First weekend here, yet last weekend here

This being our last weekend here, it is also the first, and only one on which we aren’t traveling somewhere else. Dave has been here many times but is always either coming or going on a Saturday, so he’s never been here a weekend either. We celebrated by doing something up his alley, which was to visit some good old Roman ruins.

Turns out admission to the site was free today, perhaps because Monday is a holiday here. At any rate, the children were totally uninterested in the concept and wanted to play on the, you guessed it, whimsically-painted wooden playground equipment. After coercing them into the extensive ruined village, they began to quite enjoy running through the labryntine pathways and walls. It is pretty surreal to be in an ancient city while a busy 4-lane road zooms by beside you. That being said, it did feel otherworldly in the way that very old places do. On a side note, I thought I had swaddled my babies tightly, but I had NOTHING on the Romans.

Back in Budapest that afternoon, we had lunch and then Dave took the kids in a double-decker sight-seeing bus, which they’d been wanting to do since we arrived. I met up with Zuszana, family friend of a friend, who hooked us up with the babysitter. Valuable, indeed. She is from Romania and confirmed that all those people really are hoping to sell cabbages and potatoes to passersby. Apparently in one town all they grow is onions because the soil is perfect for it. So now I know.

We had a mostly-good dinner (too much pressure to have a WONDERFUL one the last night, so I didn’t try), bathed the children, attempted to scrub the sticky residue off the wall from all the photos we hung. Whoops.

Captain’s Log: Day 28

Today was the last day of children-and-mama take Budapest. The entire day was filled with 100% child-based activities from top to tails. Why fight it? First up: puppet show at the Budapest puppet theater. Much like the circus, there was a lot more dialogue and singing than I expected. However, this story about a fastidious cat and a flatulent pig had enough slapstick to make William giggle. The whole crowd was entirely made up of preschool field trips, so he was very much in his element. Sonia went along for the ride. She got the circus. Her brother got this one. 

Next up: a cat cafe. I’m indifferent to cats and the food was mediocre, but I knew the children, particularly William, would get a kick out of having lunch in a place with its own small herd (pride?) of cats for the patting. I opted out of the pre-made panini and went for a catuccino instead because Sonia begged me to. WHO AM I?

We then headed on the Metro back to the first indoor playground we visited here. The children seemed to forget I existed for a full half hour. It was glorious. I read my new book while they calmbored around on the climbing structure. I watched with amusement as this one pot-bellied dad wore himself out trying to throw a football in a hole repeatedly in the NFL game. I did participate in a rousing game of ‘throw balls at each other in the ball pit’. That was a good time. 

Afterwards we went to ANOTHER playground designed by the same artist who did the Pencil park and the one at the zoo. This one was based on the story of Zöld Peter. Apparently he was a shepherd boy? I have no idea. But the art pieces were wonderful.  

After 8 hours out and about, we had dinner at the Hungarian place we ate in upon arriving. At this pint Dave is a regular there, which feels pretty good. Palinka, beef stew and gelato are an unlikely but delicious combo. Tomorrow: THE LAST DAY! 

17,621 steps taken 

This morning we headed to… a playground! This one is called Olympia park, in honor of some local sporting event, and was rumored to be a good one. Plus it is near parliament, where we planned to meet Dave for a post-lunch tour. First we stopped to buy sandwiches and a new book for mama at the English bookstore. Blasted through the only one I brought, and it turns out I’d already read two out of three New Yorkers. Whoops.

As seems often to be the case, this one also had a structure shaped like a ship, but this one was the most impressive. Again, too, it was recess time for some school nearby, indistinguishable from all the elegant buildings. This is our first park to have a topiary bicyclist and Olympic Rings, however. 

After some ridiculousness trying to purchase more data time for my cell phone (using the trip planning app and posting photos during the day has done me in), and receiving multiple illegible text messages in Hungarian from the phone company, all the while trying to prevent children from spilling ice cream all over a cafe, we were ready to meet Dave. Boy was I ready.

