Sunday, 25 May 2008

Coffee Ratings Revised

I almost forgot to rate the coffee in Budapest! I had heard so much about Budapest coffee houses (they are similar to the Viennese ones) and while atmosphere was abundant, the coffee was unfortunately lacking.

Here is my new international rating of coffee so far (Note - I will be in Italy next week and am expecting greatness):

1. France
2. Germany
3. The Netherlands
4. Poland
5. Egypt
6. Hungary
7. United Kingdom

France has moved up since my earlier ratings in February due to the excellent cappucinos I had along with their atmospheric cafes. Although Germany has excellent coffee that is cheaper than France, it does not have the same cafe atmosphere. The Netherlands have good cafes, but nothing extraordinary. I did not have much coffee in Poland (besides at homes or in the hotel that my friends parents own) but overall, they also had good coffee. Egypt made good turkish coffee and Hungary's coffee was drinkable. I have found one place here in St. Andrews that actually makes a real latte, but it is off the beaten track (and they get extra points for an attractive barista who is overly attentive). Otherwise most coffee in Britain is a weak mixture of bad coffee and too much milk.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Budapest, Part 4: Miscellanea

Some leftover thoughts on Budapest:

One of my favorite fixtures of Europe are the unique architectural oddities that each city or region has. While cellars are numerous in other cities, Budapest has a special claim. They are bars and tea houses and restaurants. There was a very traditional, yet utterly un-kitsch Hungarian cellar restaurant we went to one of the last nights I was in town. I was able to try a lot of specialties in restaurant form. I had venison stew with potatoes and a tomato salad. Then I ordered dessert, crepes Gundel, which was a wonderful flambed crepe filled with walnuts, raisins, and chocolate floating in a walnut (?) liquor (that the waiter lit on fire with quite ceremony).

The Hungarians believe in dessert. Not only did I have the excellent crepes Gundel, but I also sampled various pastry at several Viennese coffee houses (one was in a cellar!) and various poppy seed creations. While I was not very fond of generic Hungarian cooking, at least they do enough correctly - wine, dessert, and tea. They're already outdoing the British by at least one.

As for museums, I wandered in several history museums, all of which have such vaguely similar names. However, the National Museum was my favorite, documenting the history of the cities of Buda and Pest, starting with neolithic carvings and ending in the modern era at the fall of the communist regime. Not only did they have historical items of interest, but they incorporated clothing, furniture and standard objects in their displays. Unfortunately only half of the signs were in English and my general lack of Hungarian history left me curious and dissatisfied. The Historical Museum was very similar in themes, but with less objects and more English signs with repetitive and useless knowledge. They did have a portion of the old palace that it is housed in open and I was able to wander in the cellar, built sometime in the 1500s, I believe. Not only was it deliciously cool and crisp inside, I felt I had discovered some hidden passage in the tradition of Indiana Jones. With the lack of tourists, besides two older British women wandering away, for a moment it was as if I had my own castle.

I did not have time to go to any art museums unfortunately. I tried to go into the National Art Gallery, but I walked in through an unlocked side door. There was a sign outside saying it was the National Art Gallery, but as soon as I entered some woman came up to me and started to say something to me in Hungarian. I said in extremely broken Hungarian, something along the lines of : "I No Speak Hungary." She then asked if spoke either German or English and then explained that I had to go through the main entrance. After escorting me over to the pain entrance, I was too confused (and tired of museums) to bother figuring out the proper way to get in. I wasn't particularly interested in any more medieval carvings, which is the brief glimpse of what I saw when coming in through the side door.

I did go to the Terror Haza, or Terror House, which was once the headquarters for the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party, the Hungarian Nazis, and then the later communist terror organizations, the AVO and the AVH. As it was a museum of "terror", they tried to document the crimes of both organizations against the people of Hungary. After reading the guidebooks, I was not sure I wanted to go as they described it as a shocking exhibit of past crimes against humanity. But I felt I should go, if for no other reason to see the building. I did take an upper division history class on the history of the Soviet Union at Berkeley after all.

The museum itself was one of the most beautifully curated museums I've ever seen. It is visually stunning, in its subtly vibrant colors that all seem to accentuate each other. The displays were simple, but aesthetically pleasing, and the orientation was easy to follow. I think what I enjoyed best was seeing the various memorabilia and objects from the communist era. The stairwell of communist art was incredible - the busts of Lenin and Stalin and others moving spirally upwards.

