Wednesday, January 07, 2009

embers

every great passion is hopeless, if not it would be no passion at all, but some cleverly calculated argument, an exchange of lukewarm interests. 156.

life becomes bearable only when one has come to terms with who one is, both in one's own eyes and in the eyes of the world. 157.

sandor marai

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Scrolling and Circles

If you do some scrolling, a serious amount of scrolling, if you scroll so much that lives and times and people and places and the world have changed as you scroll back in time - you'll come across this:

"made it to Budapest safe and sound! yesterday we watched a boat sink (seriouslz! apparentlz it's important, when on a fast-moving river, to anchor off the bow of your boat, as opposed to the low-profile stern...) on the Danube River, then both an air show and fireworks above the Danube. hungarians know how to celebrate the signing of a constitution! today Eva is driving me to Eotvos Collegium so we don't have to do it before she works tomorrow morning. hungarian is marginallz improving. z and y are switched on hungarian computers, please be forewarned for the upcoming ten months!"

August 20, 2005.

Two years ago to the day.

August 20, 2007.

So, so long ago. To get there, you'd have to scroll back in time, through me and my stories. And yet I can remember it. In some ways I miss it desperately. The planes flying above the Danube seemed so fresh and new and scary and invigorating. The twisted keyboard so full of mystery and potential and wonder and intrigue. Hungary was still magyarorszag, sometime delightfully unfamiliar. A challenge. An adventure.

I leave, tomorrow morning, a bona fida tour guide.

Emily and her friendly Hungarian boyfriend are sleeping on the makeshift guest-room on my porch. an amazing hungarian girl is sitting on a train right now, making a bee-line from the second-to-last day of Salsa camp to the sweaty capital, just to be with me. eva's waiting for me in her apartment, half an hour from now. this time, two years later, she doesn't have to pick me up, i can navigate there myself.

the tall black shelf in my room is the last thing I have left to pack, sandwiching three bottles of wedding-gift wine. i'm standing in front of it, typing on my laptop set on the fourth of five shelves. the tears have a long way to fall.

it's harder, much, for me to say goodbye to hungary this time. so, so much harder. maybe it's heves vs. budapest. maybe it's three months vs. ten months. probably its because of noemi. maybe it's because of friends. maybe it's because of school. probably because i know it's for good. probably because it's the same pang of autumn - just after the first back-to-school ad, just before the excitement of the first day of school - that pang that has made me cry since i was a little boy.

yesterday emily and i stumbled upon a wine festival. if we had arrived 6 minutes earlier, admission would have been free. another random turn took us to concerts up and down imperial Andrassy. We smiled, in silence, in delight of simply watching Hungarians for block after block. that same amazement i've always felt.

At the last block, a fitting tribute to two years in the books. Hevesi Tamas. Not simply is he "Thomas from Heves," but he's the singer who has haunted me since i arrived. his wailful ballad has followed me with every turn. The song, simply, is titled "Jeremy." students in heves who had never even sat through one of my classes and couldn't even speak a single language i could, would serenade me with the cry. Don't leave me, Jeremy, Hevesi Tamas and all the subsequent crooners would beg. The world will have no meaning without you. Don't go.

As much as I shouted as he stood on stage, entertaining a few hundred holidaying Hungarians, the song didn't come. Jeremy vagyok, I pleaded, certainly one of only a handful of folks in this whole country who can say that with a straight face. I am Jeremy, I am leaving, I begged silently. Please play my song.

It never came. The tribtue, though, was a good reminder in silence. Hungary isn't about me. Hungary will keep going on being Hungary long after i've snapped my seatbuckle on the plane at Ferihegy tomorrow. I leave having touched hundreds of friends, making their lives sparkle in many different ways. they'll just have to know that they have all done nothing less for me.

Just as there are flavors that go unnoticed in gulyas, there are stories that will go untold in this goulash. wonderful stories of twenty-year old american girls learning to enjoy celebrating an evening, and birthday, in Little Heves. and 4:50 am bus rides home. stories of friendships and goodbyes. tears and waves. stories of coworkers discovering themselves in the fineprint of a largely anonymous blog. stories of hungary.

my story, one of just a million billion stories in hungary, is ending. mixed into the gulyas, one delcious spice of a savory whole. i pass my story off to others, those with hungarian stories yet to come. michal the traveller. jenny the visitor. alison the student. dave the dentist. trever the scholar.

little pieces of the Hungarian gulyas. My goulash. Egeszsegedre!

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Ta-da!


Ta-da. Here it is, hot off the presses my last day of work. Basically a summation of the totality of what I've done. This page of a chart, one of about 40, was the big kahuna of my summer's efforts. Here's hoping it might be of good use to someone someday!

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Friday, August 10, 2007

ejszekatek


typikus magyar ejszekat van.

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Saturday, August 04, 2007

Paying Tribute to Pecs

Noemi had a bad week. Among other things, she accidentially spilt a glass of wine on her laptop. A shocked gasp later, it was fried. Her mom took it to tech staff at the National Museum of Fine Arts, but they’ve been oscillating all week on whether or not it would be possible to save any information at all. The computer itself, though, goners.

I figured that just treating her to a nice Jeremy-cooked meal (all the ingredients used to be enclosed in one bag) wasn’t enough, so I suggest we whisk ourselves off to Pecs (Pay-Ch) for a weekend overnight. Three hours by IC train, it’s a perfect weekend destination, long built up by guidebooks and stories. We took off early Saturday morning with smiles.

Pecs is the biggest city in southeastern Hungary, perched on rolling hills just before Hungary slopes into Serbia. The hills are flush with wine, the southern side of the mountains has a Meditteranean feel to it. The climate goes as far as to offer fig trees along the streets in Pecs.

Two architectural highlights crown the city. In the main square, a green-domed church stands as proud tribute to the 150 years of Turkish dominance. (Shown in the picture, alongside one of the delightful nationalist rallies that you run into every once in a while in provincial Hungary...) After conquering Pecs in the 16th century, the Ottomans razed the largest church and made a grand mosque out of the rubble. When the Hungarians (fine, Austrians…) retook the city late in the 17th century, they were strangely more sentimental and, in rather unprecedented act of foresight, converted the main mosque into a unique Christian church rather than razing it in retribution. Inside, you can still read verses of the Koran painted onto a few of the walls. At the other end of the downtown area, formerly encased inside a city wall, is the four-spired cathedral. On this particular Saturday, at least ten brides stood white against the picturesque towers.

We ate food, we drank wine, we touristed. Come Sunday, we hiked in flipflops up the hills that grows from the north end of the town. First we wove through residential streets before settling on a footpath to the TV tower atop the bluff. While we weren’t properly afooted, the trail was nice hiking and the view from the top even better. After the long stroll and a good meal, we dashed back to the train for the last Sunday afternoon train, refreshed from a quick night out of the city.

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Friday, August 03, 2007

Corny

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Monday, July 30, 2007

hetveget

Julia and I skipped an afternoon of work, in protest, when her goodbye lunch was pushed back from Friday to Monday. Our rebellious ways took us to the Ethnography Museum, which was quite nice. Right across from the majestic Parliament, it was originally the home of the Hungarian supreme court. The traditional Hungarian displays were free, they charged only to see two temporary displays that may or may not have been worth the 400 HUF.