Turns out the Hungarian parliament building, third largest in the world after Bucharest and Buenas Aires (!) was designed to house all the representatives in Hungary, including Transylvania and Slovenia. Then WW1 happened and Hungary lost more land than it kept thanks to the Treaty of Trianon. As a result, the current parliamentarians have plenty of elbow-room and gold-leaf to go around. My particular favorite detail are the cigar holders, each numbered, so that one may leave a burning cigar there, go in and vote, and come back to it later. I used to do the same with chewing gum around the house… 

After the tour, Dave returned to work and the children and I took another commuter boat to Margaret Island, fitting since their grandmothers are Mary-Margaret and Margaret Mary. This trip, while only two stops, was not without drama. First was the surprise switching of boats mid-voyage (for unknown reasons), and then was the wind-swept, desolate, “sorry. This staircase is under construction. Find another way up to the bridge from the river bank”, epic walk-carrying-preschooler. If nothing else at least we saw a totally different part of the city where the shiny office buildings are? When we finally arrived on the island, we rented a “family bike”, ie: I pedal. Kids ride. For those paying close attention, this island was also the site of my bootcamp class and was previously noted to be almost entirely under construction. Still is! Most-notably the paths! Had to get out and push the vehicle through rocky mud patches and I forseen curbs at least four times. The children loved it. Freeloaders… 

That night the babysitter came one last time (hurrah!) and Dave and I had a date of buying sneakers. This brand, Tiszo, used to be the only brand available under communism. Once opened to the West, Hungarians rushed to by Nikes and whatever else they could get. These were considered horribly gauche. Then some marketing genius figured out how to capitalize on the nostalgia and ethnic pride in hungarian shoes, and they are once again a hot commodity. 

After the shopping, we had dinner at the last of the places I found on Instagram, Mazel Tov, in the Jewish Quarter. (Duh). We had good drinks and Israeli food. Fortunately we’d been warned they only take cash. 

Slow start then SHOW TIME!!

Well, I didn’t have to fight a small child this morning. I did have to contend with forgetting my wallet and realizing it 20 minutes from home, sliding in dog poop on the way back to get it, William doing some public urination in the middle of a public park before I could stop him and accidentally spilling a soft drink on a Hungarian boy who looked at me like I was out to get him. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This morning, to avoid wrestling a child to the ground to put on his shoes, I let the children finish their pirated You Tube show and told them to get themselves ready while I waited for them in the courtyard downstairs.
It took several more minutes than necessary, but there they came, shoes, coats and all. I am doing this every day now.

We ambled through the park (twice, due to said forgotten wallet), hit up the neighborhood playground, watched some guys do soccer ball tricks, played on a skate ramp, and ate a picnic lunch. All ten minutes from home. 

We then went to a teeny subway exhibit in one of the stations. The bigger, more interesting one is closed indefinitely for repairs. That was a lucky break that I looked it up online first. We then took the no. 1 subway line, oldest in Europe, to Heroes’ Square, usually stop number one for visitors. Full of monuments to anyone (man, I should say) who is revered for their role in Hungarian history. Lots of Magyar chieftains.

After the inevitable playground detour (site of William’s marking of territory) we made our way to the top billing of the day, 2 hours of entertainment planned by someone else! The circus! Budapest has a permanent circus near the zoo. The weekday crowd is almost entirely school groups. I bought myself a Coke to pep myself up first, which promptly spliced and threatened to soak the dangling coat on the seat in front of me. The 10-year-old boy acted very aggrieved when I pantomimed the situation to him…

I figured at the circus it wouldn’t matter that we don’t speak the language since it’s all tricks! Turns out this one was heavy on plot, talking and singing. The story, which I had to Google, is about Mattyi the Goose boy, flogged by the local lord, who also takes away his prize geese. Mattyi gets his revenge, beating the lord three times until he leaves the land. Lots of beatings for a circus.

Apparently this story is one of Hungary’s most well-known and loved fables, as it was the first to feature an underling beating his superior. It seems Hungary has had some experience being an underling. All the children in the audience cheered along wildly to the familiar story. Sonia loved it, William was pretty squirmy after hour one, jostling the seat of the beleaguered school boy in fromt of us, but the dog tricks perked him right up. 




So. Tired.

