Buzz Buzz Buzz!
[phone vibrates on wooden coffee table]
Buzz Buzz Buzz!
[still a little disoriented, grabs the phone]
"Hi Isaac. It's Zsuzsa. Did you sleep well? Agi and Gáspár and I are on our way over to help with the power situation. We'll be over soon. Okay?"
Now, Budapest is 7 hours ahead of US Central Time. So, when it is 8:00 AM in Iowa, it's 15:00 (3:00 PM) in Budapest. This time change, plus jet lag, and of course my love of sleeping in, had me waking up at almost 13:00 (1:00) in the afternoon. Still disoriented, I managed to roll out of bed and put some clothes on. There was just enough time to use the bathroom and wipe the sleep from my eyes when I heard the buzzing of the door from downstairs to get in.
Gáspár, their oldest son, burst in the door with his right hand outstretched high in the air. "What's up man?" he proclaimed, reminiscent of his father's exact expression from the night before. Gáspár and I had gotten to know each other a bit during my frequent visits to their home while they were living in Cedar Falls, so it was exciting for the both of us to see each other again. He was keen on asking all sorts of questions - what I thought of Budapest, his grandmother's apartment, what I had done last night (which of course was stay inside and sleep). Our conversation didn't last long, as Zsuzsa had already begun working on the power situation.
After about forty minutes of failed attempts, scouring through folders of papers underneath the television to check if a utility payment had been missed, phone calls to the power company, and even a visit from the neighbor (whom none of us knew), we thought we had run out of options. Finally, a young electrician who was working with his father a few floors down, miraculously caught word that we were having troubles and came upstairs. He took a look and, although he lacked the necessary tools, insisted that his father could have it fixed.
Of course, since it was now almost 2 o'clock and hadn't eaten anything, started to get really hungry. Zsuzsa sent Gáspár and I up to Móricz Zsigmond körtér to get some lunch. Her hope was that, by the time we got back, the electrician would have the power problem resolved.
Karinthy Frigyes út is lined with all sorts of restaurants and pubs. Most of the pubs are basement establishments with tables and chairs on the sidewalk, while the bar is down a narrow set of stairs. The restaurants take up most of the storefronts; Chinese, Gyros, Turkish, "Western Amerikan" and Pizza dominate the street. The occasional doughnut shop, fruit stand, or family-owned bakery is scattered along the road as well. This array of restaurants sustains themselves by the variety of university students who spend a lot of time in the area.
"So, where's your favorite place to eat? McDonald's?" I asked, hoping he might say yes and we could get a cheeseburger - I was really craving one.
"Yuck. I hate McDonald's. It's the worst." he replied.
[My heart sinks a tiny bit]
"I'm taking you to get a Gyros. That's my favorite."
[My heart sinks a little more]
Honestly, the last time I remember getting a Gyros was in 8th grade in some shopping mall food court in Washington DC. It wasn't the greatest. Actually, it was so bad, I never had one again. So when Gáspár said we were going to get one, I was a little hesitant. After a quick (and confusing) stop at the ATM (I think it was trying to give me American dollars and charging me a ridiculous fee.. luckily I guessed something was wrong by the number and restarted the transaction), we found ourselves in a dilemma. There were two Gyros shops next to each other : Török Döner Kebab and Istanbul Kebabs. Both offered pita Gyros for 550 HFU (Hungarian Forints). How were we going to choose? Gáspár walked in to Török Döner Kebab and I followed behind.
It worked out well I guess. Gáspár had managed to do all the ordering and I did all the paying. I didn't mind not having to stumble over trying to order food - I just wanted to eat as quick as possible. The Pita Gyros was actually a lot better than I remembered. Actually, it was really, really good. Consequently, this has now become a staple of my diet, so I'll take some time in the next blog post to explain what it is, what it looks like, and how it tastes. But not now.
We strolled home under the shade trees along Karinthy Frigyes út. Zsuzsa was standing in the doorway with a huge grin on her face when we arrived home.
"You'll never believe it! The electricity works! The old man electrician came up, took one look, and switched out this part."
(Some sort of coil in a transformer type box that was a few inches from the top of the ceiling).
"He even did the work for free. I tried to pay him but he wouldn't take it. I don't know what we would have done if he hadn't been here. Calling the electrician would have taken forever and been expensive. We are so lucky!"