Noemi and I discovered the joys of 499 HUF frozen pizzas, three to a box. Austerity measures and tastebuds both agree that the pizzas are a good find. I don’t have an oven, though, so we can only make them at her house on Raday utca.

Kalli’s cousin inspired our first trip to Rio. It’s wonderful people watching, our personal favorite was the cow-pantsed young man seducing the mini-skirted young lady. After the music and 700 HUF beers got to us, though, we crossed the street to Zold Pardon, back to where we belong.

I made Noemi take her first trip ever to Csepel, an island just south of the city center on Sunday. It was a planned suburb from the 1960s or 1970s, and to this day retains much of the feel. It’s connected to the city proper by a quick and easy section of the suburban HEV rail line. The reason for our visit was the nearly deserted northern half of the island. It’s rumored to be a tentative site for a potential Olympic village down the road, so I wanted to check it out with my own eyes. It looked, truthfully, quiet promising for the purpose. Close the city center, nice views, and absolutely nothing of value to knock down. Potentially really good.

On the way back, we stopped at the National Theatre. It’s an eclectic building, surrounded not only by a beautiful spot on the Danube at the southern reaches of the city, but also by quite a controversy, but I loved it. The boat part of the design is glorious, and the odd-tidbits surrounding it are engagingly fun. In my SimCity world, the Olympic Stadium is right across the road from the theatre. ☺

And the weekend finished with a screech. The almost rusty-screech of a foot-powered air pump at 11:00 Sunday night. Janos brought over a queen-size inflatable mattress that his brother and sister-and-law had bought to sleep on when they were visiting. Slipped underneath my futon mattress, it’s a wonderful addition to my home! I have a bed finally!!!

Glorious...

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Friday, July 27, 2007

Eastern European Propaganda



Greetings from Gyongyhaz! Enjoy the show. :-)

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Inkak

Okay, enough with the drama, it's not hot anymore. The front passed, and by Monday it was delightful. The mercury might creep back up again, according to the forecast rumors, but we'll take it as it comes.

Noemi's mom smuggled Noemi and I into the Museum of Fine Arts' Inca Exhibit on Monday. We reveled in the air conditioning and enjoyed the artifacts, too. It inspired dreams of visiting South America someday.

Up next? The long anticipated video of my new apartment!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Hot. A lot.

(The dateline is right. Monday morning. 1:42 am. The city and I have become nocturnal in the brutal summer heat.)

Office Manager Reka asked last Monday how it felt to be 27. I gave the obvious answer, old. But I was wrong. I feels hot at age 27. Ridiculously hot. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday was the hottest seven-day experience of my life, bar none. Unbe-freaking-lievable. It's hard to know the actual damage, as i don't speak the language of the weather reports, but I've heard accounts that the mercury topped out at 43 celsius.

CNN says it's causing havoc.

Even the rhinocerouses need cold showers.

According to Pestiside.hu:

A train carrying a load of yellow phosphorous crashed near Lviv, Ukraine, releasing a toxic cloud that some predict will travel west through Hungary. This would be a big deal, except that by the time it gets here, we'll already be dead from the fucking heat. [mno.hu]

The government is taking action.

Budapest Mayor Gabor Demszky told a news conference on Thursday the city would never again try to save money by buying buses or trams that were not air-conditioned.

The city of Szolnok has bought 1.2 tons of melons from local farmers, which it has been distributing to elderly residents and families with children.

It's a level-three heat warning.

In short, it was the hottest temperature ever in Hungary, since records have been kepy.

Cities were not designed for 43 celsius. I never really knew this, the incompatability of cities and summer. The past eight years I've had the privilege of summering in forests, mountains, islands, lakes, rivers and meadows. Occasional trips to Denver, Charlotte and Seattle were only rare adventures, where an afternoon of heat could be blown off as part of the adventure.

But living in a city of 2 million during the summer? Ugh. Sixth-floor apartments, with southern-exposure windows. Ugh. Each step up is a notch up the thermometer. The city smells like dog urine. Parks aside, there are 18 trees in the entire city. Suffocating trams. Smelly people. Stagnant air.

Of course, though, there are occasional respites. It's wonderful to take joy in simple pleasures. WestEnd is pleasantly cool. It's less of a pain to spend time in the office when the air-conditioning switch is enchantingly easy to manipulate. The Buda Castle cave tour is refreshingly 60-degreesed, even if the content is maddeningly unimpressive. And dusk and dawn are colorfully pleasant.

So the city, and I, have taken to modifying ourselves. We nap through the day. Accomplishing even one thing during daylight would be a highlight. The streets are deserted during the day. This weekend, an absolute ghost town. The only souls braving the sidewalkes were the same old cycle of revolving tourists, clutching their maps in the hopes of figuring Hungary out in 48 hours. Here for only a day or two, they marched through the sun and heat in the hopes of seeing all that they could. The regulars, though, either escaped the city or escaped the daytime.

At dusk, at dawn, at night, we move. Noemi and I went to see The Snows of Kilimanjaro at the square fronting the Parliament tonight just after the sun set. The website said it would be in English, with Hungarian subtitles, so I got bored after a while. Not before, though, Noemi earned a set of precious goosebumps as the evening breeze picked up. Afterwards, I went for a 10 pm jog. People were walking their dogs. Sitting on sidewalk steps, emerging from summer sun bomb shelters. Plus it's prettier this time of day, watching a parchment-colored half-moon set, just beyond the Buda hills, capped with stately stone buildings of the same tone.

But there's only so much playing with ice cubes I can do before I start to wonder if I would ever be able to acclimate myself to the idea, the terrible notion, of spending an entire summer cooped up in a city, when there are so many wonderful places to be and explore and see and do. and even if I were able to trick myself into that domestication, the urbanization of summering in cities, would that be any way at all to live? ahh cities. they push and pull...

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

A Sweet Saint

I did it. I cracked. I caved in. I succumb/succumbed/succame/succambed.

Driven mad by heat in my 6th floor, southern exposure apartment, I bought a fan. 5,000 HUF well spent, if initial reviews are anything to go off of.


I named her Melissa, when Noemi began to worry that I had too strong a romantic attachment to my new fan. Within an hour, she was Saint Melissa, as I began to pray to her. It works. She listens, and keeps me (relatively) cool and comfortable all night long...

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

Olympic Rings

A wonderful evening with Noemi and Janos last night, as well as his friend who was leaving town come the following morning and was flush with forints to get rid of. The results, absinthe, which you can’t get back home. A not unpleasant drink, much akin to the Ouzo we had for the first time in Greece. A fun little experiment in one of our favorite atmospheres, Potkulcs.

And on the occasion of birthdays, it’s hard not to feel old. Especially yesterday, when I stopped to think how far away the year 2020 is. It's not really all that far away. And it's, courtesy of simply math, the year I will turn 40.

The reason I was focused on the year 2020? A good one. Budapest is beginning to start the process of bidding to host the Summer Olympics in 2020. While the 40-year-old realization carries with it a tinge of concern, I'm jazzed about the prospect of a Budapesti Olimpia.