Well, the sleeplessness is coming back. I think it’s because THE END IS NIGH and my brain starts making logistical lists of things to do before we leave. Things to do when we return. I dunno. Sleeplessness. Even without that condition, I’m tired. I think I’m THISCLOSE to having had enough time with the children. This morning William threw all the Uno cards in the floor as Sonia and I were playing. We had a standoff about picking them up for… an hour. He got up at 7:30 AM and we didn’t end up doing anything until nigh 11:30. So there’s that.

I decided to stick close to home in Pest today. No epic bus rides all over kingdom come. We walked through our neighborhood, past the bread store and coffee shop we frequent and also by he first of two fantastic, teeny old cars for the day, and headed to a playground for a bit. 

Then I deposited the children with Dave for lunch so I could go back to the design museum shop, now open. Priorities.

New recycled materials shopping tote in hand, I gathered up the offspring again. Sonia was dying to go underground and look up through the skylights beneath a reflecting pool, which at night is a club, but seems to house meeting spaces during the day.

We then went to the second playground of the day, of which I had read. I was a good sport and played ‘monster’ for a while and was then off the hook when an entire flock of children came pouring into the park from a nearby school. The white noise of babbling in a foreign language nearly lulled me to sleep and also had the lovely side effect of making my own children play together without bickering for almost an hour, since they couldn’t understand anyone else anyway.

I poked around a couple of shops too cool for small children and, after an eternal wall/fence walk by William, we walked through one of the city’s most elegant squares, Egyetem Tér in the high-rent Balváros district. We bought some souvenirs and a birthday present for myself and then settled in at one of the big, old cafes for a proper afternoon coffee and cake break. Mine was spiked with liquor, a happy accident. The pause succeeded in making me like my children again. 

For dinner, after several false-starts, we ate mediocre takeout Turkish food from a kebab place around the corner. It was good enough for the energy level remaining in all of us today.

I’m on a boat! 

We’ve taken all the wheel-based vehicles known to man. Time to take to the sea! Or just the Danube. After blindly attempting to catch a boat in day one with no timetable or map, I now had a handle on the boat situation. Our miraculous one-month transit pass covers a boat that commuters use in the morning and afternoon and serves well as a sightseeing boat during the day. Charting a zigzagging course from Buda side to Pest side and back about 8 times as it heads southwards, it seemed like a good use of a clear(ish) morning. 


We took the trolley there and then settled in for a 20-minute ride. Upon approaching our desired stop in Buda, we stood up and approached the door, giving the conductor space to do his mooring job. Instead, upon determining there were no new passengers on the dock, we proceeded to tack towards the far side. The side we did not want. Also known as the last stop. After some mild cursing under my breath, we had an enjoyable pause watching skateboarders and trick scooter riders (without helmets, in the European fashion) ride the ramps in a skate park under a bridge. 

We then corrected course and took a trolley over the bridge and a 25-minute bus ride deep into the outer provinces of the city where few tourists tread. Today’s destination, buried invisibly in a shopping mall? The Palace of Wonders- a hands-on science museum filled with puzzles, optical illusions, magnetic sculptures and a lunar rover. We attended a physics demonstration (entirely in Hungarian, of course). Highlights included the strobe light on a moving fan that makes the fan look like it’s not moving, cracking a walnut on someone’s head (atop a brick to diffuse the blow) and making sound waves visible with a laser and a tuning fork. 

We got our exercise sprinting full speed to the bathroom clear across the mall. Twice. We were, in sure, the only Americans in the place and definitely the only ones eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the food court, packed from home that morning. What am I, made of money? I fended off Sonia’s moony-eyed looks at the toy stores, arcade rides and vending machines and we ate dinner at home after the long trip back. Seems only right after our big weekend away.

Ohh. Now I get it.

This whole time we’ve had the feeling that we liked Timisoara, but that we also hadn’t actually seen it yet. Everything we’d seen had been peripheral- the band playing at the restaurant, the Cambridge-y streets. Today, before starting the long drive home, we got the chance to explore a little. It was a Sunday, and this is most definitely a closed-on-Sunday kind of place, but I read about a place open for breakfast and out we headed. We found the restaurant and a small square. “This is cute”,I thought. William got to watch some trolleys. I got to take some building and graffiti photos. Both favorites. I also liked the old-school truck with the terrible parking job. 

