Patience and Pessimism

“Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.”
Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad


Two short sleeved shirts. That’s what I ordered. Obviously I had not learned my lesson. I was once again trying to ply my way through the Hungarian postal system. I was tracking the progress of two summer shirts I had purchased from an outfit in the U.S.

If you are searching for a world-class bureaucracy, the Hungarian Postal System is a worthy model. Sure, some of it is my inability to speak Hungarian. I’m guilty of that. But, ask a Hungarian. You’ll get a wry smile and a handful of personal sagas reeking of frustration and inevitable hopelessness.

The U.S. Postal System circa 1925

The tracking system indicated my shirts had arrived here in Budapest weeks ago. I imagined the package was somewhere in the bowels of a dusty, grey, poorly lit warehouse. I conjured up that last scene in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the box containing the sacred ancient covenant is being rolled down a corridor in the biggest warehouse in the world, never to be found again–or at least for a thousand years.

The closing scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Ark being rolled off into the bowels of the world’s largest, most impenetrable warehouse, likely never to be seen again


After a month, I sought help. A Hungarian friend gave me a link to a contact in the postal system. About a week later came an anonymous request to complete a form. I did, and after assistance with the translation, I sent it back. Another week goes by. I again ask about my package. I receive a request for yet another form. OK, here you go. Another week passes. Can you sense my frustration? I send another email in both Hungarian and English, “Can you please tell me when will I get my shirts?”

Suddenly, I hear a voice from inside the fortress. It’s signed, “Lucia.” “The consignment arrives to the local post office today! Please be patient!”

I loved this. Please be patient.

I turned my chair in the school office where I work and spoke with my colleague, Judit. She has become my sounding board for sharing my experiences here in Hungary. She is clever, thoughtful, kind, and oh so patient. She bears witness to my year of living here in Budapest, asking me questions and challenging my assumptions. When does patience become pessimism?, she asks rhetorically. Hungarians, I think, have learned to be patient in the face of many things.

I decide to hunt down my package–no longer willing to wait–after all, the weather is getting warm here in Budapest, and I’d sure like those two short sleeve shirts. After a day of teaching, I bike over to my neighborhood post office. There, I am told, my package is at another post office about half a mile away. I bike over. I am in line and ask a young woman if I am in the right place.  No, she says, packages are upstairs. I carry my bike with me up the steps. I take a ticket waiting for my number to appear in red numerals on the screen. Finally, I stand before the woman who is the face of the Hungarian postal system. She tells me I am in the wrong part of the building. Go out to the street, turn left, turn left again at the corner, and in 50 meters or so I’ll find the entrance where I can pick up my package. Ah yes, I tell myself, patience.

I have my shirts. There was an exorbitant customs fee to pay. And tacked on, for good measure, something called a “holding fee.” It appears that I was charged an additional fee by the Hungarian postal system because they held my package for 4-weeks.

Patience, we have been told time and time again, is a virtue. But when does that virtue become like a stone, slowly worn down over time? And when should we become more like water, going where we want?





The Year of Living Extemporaneously: Budapest at the Half-Way Point

It wasn’t easy leaving for our winter break. Our departing flight from Budapest was delayed because of high winds in Amsterdam. With less than an hour wiggle room, we ended up missing our connecting flight at Amsterdam’s Schophol airport. Our journey back to the States had to be re-routed. Go with the flow, we decided. An apt metaphor for our 6-months of living and working in Budapest.

While we call Portland, Maine home, we were headed to “the other Portland,” the one in Oregon, to see our newest grandchild, Julian, and his parents. Europe, with its melange of countries and cultures, feels like it’s about a zillion miles from Oregon. Hungary, positioned as it is in the heart of Europe, is roughly the same size as Indiana. Getting anywhere in Hungary can be accomplished with a several hour car ride, a bit longer by train. Almost any European city is within a one or two hour flight.

Our home away from home, 87 Rose St., District VI, Pest

Living in Budapest as an expat, or anywhere for that matter, allows you the chance to get caught up in the ebb and flow of the host-country’s culture. I feel the river’s current propelling me as I commute each morning to the school where I teach. I exit the subway along with Hungarian workers and students and shuffle up the moist stairs. At the station, I pass fruit vendors and bakeries with fresh baked goods in dimly lit windows. I switch to the tram which takes me within a block of my school. There’s a panoply of faces on this journey, from the commuters whose sullen stares could be found anywhere, to the students I see at school who too often seem ambivalent, at best, about their own daily grind. When I play the role of tourist, I tend to miss these nuances of  people and place. I’m more likely to focus on where I am headed, my thoughts somewhere between the content of Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor.

