Friday, July 16, 2010

European Trip Diary, Part 1: From Baltimore to Budapest (July 7-8)

After Nicky and I pick up my Mom in Wilmington in the late morning of the 7th, we head up to JFK Airport in NYC. That messy melange of terminals was difficult enough to navigate in 1980, when I flew to France on my one previous European trip, so Lord only knows what lies in store for us 30 years on, especially with the hassles of "enhanced security measures" (which are unlikely to ever be "de-enhanced" thanks to 9/11). Nicky had been so worried about JFK parking being booked solid that she had convinced me to reserve a place with the off-site Avistar parking facility. Avistar comes highly recommended and does in fact turn out to be a good choice: reasonable prices, friendly attendants, and a convenient mini-bus shuttle to the international terminal where we are to board our overnight Swiss Air flight to Zurich, and thence to Budapest.

Security and baggage-check go like clockwork (a Swiss watch, perchance?) and we're soon in the gate area. Foot travel is occasionally delayed by large knots of people (including many security guards -- so much for "enhanced security"?) watching the World Cup semi-final between Spain and Germany on large-screen TVs. We decide to find our gate and wait until the crowds have dispersed before getting something to eat.

Just down the corridor, an El Al flight to Tel Aviv is in the process of boarding... and when I say "process," I mean it. The double-decker plane is like one of those "clown cars," with a constant stream of people (mostly Orthodox Jewish and Hasidim families) pouring into it. Our Swiss Air plane is much more modest in size.

We finally get to nosh at Buffalo Wild Wings (the closest thing in the area to a sit-down dinner place) and, despite a relatively modest meal, get stuck with what will prove to be the heftiest meal check of the entire trip. Most of the blame can be assigned to Mom's and my nine-dollar (!!!!) beers. I never appreciated BWW's slogan, "You have to be here," as much as I do right now. If all "captive audiences" were treated like this, they'd suffer from "Stockholm Syndrome" almost as a matter of course. The "talking heads" on all the ESPN stations on the restaurant TVs are all going on at length about "The Decision," aka LeBron James' exercise in egotistical self-indulgence scheduled for Thursday night. You know the old line about millions of Chinese not caring who wins the Super Bowl? Somehow, I doubt that Hungarians will be clamoring for minute-by-minute updates of LeBron's thought processes.

The plane leaves on time just before 9 p.m. and we settle in for the 7 1/2-hour ocean-leap. Not surprisingly, I can't sleep, even with the use of BreatheRight nasal strips in lieu of my CPAP device. There's just too much noise in the cabin, and it seems as if half of the passengers have decided to suck it up and use videos, music, and video games to get them through the night. My mind is taken off my predicament, to a certain extent, by the constant "rolling update" on the position of the plane that is broadcast on the main cabin video monitor. The two meals that we are served on board are pretty decent, as well. We arrive at Zurich airport more or less on time but more than a little "wilted."

The Zurich airport is fairly modest, but there's a welcome reminder that we're now in Europe when Nicky and I go into a convenience store and I see a copy of a Donald Duck LUSTIGE TASCHENBUCHER on a magazine rack. Granted, there are only two copies present, but that's two more than you'd see at 99.99% of American convenience stores. Our short-hop flight to Budapest awaits... but first, the gate is changed on us. Then, rather than step right into the plane, we have to take a shuttle bus onto the tarmac. There's more strangeness afoot at the gangway as two young children and one older child are led onto the plane first... escorted by police. The same routine will be followed when we deplane in Budapest. We never do find out what it was all about.
The Zurich-Budapest trip is uneventful until close to the end, when a female passenger in the rear of the plane throws up and then complains of chest pains. A call is placed to the Budapest airport
to have medical personnel available when the plane lands. This of course means that the rest of us (except for the three kids and their "escort," of course) have to wait to deplane until the medicos get on board, assess the situation, and take out the patient. At long last, our shuttle bus takes us to the airport terminal. It's about 3:30 pm local time.
On the drive from the airport to our hotel -- the Boscolo Budapest New York Palace -- Mom, who visited Budapest with Dad in 1977, immediately remarks on the larger number of personal cars. Not that there are that many on the road anyway; Budapest is very well served by an extensive public-transportation system. Post-1989 capitalist inroads are reflected in the presence of Burger King, McDonald's, and some other of the usual chain-store suspects. The Palace, however, is located in a very nice downtown neighborhood where local shops predominate. Built in the late 1890s, its grandeur reflects an era in which Hungary was feeling its oats as a full partner in the "dual monarchy" of the Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many other significant structures in the city, such as the Hungarian Parliament Building and St. Stephen's Basilica, date from that same era, providing a welcome architectural continuity amidst all the modern and Communist-era buildings.
View of the lobby of the Budapest New York Palace