Then, down the next street, we stumbled on the mother lode. The very lovely, large square, surrounded by churches and art nouveau facades. Ohhh. THIS is why people come here. Sidebar: Romanians know how to wear a hat like nobody’s business.

After some more good street art and patterns we headed back in the direction of the car. 

This time was came upon another pedestrian square, just as the sun came out and people came streaming out of church. We went into the huge cathedral and light a candle in honor of the husband of Sonia’s first grade teacher, who we just learned died suddenly last week. It was a somber moment amidst the enjoyable morning hustle and bustle.

After a 3-hour drive home, this time on the autoroute, since we now know it exists, we made it back ‘home’ to traffic-filled streets due to a national holiday commemorating the uprising against the communists in 1956, with which the US promised assistance and then provided exactly none. Ugh.

Cabbage, anyone?

Things seen from a car window in between Timisoara and today’s destination 2 hours away (make that 3)

Cabbage and potato stands in front of every house in one town. If they are all selling the same vegetables, who buys them? Or does a produce wholeseller come to each house, hand them 20 Romanian lei and then collect today’s sack of potatoes?

Sheep in a rainy field, with shepherd and sheepdog trudging along nearby.

One church per town with colorful iconographic paintings on the front

Stone houses with peeling plaster on the walls. Surprisingly ornate gates. A well-kept house next to an abandoned one.

Old ladies with head scarves pushing wheelbarrows. People here work very hard.

Guys in work clothes standing at outdoor cafes smoking cigarettes and swapping town gossip.

Today’s destination was the town of Humedoara, specifically Corvin Castle.

Turns out the Hertz rental car-issued GPS unit hadn’t gotten the memo that the newest section of highway had been completed. We took back roads. It took three hours. Long enough for us to actually allow children to watch shows in the back, at least until it made William carsick.

The town of Humeadora? Not a lot going on there. I spotted a tourist restaurant decked-out in Romanian blankets and costumes where we had our lunch. 

Then on to the castle. It really was a good one. We had access to almost the entire thing, including up steep and somewhat death-defying stairways that would be outlawed in the US for fear of lawsuit. 

On the trip back we used my paper road map, purchased at a gas station and well-versed in current road conditions. It took a mere two hours to get back. Along the way, we stopped to photograph my favorite Romanian store signage, a restaurant with an American C-47 plane built into the front, and to support the (very) local economy by buying honey from a guy on the side of the road.

Restaurants are not thick on the ground here, so I did a little old-fashioned googling, and we found one a 20-minute walk away. Ol’ GPS came in handy this time, without which we never would have found the signless place. Despite being reviewed on Trip Advisor, not exactly a top-secret source, we were the only Americans there. Two families were there having birthday parties for their children, and I eavesdropped on one nearby diner as he described the American election to his friends. He spoke Romanian, of course, but I pricked up my ears at the mention of New Hampshire and Iowa in the same sentence. Can only be one topic there. Spotted en route: 

One other thing to note about Timisoara: birds. So. Many. Birds. Just listen:


On the move again

After staying up WAY too late and drinking WAY too much wine, talking to are affable host, Arpi, morning came in like a lion. An early-rising, sister-smothering, loud lion. Let’s just say I had a hard time embracing life with my usual vigor this morning. After a slow start, I finally got moving. It was rainy today and all the children seemed a little cooped-up. William and I took to the streets on our borrowed bikes to work off a little energy by riding around the neighborhood.  Upon returning to the house we came upon a drunken guy, shouting at full volume, nursing quite a doozy of a head gash. A little nerve-wracking for a quiet morning. We (by which I mean I) did our best to clean up the mess we made of our hosts’ house, and then I wrestled shoes and a coat on William with perhaps the same technique required to do the same to a wild squirrel, and we headed into the scenic town square to meet the dads and some of their coworkers for lunch. 

Our host family. The baby had a miserable cold and was happiest strapped to Vera’s back, dozing off after being lulled to sleep by the vacuum cleaner.

Having not gone sight-seeing in DAYS, I took a few photos on the fly of Szeged,  a much smaller and quieter city than Budapest, and home to Hungary’s second-largest university. I even found one sign I could actually read like a big girl!!

