Here in Hungary, Matthew and I have a weekly ritual doing the grocery shopping. Normally, in the US we go to our grocery store by car (how else?). Here in Budapest the first thing I decided was not to use a car for grocery shopping. I wanted to enjoy a year of grocery shopping sans cars. Since we live in a city we were able to carry this out easily. There is a large grocery store (a chain called SPAR) and a market (called piacin Hungarian)in a 10-minute walking distance or two bus stops away from our block. The bus stops almost in front of our house.
Here I can buy everything I need. I use SPAR for milk, bread, meat and other food items. I buy fruits, vegetables and honey at the market. SPAR has those items as well but I like the idea of supporting the small producers at the market. As a bonus the market has on its 3rd floor a really good food court. It is not your American style food court that you find in the mall. The vendors are all small businesses – no Burger King, Sbarros or KFC here – and the dishes sold are Hungarian staples such as babgulyás, palacsinta, lángos, etc. The food is good and it’s really cheap; for about $3-4 you can buy a full meal of soup, main course and a palacsinta. So sometimes I skip the cooking all together and buy our dinner here ready-made.
So a couple times a week Matthew and I set out on our trip likes this: me with my little ‘pulley’ and Matthew on his ‘motor’. Pulleys and motors are essential part
of life in Budapest. I most often see seniors with pulleys – these are little carts that puts your purchases on wheels making the hauling your groceries home much easier. And the push toy that Matthew is sitting on is the ‘motor’. It resembles a motorbike hence the name. I’ve never seen these in the US and I’m told it’s a Hungarian invention. Indeed, it seems that if you have a toddler in Hungary you must own a ‘motor’. And it makes sense. It’s not just that the kids like to ride motors but also they can ride motors at the same pace as adults walk. This makes moving around town with your toddler a much more enjoyable experience.
After all of our struggles, we managed to get two wonderful days of skiing at Semmering in the Alps. The original plan was to travel Thursday afternoon, ski on Friday and Saturday, and then return on Sunday. As it was, we managed to ski all of Saturday and most of Sunday before returning (uneventfully) to Budapest.
As usual, Dora aced the accommodations portion of the trip. We had a nice apartment, about 30 minutes from the ski resort on top of St. Corona, one of the neighboring peaks. Below you can see the sunrise that greeted us Sunday morning, as well as a peasant home we passed en route to the slopes.
The weather was perfect for skiing — just around 0 °C — not to cold but not so warm that the snow melts and gets slushy. The slopes themselves had a 1000 m elevation, so things got a bit chilly near the top. On Sunday, the weather was a bit hazy, and as we took the second lift to the very top we realized that we were entering a cloud. The kids were pretty amazed, especially when they realized that clouds aren’t actually made of some fluffy cotton.
Panka enjoys her hot chocolate
A goal of Dora’s has been to get the kids to ski and to enjoy skiing. In that respect, the trip was a big success. There were some nice, easier slopes that the kids enjoyed a lot. Daniel is the more technical skier, while Panka is a bit of a daredevil. Toward the end of the trip, the kids took to referring to Dora as “granny”, since she always took her time and was behind us. Here’s a short video of the kids skiing at the end of the trip:
A week ago we went for our big ski trip to the Alps. While Hungary lacks any large mountains, the eastern edge of the Alps in Austria are just a 3 hour drive away from Budapest. Or so we thought. As we were preparing for the trip, Dora’s Dad warned us that a snowstorm was passing through Europe and the forecast didn’t look good for the western part of Hungary. Naturally, we paid little heed to his advice; he’s usually nervous whenever we go on big trips and has given similar warnings before.
As expected, the snow began to fall as we set out on highway M1 (Thursday, 2:30 PM). About 30 miles into the trip, the snow began to pick up even more, and the traffic slowed accordingly. Eventually, we hit a long stretch of stop-and-go traffic, undoubtedly due to an accident up ahead. Then finally, at 6:30 PM, as we were still less than 60 miles into our trip, the stop-and-go turned into a just plain stop. As we sat and waited, I put the parking break on and turned off the engine. As time passed, the possibility that we might not move again became more and more of a reality, and we began to make plans for the evening. The apartment in Austria needed to be contacted as we would not be arriving as planned (forturnately, Dora’s dad is fluent in German and called for us, since they spoke neither English or Hungarian at the apartment). Everyone bundled up — fortunately we were dressed for skiing so everyone had plenty of warm clothes available. Panka and Daniel were a bit apprehensive at first (Matthew was safely at home with Dora’s mom, fortunately), but we convinced them that there were plenty of other people around us stuck in exactly the same situation and there were no other alternatives (do you really want to walk out there?). Turning back was never a possibility, as the Hungarian highways don’t have any turnarounds built into them, and besides the opposing traffic back to Budapest slowed to a stop a few hours after we did.
