Saturday, December 19, 2009

Happy Holidays!

I felt that if I left tomorrow without a new blog, I wouldn't have any closure before the holidays.  I can't just leave without wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.  So that's what I'm doing.

Stockings from my mom
Also, I wanted to give the final details of my holiday expedition.  I thought I'd give my stalkers a little help.  I know when I travel, its hard to follow me sometimes.  So this is my Christmas gift to all of you.

 Our Christmas decorations
Tomorrow (Sunday, 20), I'm taking the train to Milan.  Then on the 21st, I'm flying to Krakow.  On the 23rd, I'm flying to Oslo.  I'm thinking on the 27th, I'm taking a bus down to Copenhagen.  And then I'll fly back to Geneva on the 1st ( sleep for me).

 Ornament from my mom
I'm sure I'll have lots of stories to pass along once I return next year.  So until then, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Monday, December 14, 2009


Before going into detail, let me tell you that I LOVE BUDAPEST.  I think I say this after every city I visit, but this is my favorite city.  Ok, now that I've proclaimed my love, I'll tell you about my trip.

Who: Me, Ali, Alisha, Mariana, and Molly (all au pairs)

There we are (Mariana, Molly, Me, Ali, Alisha)

Food:  There were two things that were three.  Paprika, cakes, and the prices.  The goulash was phenomenal (made with paprika...their paprika is REALLY sweet).  The cakes were numerous, and best of all, mostly chocolate.  And the prices were out of this world.  Especially considering I live near Geneva.  We ate at a very nice restaurant, getting wine and dessert and big dishes for about 20 euros.  And this was in a touristy area.  But more on prices later...

How about now?
Prices:  We saw AMAZING ballet in the Hungarian State Opera House (STUNNING) for about 4 euros.  I saw crappy ballet in a crap auditorium in Switzerland for about 22 euros.  I got a massage for 12 euros, hostel for 7 euros a night, fast food for under 4 euros, taxi ride to airport for 4 euros, and Wild Boar Stew ( the left) for 10 euros at a nice restaurant.

Money:  It took forever to get used to the prices.  Basically, 1 euro=280 HUF.  And even though I knew this, I nearly peed my pants when they told me it was going to cost 5,000 florins for a Taxi.

50 euros=13,400 HUF
History lesson: Budapest is two cities.  Buda and Pest.  They are separated by the Danube River.  Buda is a little older and more historic.  Pest has more things to do.  I think I like Buda a little bit more than Pest...but not much.

Buda is closest, Pest is on the other side of the river.  Tall building on left in Pest is the Parliament Building, tall building in right-center is St. Stephan's Basilica (our hostel was next door), and bridge on right is Chain Bridge

Thermal Baths: This is my best story of the weekend.  I could make this an entire new blog, but I'm not going to.  I've known that Budapest is somewhat famous for its Thermal Baths.  So this was high on our list of things to do.  With several to choose from, we settled on Gillert thanks to the recommendation of a couple of American tourists.
The baths were set in a gorgeous old building (to the left).  And this is were the confusion starts.  It took a little bit of time to find the entrance.  Then we were bombarded with signs in Hungarian and English with different services and where to go, but nothing telling us the basic info.  We just got in line and paid what we were supposed to.  We walked into the lobby area, and had no idea where to go.  Knowing that I wouldn't be changing with the girls, I headed off in my own direction trying to find out what to do.  I found an Irishman who was equally confused.  We finally made it to the locker room.  Then after some more wondering...this time, half-naked, we found the coed swimming pool.  That's what you see in my picture below.  On the other side of the pool, there was a coed hot tub as well.
Then on each side of the pool, there were single-sex areas.  Walking into that was like walking into a Hugh Hefner dream...if he dreamt about old fat naked Hungarians.  So now I had the option of sitting in the saunas and hot tubs with these men or sitting in the coed section with a chance of seeing a good looking girl amongst the crowd.

This wasn't over, however.  I've heard about the massages at these places.  And for some reason, a massage by a 300-lbs Hungarian sounded interesting to me.  So I got my 3,000 HUF and paid the only guy who spoke English (yes, 300 lbs.).  He took me into a cramped side room and tells me to get naked.  No problem.  I laid on the bed expecting him to come in and close the door.  Like most professors, I guess he prefers an open-door policy.  No big deal.  So now this huge guy is going to town on me.  It takes about 20 minutes before he uses any kind of oil.  Weird.  And he basically does the same motion for the entire 30 minutes.  Weird.  And the whole time he is yelling at what I assume is a co-worker (yelling because of distance).  Weird.  Then this man (who sounded like a Hungarian version of Barry White) comes into the room and sticks a foil wrapper in the face of my masseuse.  He smells it and places it on his "work bench."  What was in this wrapper?  I have no idea.  All I know is that the room started to smell like hot cabbage.  I'm guessing it was a sandwich of some sort.  Weird.  Finally it was over.  Did it feel good?  Sure.  Not great, but good.