We thanked our hosts for being so very welcoming. I’m sure they’ll be glad to get their house back, but I think Abigél may miss the fun of having other kids around.

We then took off for this weekend’s destination: Timisoara Romania. Why? Because it’s there and it’s pretty. We ended up (accidentally, I think) taking a fairly small country road there. As usual, the border crossing threw us into somewhat of a panic that they’d shout “PAPERS PLEASE” and find some reason or another to deny us entry. But admit us, they did, and we quickly bought the required highway driving pass to avoid instantly getting pulled over. 

Here is Dave trying to buy a pass, only to find out this stand only sells the ones for the Hungarian side.

We figured that the Romanian countryside would feel identical to the Hungarian, seeing as they all used to be the same country and are minutes apart (actually an hour, as we crossed a time zone into Eastern Europe time at the border). We were wrong. The Romanian countryside felt VERY different. Definitely a little bleak. The babushkas in head scarves that one would expect to see were definitely shuffling down the empty sidewalks, one every 15 kilometers. Many sheep. A few chickens. But once we approached Timisoara, it began to feel more cosmopolitan again. After missing a turn and getting stuck at a train crossing, we finally found our Airbnb. The host who receives high marks for his helpfulness is away in London this weekend. Instead we were met by his father, somewhat unfriendly. “Is there a good restaurant near here?” “I don’t know. I eat at home”. Well alright then. There were, however, snacks and beer left for us, which will get him far. 

I managed to Google up a nearby restaurant with decent reviews. As we walked there, we both noted that this area felt very familiar. Not like Budapest, but like Cambridge. The scale of the street and buildings feel just like Mass Ave as you approach Cambridge Common. Quite a surprise.

The restaurant was decent. An Italian-European fusion like d of thing. The waiters win the prize for being the nicest to our children by far. A waitress, followed by a little girl, brought William fistfuls of wine corks with which to play. 

The biggest surprise of the evening was that the restaurant had a back courtyard, which that night was hosting a live band, bartenders and art displays. I went back for a 5-minute immersion in the cool-kid scene of Romania. I made sure to put on my black coat in order to blend in with their fashion choices. I could have stayed there all evening just watching the crowd. But there was that little thing of not sleeping last night… 

We walked home in a light drizzle and I felt like I already like this place and we haven’t even seen the city yet. 

A day in the life

This continues our interlude in everyday Hungarian life. No tourist attractions. No going all over town in various vehicles. This morning after breakfast, we headed to the nearby shops to buy vegetables, bread and other staples, as we are eating our hosts out of house and home. William got to ride a scoot bike, the love of his life, Sonia was a good outing. The vegetable stand was quite literally in someone’s basement, and I had to duck to fully enter. Last night, Arpi told us about the best source of Palinka, the local booze of choice. One should never buy it from a store, he said. Instead you slowly build up a relationship with your local fruitseller. Once they determine that you are not a government official who will report them for failure to collect taxes, you are at liberty to ask them for some of their secret supply of homemade fruit booze. But you’ve gotta play it cool. I told him I was going to bust into the fruit stand today like the worst American tourist possible, shouting at full volume “I HEAR YOU SELL ALCOHOL HERE. I WOULD LIKE TO BUY SOME ILLEGAL BOOZE”. I didn’t do it though. I did, however, ask for their largest jar of homemade apricot jam, because that stuff is DELICIOUS. 

After lunch and playing at home, we headed to a playground as it was a beautiful day. Mercifully, William fell asleep in the car for a much-needed nap. While I guarded the car, Sonia and Abigél played, and at one point I saw Sonia silently having a sand tea party with a third girl. 

Sonia was then the special guest star at Abigél’s English class. I got to watch the class for a few minutes. Sonia very kindly refrained from answering all the questions, instead letting the other kids attempt a response in English first. I think it was fairly eye-opening to watch other kids work really hard at something she just naturally knows how to do. 

We had a nice dinner in our home away from home (below) and Sonia enjoyed a bedtime story entirely in Hungarian.

Then Dave, Arpi and I drank too much fruit vodka brought by their Polish coworker. I think I may be sorry tomorrow.