What struck me as strange though was the fact that the museum was not that shocking, at least in the terms the guidebooks used. Perhaps it was because I knew a lot more about the specific "terrors" of communist regimes in Europe. Compared to visiting the Nazi work camp Dachau, it was not even as close to being as horrific. The other thought I had while walking through the museum was the extreme bias. I understood and in many ways agree that the museum was an attempt to create a remembrance for all those who were persecuted then. But the general sentiment was that everything the communists did was evil (they did not focus much on the Nazis, besides including some uniforms and relating how many Nazi Arrow Cross members became part of the communist secret police). One of the things I realized while taking the history of the Soviet Union class was that although there were many things done as a means to solidify communism that were horrendous (ie. Stalinist purges), we have a hard time differentiating the propaganda we were fed against communism. The Soviet Union was one of the most progressive places for feminism and literacy, two things a lot of people don't realize. I am not trying to suggest communism is the means for a successful government, far from it actually, but I think as an American I long thought of that "great Communist evil" which I am now unsure exists or ever did. Rather, it was a much more complicated process, one in which communism folded in on itself.

One aspect of communal living I did enjoy while in Budapest was the Roman baths. At first I was a little nervous about parading around in early April in a bathing suit. But the baths are extremely user friendly - old men were playing chess in the outdoor bath while drinking beer, Italian tourists running around in droves, the one little boy kept narrowly missing other bathers when jumping into the pool, and of course there were the euro trash couples making out in broad view. But this just made it more comfortable to be there. I also learned how to properly enjoy a sauna, moving from it to a cold pool and then back again. It was extremely refreshing, unlike the claustrophobic experiences I had as a child in random hotel saunas.

I'm sure there are a million other things I am forgetting about my trip to Budapest. But at this point, with another trip, looming on the horizon, I feel like I've covered enough of it. Lena will have to remind me if I forgot anything.

Soon to Be an Ex-Ex-Patriot

It's hard to believe that exactly four months ago, I was anticipating my trip to Cairo. It's even harder to believe that less than a year ago I was anxiously awaiting the beginning of a year in Scotland. Now, I'm approaching my last final exam here and my next adventure.

Lately it seems that the general preponderance is the uncertainty of what waits ahead. There are the usual anxieties of starting another year or a new job or moving to a new place. But what is stranger is to return to a place, a very familiar place, knowing it will not be the same. In my Scottish literature class, we read several short stories that dealt with Scottish ex-patriots returning home and what they found on arrival. Now, I'm neither Scottish nor from some tiny island village nor have I been gone for thirty years, but I think the sentiments and underlying emotion are similar. There are times that I feel that I have to glorify everything here. I must be the Roman returning victorious from battle and I am not sure I can always keep that charade up. Not to say that there haven't been many wonderful experiences, but they have been fully tempered by the difficulties.

There are so many myths and expectations of studying abroad. This year has been the strangest, loneliest, most adventurous year yet. And for all of that, I wouldn't take it back. However, as the Chart of Emotions that one of my friends was given (in the conclusion that a visual bell graph would help explain what to expect while studying abroad), I am now approaching the reverse effects of studying abroad. What are those? Tune in next fall.

I think I might delaying travelling for 2 or 3 days and enjoy some more time in the company of people here. Not that I have money to waste, but the extra expense of changing a plane ticket seems well worth it at the moment. Then I'm off to Italy for about two weeks and then a quick jaunt to the isles of Ireland and Britain before I sail home.

Strange how the time flies in a foreign country, even when every moment isn't necessarily fun...

Friday, 16 May 2008

Budapest, Part 3: Night

There is a gentle intensity about the Hungarian nightlife. It is similar to its Eastern European neighbors in that Budapest loves a good night out, drinking and dancing until the sun comes up. But the Hungarians have a spirit about them that seems more easy going and less intense than the Polish or Germans. They are definitely not pretentious like the French.

When I was in Budapest, Lena made sure I saw all the various aspects of the nightlife. Well, I will specify that we did not go to any strip or sex clubs, a reputation that Budapest somewhat encourages due to the number of tourists. However, despite being named the "Sex Capital," the streets were remarkably safe and as long as you stayed away from the crazy winos and alcoholics like the one we encountered on the airport bus, you were fine.

Enough about the merits of walking on Budapest streets at ungodly hours!