And so it was. All night we sat there, and it continued to snow and the wind continued to blow. We all managed to get some sleep (the kids are more adaptable than the adults, fortunately). We had 3/4 of a tank of fuel, so we idled the engine every couple of hours to pump a bit of heat into the car.
The next morning we awoke with the rising sun. It was no longer snowing and slowly people began to emerge from the cars and mill around. From atop the neighboring fuel tanker truck, I was able to get a view of the surroundings — traffic (and snow) piled up, both lanes in both directions, as far as the eye could see. The hourly news on the radio confirmed this — thousands vehicles stranded on the Hungarian roadways, with the most serious situation on M1 near Győr (our location).
At any given time, the roadways contain an interesting cross-section of the population, and this occasion was no different. Stranded along with us were other cars and tractor trailor trucks carrying young and old, from a variety of countries (primarily Hungary, Austria, and Slovakia, but also several others) with different languages. People were traveling for different purposes, with widely varying levels of preparedness. We were among the most fortunate: access to plenty of warm clothes, food and water, and a full tank of fuel. Ahead of us was a young Austrian businessman, just trying to make his way home and without any food or water. Next to him, a young couple with thin jackets and no gloves, along with a small dog than needed to be taken out every couple of hours. Ahead of them was a family that ran out of fuel overnight.
Information and rumors spread through the stranded travelers. We were told that the preschool in the neighboring village of Nagyszentjános was open, heated, and had hot tea available. The exit was a little over a kilometer up the road and there would be vehicles that would take you from there. There was a rest stop McDonalds a couple of kilometers back that some toward on foot — the local trucker behind us said it was actually 6 kilometers. We later learned that, not surprisingly, there wasn’t any food left to be purchased there. Soon villagers from Nagyszentjános were walking amongst the
vehicles, gauging how much food and help was needed. We were relieved to see some fireman walking down to survey the situation, but later learned that they were only walking because their truck had gotten stuck, and besides they had no food until one of our neighboring cars gave them some. And everywhere people wondered when it was that we would leave; the prevailing opinion (and confirmed by several “authorities”) was that we would be there another night.
Through the midday, the wind died down and the temperatures became bearable, so the family spent some time out of the car. Dora borrowed a shovel from the trucker behind us and she and I took turns shoveling the area around are vehicle, imagining that if everyone around did the same we could be free sooner. Our skiing adventure seemed in jeopardy, so we put the rented skis on Daniel and Panka and had them ski down the small embankment along the side of the road (vertical drop < 2m), much to the amusement of the other stranded travelers. We took a walk up the road and realized that the situation up there was worse; ~100m ahead the highway travelled adjacent to an open field and snow had drifted to a height of over 1 m across the highway. Interestingly, there wasn’t really that much snow that had fallen, but with the high winds and the “snow fence” created by stopped traffic it all seemed to be concentrated right on the highway.
As the day passed, we continued to ear our supplies: a loaf of bread, fruit, crackers and chocolate, along with Székelykáposzta (cabbage, Székely-style) for dinner (surprisingly good when cold). Night began to fall again and it appeared that the predictions were true and we would be there another night. A final walk to large drifts ahead brough a glimmer of hope though; ahead lights were visible from a large frontloader furiously clearing the road. In short order, officials came and instructed all the cars (no trucks) to get in a queue and be ready to go. Soon, at 7:30 PM, 25 hours after we stopped for good and 30 hours since we left Budapest, we were moving again. All the cars traveled a narrow path cut through the drifts, winding along the side of the road and between tractor trailers. After about 2 km, we were at the exit, were all traffic was directed toward the city of Győr using side roads. Győr itself was packed with vehicles, all stranded and waiting to get on M1 toward Budapest (which still wasn’t moving). But clearing M1 of vehicles was top priority, and there were lots of police directing traffic and keeping our line moving. Eventually, we reentered the M1 highway northwest of Győr, this part was pristine without a speck of snow or ice. The opposing direction was still lined for many kilometers with tractor trailers, which were no longer being diverted into Győr. We called our accomodation in Austria to let them know that we were moving again and would be arriving between 10 and 11PM; they were very understanding and said they’d wait.