I first took a curiosity to the pamphlet handed to me at the Bryan Adams concert weeks ago, something along the lines of “Do you want Budapest to host the Olympics in 2020?” Immediately I was inspired and developed a fascination.

I took to researching. Budapest was originally scheduled to host the 1920 Olympics. This was, of course, in the hey-day of Budapest’s imperial grandeur. But along came that darn first world war. And just like how the Treaty of Trianon ripped 66% of the territory and 50% of her population away from Budapest, the IOC ripped the right to host the games away. (And the Hungarian athletes were uninvited to the entire 1920 Olympics.) Around these parts, they’re still irate about the former, if they’ve long-since forgotten about the latter.

More Olympic trivia? Hungary’s been successful in the games. Hungary ranks in the top ten countries in summer Olympic medals. Water polo, weightlifting and fencing glory have paid off. And guess which country among the top ten is the only one to have never hosted an Olympic games. Yup. Magyarorszag.

When calculated per capita, Hungary ranks third all-time in the most medals won! Rick Steves’s figures show Hungary behind on Australia and Cuba, when medals are tallied per person.

The committee of companies and leaders who have banded together to bid to bring the Olympics to Budapest reads like a who's-who of modern Hungarian economics. Malev. OTP. Danubius Radio. All their CEOs and executives make up the high-powered board of directors.

And so, excited beyond believe, I sent an e-mail, asking if I could help. The next day, a response, straight from headquarters:

Dear Jeremy,

Thank you very much for your letter. We were glad to read your lines about your intention that you would be a volunteer of our movement. As you have a special skill you can really help us occasionally. You could review any translations and fine-tune them to ensure the highest quality professional tone, as you had suggested. The only problem is that you will be in Hungary only until the end of August. Do you think you can still help us after returning to the US ?

Best regards,

Akos Baranyai
General Secretary
BOM

So there you have it, I'm an Olympic volunteer. Jo lesz!

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Heat Wave!


North African heat wave!! How much is 42 degrees Celsius, you wonder? It's probably more dramatic if you do the calculations yourself...

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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Happy Bastille Day!

My first birthday abroad ever. Twenty-gasp-seven. Young at heart. More gray hairs peeking out of my left temple than my right, wonder what that means?

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Friday, July 13, 2007

Fathers and Daughters

Two months, two daughters in Europe.

A year ago, I was her father. Robyn and I were tutoring her in the ways of being a productive camp counselor, a self-sufficient community member suddenly dedicating her happiness to others on an island just off of Washington State. We lived out of teepees.

Yesterday, though, Michal and I were friends. I was the tour guide, she and her boyfriend Clark were the tourists, stopping in Budapest just long enough to catch their breath on a whirlwind seven-week post-graduation tour if Europe. Things are different now. We can toast her mother, of sorts, and Four Winds with palinka and stories.

They had they fair share of stories and adventures getting here. Midnight ticket collectors in Croatia, demanding 60 euros each, on the spot, because Eurail passes aren’t good in Slovenia or Croatia. They battled my Romanian “…and I almost died!” stories tit-for-tat.

Thursday, a late arrival to Keleti from Venice. A schnazzy new hostel, just down the street, catering to the artsy type. Laundry, lunch, the usual logistics. Then Szechenyi bath and the exquisite uncertainty of Hungary’s favored relaxative. I gave the usual, less-than-definitive history of Hungary in the shadow of the heroes that ring Hosoktere. Dinner, Fisherman’s bastion, then a nightcap above the blustery Corvinteto.

Friday, they met me at my office. After lunch and a long spiral up to the views at the crest of St. Istvan’s Bazilika, I sent them off the Terror Museum and Synagogue. Come quitting time, we raced back to Keleti, as all trips to train stations in Hungary must necessarily be rushed. We hurled their bags onto the rain, just seconds before it slowly rolled to Vienna. Hugs and handshakes were rushed, but firm.

I rather liked the company, as fleeting as it was. Michal’s off to Stanford come fall. Clark to Indiana. If he liked his taste of Hungary enough, and they said they certainly did, he could be plodding through Hungarian languages classes in just 6 weeks…

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Monday, July 09, 2007

On Why Romania's Nice

It's easy to like Romania.

My favorite reason to like Romania is the simple difference, compared to the Hungary I know, in how they approach village life. In Romania, people sit outside their fences. On benches. It's delightful. Drive through a little Romanian town in the evening, perhaps sometime between 7 and 8, just as the sun starts to molt from yellow to a shade or orange.

Pleasant old folks, chatting with neighbors, abound with smiles. Playful teenagers, congregating on other benches. Little families, content as can be, as if painted on the outside of their fence.

Life, happiness, the community happens outside of the fence in Romania. It's a welcome change of pace.

That's one of the reasons I like Romania.

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Twists and Turns in Mountain Country

We awoke in our barrel early, but unsure of what we would find outside. Fearing the worst, another day of the same drizzle, we braved a peek outside. The morning air still sucked previous warmth out of self-heated barrel, but the skies were blue. We smiled.

I don’t usually wake early, but we started packing before the rest of the sprawling camp. We took still-damp clothing down from our make-shift mid-barrel clothesline and jammed them all into our packs. Carefully dividing our dwindling food, we gobbled breakfast before filling our canteens in a sketchy second-world bathroom sink and setting out.

An hour into our hike, having chosen to go the scenic route, the sun started beating down on our little trail, skirting a little creek cutting down an alpine valley. It was as good as it gets, the sun so easily erased the memories of rain and make the whole hike worthwhile. Elli and I were all smiles as we started to hang wet clothes from the backs and bottoms of our packs, letting the sun and gentle summer breeze air them. Even river crossings became joyous and pain-free in the sunshine, although Elli learned that she preferred to ford streams with her spare pair of shoes. (This silly man had neither a spare pair of shoes nor sandals.)

Three hours into our round-about descent from Padis, we came to the Castles of Ponor (Cetatile Ponorlului). Our blue dot trail suddenly gave out as five-hundred foot sheer cliffs of white limestone dropped straight to the bottom of a tight valley. The whole region is a karst-craver’s dream, speckled with caves and odd geologic formations. The view was marvelous, but the 1960s-era viewing platforms failed to meet several key safety guidelines and were in poor repair. We trekked on after snapping pictures. We’re not sure if any of them will turn out. Our little German disposable camera took some falls and water exposure over the course of our travels. But it did survive, it will have captured some pretty places.

After lunch on top of a ridgeline pass, we caught up with a slow-moving group struggling down the far side of the ridge. Two city slickers tip-toed down the muddy trail while their better-equipped guide led the way in obvious boredom. As we passed, he was so desperate he asked us where we were headed, then invited us along when he found out we were headed in the same direction. It could have been that he was impressed with Elli’s new Arctryx backpack, but I think Alex would have taken any company at that point. His friends didn’t enjoy their first – and presumably last – night in the outdoors. He was practically licking his chops at the prospect of adventurous friends to tackle the next challenge, the greatest challenge, ahead.