The first night I arrived I was too incapacitated by lack of sleep (I'd woken before dawn) to do anything. However, the next night Lena took me to a party in a friend's flat where I promptly met her international crew of friends. I was informed by the Hungarian that the wine label Danko was "a lifestyle" and given the quality of Hungarian wines, I would fondly join this lifestyle. (Note: Danko is only a lifestyle for those who can afford bottles of 3 euro wine or less) We then all went to a student night at a club called Living Room. Let's just say it was like a student night at any club anywhere in the world. Too many bodies, one "free drink," bad music, and guys to avoid. However, it is in someways both better and worse when you can't speak their language. They might actually be interesting people in their own right, but there is no way to ever figure it out. However, it also becomes an easy escape mechanism when there is no way to communicate. After several hours of this, Lena and I decided to go back to her apartment.

The next night proved better, or at least made for a more interesting story. We had been invited to a Polish dinner party - Lena's Polish friends were throwing a dinner party for their friends to introduce them to their native cuisine. That said, what I did eat was excellent. I can always go for a good pierogi. However, what we had thought was a sit down dinner became much more of an epic battle to get food. The Polish group had originally only invited their Polish and Slavic friends but it quickly morphed into 35 people for dinner and food for 10. Luckily, one of the skills I have mastered being a poor undergraduate is how to quickly navigate a buffet of free food. Of course, there's also an art to being polite at the same time. Another point of interest: there was more than plenty vodka to go around multiple times for everyone.

Afterward, Lena convinced half of the dinner party to join us at Szimpla, one of Budapest's "found bars." By "found bar", it is an old decaying building which is now a bar and that has been decorated by objects found around the streets. I believe I've seen these kind of establishments in various German films. Think found art plus cool hangout and a little post-communism mixed in. Clubbing seems to be the preferred option among many Europeans, but I absolutely adored this place. It was artlessly cool and had the perfect mix of ambience and people. No one was too hip or too touristy or too anything in particular.

Of course when we went to a jazz club, Fat Mo's, later on, we encountered a completely different environment. This place had once been a sleek bar of the 1920s and still looked so. The jazz band was remarkably good and the Hungarian twist to the music was all the more interesting. Unfortunately Scotland is a bit of a wasteland for music unless you like Brit rock or traditional Scottish music, both of which are fabulous. But forget about jazz. And if I hear another cover band playing "Sweet Home Alabama" in a Scottish accent, I am going to kill someone. The folk/rock band we heard at some other bar also was surprisingly good and they were singing in Hungarian. Europeans seem to think that if they sing in English it makes the music better. No comment.

I'm sure there are other things I'm missing from our night adventures. There are still plenty of other things I haven't even gotten around to like going into a random side door of a museum and having to be escorted out, or the adventures of the Roman baths. But all in good time. I must get back to reading Ian Rankin's Black and Blue for my Scottish Culture and Society final. Now that I'm on page 311 it's getting pretty good, however it's not exactly high brow literature. However it is Scottish:

Glasgow wasn't such a bad place: he'd been to cities in the States that could eat it for brunch.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

The Art of Revision

I have another complaint about the British school system, one that most Berkeley students would ridicule me for complaining about until they had experienced it themselves. Here in St. Andrews there is a period of time in between the end of classes and the beginning of exams and it is called Revision Week. There is nothing scheduled during this time and students are expected to use it to revise for exams.

However, this is too much time for us Berkeley students, used to the pressure chamber effect of building essays and exams and, don't forget, socializing.

Instead I will give some key rules to Scottish revision:

  • make a shopping trip to Dundee. You will now have new clothes to wear to the library which is the place to be seen.
  • only study when the sun is out. Then you must put on sunbathing appropriate clothes and pretend to study while you really nap.
  • live in the library. You have a whole semester's worth of reading to do in the upcoming week. Oh and getting those notes for those lectures you never went to would be helpful. When you only have two classes a semester, why bother going?
  • Drink until you remember why you might want to study.
  • Go home - its not like you'll do any studying anyways.
  • Revise your knowledge of YouTube videos and facebook while "studying" in the library.
Ok, perhaps I'm a bit biased. But as a dear friend of mine fondly termed her European university of high caliber, it was really just "fake school."

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Adventure in Budapest, Part 2

I was going to continue documenting the rest of my Budapest trip in a more timely fashion, but somehow time swept away as usual. Better late than never.

The second day of my trip in Budapest, I awoke to the pleasant sounds of a city neighborhood. People laughing, cars moving, and the faint drill of construction in the distance. How nice to be back in the urban jungle, I thought! And I meant it - never again will I question my need for the city after living in a village for a year. Lena and I awoke fairly early and ate the standard Northern European breakfast - bread, meat, cheese, yogurt, and tea. She thought it would be the perfect day to visit the traditional Hungarian town of Szentendre. And in fact, it was. It was a beautiful April day - the sun shining just enough to make the temperature pleasant, but not overbearing.