House of Terror:  Awesome museum.  Its basically about the Nazi and Communist occupation of Budapest since WWII and how oppressive it was to the people.  The coolest part was how the museum was set up.  It was the former headquarters of both parties and many rooms were made to look exactly how they were.  Even the basement which held political prisoners was intact.  Seeing rooms smaller than the size of coffins and gallows in dark, damp cornered rooms was silencing.  Its hard to describe this museum because I couldn't take pictures.  I'm telling you, if you go to Budapest, go to this museum.

Weather:  We never saw the sun.  Rain on the first day and beautiful snow on the last.  Cold and dreary the rest of the time.  Not really that cold.

American Embassy:  Roaming the streets one night, we came up to a group of policemen standing behind barricades.  On one barricade was a sign of a camera with a line through it.  We looked around wondering what it was talking about but couldn't figure it out.  Then we saw an American Flag on a building and forgot about the sign.  In our excitement in seeing the good ol' USA, I grabbed my camera.  The policemen quickly stopped me.  "No pictures."
"Of what?  I'm just taking a picture of that flag."
"That's the American Embassy and due to terrorist threats, you can't take a picture of the building."
They were nice about it.  I told them that I was an American.  I asked if I could take a picture on the building with my passport in it.

Language:  Most people spoke English pretty well.  And if they didn't, they knew someone else working who did.

 We became 3rd graders...relying only on pictures

People:  Very nice people in Budapest.  It seemed like they were genuinely interested to talk to us Americans.  And they were happy to help us.  We couldn't figure out how to use a pay-phone.  So I flagged this random guy down and he called the place for us with his own phone.  Super nice and down-to-earth people.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

I Now Have a Beard, So I'm Allowed To Write Like This...

Maybe it because I'm listening to the Garden State Soundtrack (which is the only cd which literally transports me to an exact location...a certain dorm room during my Freshman year of college) or maybe it's because my next few blogs will be heavy travel-blogs (in the next 3 weeks I'll be in 6 different cities), but I'm feeling the need to write a sentimental entry today.  So fair warning: if you're looking for something interesting in the next few hundred words, click this link.  If you can stomach some personal writing, keep reading...I dare you.

A few weeks ago, I was feeling homesick again.  No secret.  And to be honest, I was looking at Christmas being away from my family as the pinnacle of my homesickness.  I figured that the most family-oriented holiday of the year would lead me to a mass bone marrow-selling spree to buy a ticket back home.  While, a ticket back home for the holidays still sounds great...I'm not getting homesick enough to resort to such a drastic plan.  Male prostitution is still on the table, though.

Instead, Christmas is having the opposite effect.  Instead of making me miss my family, its making me feel more connected to them as ever.  Its amazing. 

As soon as I listen to Dido sing Christmas Day, I immediately smell my Christmastime home growing up...pine tree, oranges with cloves, Yankee Candles, etc.  I can sense my mother slaving away to bake us 23 different kinds of Christmas cookies, of which I only eat 6.  I can hear my dad begging us boys to help her because it would mean so much to her.  We'd come to help take the cookies out of the oven.

As soon as I step into a mall here, I hear more Christmas music and see the same decorations as back home.  This transports me to my local mall running through the stores to find crappy last-minute presents for my family.  I can remember splitting up with my brothers because we are all shopping for each other.  Or my parents taking me into GAP to see if Devin would wear a certain sweater that's on sale.

As soon as I see a house garishly decorated, it takes me to a somewhat cold, dry December morning with my dad yelling at Andrew to get his ass outside to help us with the manly outdoor decorating that needs to happen.  I can then see Devin's ass as he ascends to the uppermost reaches of our dieing Oak tree in the front yard to get the best wrapping of Christmas lights around the branches.  And finally, I can literally then see my dad's ass as he's bending over untangling last year's lights.  I guess I not doing much in this scenerio.

As soon as I put on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for my boys here, I can remember my own mother gleefully watching with us every Christmas special she can manage to find.  And I can see how much I enjoyed it when I was my boy's age, but then remembering how much of a struggle it has been over the last decade to sit through a tired Christmas show or made-for-TV movie.

I could go on...but my testicles have now officially retracted, and I'm now the proud owner of a nice new vagina.  Before I run to the store to get some tampons, diet pills, and a Driving for Dummies book, I'll wrap this touchy-feely stuff up. 

While being here, its easy to get a different perspective on things.  I've always appreciated my family (immediate and relative) and the traditions that we have.  But I'm seeing for the first time just how much these traditions will always be able to transcend time, distances, and experiences to bring me back to the most important part of my life.  So thank you, family.