And so, just before 11 PM, over 32 hours after our start, we arrived at the village. We couldn’t find the apartment, but the older woman that runs the apartment spotted us and direct us to our location. Following a well-deserved night of sleep, we were excited and ready to hit the slopes, which I’ll talk about in my next post!
Sorry for the long delay between posts! We’ve been doing some traveling and I’ve been busier than usual at work. The good news is that I have lots to share. In addition to this post, I have some more great stories from the past weekend (for those who can’t wait, here is a teaser: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U1t3nS47RkU)
But before we get to that, I wanted to share our journey to the caves on the Eastern side of Hungary. They are located in an area know as Aggtelek, adjacent to the border with Slovakia. In total, there are 26 km of caves, which can be accessed from several different points. We did two separate tours starting from two different points. It is even possible to take a 7 km/12 hr journey from one end to the other; for this you leave the “beaten path” and have to ford streams and need lamps, etc. Maybe when the kids are older…
Our first tour started from the village fo Aggtelek and took us for a 1 hour tour through some of the more impressive rooms in the cave system, including the “concert hall” that you see below (yes, they reallly hold concerts here). Later in the afternoon, we took a 2 hour tour, starting a point midway in the caves and travelling a couple of kilometers to the other end. Since it is the “off-season” for the caves, we were the only ones on this tour and we had a really knowledgable and friendly tour guide. The kids really enjoyed seeing the hibernating bats hanging from the ceiling of the cave.
The caves of Aggtelek are really a wonderful and underappreciated part of the country. Because the area is fairly isolated and not near and large metropolitan areas, it doesn’t get much hype. Nonetheless, they’ve done a great job of developing the area (with some help from some joint EU grants they have with their Slovakian counterparts) for tourism. For instance, we stayed at a great, new apartment house that is rented out by the Hungarian National Parks service; it wasn’t expensive and was the perfect place for us. We were hoping to also do some hiking in the area, but the weather did not cooperate (fortunately, the weather in the caves is the same year-round).
On the trip back to Budapest, we stopped at yet another cave — Miskolctapolca. This cave experience is less scholarly than the others; inside these caves have been built an extensive set of pools and baths. Needless to say, the kids (and adults) had a great time swimming. In particular, I enjoyed the warm baths on the upper level, but I was less thrilled about having to follow Matthew into the cooler baths!
Jumping around to reggae music wasn’t the only dance-related program from a couple of weeks ago. Panka also had a recital for her dance group at ovoda (preschool). Each week she goes to a traditional Hungarian dance class (néptánc) for 1 hour, and her group was part of a big program featuring children’s dance groups from all around Budapest.
Panka and her group had a lot of fun. They gathered in a classroom at the school where the recital was held and all dressed up in their colorful outfits. They played and ate and did there hair, and when the time came, kids and families all made there way to the activity room for their chance to perform. The kids danced for about 5 minutes — lots of twirling, spinning, clapping, kicking and stomping (no injuries were reported).
Last weekend, we had one of the more unanticipated experiences during our year in Hungary. The father of one of Daniel’s classmates is a musician; more specifically, he is in a Reggae band. The band — Riddim Colony — claims to be, “the no.1 authentic reggae band of Hungary”, a not-so-lofty claim that is probably true. The band was looking to make a video featuring dancing children for their new song, so Daniel’s class was invited to the rehearsal space last Sunday to participate in the video shoot.
It turned out to be a fun and enjoyable experience for the kids. We took the streetcars across the river to the Pest side, eventually coming to an old industrial area where one of the old buildings has been converted into rehearsal spaces for Hungarian bands. Riddim Colony’s cave was brightly decorated in Jamaican colors with lots of Reggae posters. The shoot was pretty well organized — lots of lighting, sound, cameras The kids, as you can imagine, were substantially less organized, though the band members were really good with the kids and all were having a lot of fun. They managed to go through 3 separate scenes (multiple takes of each) with lots of dancing and jumping and a real happy vibe. They’ve posted the video at the top with the song and scenes from the recording process; Panka and Daniel are in there quite a bit. I’m sure the actual video will take some time to edit and will be out as some point.
