Monday, July 19, 2010

European Trip Diary, Part 3: Szentendre and a Meeting with Clan Baracskai (July 10)

Happy Birthday, Mom! After another hearty breakfast, we catch the M2 metro for Batthyany ter station, where we switch over to the HEV (suburban railway) line. I should note at this point that we purchased a special card at the start of our trip that allows us unlimited travel on the Metro, as well as discounts at various museums and restaurants (such as yesterday's Fine Arts Museum and Bagolyvar), for a period of 48 hours. The 15-mile trip to Szentendre, however, necessitates shelling out an extra couple of bucks apiece. Our well-aged but (save for the by-now-expected lack of good ventilation) comfortable train rattles past a series of Communist-era "prison block" flats and residential neighborhoods in the northern suburbs of Budapest. Graffiti is everywhere, but, in a stark contrast with Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, there's not much trash or debris next to the tracks. Literally every house we see has its perimeter marked out by a fence of some sort. Could this be a silent witness to the desire for private property, so long suppressed?

Szentendre is "picturesque" in the grand tradition, with cobblestone streets, quiet cafe-style restaurants, several eye-catching churches, a town pump gushing forth ice-cold water, and dozens and dozens of shops selling jewelry, clothing, crafts, artwork, foodstuffs (including the inevitable paprika), and so forth. Nicky and I try to handle our money with care, avoiding the joints that sell "I Love Hungary" magnets and the like. In truth, we see very little obviously "Made-in-the-Far-East" merchandise, unless you count the Hello Kitty boutique huddled, as if in embarrassment, on the edge of town. Most of the artistic enterprises seem quite authentic. From one shop, we purchase a couple of watercolors of Budapest and Szentendre scenes and a really nice original porcelain painting by a Hungarian artist now residing in Italy. Meanwhile, Mom picks up some small gifts for our nieces.

Nicky and I in front of the cross at the Szentendre central square

The remorseless sun is once again a major foe. Nicky and I are lucky enough to find a store that, almost as an afterthought, sells 1.5-liter bottles of cold water for 1 euro apiece. After a steady diet of teeny-tiny bottles of mineral water, this seems like a luxury (and you can't blame the store owner for trying to stand out from the crowd in any way she can). For lunch, we seek shade under a grape arbor at the Labyrinth Restaurant, which also houses the "National Wine Museum." We got a lead on this place thanks to the Internet, and it has excellent food (Nicky and I both "keep it cool" with chicken salad dishes). We can't pass up the chance to explore the "Wine Museum," but it turns out to be much more extensive (and damp, and puddle-strewn) that we thought, so we only spend a few minutes there. The restaurant has a few tables down there... with a heater. That's a real cellar, all right.

Back in Budapest, Nicky and I decide to prepare for the arrival of my relatives a few hours hence by going to the New York Palace pool to cool off. We're expecting your standard hotel pool (with the depth measured in meters, I suppose), but what we find is something that resembles the interior of a velvet Elvis: black and white fiberglass walls with wavy, cavern-like surfaces, purple-bluish lighting, whirlpool-style jets, "Barry White" mood music. The pool is so narrow that Nicky and I barely have room to swim side by side in comfort. Not only that, but the water temperature is as goopily "semi-warm" as most of the non-air-conditioned rooms we've been in. Evidently, the European ideal of a pool is very different from our own. I wonder whether this is the reason why Americans and Australians tend to win most of the swimming medals.

We cool off following our swim (and, yes, we have to) in our room's shower, get "dressed up" (to wit: fresh polo shirts!), and, at 5 p.m., meet the relatives in the hotel lobby!

This is the first time I've ever met my Aunt Matyi (third from left) and my 2nd cousin Dani (standing next to Mom). I'd only met my Cousin Agi (Matyi's daughter and Dani's mother, third from right) when she visited the U.S. over the Christmas holidays back in the late 70s. Agi's husband Csaba (next to Nicky) knows English, having studied it and lived in England for a time, so he does the translation work. Standing next to me on the far left is Dani's wife Marcsi, who is expecting a baby. My Cousin Lotsi (Agi's brother) and his sons unfortunately weren't able to make it.

We were expecting only a sit-down in the New York Kavehaz, but "the folks" have other plans: they pack us into two cars and zoom us off to Margaret Island, a popular recreational spot in the middle of the Duna. The island used to be a religious retreat (old churches and ruins can still be seen there) until it was turned into a public park. We make the circuit of the island, or something close to it, before settling down at an outdoor snack bar for some ice cream and drinks. Nicky has brought along her netbook computer and soon we are showing everyone pictures of our dogs, Mom's grandchildren, the works. Even more important, we exchange the all-important electronic contact information. After Dad passed on, communication via "snail mail" became much harder to sustain. Now, thanks to Google Translator, we will be able to translate English messages into Hungarian and vice-versa. This will mean a lot to all of us.

Csaba brings us back to the hotel via "the scenic route" including a ride over the Chain Bridge, a great view of the Parliament building, and a "drive-by" of Budapest's huge synagogue, one of the largest in Europe. We say a final goodbye in the lobby and, yes, there are some tears.

Nicky snapped this nice pic of Parliament from Csaba's car.

Up next: Tracing Dad's trail to Vienna; watching some second-echelon bicyclists; more classic art; and we get in a real Schnitz!

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