Being back in the United States, albeit temporarily, affords the chance to look back at our experience in Budapest. The international flavors of the city are striking. Riding the Metro’s number 1 line here, as we often do, you can overhear almost any language being spoken. Even in the dead of winter, the streets of downtown Budapest are filled with tourists drawn by the Christmas markets and the seemingly endless string of holiday lights. Refreshingly, Christmas here is more a celebration of lights, than one of religion.

Then there is the yin and yang of economics here in Hungary. Hungarians are said to make roughly a third of their counterparts in some other parts of Europe. That is tough on our Hungarian friends and colleagues. For tourists, on the other hand, it makes Hungary surprisingly affordable in comparison to trips to say Prague or Vienna, and certainly London, Paris, and Amsterdam. Dining out, and savoring fine Hungarian wine, costs a fraction of the prices you encounter in other European cities.

If you’re coming to Budapest for the sights, for the food, or the intriguing history, you are coming to the right place. Few things are more breathtaking than catching a glimpse of the city’s remarkable skyline along the Danube at dusk. This stretch is a World Heritage Site. So too, is the glorious Andrassy Avenue, from one end at Heroes Square, to the other, near St. Stephen’s Basilica. These two points are connected by the Millennium Line, Europe’s second oldest subway (after London) and my favorite line here in Budapest, with its smaller-scale orange cars and beautifully tiled white and maroon stations.

Being car-less in Budapest, as with other European cities, is easy and preferable. Public transportation is readily available and getting around is almost always seamless. But one encounters another challenge while navigating the streets of this great city: endless clouds of cigarette smoke. It seems that nearly everyone smokes in Hungary. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes could be the national song here and sadly, cigarette butts are everywhere, not just in the containers attached to waste bins for that purpose.

The calming, azure waters of Lake Balaton, one of Central Europe’s largest lakes

Regardless, Budapest is a must-see city. However, if you have several extra days, visits to Hungary’s smaller cities and sites are well-worth the time. Consider Eger, Lake Balaton, and Szentendre-all short trips that will give you other tastes and snapshots of Hungary, beyond the capital city.  And yes, certainly enjoy the country’s signature dishes, Goulash and Langos, but don’t ignore the other world-class international culinary options also available here. Certainly, no trip would be complete without a few hours spent relaxing and contemplating life in one of Hungary’s famous baths. Before I depart Hungary, I promise myself to take-in a few more visits to Hungary’s famous baths, such as the Szechenyi Thermal Bath, located in City Park, just a short walk from our flat. The hot, calming waters and billowing steam, a few ingredients that are part of the mysterious embrace that is Budapest.

The Square in Szentendre




Riding in Style on the Millennium Line

There’s a rumble, then a strange metallic buzz, the glow of amber lights, doors open and close, and in less than 10-seconds, the yellow-orange cars are moving on to the next station. My favorite subway, the old Millennium Line, rolls its dignified way along the 11-station route only a few feet under Andrassy Street, the entire length of which is a World Heritage Site. First constructed in 1895, it’s Europe’s second oldest subway, and the first here in Hungary’s capital city, Budapest.

Budapest’s venerable Millennium Subway Line

I love trains, pure and simple. It’s been a lifelong passion. As far back as I can remember, I looked forward to my dad setting up our family’s Lionel train set right around Christmas every year. As an adult, I’ve seized just about every opportunity I can to ride trains practically anywhere. I’ve taken Canada’s national train, VIA, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, clear across the plains, over the Canadian Rockies, and on to Vancouver. That experience sealed my love for those old-fashioned, glass-enclosed observation cars. On Taiwan, I rode a crowded, small-gauge, red-colored train that crawled its way up Ali Mountain, a traditional honeymoon destination for Chinese couples. In North Korea, I entered the deepest subway in the world, gripping an escalator that seemed to have no end. To most tourists’ surprise, the Pyongyang subway is glorious in its own right, with large colorful lights in the shape of flowers, and giant sweeping propaganda murals depicting workers, artists and farmers happily joining together for the good of the State. On that capital city’s diminutive subway line, passengers seem intensely uncomfortable when they suddenly find themselves riding alongside curious foreigners.

To my complete pleasure, Hungary has its share of special train lines. There’s the Children’s Train high in the Buda Hills, managed and operated by kids. Here in Budapest, there are three major train stations, the one closest to our flat, the dignified, though in dire need of renovation, Nyugati Station, designed and built by Gustave Eiffel’s office in Paris. Yes, that Eiffel. Trains regularly depart Nyugati Station and its two counterparts, for destinations clear across Europe.