*If you're up for some more reading...this is hilariously accurate.  And hilariously poignant for this blog...

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Christmas Time=Christmas Markets

This Sunday, Alisha, Ali, and I went to the Strasbourg Christmas Market.  This is supposed to be one of the best Christmas Markets in all of Europe.  I think they are right.  Here are the stories of the day.

Story #1
After searching all over the city for a place to eat, we settled on Chez Yvonne.  This was the cutest, most homely little restaurant I had ever seen.  Old paintings on the walls with quilted French sayings next to them hung everywhere.  These were sandwiched, inexplicably, by photos of possible French celebrities.  Eclectic? 
Anyway, the kind old lady who seems to own the place leaves us waiting at the bar for a few minutes after she greets us at the door.  She then shows us our seat.  After what seemed like 17 and a half minutes, she comes to take our order.  We had decided that we were going to get some Foie Gras and a typical Alsatian dish, sauerkraut and sausage (Alsatian is Alsace...the region Strasbourg is located).  We would share.  The patient old waitress said no.  We had to all get a dish.  She sped off.
Round 2, she comes back 10 minutes later.  Ali, the most francophone of the three of us, starts the ordering.  After some hesitation, she says what she wants.  A little timedly.  Then Alisha and I order.  She gets our order, but points to Ali and says "I don't have time for you!".  The gentle and warm old lady gets someone else to come talk to us.  She speaks in English to us with a smile.  Perfect.  We give our order.
Round 3.  The sweetheart of an old lady throws a menu on our table and points to the drink section.  After 5 minutes, she comes back and asks us what we wanted.  We tell her we aren't thirsty.  "OH!  You three are REALLY speacial! ASNDAFKNFDSK!"  As she storms away, we can feel how much she is working to get our tip.  We decide to leave.  We ordered and dashed.  We are rebels.

Is there better food?  And drink?  I think German food is vastly underrated.
Story #2
The Christmas market was AMAZING.  I was expecting maybe 30 booths with some mass-produced pieces of crap.  Nope.  There were hundreds of booths with mostly hand-made pieces of mediocrity.  You could find everything from candles that never died to Santa Clauses that never gave presents to snack huts that never made anyone skinny.  We ended up getting a 6-pack of beer.  At least it was from a local brewery.
And the amount of people!  Tons of people.  And what I liked most of all, the people were old and local.  We were easily in the 99th percentile of coolness.  I'm usually in that category when I'm alone, so it was nice to be back up there as a collective group.
As for the set-up.  Basically, there were 14 different areas dispersed throughout the city.  They were easily walkable.  This gave a great tour of the city.  And best of all, it was all centered by its magnificent cathedral.
And the lights!  The market was a lot cooler and night because every street was strewn with lights.  It finally felt like Christmas.

The lights!

The market and the cathedral.

Story #3
I drove for 9 hours that day.  I left at 6AM and didn't get back until 11:30PM.  Long day.  We went up through Switzerland, into Germany, and finally back into France.
This was my first time in Germany and onto its Autobahn.  I should probably research this before I write about it, but I'm sure I'm an expert on this subject.  There is no 1 Autobahn.  It is the name for highway, in German.  And yes, there are no speed limits on some parts.  Where these parts are, I don't know.  I just noticed that several times during our trip in Germany, I didn't see any speed limit signs.  During these times, BMWs, Mercedes, VWs, and Opels roared past me easily over 100 mph.  I tried to keep up.  I really did.  But my crappy French Renault can hardly get up to a normal French speed limit.  There was one point where I hit 95 mph and I almost pulled over because I thought I blew a tire.  I really thought the car was going to flip over.
But we made it safely.

Story #4
Russia was the guest of honor at this year's market.  The Russian women are gorgeous.

What Russian woman wouldn't want a piece of this?
Story #5
*Warning!  History nerd alert!  Quit reading now!!!*
Strasbourg has been the center of conflict for hundreds of years.  Every time there is a war including any German states and France, Alsace (again, the region Strasbourg is in) is up for grabs.  Both countries think its inheritantly theirs.  Therefore, the city benefits from a strong influence of both.  Both languages are seen all around, but French is dominant and is spoken much more often.  But what I thought was really cool are the buildings.  They looked very German, but then the city felt very French.  The wooden panels felt German, but the giant cathedral was very French.  The food was very German (sauerkraut, sausages, beer), but with a strong influence of France (quiche, wine, baguettes).  I thought it was a perfect marriage of the 2 cultures.
Geneva needs to learn from this city.  Instead of feeling French or Swiss, Geneva feels awkward 15 year old with acne and a strange fascination with world politics.  Its trying to find its place.

German and French