Hungarians like us 

Now is the time on our trip where we see how the real people live. The Hungarian ones, I mean. This morning the children and I boarded a train for Szeged, where Dave has been working for the past two days. I managed to actually buy the correct tickets from the kiosk, a strong bit of work if I say so my self. The station is one of those marvels of glass and steel that rocked the world when first invented. We read a book about trains and William played with his new/old metal vintage train while ON a train. Very meta.  

My favorite detail is the bottle opener on each train table. But maybe that’s just in first class where we were. La-di-dah. 

Dave and his coworker Arpad met us at the station and then we went back to his house to meet his wife, Vera, their 4.5-year-old daughter Abigél and their 15-month son Atád. And their chickens and dog. Vera, incidentally, was once an ultra-marathoner and ran all the way around Lake Balaton, which takes 20+ hours. Two weeks ago we ate lunch there, sitting down. Took about 1.5 hours.

We played in the yard, fed chickens, wielded a giant mallet to open walnuts, and then took the dog for a walk to the river. There is a dog at every. Single. House. They live outside in fenced in yards, apparently. I’ve never seen anything like it. The children had fun throwing fistfuls of dirt into the river, and the girls yammered at each other in their respective languages. Crew teams and kyakers paddles by. Quite a lovely scene. 

We came back to relax and the children all watched a wordless Polish cartoon before dinner. Slapstick bridges all boundaries. 

Compromises

Today. Today was the day for me to go where I wanna go and bring children whether they want to or not, Harrumph. I realized, however, I did not want to portray going to museums as a bad thing they won’t want to do. That just sets me up for future headaches. So we struck an accord. My activity in the morning, theirs in the afternoon. While I knew not to expect a leisurely journey to the Applied Arts Museum, reading every description in the joint, I hoped to at least be able to visit most exhibits that interested me and not have TOO many precious DO NOT TOUCH objects lying around. All in all: pretty successful. There was a Budapest Design Week exhibit about bikes, and some of the display was interactive. Despite the ‘try it yourself’ signs, William was still being watched like a hawk by the museum guards, ready to snatch him up in their talons.

 

 

We looked at competition-winners from Hungarian design students. 

Upstairs was a display on commonalities in Central European design. 

The exhibit on colors was popular with the children, since there was a scanner that determined the colors in your clothing and then showed you which object best matched it. We then had a little scavenger hunt to find that object on display. 

We then went to another restaurant I’d been following on Instagram. Lunch was a much better idea. No bored waiter at this one. We then headed home for some tv-watching and ignoring of children. It was then time to pay my dues. We took a trolley, subway and bus to the equivalent of a suburban shopping plaza (think Arsenal Mall, but more lively) to Elevenpark, a giant indoor playground. We’re still here. I sure hope I don’t have to eat one of those sad hotdogs for dinner. Suddenly the mall food court sounds good. I think I saw some doner kebabs. 

Back ‘home’

It’s funny how flying to another country and back can make our Budapest apartment feel like home. I think even William was glad to see it again. He hasn’t asked to go to our “Boston house” once today… Dave headed out to the nearby city of Szeged this morning to work out of THAT office for the week. Kind of a Turducken of business trip within a business trip, if you will. The big.l news of the day was that I booked Ágnes, our local babysitter, at 2:00 in the afternoon so I could have a little time to myself. In the morning, we went to the Natural History Museum, which was pretty interesting, but I must say that the one at Harvard is a little better and closer to home. That outing is not particularly conducive to photographs, since one just ends up with a lot of pictures of creepy stuffed things and dioramas. As usual, the most successful parts had really nothing to do with the museum. For the children it was setting up little trees and animals on a painted backdrop and using one of those commemorative coin-squishing machines. For me it was the vintage zoo poster.

We then headed to a funny little cafe for what ended up being an unorthodox lunch. I never would have found this little warren of vintage toys, teddy bears and antique typewriters were it not for my guidebook. We each had “hot chocolate” for lunch, which was more like chocolate pudding, customized to each person’s preference for chocolate strength. 