After checking to see if everything worked, we decided to tackle the computer power cord issue. I followed Zsuzsa back up Karinthy Frigyes út to a small electronics store I had passed by earlier. You could see from the windows that they sold lots of TV's, computers, and digital cameras. Their selection however, looked limited - I was skeptical we would find what we needed. Especially for a Dell Laptop that was more than 6 years old. There were two men at the counter taking care of all the customers. One was a few years older than me; the other was in his early fifties I'd say. There was no register to walk up and pay - if you were going to purchase something, you had to talk to either of these guys in their baby-blue embroidered polos. Like the gyros, I opted to let Zsuzsa do the talking while I just stood in the background.
"Can I see the computer please?" he said in English.
[I smile and hand him the computer out of the bag]
"Hmmm. I think we just sold out of this, but let me go check."
I was already shocked. In part that they had a part in stock that could fit this old machine, but also that he even recognized what I needed for this old computer. This wasn't Best Buy.. this was a tiny Hungarian electronic store that wouldn't even make up 1/3 of Best Buy's TV showroom floor in Coralville. He came out holding a small brown box.
The computer, which had no battery charge, flickered to life. I was in disbelief. The had one.
"Now, it seems to work fine, but the battery isn't charging. This means the computer doesn't like all of the components. So I can sell you the converter part that connects to the computer, but not the cord that connects to the wall."
"Why not?" I questioned. (How is the converter going to be useful if I don't have the cord to plug it in to the wall?!)
"Well, you see, the converter is German made. But the only cords that I have are Chinese made and aren't good. Mixing an American computer with a German build converter is okay - but I don't want the Chinese cord to cause you any damage."
So, we left the store with half the problem fixed. I was satisfied but skeptical - I really just wanted to take the risk and buy the whole thing and get the problem solved in one go. He had suggested that I check out Best BYTE (not to be confused with Best BUY) - their higher volume electronics dealer- for the power cord. However, as I found out, Zsuzsa had another trick up her sleeve.
We got home and she opened up a bag filled with extra electronic cords that she had brought over to try to get the wireless router to work.
"Is this what you need?" she asked.
[Jaw drops in complete shock]
"Yes!" I yelled. I plugged the cord into the newly purchased converter and into the wall.
[Presses power button]
The computer flickered to life again. I couldn't believe it. How could she possibly have had the exact cord I needed for this new converter that we had just purchased. We plugged in the Ethernet cord to connect me to the internet - sure enough, I was online and connected to everything. I was elated.
"Alright! We have to go now, but you're good now right? Everything works okay?" she said.
"Everything is fantastic. Thank you so much. This is wonderful!"
With a big hug and a fist bump to Gáspár, they were out the door and I was alone again. But only in the physical sense. I finally could get in touch with friends and family. After spending some much needed time on the internet, I decided I should probably go to get some food. I emptied out my camera bag so I could stuff it with all sorts of food - you either have to buy bags at the store or bring your own. Yet again, I walked up Karinthy Frigyes út (this is becoming a trend, I know) to Lidl - the Hungarian version of Aldi.
The store was small, but big enough for a person who can't read a single sign because everything is in Hungarian. While their selection/variety is limited, the prices are very cheap. They even have these baskets (about twice as tall as the small baskets we carry at the supermarket) with wheels on them that you pull around behind you. So much more fun than pushing a cart - I felt like a 7 year old! While I couldn't read most of the signs or labels, it was pretty easy to make an educated guess as to what things were - Milk, Salami, Cereal, cheese, yogurt, etc. Now came the hard part - interacting with the clerk all by myself.
"Szia" she said.
Like a hungry lion clawing at an antelope, she grabbed my grociers and threw them across the scanner. Caught completely off guard, I ran to the end of the register to keep them from piling up. I frantically began to throw everything back into my basket, doing my best to keep up with her lightning pace.
[Says some amount of money in Hungarian which I can't remember, let alone try to spell]
I look up and see the amount on the green digital screen to her right side.
[Hands her the proper bill]
"Köszönöm" she said.
I smiled and walked away.
As I was bagging my groceries, I was particularly proud of myself. I had survived the trials of the grocery store! I had bought food that I couldn't read what some of it was and not run out of money at the register and talked with the - wait. I hadn't said a single word to the clerk. I just smiled and handed her money. That wasn't a success at all. Even when I had spent half the time in the aisles of the grocery store thumbing through my "Just Enough Hungarian" guide, practicing what to say over and over... I still opted to not say anything! I was disappointed in myself. So I promised that tomorrow, when I went to buy a map, I would actually talk to the clerk rather than quietly say nothing and smile.When I got home, I decided to dump out my heist on the table and see what I had scored.