Alex guided us, in chiseled English, down a hill and around a river that emerged from an underground karst tunnel like a giant spring. The backside of the spring was so tight against the cliff that a cable was bolted against the rockface, four feet above a small ledge. Elli couldn’t believe the mission-impossible at first, then changed her mind in excitement and demanded I take a picture as she billy-goated her way across the traverse. Just as she crossed, our three friends from our warm-soup-dinner the night before came from the opposite direction. Even with smiles on their face, the demanded in impassioned Romanian that Alex not take us on the trail ahead, especially with backpacks. It was too dangerous they pled, that’s why they had turned around. Elli and I looked at each other nervously, but Alex was confident.

By the time we got to the third cable, we began to wonder what we were getting into. The rock-climbing-esque uphills and downhills weren’t designed for large backpacks. Or for tired hikers ready for the end. But as we traversed the edge of a tight valley, limestone cut by the river that stitched the terrain, above and under ground at different points, we crept lower and closer to the river, with beautiful cliffs rising above us. But then, the path gave out for good. Our two choices? Go back, uphill, or start really dangling from cables.

Ropes courses are generally pretend, safe for me. But this was real. I think that’s what made it so fun. Elli decided to kick off her shoes and ford her way, thigh deep, downstream. I had only one pair of shoes and a bit of an adventurous streak. I took the cables.

The river, emerging from another karst tunnel, cascaded back to the surface in the form of a waterfall, dropping out of the middle of a cliff. After a frothing into a river, the water turned right, completely occupying a thin crack of a canyon. On the left side, an old cable, 30 meters long, bolted six feet above the water level. A series of primitive footholds were chiseled into the rock, four feet below the cable, two feet above the water. Compounded by slippery rocks, my pack pulled me backwards, away from the cable toward the foaming river with each carefully placed step, but I slid along the cable until I was able to leap to a shoreline as the river slowed as the ravine spread out just a little.

Feeling like champions of the world, Elli and I patted ourselves on the back with giant grins, amazed by our accomplishment. Little did we know we hadn’t even finished half of our cables to traverse the rest of the ravine to the road. We still had to pull ourselves up cables through caves. Up ahead were cables with chain-link footholds straight across the river. One by one we battled them, I was way impressed at how Elli tackled each one. Lesser folks would have given up. We battled through. In essence, we survived.

At the end of the ravine, smiles and pictures. We waved goodbye to Alex, who raced uphill to rejoin his city-folk friends, who hadn’t braved the two hour voyage through the heart of the ravine. More friendly Romanians offered us (bad) advice on short-cuts to Pietroasa, and we set out with smiles down the long forest road (20 km) that twisted down to the little village. Our plan was to find our long lost old-lady friend Flori and sleep in her yard before catching a bus to Oradea on Sunday. Anything would be fine, just as long as we could get to the border city by 5 pm.

On the way down I drank the riverwater. Maybe I shouldn’t have, and I don’t think I ever have before, but it was hot. And I was thirsty. And my schnazzy Euro canteen looks so invincible I was lulled into the risk. Plus, I figured I wouldn’t have to pay the price for the luxury of cold water on a hot day until I was long out of the woods and back home in Budapest. It tasted good. I wouldn’t let Elli drink any, she still had plenty of tap water left, even if it was luke warm. Results? No problems.

We debated hitching a ride down on a logging truck, but none lumbered past, at least none with room in the cab, and we weren’t quite willing to ride, rodeo-style, atop the logs. All the cars were headed up-mountain, the opposite direction we were hoping. Some of the cars motoring up the incline, though, stopped for advice as they saw us rambling down the road, all spoke rather good English.

Things weren’t looking good after a grueling “short-cut.” To save 1 or 2 kilometers of trail, we had to bushwhack a non-existant trail, then march up the steepest incline of the whole trip, with no trail cutting up the tall-grass slope. But a funny thing happened just afterwards. Elli shouted up to me, she had been walking 10 meters behind me, asking if we wanted a ride. One of the cars we had given advice to on the way up and stopped on its way down, and offered. We weren’t that far from Pietroasa, so I thought about recommending we decline the offer, but it seemed too good to be true. We through our packs in the back, apologized for our muddy shoes, and climbed in.

That’s how I came to be riding in the trunk of a Romanian station wagon, drinking non-alcoholic beer, gripping anything within reach as a crazy Romanian man with an Australian accent zipped down the Transylvanian Alps…

They asked where we were going, we said Pietroasa, then Oradea. They laughed, they were headed to that very city at that very moment. The man had to drop his sister off back at home – they’d simply come into the mountains for a Saturday afternoon drive. Tickled pink by our good luck, we couldn’t do anything other than shake our heads and laugh. We were almost back home, misadventures far behind us.

Ahh, Romania…

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Saturday, July 07, 2007

Ups and Downs on the Transylvanian Trail

In between snide comments from the middle-aged Hugh Grant fan, who later tried to sell us a bed in his home for 11 euro, Elli made friends with Flori, a kindly old Hungarian woman. After bragging about her cats, who speak both Hungarian and Romanian, Flori invited us to spend the night at her brother’s house, her final destination on the microbus. As the clouds perched at the top of the ever-growing mountains looked a little ominous with each passing kilometer we seriously considered the offer. But for some reason we didn’t hop out with Flori when she got out at Guranyi. Instead, we were left standing with a piece of paper, her address, in Elli’s hand when the bus driver threw us out of the bus at Pietroasa, 20 lei later. ($4 per person for a 2 hour bus ride.)

Even with two hiking maps, a giant map of the village underneath a welcome sign alongside the road and river to orient us, we had no idea where to go, what to do. In our minute of paralysis, a fun thing happened. The whole village came out to help us, almost as if Romanians decided to come out, come out wherever they were, like when the munchkins realized Dorothy wasn’t a threat. An old man with an odd number of teeth twisted our map, almost hopelessly, trying to orient himself. A young woman and her mom got out of their car when they saw our befuddled maps. They left their car running on one side of the narrow bridge. When a man needed to get through, while they were still talking yellow dots, red triangles and blue dashes to us, he simply got in their car, moved it to the other side of the bridge, then went on his merry way.

They pointed us in the direction of Padis, and we marched away. We didn’t tell them our goal was a little more grand: hiking all the way across the mountain range in front of us, from south to north, until we got to the railroad connecting Oradea and Cluj-Napoca. They might have laughed at us like all the Hungarians did.

We hit the trail, after one last provision of food. I talked to a bunch of young Hungarians on our way out of the village. They had just come back from a long hike and offered unhelpful reports of rainy weather. It helped explain, though, why the river we hiked alongside was churning so brown, like a chocolate milk kayak park. It felt good to stretch my legs, kilometer after kilometer as we inched our way on the map up the mountains. The simplicity of wilderness has its way of soothing worries. We didn’t have very much food. We didn’t have much money either. (The later was important, for the first time on a trekking adventure, because the no-longer-nomadic Hungarians had convinced Elli that we would die – bears – if we tented, rather than staying at a cabana.)