Last fall, I briefly introduced the lab where I work here at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Budapest. I wanted to follow that up with a more detailed look at the lab, looking similarities and differences with the labs where I’ve worked in the US. Some of this will be fairly technical for the non-scientists in the crowd, but hopefully you can follow along.
Overall, things function fairly similarly to labs in the US. It is fortunate that my area of science — organic chemistry — is not overly reliant on expensive equipment. Given some chemicals and flasks, anyone can get a reaction started. The standard lab equipment (heating/stirring plates, rotary evaporators) in my group is new and of very high quality — better than any that I’ve used in the US. Some pictures are shown here below: the hot plates have attached thermometers that are used to regulate the reaction or bath temperature and the rotovap is connected to a handy membrane pump to provide the vacuum.
As for larger equipment, that can be more difficult. The standard piece of analytical equipment for organic compounds in an NMR spectrometer, the price tag for a new instrument starts at about $250,000. ELTE has a couple of these instruments, the one available to our group (and other organic groups) is a 250 mHz instrument that was donated by Princeton university. The magnet is probably about 20 years old, but the electronics and interface are newer. It is well-maintained and very functional, though NMR seems to be generally less relied on her, probably because of the limited availability of instruments (by comparison, the University of Wisconsin, where I did postdoctoral work, had at least 7 instruments, most much more powerful than the one at ELTE).
The other big difference is the approach to consumable supplies. In the US, we buy (and discard) large quantities of lab equipment: pipettes, test tubes, kim-wipes, etc. In Hungary, these smaller items are commonly reused, and sometimes missing altogether. Almost nothing is discarded: Pastuer pipettes, vials, and test tubes are collected, washed, and reused. The acetone solvent used to wash them is collected, redistilled and reused. I have yet to find Kimwipes (the chemistry equivalent of paper towels, just more sterile); instead we have a roll of toilet paper (harvested from the WC across the hall) neatly rolled up inside an old box. Likewise, we have no true weighing paper; instead old chemical catalogs are chopped up into pieces for weighing chemicals.
I suppose the savings on supplies adds up over time, perhaps enough to buy a small instrument. When I return to my home lab, I’ll think more carefully about how we use supplies; probably not this carefully but we definitely discard more than we need to.
Last week was Farsang in Hungary, which is roughly the equivalent of Halloween. Kids get dressed up in costumes and there are programs at the schools. Panka had a nice program where the kids sang some songs, then took turns showing off their costumes, followed by treats and games for the families. Notable absent from the Hungarian version of the holiday is trick-or-treating or (for better or worse) any exchange of candy.
Earlier, I posted about Daniel and Panka’s adventures at ski school. This weekend we were able to finally put their skills to the test at a nearby resort in Mátraszentistván. Hungary isn’t exactly a mountainous country, so there aren’t a lot of great skiing options in the country (especially with the Alps beckoning nearby). Still, Dora found a nice place in a hilly region east of Budapest called the Mátra, where we spent 2 half days on the slopes.
Panka and Dani ready to ski!
I haven’t had a chance to watch kids during their ski lessons since I stay home to watch Matthew, so this outing was my first chance to see them on skis. I was super impressed with their new skills. They really look natural on the hill; firmly in control and starting to make turns very nicely as well. We stuck mostly to the easy trail, but both of them tackled a more difficult medium grade slope during the trip. Panka’s challenging experience came about mostly by accident. The most difficult part for Panka was actually getting up the hill (no chair lifts, just surface lifts such as platter lifts or T-bar lifts that tow you up the hill), and on our first time up the biggest lift Panka fell off on the steep part. This led to a mini adventure in which Dani continued up to the top of the hill, during which time I coaxed Panka down the steep slope and then frantically tried to explain the situation to the skilift operators in my broken Hungarian. Panka did great on the steep trail and everything turned out fine — Daniel and I eventually reunited. Overall, it was a very successful weekend with beautiful snow-covered scenery; we look forward to future family ski outings!