travel.  I mean I am an expert at dealing with snorers by this point, but I was doing earplugs and head under my pillow and could still hear her loud as a saw!  Obviously, I ended up switching rooms.

FOOD!

Without a doubt, one of the best things about visiting Hungary is the food.  Beyond the nostalgia factor and the “it all tastes so good” merit, there are various foods you can only get your hands on while in the country and hence I pig out a lot on.  And while a lot of these don’t exactly fit American tastes, just remember this is being written by a girl who ate bugs in Thailand ok?  And this all is unquestionably a lot tastier than the bugs were…image5565

First and most important, we did a barbecue of sorts at my cousin’s place and this was what I spent my time roasting- a nice piece of szalona. Usually translated into “bacon” and pretty similar in many respects, but not the thinly sliced stuff you get in the US but rather a large square of it.  Yes, you can practically feel your arteries clogging while eating this stuff,  but if that weren’t enough one customarily drips the grease onto the bread while  roasting it.  To quote my mom when she heard about my meal plans, “just be sure to drink a lot of wine so you don’t get a stomachache.”image584

Food obsession #2, known as langos.  You know that “fried dough” you can get at carnivals in the US?  Same idea, but instead of sugar you slather it in sour cream, cheese, and garlic.  Trust me, it is much better this way!image625

This, ladies and gents, is a smoked trout from a trout farm near Lillafured that is considered to be one of the best in the country.  I usually don’t like fish but love this stuff- you peel back the skin and the flesh falls off the bones…image671

Here’s an interesting note- you know how one ideally comes on a trip like this to figure out things about yourself you didn’t know previously?  Well if this post so far hasn’t illustrated it completely, somewhere along the way I realized I don’t have an extraordinarily strong sweet tooth.  Usually if given the choice between a candy bar and a bag of chips I will go for the chips sort of thing.

While in Pecs one night, though, I decided to vary things and choose a desert off the menu.  None spoke out to me except the one I’d never heard of, madartej, and I almost broke my “not actually Hungarian” cover by exposing my ignorance to the waiter in asking what it was. (I’m told I have a slight accent while speaking the language so people know I’m not “really” Hungarian, but it’s one thing to have an  accent  and another to not know what a standard desert consists of!) Turns out it’s sweetened and caramelized egg white foam floating in sweet cream.  Not bad, really.

And then I ended up taking my careful time finishing every last drop of this desert because I suddenly for the life of me couldn’t remember the Hungarian word for “check.”  Yes, I’m fluent, but sometimes a word or two escapes me!  After a few minutes the light clicked on and I proudly told the waiter “a szamlat, legyen szives!” with him getting even more confused as to why I was in such high spirits to part with my money.  Luckily he didn’t ask though, as Hungarian waiters have got to be the most polite in the world.image687Ok, this one made me absolutely giddy for two reasons- first it’s delicious, and second for once I didn’t need to share it!  The above is tatarsteak, aka steak tartar, aka I don’t know why so many people I know have no issues with eating raw fish but balk at raw steak.  Cultural preconceptions I guess?

Usually if you ever spot this dish in a restaurant it’s an appetizer, and because it’s typically a really nice restaurant where you find it in the US I’m with my family.  Now I love my family to death but the problem with appetizers is you rarely get to eat as much as you want (even though for something like steak tartar it’s me and my mom eating most of it), but one great advantage  of traveling on your own is you can indulge in a little selfish behavior when it comes to your food.

Needless to say, after writing all that I am now more than ready for dinner.  Ciao!

Pécs

After ten days in Miskolc I finally bid goodbye to my relatives and was seen off at the train station with lots of kisses and a giant bag of food that I had no chance of soon finishing.  My destination was Pécs, a small city in the southwest of Hungary that is about as  far from Miskolc as you can get while still being in the same country.  This was for a few reasons- it’s one of the few places in Hungary I’ve never been to, I wanted the advantage of traveling somewhere where I could use my second language for once, and everyone says Pécs is an incredibly lovely town.  Turns out they’re right-

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Szechenyi square, the main square in Pécs with an old Gothic church that was turned into a mosque under the Ottomans in the 14th century.  Enjoy the view while it lasts- in two weeks time they’re going to begin renovating the square extensively, meaning you won’t see it looking half as pretty later this year!  The reason is in 2010 Pécs is going to be named as a European Capital of Culture, and renovations have already started elsewhere-

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This is part of the cathedral in Pécs, which I’m sure would be just gorgeous if that annoying scaffolding weren’t in the way.  No matter, what’s exciting about this place is below ground in the courtyard in front of it-image665

This, ladies and gents, is part of the oldest Christian cemetery in the world.  Pécs was an old Roman city, known as Sophianae at the time, and became an important Christian city. (And then, for their piety, God sent the Huns and Magyars to pillage and conquer them.) The tombs date to the 4th century and a lot still have surprisingly intact frescoes inside that are lovely.

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Another view of the museum under the courtyard, which is quite nicely done.  This open space was going to be used by some high school performance later that evening; the teenagers were rehearsing a few traditional folk songs that made for good background music.

Another odd thing about visiting the site was how they had a traveling exhibit there of the best press photos taken in 2008.  Which was certainly very interesting to see and all, but it was a bit jarring to keep alternating between “pretty ancient frescoes” and “soldier wounded in Afghanistan.”

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Speaking of museums here’s another top-notch one in town, albeit one that broke my brain.  Victor Vasarely was a modern artist born in Pécs and went on to produce brilliant artwork that focused on optical illusions and the like before people could churn out such things on the computer.  The museum is top-notch, though there are so many optical illusions that I got a bit of a headache afterwards.

One of my favorite things about the Vasarely museum though were the museum guards- you know how in any museum in the world they ubiquitously sit or stand while looking bored out of their mind?  Well here there was nothing of the sort, and the guards passed time by encouraging you to view a piece from a specific angle or even producing a few facts about the artwork itself.  I’ve been to museums on five continents and this has never happened, and it struck me as such a quintessentially Hungarian thing to do that it made my day.

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The beautiful lilac blooming at the gate to the Vasarely museum.  Smelled divine too.

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Here’s a fun little bit of local culture for you.  In the 1980s young couples in Pécs began hanging padlocks on this fence upon which messages like “Monica and Alex Forever” were written as a symbol for their love.  Since the tradition is beginning to spread to other cities- they’re even beginning to hang them on a bridge in Miskolc, though it looks nowhere near as spectacular.

For awhile the government of the city was upset about the fence, complaining about the act of vandalism which is silly because Hungarian government is too inefficient and corrupt to care about a bunch of locks on a fence.  Want an example?  There currently is no mayor in Pécs- the last one died of cancer a few months ago, and the one before that has been in a coma for three years but kept getting his salary for two.  Needless to say, very little has been done to prepare Pécs to be the culture capital next year.

image679Moving along, here is a sign I saw on the great main street in town, which translates roughly “and on the eighth day, God created the BEER.  Well done God!!!”  I suppose you’ll now need to ignore everything I said about this not being a beer country earlier, but the local beer is pretty tasty.image6801The ice cream was pretty good too…

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And last but not least, this was a scene from the German reggae party I was invited to.  It was just as weird as it sounds, but Pécs is a pretty big college town so you take it all in stride I suppose.