We trekked through, and past, a village where the accommodation help didn’t seem so friendly. It’s an odd feeling, for an American backpacker, stumbling through the villages that speckle the European wilderness. It’s a nice, but odd, pleasure to be able to buy a coke, beer or soft bed along your hiking path. But in the itsy-bitsy crossroads of Boga, we found a guesthouse of vacationing Hungarians, quite willing to invite us into their Thursday evening’s festivities, complete with wine and grilled meat, hot off the bone. Elli chatted up a storm with them, while I amazed the kids with card tricks and shuffling skills.

Come morning, we set off, despite their protestations that we were foolish and should spend the entire weekend with them. We set out on the trail north, determined to get as far as possible so we could make it to the railroad on Sunday, or Monday at the latest. Our high spirits pushed us upwards, towards the misty clouds that tickled the tops of the green mountains. The train, an old road of some importance, snaked up the hillside cascading down into a steep ravine. The views backwards were amazing, and along the way we encountered pictaresque bridges and even mine shafts.a

But then, two hours later, the trail stopped. Just like that. We rounded a bend and nothing. The map showed the dashed line continuing to an important trail junction. It simply didn’t. I was disheartened. Elli wasn’t impressed. We bushwhacked just 10 meters, not a lot knowing me, before giving up. We started to slink all the way back to Boga.

On the way down, just as things couldn’t get worse, it began to rain. We stopped to put on our raincoats, cursing our luck. Ten seconds later, still fumbling with zippers, we gasped at the crash.

Falling timber! Crash! I almost died.

Lumberjacks, we deduced as we ran furious past the fallen tree and out of danger, dropped a tree, just ahead of us and above us, on a steep hill overlooking the trail. The massive trunk crashed violently onto the trail, shuddering everything near it, thundering down onto the very spot we would have been walking if we hadn’t stopped for rain gear. But we had a hard time appreciating our good luck, though, too busy curising dead-end trails and rain. We slumped our packs down on the guesthouse porch as the Hungarians who had warned us about the rigors of hiking the night before laughed at our return. We were back to where we started.

We devised a plan: just get to Padis, that mountain sanctuary that people had been talking about since yesterday, and see what happens from there. Unfolded maps were our table mats as we lunched. We didn’t have any other choice, it was raining. Hard. We crouched under the shelter of the porch. It was a bad sign, but we were optimistic it would stop any moment.

The afternoon of Friday, July 6th proved to be the absolute worst hiking experience of my life. Bar none. I almost died. Repeatedly.

We made a dash for the hills when the rain stopped at 1. We sloshed through wet grass and rained out gravel roads until the end of the village. Then the hills began. Each muddy footstep took us higher and further, except when we slipped back in the mud. The trail got narrower, the brush tighter. But the map said keep going, so we did. And then it started to rain again.

With an unhappy Elli, I had no choice but to be an exceedingly optimistic camp counselor, luckily a role I excel at. It wasn’t fun at all, nor is there any rational way to view it as fun, so I pretended. I encouraged Mother Nature to bring it, we could handle more of a challenge. So she did. It rained for two hours straight at we stomped uphill, in heavy shoes, soaked clothes and sinking spirits.

I proclaimed, as I looked up from underneath my blue hood for the first time in a long time “the greatest moment ever” when we arrived at an alpine meadow. And sure enough, our new setting traded rain for wind. We had a hard time despising our new unfriendly element, until it started biting through wet clothes. But the view was good, the meadow opened into a treeless alpine valley, flush with green grass. A small log cabin sat cozily in the middle, smile drifting lazily out of the chimney. Off on the far side of the valley, a flock of sheep sat like slow-moving chunks of white marble. Only fuzzy.

After we passed a stationary horse in the middle of the road, it certainly acted confused as we walked passed, we veered off the road, up a mountain pass to take the trail recommended by our map. The trail was hard to follow, so we blazed our own up the bushy, rocky terrain. Half way up the first rumble. Elli and I looked each other, mountain passes are bad places to be during storms. But it wasn’t ominous. I pushed us up the mountain with a nod of the head.

The next time I looked up, sheep. Coming straight down the pass at us, a whole flock of them. I laughed, “Ha ha, we’re be attacked by a flock of sheep, Elli!” It’s funny, of course, because sheep are as non-violent as a khadi-clad Gandhi. I stopped dead in my tracks as the cuddly flock exploded in angry, attacking barks.

Sheep dogs! Attacking! I almost died. Again.

It turns out that sheep dog are firmly at the opposite end of the Gandhian spectrum. Two packs of four dogs each burst from each flank of the flock, rushing downhill at me, teeth barred in the growl of anger. Elli was at least 20 yards behind me, I didn’t look back, I couldn’t. My eyes widened, my jaw dropped, as they charged, barreled down. I couldn’t even say a word as the stormed within striking distance. As if to accept my fate, I put my hands out in front of me, nothing but open palms facing the flurry of eight jaws ripping me apart.

Miracles of miracles, they each stopped, snapping loudly a foot from my feet, snarling a venomous warning to this and any other trespasser. I might have squeaked out a “nyugi, nyugi tigris,” but it’s hard to talk when you’re scared that badly. I almost died.

An ancient Romanian shepherd, as saintly in my book as Jesus or any Good Shepherd, called them off in a stoic Romanian I couldn’t understand. He was wearing a clear, plastic poncho. Grudgingly, the dogs retreated with a few warning snaps. I stood in place for a full minute, Elli did, too, before putting a foot forward and drudging uphill again.

Five minutes later, half the way up to the crest, thunder. This time a crack, then a flashbulb pop of bright white.

Lightning! Mountain ridge! I almost died. Again.

We beat a quick retreat down the bare slope, slipping and sliding down the wet grass as I gave Elli the quick run-down on what to do during a lightning strike in the mountains.

Two near-death encounters later, still wet and cold, we found ourselves back at the same road that ringed the entire alpine valley like a lazy necklace. We pushed on with plan two, take the road, rather than the trail to Padis. Ten minutes later, that’s when the “grindina” started. What does the Romanian word “grindina” mean, you ask?

Hail! Falling hard! I almost died. Again.

We sat out the painful hailstorm under an evergreen tree. By now, the misadventure was almost comic, except that we couldn’t be certain of the ending with so many near misses. We were far from home and uncertain of the terrain. We didn’t know how we were going to get back home, how we could just make the adventure end. Plus we were cold. And wet. And hungry.

As we plodded on, I began to invent a tale. A tale to trivialize the hazards, the celebrate the unknown. The basic premise was the long process Elli would have had to gone through if I would have actually been eaten by the sheep dogs. She would have been distraught, of course. The shepherds would have taken her into their warm cabin, she would have traded our Nutella for warm clothes. The next day, after riding back to the closest bus stop on a sheep, should would have had to wind her way to the nearest American embassy. There, via helicopter, she would have escorted U.S. officials to my remains on the mountainside, then back to Hungary. The story continues, of course, but it didn’t need to. By the time the story was over, we could see the start of the shacks of Padis.

It really isn’t more than a cross-roads. Think an Everest base camp. A few plywood huts that sold beer and other necessary supplies out of a front window. Three places that rent small rooms cramped with beds for the night. A bevy of tents in the corner of a field, a community of hikers huddling for warmth and friendship. And two drowned Americans, stumbling through it all in delusion.