 

 

Now came the appointed time for the babysitter, so we hurried off to meet her. I then headed to Széchenyi Baths for my celebratory birthday back massage and soak, courtesy of my friend Kate. To say that this bath complex is large and overwhelming would be an understatement. After paying for a changing cabin and receiving a scribbled note with my massage time and location, I wandered around for at least 20 minutes through various pools and hot tubs to find my changing cabin. After a 20-minute soak in the large, heated outdoor pool with 100 of my nearest and dearest, I then wandered for another 20 minutes, past mud baths, an aerobics room, saunas, hot tubs of varying mineral content and temperature, a sign for a “beer spa” and,accidentally, the basement control room, I finally had to be personally led by a staff person and four other people before they even could figure out where I should go. Finally in the right place, I got a very good “VIP Aroma Massage” (as opposed to the more brusque medical massages), while jazzy piano numbers played on a recording. Hits included “Mission:Impossible”, the Peanuts theme and a One Direction song.

We had dinner at home, called nana and I only undid the relaxation twice, most spectacularly when I had to wrestle William into the toilet and his whole foot went in it. Ahh! Foot spa!

Ta-ta, trulli

Those conical houses are called trulli (tullo in the singular). They were built dry with no mortar and are an ARCHITECTUAL MARVEL. 

It was time to bid farewell to the olives and the hole-y stones and head back to the Bari airport and our ‘Budapest house’. I have no calamities to report. 

Upon our return, I did some solo street-wandering, as Dave is leaving for the nearby city of Szeged tomorrow for work, where we will join him on Wednesday. Wish me luck. 

Caves. And food. 

Saturday, 10/15: We begin our Italian story where we last left off. At the table, of course. 

Then we set out for the day’s outing to the city of Matera, oldest continually-habituated city in the world. Unesco world heritage site! European center of culture! And formerly reviled and scorned for being full of poor people living in caves, which has recently been reclaimed for its unique place in the world. It really does feel like it’s connected to a completely different century. 

We took the scenic drive home instead of on the autostrada. This is the way Dave and I truly feel like we’re in Europe- tree-lined country route, national park, detour to a “cave”, aka sinkhole (!), check. 

Tonight’s dinner was even better than the last. Dave had arranged for prosecco and cake, it being my birthday. In between we had raw fish with stuffed zucchini blossom (eggplant Parmesan for the kids), focaccia (with IS from this region) with roasted tomatoes and local almonds, speghetti with mussels which was SO GOOD. Main course of fish with eggplant for us, chicken cutlet and arancini for children. These meal for 4, with wine, cost a total of 100 Euros, grazie. Amazing. 

The Motherland (for some of us)

Friday, 10/14: For this weekend’s travel with Dave, we decided to go somewhere with a short, direct flight from Budapest. That ruled out Krakow, our original choice, in what would have been a 4-country tour of places not usually visited by Americans. At first we thought it should be a country we’d never before visited. But then we realized that was silly, when Italy is right over there, a mere skip over Croatia. So we flew to Bari in Puglia, a city of which I must admit total prior ignorance of before this trip. In a mere 80 minutes we landed in a much warmer climate with MUCH CRAZIER drivers. Dave braved the fray of people making up their own lanes and parking spaces that disappeared before our eyes. We finally found a spot and wandered aimlesssly through the old city, with its streets so narrow you can practically touch both sides. We even saw an honest-to-God band of bored 10-year-old street urchins, flicking lighters (no child safety lock, ma!), setting off firecrackers and even throwing things (Dave swears it was a pear) at us as we passed until a nonna (theirs? Just the old lady on their block?) hollered at them and told them to knock it off. It was like a musical about the Lower East Side, circa 1918. (Or was it 1933?) 

After a lunch at a nondescript sidewalk cafe with surprisingly good oricchete (regional specialty),  we made our way with a vague address, no cell phone service and a bare-bones car GPS to find the agriturismo (rural bed and breakfast) that I had minimally-researched online. As opposed to the Airbnb apartments in which we’ve stayed so far, for which I’ve paid in full ahead of time, the innkeeper I emailed required no credit card, passport information, nada. I three-quarters expected that when we (eventually) found the place, she’d give me a blank look and we’d have to scrounge around the scrappy countryside looking for shelter. But that did not happen. After driving down a mile-long road of olive and almond trees and Druid-looking conical stone towers, we found the place, rang the bell and were welcomed in. 