Budapest has a robust subway system which I unofficially refer to as the Green, Blue and Red Lines. Then, there’s my favorite, the old Millennium Line. While small in scale, it’s impressive in its quiet elegance. Like an old man sporting a beret and a well-waxed mustache, the train requests your admiration. Each station is adorned with oak doors, closets or lockers, and covered with white and maroon tiles that are so shiny, they look like they were just washed by Mr. Clean. The exclamation point on the platform is a wooden ticket booth, occasionally staffed by a transport employee dressed in dark blue.

Ticket booth at the Opera stop on the Millennium Line

Both ends of the line feature notable tourist destinations. Near the eastern terminus, you’ll find Heroes Square and the world famous Szechenyi Baths. At the western end, lies busy Vorosmaty Square, steps from the Danube, and at the northern end of Vaci Street, the busiest tourist lane in Budapest.

Each station’s platform  is clean, bright, and adorned in oak

Not surprisingly then, while riding the Millennium Line, one almost always hears passengers speaking languages from around the world. The tourists are invariably chatting about what they’ve just seen or excited about where they are headed. It’s safe to imagine that their stay here in Budapest is meeting, more likely exceeding, their expectations.

Old photos and drawings reveal images of those early cars that rode the Millennium Line’s rails back in the 1890’s. They have all but disappeared, except for one solitary car. And, if you want to see that last surviving original car, you’ll have to head clear across the Atlantic Ocean. The last Millennium coach resides in, of all places, the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine.

So, whether you’re heading to the baths, or considering riding on the city’s majestic ferris wheel, the Budapest Eye, the venerable Millennium Line will get you there. While in Budapest, if you want to get there in style, ride the Millennium.

Vorosmarty Street, our local stop on the Millennium Line





Budapest Is Smokin’


“Budapest is a world-class city — a joy to behold…but you’ll have to dodge the second-hand smoke and ignore the millions of cigarette butts that are simply everywhere.”


Seventy percent, sixty percent, at least fifty-five percent, my students were calling out, one-by-one. “Thirty percent,” I said.  My students smiled skeptically. “No way,” they said in near unison, doubting the statistic I presented, referring to the stat that 30% of Hungarians smoke. I had to agree with their skepticism. It does seem that nearly everyone here in Budapest smokes.

It’s early in the AM when I scoot down the old marble steps from our flat heading off to teach English in a local high school here. I pull open the heavy antique wooden door that leads to the street and my first contact with each Budapest morning is invariably a heavy cloud of cigarette smoke. Person after person, seemingly way more than half, are walking by me lit cigarette in hand. I am navigating through their smoke trails before having my second cup of coffee.

By all accounts, Budapest is on the rise. Secret be told, Budapest is a world-class city, far less expensive than Europe’s more well known tourist destinations like Paris, Berlin, Vienna or Prague. Graced by the Danube, awash in picturesque vistas, punctuated by historic buildings, the city is a joy to behold. But you’ll have to dodge the second-hand smoke and ignore the millions of cigarette butts that are simply everywhere.

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Butts are everywhere. Here at the base of a city tree

Help me understand this, I implore my students. Like everything else about Hungary, it’s complicated.

In Japan, where over 21% of the population smokes, one rarely, if ever, sees a cigarette butt anywhere. In Japanese culture, largely influenced by its traditional belief system, Shinto, everything has a proper place, its right connection. From perfectly coiffed plants, to famously manicured rock gardens, nothing seems neglected, everything is where it should be. A cigarette butt belongs in its rightful place, hidden in some out-of-view trash container. From the surface, one could conclude, quite mistakenly, that few people in Japan smoke.

Back in Hungary, some people suggest that folks just expect someone else to clean up after them. Others will offer that smokers here are just slobs and lack pride in their city. Either way, it’s a huge turnoff for tourists who, out of necessity, have to dodge second-hand smoke and ignore trash bins overflowing with cigarette butts and public sidewalks strewn with these disgusting little things.

At the entrance to the Millennium, Budapest’s venerable subway line

Smoking, of course, is an international problem. Few countries have escaped its wrath. 6.2 million people die worldwide each year from smoking, and another 1 million die from the effects of second-hand smoke. In Hungary, with a population of less than 10 million people, some 25,000 people die each year from smoking.