We finally walked into a door in desperation. My glasses fogged up as we stepped into a raucous room of stranded hikers, determined to make the best of a cold, rainy day with beer and games, and friends both new and old. We asked at the counter if they had any beds available – we were too cold and too wet for the back-up tent in my pack – she pointed toward the back. She pointed to the set of six extra-large wooden barrels, each with a flimsy roof on top and a thin door on front. 40 lei. 15 dollars. We slammed the money down in joy.

Our electric heater didn’t work, but we stripped of wet clothes and put on whatever was dry from our packs. Not much survived the day without taking on lots of water. I was under-packed. I shivered in my sleeping bag for two early evening hours, trying to light myself with the paperback History of Hungary that has suffered water-damage as well. It didn’t work. My sentences started to lose coherency.

Hypothermia! Closest I’ve ever come. I almost died. Again.

Elli insisted on warm soup, even though we were worried about spending all of our money, without being able to withdraw more. It was a great choice. The charda, or something along those lines, was warm and wholesome, a traditional Romanian specialty. And we made new friends at our table, three hikers who had just finished studying in Cluj-Napoca. Flori, for example, had just finished degrees in a geography and tourism. They all spoke great English. By the time we ambled back to our almost-dark barrel, we were warmer, drier and three friends richer. But the verdict on the weather was still out. The sky was red at sunset. According to legend, we were in for “sailor’s delight,” as opposed to the warning a sailor takes from a “red morn.” We decided to figure our course of action in the morning, when we knew what the weather would be like. Good weather, see some amazing sights before heading back to Pietroasa. Another day of bad weather, though, and we’d pack it in as soon as possible.

That’s how we came to spend the night in a barrel, considering ourselves lucky for making it through a day in the Apuseni alive. Barely.

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Friday, July 06, 2007

Visiting Oradea (Nagyvarad) Romania

Visiting Oradea (Nagyvarad) Romania

Train from Budapest, HU

7200 forint (30 euro roundtrip)
3.5 hours (two direct trains a day, three additional possibilities with transfers)

With the train station to your back, walk left down the busy Republic Street. After the McDonalds on the ground floor of a massive communist building taking up a big chunk of land on the right side of the road, veer right onto the Republica pedestrian street. The two main squares are at the end of the pedestrian street, straddling the river Crişul Repede.

To get to the hostel, take the very first right after the bridge, heading downstream. After a block, just before another massive monolith, most of the traffic will split left, following the river, but you should continue to walk down Vladminscu Street.

The churches are gorgeous, whether they be proudly catholic, ornately orthodox or stately (but deserted) Jewish synagogues. Guidebooks offer good explanations.

The city is abound with taxis. Capitalism run amuck. But use them to your advantage, as a cheap alternatives to going to the hassle of figuring out the relatively expensive public transportation, especially if travelling in a party of two or more.

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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Adventures in Oradea

I’m the most un-tan I’ve ever been in my life and I hate it. So I figured it was time to bust out of the suffocating office and shirts with buttons long enough for an outdoor adventure. And when you’re in these parts, why not Transylvania for the Fourth?

Elli and I go way back by now (even though by my calculations we’ve only ever met up a grand total of three times). Thanksgiving Elli. I taught her the joys of backpacking last year, on a short two-night trek through some Hungarian hills - her first unplanned adventure ever! Back in Hungary this summer, too, she was anxious to put her new backpack and boots to use, so we’ve be talking a Transylvanian trip for quite some time now.

It’s a fascinating land of twisted history and confused culture. That’s half the intrigue, I suppose. And having been there once before, bussed from village to village with a slew of Americans, I consider myself a bit of an expert. I thhttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifink that’s part of what led me, perhaps to underestimate the adventure. I was surprised, perhaps I shouldn’t have been, when we almost died. Repeatedly.

I left from Keleti Palyudvar a little after noon, Elli left Nyiregyhaza a little later. The theory was that our trains would met up at Puspodokladany and she would jump into mine. Late trains and frantic phone calls later, the train half of the adventure was a bit more complicated than that, as it generally is. Elli just managed to hop out of her train, follow my voice and hop into the train that was waiting for us. At the border, we had forgotten about the one hour time-zone difference, and weren’t ready to get out of the train when we pulled into less than 10 kilometers over the border. The city is called Nagyvarad in Hungarian. We managed to dive out, onto the unimpressive platform behind the city’s main train station, just before the train rumbled eastward, headed to Cluj-Napoca (Kolozsvar).

We stumbled around for a while, trying to orientate ourselves and our map – a piece of paper printed off from the hostel website. Elli, it seemed, was still undecided on the merits of unplanned adventures. But as we wove our way through a long pedestrian street, things began to look up. Storefronts and words are intelligible in Romanian – it isn’t hard to guess many words. And people watching, of course, is good. We crossed the river, quite impressed by the grand facades of the churches and buildings fronting the main square.

We got lost, of course, on crumbling Romanian back alleys. Street names were different on our map, the scale was confusing. The usual. But after a half-hour search, we found our nearly unmarked hostel, right where the map said it would be. We knocked cautiously on the door. On the other side, six Hungarian painters, in town to paint a roof. Covered in green paint, but not shirts, they wound up being rather charming in an undereducated sort of way that reminded me of Heves. They did nothing but smoke, drink beer and slam palinka. They were kind enough to share the later, and became quite enamored with Elli’s Hungarian. Huddling in the other corner was the lone woman until Elli arrived. Helen was a Canadian wandering a giant swath of Eastern Europe alone. She had giant bags of medical supplies, including an electronic thermometer. She was worried she was sick, surprisingly enough.

The hostel’s run by David, a man sent down from Budapest to open the joint and get the subterranean wine cellar up and running. After he gets the hostel off the ground, he’ll head off to Targu Mures (Marosvasarhely) to do the same with a new hostel there. He’s such a committed host that he ran after Elli and I when he realized he’d given us incorrect directions to a restaurant down the road.

That’s when our misadventure with weather began, walking in between two possible restaurants. The day of clouds finally broke. We laughed as a gentle rain forced us under a narrow overhang, pressing our bodies against the closed store window in the hopes of staying dry. We made a break for it when we thought it lightened up after five minutes, but that was just before the dam burst. We found ourselves sprinting through the most ferocious downpour I’ve ever been apart of. Serious rain.

We gave up any hopes of dryness and sloshed our way back to the hostel. It was raining so hard I had to take my glasses off and peek through my fingers as I ran. My shoes were soaked within a minute. My shirt within two. My shorts within three. My passport was in a cargo pocket. Half of my face was washed off my old Hungarian visa, the Ukrainian passport is almost schmeared clean. Romanian money might be water-proof, but passports aren’t.

I’d taken a minimalistic approach on packing for this adventure, I think I’ve been lulled by a year of books and libraries into a complacency. I only had one pair of shoes. Just two shirts. Only three socks. Things were getting off to a sloppy start.