We boarded a bus - overall the public transporation system in Budapest is quite user friendly, even to those who have never seen a word of Hungarian in their lives, like me - which was a much better experience than the night bus the night before. We arrived in the village, which reminded me of a combination of the villages I'd seen in Bavaria and Poland. Szentendre is known as an artists colony and is quite touristy. The flocks of Italian tourists was quite astonishing in my opinion, but we left them alone.

We wandered around the village, looking at the old churches and the terraced houses, built in a Hungarian-Serbian style. We tried a traditional Hungarian street food - langosh - which is a piece of deep-fried bread with various toppings like cheese and meet. Some British woman came up to us and asked if it was a pizza and then if it was fatty. 'Well, it is deep-fried', replied Lena. 'Then it's not a pizza?' the woman asked. However fatty it actually was, it was delicious with the garlic paste on the side of the counter, replacing the standard condiments of pepper, brown sauce, or ketchup. We wandered over to a point next to the Danube and ate our lunch. Afterwards, Lena and I decided to go back into the city.

That afternoon it became overcast, but the city of Budapest was only more resplendant in its decaying beauty with a layer of clouds overshadowing it. We wandered around the main streets, looking at St. Stephen's Basilica, the Grand Market, the main shopping district, and the Pest side of the Danube. What I did not know when I first arrived in Budapest was that it was once two cities - Buda and Pest - and they were united in the mid-1800s. There is also a section which was a separate area, the island of St. Margaret, which before the Turkish invasion was a convent. The majority of Pest was built after 1800, during the glories of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and are all magnificent in the tiniest architectural details. In 1896, in celebration of their 1000 year anniversary, the city redesigned major areas to resemble Paris and put in the first metro in continental Europe. Most of these places are still in use, although many still neglected from the years of war and communist regime.

After wandering around for awhile, Lena and I stopped at the Grand Market, also built in 1896, in order to buy dinner. It is an indoor market, with stall upon stall of almost everything imaginable. And my god the paprika sausages! I do not recommend them in general as the are in the best circumstances as good as a very poorly made salami. However, the pickled bell peppers were excellent and the amount of produce surprised me. I had rather thought it would be like Poland, which had very few fresh vegetables. Then again, I was there in November and this was now April.

Eventually Lena and I wandered back to her apartment with our bounty and made dinner, complete with the very drinkable 60 cent wine. However, an interesting night was to follow.

Monday, 5 May 2008

April Showers Bring May Flowers

It's been a long while since I last posted here. Unfortunately, the end of a semester is always the most tense, wound up period of days, no matter which university I am at. Not only is the workload greater than at any other period of time, but everyone has a mad rush to have the last great party of the semester.

Here in St. Andrews May has brought an assortment of things: beautiful sunny days (I spent two hours today reading on the lawn), barbeques, and the realization that I am going home in about a month. The previous sentence can be interpreted like this: I am trying to do as much as possible right now.

On May 1st, I jumped into the North Sea at dawn. St. Andrews has a lot of 'traditions', ones that no one is quite sure where they originated, or they were actually started about five years ago. The May Dip is one of the traditions like Raisin Weekend, that no one is quite sure where it started. Yet no one really cares. The student body traditionally jumps into the North Sea at dawn on May 1st.

I knew there was no way I would actually wake up at 4am and walk down to the beach in the rain, so my two friends named Chris and I sat around drinking wine until the early hours. Then Scottish Chris and I walked down to the beach in the dark during a torrent of rain and hovered around the few bonfires. It was so dark that we could not recognize anyone, but we didn't much care. We were just waiting for enough daylight to be present for us to run into the sea. We also decided that we did not want anyone to steal our clothes, so we hovered around a nearby group and when we undressed put our clothes next to theirs. Meanwhile hoards of people ran around in the dark with swimsuits or clothes, a group of guys dragging a plastic raft into the sea. People shrieked everytime a downpour of rain fell unexpected from above.

Having been out in the rain for an hour already and having had enough wine to keep the blood circulating, I did not feel that cold walking around in just a swimsuit at dawn in Scotland. Perhaps this goes to my water polo days - although many have kindly pointed out that that was only winter evenings in Southern California, not mid-spring at the North Sea. Chris and I eventually ran in, although I was only able to go up to my waist before deciding this was good enough.

We marched out, got dressed, and took a taxi home in the wee hours of the morning. I had enough sand in my shoes to last for all the other years of May Dips I will miss.