It wouldn’t be reasonable to expect that Hungarians will suddenly become Zen-like in their approach to cigarette smoking. But people can and do make surprising behavioral social-shifts when things become compelling enough. Witness the behavior of dog owners who follow their dogs around with little green poop bags. I routinely observe the people who ride public transport here and religiously keep their paid transport passes on their person. They know that transit officials ride those same buses and trams and regularly ask to see their tickets or risk getting handed an annoying fine.

Last drags before boarding the tram

Smoking is chill, my students tell me, adding that it reduces their stress. So, if you’re coming to Budapest, and please do come, get ready to dodge the smoke and ignore the ubiquitous butts. Much like the smoker who denies he’s addicted, sadly, people here don’t seem to think there’s much of a problem.







Sweet Dreams Are Made of These

“Sweet dreams are made of these, Who am I to disagree? I travel the world and the seven seas, Everybody’s looking for something…” The Eurythmics, 1983


I don’t know exactly when or where this started. Perhaps it was in high school, although I think I may have been hooked many years earlier. From my earliest memories, New York’s streets were replete with them. Along with kosher hot dogs and knishes, every yellow and blue umbrella’d Sabrett cart sold them. In the seventies, after I spent a few years overseas, I returned only to find they had disappeared, replaced by some frozen ersatz version, a substitute as unauthentic as a New York Yankees cap made in China.

Delicious, soft pretzels sold alongside hot dogs in NYC

Pretzels have a heralded history in Europe going back to the Middle Ages. More recently, Pennsylvania-Dutch immigrants to the U.S. brought their pretzel-making skills with them from Europe giving us the hard pretzel with its longer shelf life. My personal favorite commercial pretzel is Splits, which I discovered in Maine just last year. They are crunchy, salty, baked to be hard, and oh, so delicious.

But it’s those large soft pretzels that I have a true passion for. That personal relationship probably started on the streets of New York City many years ago. It was rekindled in the late 90s on a business trip to Munich, Germany, while walking through the English Garden there. I saw pretzels almost the size of basketballs, so big in fact, people would stretch their arms through them to make carrying them easier. A huge cold glass of Bavarian beer in each hand made this necessary.

The amazing pretzels (and beer) served in Munich’s English Garden

Naivety led me to think I’d readily find real pretzels here in Budapest. I thought I was on to something, but what look like pretzels here are pastries made of bread, and basically just as dull. They are, in fact, taking up loads of shelf-space in nearly every bakery here. Hungarians love them. But for me, they’re just a mirage of the real deal.

These pretzel-like pastries, found everywhere in Hungary, are more like bread, than pretzels

I then took my search to Prague, surely I would find pretzels there to go with their great Czech beer. A weekend’s worth of sleuthing around that city proved unfruitful. Yes, there was great food, world-class beer, and an endless supply of their beautiful garnet jewelry. But tragically, no pretzels.

Then it was on to Krakow. Certainly I could find pretzels in that wonderful, old Polish city. Yes, there were plenty of street vendors selling something that looked like pretzels, but sadly, here too, they were more like circles of bread.

Pretzel vendors in Krakow, Poland. Sadly, not the “real deal”

I returned to Budapest having given up all hope. I’ll return to Germany again someday, I thought, but for now, I’ll just have to put my search on hold. I just couldn’t keep putting my heart on this emotional rollercoaster any longer.

Then out of the blue, came a social media contact from a friend. “Steve, check this out, I think this place has them.” I was reluctant to be falsely seduced. But, jeez, the link she attached had a photo that looked just like the real deal.

Off to Buda we headed. Looking for an old-school Bavarian restaurant a few blocks up from the Danube. We sat ourselves down in the heavily wooden German-style eating establishment. I ordered a beer and some sausages, and with trepidation, asked if they had pretzels. There was a pause, would my heart be broken yet again? “Of course,” she responded, “They’ll take about 15-minutes to bake. How many would you like?”

They were everything I could have hoped for: big, soft, warm, with just the right amount of salt sprinkled along the inviting brown curves. We ate three as appetizers and took another four home with us in case the world came to end that evening-at least I would have my real pretzels with me in my last remaining moments on earth.

My search for real pretzels ended at this Bavarian restaurant, Bratwursthausle Kolbaszd, in Buda

I’ve stopped looking of course. I know where to find my soft, glorious, authentic, Bavarian pretzels. They await me just across the river in Buda, a short metro ride from my flat here in Pest. The world seems like a better place now.

My sweet dreams are made of these. What, I wonder, are your sweet dreams made of?