Come morning, it was still raining. I didn’t let Elli come with me to the bus station, despite her Hungarian skills, because I knew I would get lost, and am much more comfortable getting just myself lost, when no one else is following along, worrying. I sent her off to get groceries and supplies, instead. (Note to self. When giving a new backpacker a list of good food possibilities, always include a note about the increased amount of food required to sustain two backpackers for multiple days on the trial…)

The bus station, a city bus ride away on the east side of town, was a notch below Hungarian bus stations in terms of modern conveniences or information provided. The missing-toothed counterwoman spoke only Romanian, but a kindly man offered to translate into Hungarian. She was adamantly opposed to the idea of a 14:20 bus to Pietroasa, our proposed basecamp. But he assured me that it would be okay.

Two maps from a local bookstore completed my errands, and I rushed back so Elli and I had time to pack and hit the road. David called a taxi for us, despite the fact that he and the Hungarians thought we were crazy and should cancel our plans so we could spend a long weekend in Oradea instead.

Less than half of Oradea’s citizens are native Hungarian speakers, but our taxi driver was one. He was impressed, as they all are, with Elli’s linguistic prowess and offered to help us figure out which platform we needed to wait at when we got to the bus station, five minutes early. As we stood with our packs, outside of the car, though, he ran out of the station waving his hands. Vissza! Vissza! Vissza! He ordered, jumping back into the car and slamming the door. He explained as he sped off, that the old lady had reexplained that the bus wasn’t a state-owned one, operating out of the bus station, but a private micro bus running out of a small gas station on the south side of town. He sped off, unsure he’d be able to get us there in time.

Darting in and out of traffic, he finally screeched to a halt in front of three buses. After he deliberated with the drivers, he furiously drove off to the other end of the gas station, where a small van was already starting to move. He cut it off in the driveway and lunged out of the car. The driver shook his head during the first round of negotiations. He only had one seat left and was ready to leave. “But they’re two Americans,” the bus driver pled. It won us some sort of compromise, as the microbus driver got out and threw the back door open, tossing our packs in. One of us, he warned, would have to stand.

And that’s how I came to be sitting, sandwiched between the door and a seat on a crowded microbus as it darted through Romanian villages of no-note, weaving its way toward the mountains we had come to climb.

I was laughing. Elli was smiling. And the man on the seat between us, unable to do more than string a few English words together, was happy to inform us, using a copy of the day’s paper that while Hugh Grant had to pay a million dollars for oral sex in America, that in Hungary it was free.

Ahh, adventures... This was to be a good one, as we were left shaking our heads already...

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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

4th of July = Romania


It's Independence Day and Thanksgiving Elli and I are off to one of the world's great bastions of Freedom - Romania. Err, something like that...

A couple days wandering through the Transylvanian Alps sounds good. Real good.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Uncle George

Uncle George came to town yesterday. That's seriously what the staffers call Soros in the office, Gyoribacsi. He and other economistis/political scientists/thinkers arranged for a little roundtable discussion to kick-off the start of the Central European University's summer session. The topic? Open Society in Fragile States.

I dragged Noemi along. We got good seats because we were among the first people to sit in the little CEU auditorium. Paul Collier's an important man, they say, but the digital camera flash bulbs didn't pop when he opened the discussion. Everyone saved their picture for Uncle George's turn at the microphone. Eight billion dollars and political activism will create a funny sense of celebrity.

The most interesting observation? The resource curse.

Developing democracies with vast amounts of valuable resources will often regress toward authoritarianism. Why? Certainly there's more incentive for plunder the state coffers if you're the leader of a rich country. But perhaps just as importantly, the people don't have much incentive to complain. Resource-rich countries don't have to tax their citizens much, if at all. And as taxes decrease, so too does citizen participation in governance. There just isn't as much incentive to be actively involved in criticizing and correcting governance. Just think what kind of blinders the pledge of "tax cuts" buys even in our own America.

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Bryan Adams Fan Club

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That Summer Seemed to Last Forever

My old German student Jenny has been in Hungary, her homeland until age 9, for the past couple of weeks. Our plans of meeting up finally happened Saturday, one of the greatest days in the history of Budapest: T-Mobile’s annual free concert at Heroes Square. Starring Megasztar Ruzsa Magdi and…

Yup, Bryan Freaking Adams.

Now ordinarily you might look at the Canadian crooners reproitre and feel unsatisfied beyond the classic jolting chords of Summer of ’69, but for me, BA’s always meant a little more. You see, everything I do, I do for Bryan Adams. Back at the end of 6th grade, way back before the summer of ’92, we chose his Robin Hood serenade to close out our elementary school career with a tribute to our parents who suffered through so much in the Lakeshore gym-turned-theatre.

I was stoked, as you should be for a free concert in a European capital. Others weren’t so excited, and opted for the utterly commonplace occurrence of an evening of gypsy music at local hotspot, West Balkan. It’s akin, I suppose, to a New Orleans resident skipping out on a Tom Petty show for another night at the jazz club. Regardless, I was joined by Noemi, legal intern Alla and student Jenny.

Magdi opened. She’s the most famous of the Megasztar’s, Hungary’s very own version of American Idol. She switched back and forth between English and Hungarian seamlessly and rocked pretty well. She covered Janis Joplin and Queen to rave reviews. My favorite, though, was a wild take on Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life.

But the 200,000 who showed up in the shadow of Hungary’s heroes didn’t come for Magdi. They came for Mr. Adams. Hungary and Canada have many links. Many Hungarians live in Canada, especially Toronto. Recently, Canada was so moved by some marker in Hungary’s history that they donated a waterfall – a Niagra falls – to the WestEnd shopping mall just four blocks from my flat. And apparently history and political cooperation extends into music. Hungarians dig Bryan Adams.

He popped up, in the midst of the crowd, on an elevated platform to start his set. After a rockin’ intro. His band disappeared, replaced by only an acoustic guitar. He asked us to forgive him, he knew not what he was doing. I wasn’t the only one ready to forgive him. The ladies were squealing at each song they recognized, even if they didn’t know before that it was him who sang it. I was probably squealing, too.

We’d been anticipating, for several hours, and even the several days leading up to the concert, that the singular moment when we realized the chords he has banging out were Summer of ’69 would be one of the greatest moments in the history of our lives.

I am here to testify - today, tonight, forever – that it was. It was good. So very good. Egeszegedre-good. I bought my first real six string. So so good. Bought it at the five and dime. Wow. Waves of goodness. Played it till my fingers bled. Yes. Yes. Yes. Was the summer of ’69.

The moment was so good that I could do nothing but call Kat and Janos and put them on speakerphone so they could taste the moment. I don’t think it worked.

By the time dusk set, he’d rocked through 2 hours of songs, laced with hits if not stuffed full of them. He strained his way through All for One, All for Love as the grandest of finales, he’d given his voice to Let’s Make it a Night to Remember, 18 Until I Die and Cuts like a Knife.

I guess I didn’t have a good answer, swaying with Noemi, Jenny and Alla as he asked, rather repeatedly, if I’d ever really, really really ever loved a woman. No good answer except a wistful smile.

But I do know now that I’ve ever really, really really ever had a man crush on a Canadian rocker. Well, sort of ever really, really really ever…

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Sunday, July 01, 2007

Housewarming

Third haircut in Hungary means it’s becoming commonplace. Noemi made the appointment, even though I probably could have done it alone. I walked in alone, gave my now standard “nem vagyok okos” apology (I am not smart) and let her do her thing. The result was the shortest hair cut, I think, that I’ve ever received, but I like it.