William and I took a long walk on a country road to see what there was to see, as a stiff wind picked up. Occasionally an olive farmer (?) blew past in his beat-up car, but otherwise we were totally alone.

That night we were the only guests in attendance at an 8-course meal (!) cooked by a guy who must be kind of a big deal, because there was his face peering down from a cookbook on the shelf. The wine was…thick. Jammy. But besides that the dinner was delicious and Dave and I are ourselves silly, finishing the children’s portions so as not to offend the genial chef. We have no idea how much dinner cost us. Nor the room for that matter. What we do know is that they only take cash, so I guess we’ll be hitting (multiple?) ATMs on our outing tomorrow. 

  Transit, many forms

In an effort to quell the wild toddler, the itinerary for today involved vehicles. All kinds except boats pretty much. We took a bus  and a tram to a cog railroad that runs up a wooded hillside in Óbuda, a greener, much less urban part of Budapest. There was a satisfying ‘clickety-clack’ for William and some very old-school upholstery for me. 

At the top, we were just in time to board the ‘children’s railroad’, initially a project for socialist youth scouts, and now just a charming relic, staffed (but not driven) by kids 11-14. It’s apparently a coveted gig, for which they must get good grades. Apparently they get to leave school for their shifts, as this was mid-day. The entirely wooden interior and functioning stove (!) were charming, as was the nervous boy who sold us our ticket, repeatedly attempted to punch said ticket and told us which stop we wanted. 

 

Once we disembarked from our child labor train, we hiked up a wooded trail, at the end of which was A PLAYGROUND! Our favorite. We had our PBJ picnic, I almost accidentally bought Sonia a wine spritzer at the snack bar (whoops! I’ll drink that one) and played for a while, getting a kick out of watching a herd of Segway sight-seers and their leader demonstrating improper riding technique.

Next form of transit? A 15-minute chairlift ride all the way back down the mountain. I thought the kids might find it scary. They did not. Sonia said it’s her favorite thing she’s ever done. 

 

We then humored mama and took a bus to a subway (still in the same district) and went to the Hungarian Museum of Tourism, listed as a gem of a museum in Lonely Planet, especially for those who love old product packaging, scenes of domestic life and stores. Ahem!! William. (And Sonia for that matter) loved sorting cups of grain in the room about markets. I wanted to steal all the old cocoa tins and boxes of paper clips featuring nationalist slogans.

All told, we took 2 buses, 3 trolleys, 2 Metros, a cog and a children’s train and a chairlift, most of which were covered by our monthly transit pass. Long live public transit for transport and for entertainment!

Cranky camp counselor

I had plans for today. As in I had plans to do things I wanted to do today. They involved a design museum and a delicious lunch. But then I realized it was going to be sunny today and raining a fair amount next week, so I figured we’d do an outdoor kid activity today. We went to the zoo. Zoos are a little depressing anyway, and when you’re feeling a little like an underpaid camp counselor/ children’s cruise activity director, they can feel a little too much. But I didn’t think about that at the beginning of the day. Sieze the (sunny) day! Carpe Diem Solare, said no one. We took a different tram through a yet-unexplored part of town to City Park, home of the oldest zoo in Europe. Or is it largest? One of those. I got suckered into renting a cart for hauling children around, but I figured since William would probably want to be carried anyway, it was probably a win-win decision. Practically first on the agenda was getting some (tired, freezer-burned) ice cream. Sonia’s not one for holding out for quality. Nana gave them each money earmarked for a pool (Sonia) the zoo (William) and ice cream (both), so we had to settle up that account. 

Most impressive to me were the elephant house and the ocean- themed playground that looked suspiciously similar to the pencil park. Best animal in show? Lion. 