But, the gyros, electronics store, and Lidl weren't my only adventures for the day. Last night Feri had spoken quite highly of "The Hill". This of course, was Gellért Hill, the small mountain that ruptured right through the middle of Buda. Some of the sides were shallow enough for lavish homes and mansions, while others were sheer cliffs that fell straight down to the streets and river below. The hill is almost completely covered in trees and brush. Not only is it home to the Liberty Statue, a stunning statue erected by the Soviet Union and kept standing for it's "new meaning", but a hilltop fortress known as the Citadella. So with my camera packed in my bag, I made my way towards the base of the mountain. This of course meant walking up Karinthy Frigyes út and then walking along Bartók Béla út (yes, the famous composer) towards the Gellért hotel, one of Budapest's most luxurious and historic hotels.
I'd have to say this is easily one of the most beautiful intersections in the whole city. On one side is the massive Gellért hotel - with it's huge stone columns and massive domes at each corner, it is a spectacular building. In front is the Danube river and the tall, green spires of the Freedom bridge, with the classic yellow trams screeching their way across the river to the nearby station at the hotel. Lights stream through the intersection from all of the various cars and buses. All of this with the fantastic green backdrop of Gellért hill.
Getting to the base of the hike was easy - just follow the crowd. But then, the pathway split into a labyrinth of possible routes - not all of which go to the top. There isn't a straight shot either. I wasn't sure how to get to the top, but I figured as long as I kept going up, I'd make it to the summit at some point. And then I noticed something when I started walking; a small, faint, white heart had been painted at the base of mountain. At first , I thought this was a mark left by one of the many couples expressing their passionate love for one another with excessive PDA. However, as I started to climb, I kept finding them at intersections - so I decided to follow them.
I followed a path that wasn't too populated, except of course for the occasional children's playground around the corner. There were plenty of trees and bushes. It was nice and quiet. There were shorter paths that intersected with other paths, and longer stretches that had hundreds of stairs climbing to the top. Sometimes, there would be a flat spot just large enough for a couple to sit and drink a bottle of wine, peering through the trees for their own private view of the city.
I could feel my legs starting to burn. This was turning into an actual hike. The stairs were steep and numerous. I passed some kids drinking beer on a big boulder that the stairs had wrapped themselves around. I thought about stopping, at least my quads were screaming at me to stop and take a break, but I couldn't. I had to get to the top. Even with the empty benches begging to be sat on, I pushed onward. The stairs continued to snake their way up the mountain. The tall trees made it impossible to gauge how high I was or how close to the top I had come. Instead of staring at the never ending staircase ahead of me, I looked up. There, peering through the trees, was the Liberty statue, with her arms outstretched above the city. I was close.
Almost as if they had designed the hike this way, the trees parted like the Red Sea and I found myself face to face with the incredible statue. Standing 40 meters tall (131 feet), she soars over the city holding a palm leaf and was built as a reminder of the Soviet "liberation" from Nazi forces following WWII. However, after removing most of the other Soviet statues from the site, she now commemorates Hungarian freedom from the Soviet occupation lasting almost 45 years.
I spent a while walking around the tourists, trying to get some uninterrupted photos of this spectacular view. I was even able to see my house from all the way up here! Because of the weird shape and angle of the mountain, there are countless views of the city that all provide their own unique perspective.
I had been up there almost an hour, and with the sun going down, I figured I should probably make my way down the mountain before it got dark. During the trek up, I noticed that there weren't many lights - I'd rather hike down than roll down the hill. However, when I turned over my shoulder for one last look at the castle and the parliament building, I started to cry.
The city's lights all began to turn on simultaneously. The basilica, parliament, and castle all turned a bright gold. As the city got darker, they grew brighter. The Széchenyi Bridge became illuminated with beautiful, perfectly spaced pearls of lighting the chains, connecting the massive stone columns together. It was one of the most fantastic panoramas I have ever seen - a complete and total shock. I had no idea that the city would light up this way. And, while the pictures I took were okay (I didn't have my tripod with me), the mental image is something I'll never forget, nor something a camera could ever attempt to capture. This view had meaning behind it. Years of hard work in school, saving money, and plenty trips to Cedar Falls. Editing sessions until 4:00 AM to show Feri I was dedicated to our project in between late night management shifts at Pepperjax. Years of patient replies to emails that kept communication rolling, but never gave a definitive answer on if the journey would be possible. Believing in a trip that many questioned or had doubts in the opportunity cost. All those feeling culminated at once. I was on top of the world.
And you know what? I realized what those hearts on the pathway really meant. Follow these and you'll fall in love with the city. I did.