The haircut came just in time for Mel and Kalli’s housewarming party. All of the interns came, along with any friends. As the only intern with Hungarian friends, I invited as many as I could. Eva came, and met Janos for the first time. A Facebook friend Fruzsi came. The Wisconsin Dells ladies come. It was a jo buli, complete with my new favorite cheese – smoked karavan – until loud pounding at the door led us to take our party elsewhere around 10:30.

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Moving Company

Goodbye Imperial Kodaly Korond, Hello Nyugati and WestEnd, my new neighborhood. Four blocks from my new house? The wireless god-send of Central Europe's largest mall.

Highlights of new apartment will, of course, find their way to you via video special real soon!

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Friday, June 29, 2007

Eager Eger

By now, I’m just about as well-versed in Eger as Rick Steves or any other English-speaker in the world. It’s a good thing, of course, as Eger is still as charming and wonderful as when it was my cultural escape from Heves. It’s a perfect blend of small-town charm, colorful history, ecclesiastical delight, baroque architecture, posh urbanity in little, consumable portions and, of course, wine. So it made sense that the magical county seat of my old county-du-jour would be my recommendation for the first law-interns weekend.

At first, it’s hard to plan for and travel with detail-oriented people who aren’t quite yet accustomed to traveling and living in a world that borders very nearly to second at times. They insisted that they heard Intercity trains were the only way to go. I countered with the realities of train transportation to Eger and promises that fish-heads-under-seats is, in fact, “culture.” Hungarians recommended reservations, they clamored. I begged to differ, never once having bought a ticket earlier than the moment before I jumped on the train and never once having ordered a seat, and paid more for it, unless it was compulsory. That’s just the laissez-faire see-what-happens Hungary I’d come to love last year.

The crew was impressed by the train when we finally hopped on Saturday morning, Melanie, Kalli and I running to catch up with the rest of the group, lunging onto the train in fear that it would leave any second. As they snapped pictures as we whizzed past the not-so-tall tallest point in Hungary, the Matra mountains, I gave them just the facts. I didn’t tell them what it’s like to hike, without a map, from that highest point, Kekesteto, to the village of Sirok, 40 km away. Maybe it’s because they wouldn’t have been interested, maybe it’s because tour guides should leave something for their clientele to explore and learn on their own.

Julia’s the Columbia gal in the Open Society office with me. You’ve already been introduced. She looks good with a wine glass in her hand, no? A contentment of sophistication.


Melanie and Kalli
, too, are old news. I didn’t know, though, of Kalli’s proclivity for photography until she snapped 565 digital pictures over the course of the weekend.

Canadian Dave is, you guessed it, Canadian. From way up where the Carlyn sails, so north of Vancouver that it’s almost Alaska. Melanie and Kalli met him through Facebook after they almost rented an apartment from him. They didn’t though, and they felt so bad about jilting him that they invited him out for drinks. He came to Hungary in pursuit of an adventure and a license at dentistry. After high school, he absconded college to learn through more experiential adventures and picked up far more applicable trades like construction and Swedish.

Now, four years later, he’s without the Bachelor’s Degree that isn’t such a prerequisite in these parts of the world. He’ll study for five years at Semmelweis University in Budapest, mostly with other foreign students, and earn a medical degree that’ll be valid anywhere in the EU (and strangely enough, California). He’s gotten much better in Hungarian during his year in Hungary so far than I did in the same amount of time, I’m a little envious.

Stephanie works with Mel-n-Kalli. (He, I can’t believe that I didn’t come up with the melancholy nickname before right now!!) She’s at Princeton now, but hails from Florida.

Kate is an Australian who earned her entire Bachelor’s Degree at a Japanese university. Now she’s landed at Columbia, and just finished her first year of law school. The Trabant-top picture may or may not have been at my late-night instigation!

Saturday, after finding our Guesthouse just underneath the castle, we set out see Eger. At lunch, Dave and I sampled bikaver while Kate settled on beer. The waiter gave an impressed “Really?!” when he set the big beer down in front of the lady instead of the two gentlemen at the same table.

We finished the last of our ice cream cones before entering the cathedral, we gulped down the last of our dip-n-dots before entering the Mennonite temple, We spun our way up the minaret, as all good tourists must. Claustrophobia and heights struck half of our group, but we battled through. I lectured the short history of Eger and its role in a brief tour of Hungarian history in the shadow of the 17th century sliver of a testament to Turkish dominance of the city. There might not have been applause, but I think they were duly impressed.

An afternoon in the wine-cellar-ringed Valley of Beautiful Women is where the photo madness began. To amazing results, Kalli and the others started snapping away. While it’s normally a photogenic place, this afternoon was more amazing than most. A smiling 7 year old. A week-old bride shrouded in a droopy hat. A four-toothed violinist. Endless glasses of deep-red shiraz. Smiles.

We got lost in wine and conversation and laughter until a late supper. Most of the girls went home after a long day, but Dave, Kate and I stayed in the valley to make some Hungarian friends. We thought we heard some Australians do an Ozzie-Ozzie-Ozzie-Hoi-Hoi-Hoi, but they just turned out to be skinheads, according to two new friends at the top of the valley.

The crowd in street became younger and younger and Dave and I became restless for a disco. We decided on the infamous lava-tube disco underneath the Bazilika instead of the disco in the city park, despite directions to the later.

At Amazon, much smaller and quieter than I remember, I teamed up with a cute gal on the foosball table. I don’t think her older brother took it kindly when she and I destroyed him and his partner. Not much English was spoken.

Sunday morning, as we packed up, I made our sixty-year-old hostess cry. We wanted to leave our bags at the guesthouse until we were ready to take the train a few hours later. I tried communicating that in Hungarian. She, on the other hand, wanted to go to the baths. She communicated that by crying, I gave in, of course, and she got her way. We hauled our bags off to a breakfast of fruit at the market. Again we found ourselves strangely photogenic. Even normal meals looked better in black-and-white. By the time we rolled into the same train station – Keleti – that we had rolled out of less than 30 hours ago, the photo ladies had managed certainly no less than 600 pictures. That, of course, is more than 20 an hour! I just feel bad for ruining so many of them with my presence… :-P

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Thursday, June 28, 2007



Fun with Hungarian Bathrooms
Budapest, Hungary
Jeremy Jewett

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007



Find all the pictures at:

http://picasaweb.google.com/kalli.kofinas/EgerEgSzsGedre?authkey=q-PbdWq5Cy0

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Egri Hetveget



One of the best aspects of travelling abroad with law students, etc? Talented folk galore. Kalli's one with the camera and took over 500 pictures of our (barely) 24 hour stay in Hungary. that's 20 an hour, if you're doing the same math i'm doing. Her smile makes people feel comfortable and her eye for the lens makes the results magic. Here're the teases before the storeis.



(from left Kate, Columbia Law, PILI; Stephanie, Princeton Undergrad, European Roma Rights Centre; Julia Columbia/Amsterdam Law, OSJI; Canadian Dave, Semmelweiss Medical University; the tour guide; Melanie, Wisconsin Law, EERC.)

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