In the afternoon, the children watched more shows than advisable, and I lay on my bed reading/napping/moaning. In the evening, Dave had a work party, which I encouraged him to attend, since bonding with the local office people has been…nil. The fact that he was out, however, meant that camp counselor was still on duty. Instead of keeping it simple (stupid), I, in an entirely misguided harrumph of feeling tired of doing kid things all the time, decided to take them to this adorable restaurant whose Instagram feed I’ve been following. Mezze plates! Cocktails! Whimsical light fixtures! Not too fancy! Sounds perfect! Too perfect. I was, quite literally, pleading with tired, bonkers William to get off the floor and pull it together for an hour so I could attempt to fit in with the grownup (and they were all grownups) in my alternate-reality life in Budapest. Grovelling with children is unbecoming of a lady and all-together ineffectual. The cool gay waiter ignored us totally, except for when my child was going boneless in a puddle or dropping a truck with a clatter. The food was good, but not enough and we had to share one big plate and I was self-conscious and took it out on the children. When we FINALLY caught the waiter’s eye to pay the check, the still-hungry children and I ate McDonald’s French fries. Later I bought myself an ice cream cone and NONE FOR THEM SO THERE BECAUSE THEY ALREADY HAD THOSE LAME ONES AT THE ZOO. But I did let them try it. Three times. BUT THAT’S IT. 

Relaxing. But not quite.

The struggle is real. The 3-year-old vs. human battle continues. I’d chalk it all up to the strangeness of being here, but as Sonia lovingly pointed out, he was being a pain at home well before we left. At any rate, we had a slow, rainy start to the day. Complete with biting! We went to the Post Office to mail some postcards, took some silly photos and went to a surprisingly un-cheesy souvenir shop to buy things for friends. 

After bodily removing William from the gift shop after re-applying his left shoe, we went home for lunch and simmering down. We then headed on the bus/ trolley to one of Budapest’s famed spas. After much confusion reading websites, and a confirming phone call by Dave’s Hungarian coworker, I determined that children are allowed in the pools, just not the very hot spas. We heard to the Gellert spa, a Turkish bath that’s been around since, oh, 15-dickety-two. The indoor pool was COLD, but there was a hot tub nearby that was not actually boiling hot. Sonia and I went in that one while William perched on the side and allowed himself to get periodically splashed with warm water to quell the chills. I was very aware that most people were there to relax and had the children on mute. They did come up with a fairly unobtrusive game of “catch William’s toy car”, while older ladies did water aerobics very seriously behind them. We all changed in cabin 71, a TEENY little box that stored our belongings. 


Here’s me, being a saint for bringing my children swimming instead of ditching them to get a massage: 

At 5:10 PM sharp, I left the apartment BY MYSELF!! The children were with Ágnes, a nice Hungarian student who’s in a book group with a Romanian family friend of my childhood friend (you follow?) she’s nice. The children met her last week. Seems like sufficient screening. They stayed in and ate fish sticks (“not as good as home”) while I did some speed-shopping, met Dave for a drink, tried to go to a place I’ve been following online for months, only to be turned away for lack of reservation. Dave saved the day by knowing a little Ramen shop nearby. I took some speedy photos of the Great Synagogue, largest in Europe, on my speed tour. 

Comparative study of playgrounds.

Again I say, if my children were too old to enjoy playgrounds, I’m not sure we’d make it through the trip. But enjoy them they do, although not so much that I can actually read the magazine I so optimistically pack in my bag. Silly me. One of them (Sonia) inevitably requests the honor of my attention at some thing or another approximately every 5 minutes.

There’s a handy website called I heart Budapest that lists all manner of things, including all the good playgrounds around. So we set off this morning on the bus to find one. On our way trudging up a hill, we stumbled on one of the others, so of course we stopped. Filled with animals from some Hungarian children’s show unknown to us, the real highlight was the elliptical machine for kids (!) and the giant chess set. We actually managed to play a game of Sonia vs Mama and William, until some handsy 3-year-old came over and started messing with all the pieces. Turns out Sonia is good at chess. 

We then continued our walk up the back side of Gellert Hill and found the main attraction: Cirka-Ferka Playground, or, according to us, Pencil Park. There we had our picnic lunch and stayed for quite a while.


We then climbed even higher (after a small slip-and-fall in dog poop by the junior member), ending at the Hungarian version of the Statue of Liberty, erected in honor of the local soldiers who took on the Russians. The children ate ice cream and contemplated communism vs. capitalism. Or just collected rocks. 

On the way back down we stumbled upon a collection of slides just like Robbins Farm Park at home! Then we went to the indoor market, where, surprisingly, I took no photos and bought Sonia a Hungarian-dress Barbie. Who am I?? I was tired. So was William, strapped to my back and passed out.