We are exhausted but figure that we have just enough "gas" left in the tank for one "exploratory mission" into the heart of the "new city" (Pest) by the banks of the Duna (Danube). Following a 90-minute "snoozelet," we set forth on the Budapest Metro in quest of enlightenment and nourishment, not necessarily in that order. We walk up and down the Duna for a while trying to choose from a variety of cafes, which is surprisingly easy to do given that a great deal of menu information is available in English. Such was not the case back in the 70s. The influx of visitors and the pernicious difficulties of the Hungarian language have virtually obliged any service person who wants to work in Budapest to learn English and at least one other language (generally German, as we are to learn). The city itself, despite the obvious efforts made to keep it clean and safe, seems a little run down at the heels, like a good suit with a shiny pants bottom and scuffed knees. Most discouraging is the immense amount of graffiti on display. I am not one who buys into random scrawling on walls as an "expression of artistic spirit," but the Budapest authorities seem to have no problem with it. At least virtually all of the graffiti is G-rated and apolitical (save for one irony-free declaration to "KILL RACISTS!"). Graffiti is also a problem in the Metro, which has long been a source of civic pride in Budapest but is starting to show its age; the cars on the M2 (red) line would not have been out of place on the NYC subway line in the 1970s and early 1980s.

We finally decide to eat at Dunacorso, a likely-looking cafe, and it's an excellent choice, a bargain despite its "touristy" aura and with good local food (I get a chicken paprika dish with fleshy noodles and cucumber salad). Two negatives: (1) the waiter, though friendly, doesn't seem to want our tip, preferring to loiter a good deal of the time with some nearby "diners" who seemed to have tiny cups of coffee and nothing else; (2) no free water is available, obliging us to buy mineral and "still" water by the bottle. We'd been warned that water and soda were often as expensive as beer in Europe, but this was a real wake-up call -- especially since the weather is unseasonably warm and dry.

Before returning to the hotel, we take a trip up and down the Duna on the free #2 yellow tram. There aren't that many seats available on board and the tram rattles and bangs something awful, but the ride helps us orient ourselves and provides some really nice views of such Budapest landmarks as the Parliament Building, the Chain Bridge, Gellert Hill, and the Castle District of the "old city" (Buda).

Buda Castle, as seen from the #2 tram across the Duna

Back to the Palace and it's time for bed, already! Before retiring, I do get a chance to look at the latest issue of the pink-paged Italian daily sports paper LA GAZZETTA DELLO SPORT (I imagine it's available because an Italian company runs the hotel) and there, to my amazement, is an advertisement for TOPOLINO (issue #2851, for those of you who care) at the bottom of the front page! Not only that, but it includes an ad for a promotional toy tied in to the latest PAPERINIK (DUCK AVENGER) story! Imagine all those hard-boiled Italian soccer, racing, etc. fans who took this ad for granted. I certainly don't.

Up next: Heroes of Hungary; "Old Masters"; a restaurant where the women do all the work and like it; plus, we finally make contact with my relatives!

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