Skiing without snow

panka dani downhill

Panka and Dani head down the hill

*** Programing Note ***  Dora, Matthew and I will be heading to Edinburgh, Scotland for 4 days today, so I won’t be posting until the end of next week.  On the bright side, hopefully I’ll have some new material!

To keep the kids active through the cold winter months, we’ve signed the kids (Daniel and Panka, not Matthew) up for skiing lessons.  Dora grew up going skiing with her family every winter and has always wanted to get the kids skiing, but in Pennsylvania that required a lot of time (the nearest place was an hour away), not to mention money.  We have taken Daniel for lessons 1 or 2 times each winter, but that hasn’t seemed to accomplish much.  Now Panka and Daniel go to an hour lesson each Saturday afternoon and its been great; the kids are really picking things up quickly (they’ve gone ~6 times now) and it’s really convenient.  How can learning to ski be easy in the middle of a city? Well it’s simple if you don’t need a resort or snow.  Our ski school consists of a 2 small, plastic-coated slopes with tow ropes, tucked along a residential hillside here in Budapest.

panka, dani, karcsi

Dani and Panka with their instructor, Karcsibacsi, before the lesson











The surface is a grid with small, flexible plastic spikes projecting out of it.  You can see the grid in the picture of Dani coming down here (along with a bit of residual snow).  The surface does a pretty good job of mimicing real snow.  The kids have mastered going down the slope under control and now are working on turning.

dani down 

Dani upGetting back up the hill was a challenge for a while, but now both of them have mastered the tow rope.

Lessons will continue through March.   Next month we’re planning a trip to one of the real ski resorts about an hour away.  We’re eager to see how the kids will do and whether they like it or not.

Scanning the weekly ads

I wanted to give you a sense of the cost of living in Hungary from the perspective of the grocery store aisle, so I pulled out the weekly ad circular from our nearby store, Spar (their catchy jingle, “Jó Hely, Jó ár, Jó döntés” — Good place, good price, good decision — plays frequently on the radio here at work). Before, I list some of the specials of the week, here are the relevant conversion factors:

  • $1 (US) = 220 Forints (Hungary’s currency)
  • 1 lb = 0.453 kg (kilograms)
  • 1 gal = 3.78 L (liters)
  • 1 L = 33.8 fl. oz. (which is a ridiculous unit if you think about it)

The currency takes a bit of getting used to, but if gets easier if you equate 1000 forints (HUF) as roughly $5.

Here are the sales on some staples from the past week (conversions to $ and recognizable quantities provided):

  • Milk: 169 HUF for 1 L ($2.90/gallon)
  • Cheep beer (not a recognizable brand): 166 HUF for 0.5 L can ($0.53 for 12 oz can) — and yes, Pennsylvanians, you can find a large selection of beer, wine, and spirits in the grocery store.
  • White bread (from bakery): 219 HUF for 1 kg ($0.56 for a 20 oz loaf)
  • Tomatoes (on vine): 570 HUF for 1 kg ($1.17 per lb)
  • Bananas: 299 HUF for 1 kg ($0.62 per lb)
  • Ground pork (beef is not very common): 849 HUF for 900 g ($1.94 per lb)
  • Eggs: 399 HUF for 10 eggs ($2.18 dozen)

So, in general, food is pretty cheap — usually either close in price or substantially cheaper than we are used to.  In general, these savings don’t seem to carry over into other goods such as clothes and household items.  There it seems like prices are the same or sometimes even more expensive (I’m always surprised at how much shoes cost here).

Oh, and in case you were wondering, no, I don’t consider cheap beer to be a staple.

Final Exam Season

Two of my friends in the group, Balázs and Bálint, showed up at the university dressed up in 3-piece suits, white shirts, and ties this morning.  I haven’t seen much of them since the beginning of the year; they are both masters students and are in their final exam period now (today was their Physical Organic Chemistry exam). They join the smaller-than-usual, but better dressed-than-usual group of students that I find at the university each day (and Hungarian students are already better dressed than their American counterparts — no flip-flops, slippers, sweatpants, or PJs).  Students spend most of their time studying and only come in for exams, which are held between December 17 and February 1 (yes, 6 weeks!).

Why 6 weeks and 3-piece suits for exams, you ask?  Well, let’s just say the final exams are very important.  That’s actually an understatement — they are everything.  I asked Balázs and Bálint whether they had any other assignments, quizzes, exams, papers, etc in the Physical Organic Chemistry course yet.  Nope, just this final exam — an oral exam with just you and the professor.  The topics are wide open and can include any material covered during the semester.  I suppose that procrastinators don’t fluorish (or survive) in this system.  Good luck Balázs and Bálint!

UPDATE: Balázs has returned and received a 4 for the exam/course (5 is the highest); everyone seemed pleased. Bálint actually has a different exam: a comprehensive exam covering all of his inorganic courses.  It is also an oral exam (with 3 professors) and starts in 30 minutes. I asked him how long he expected it to be; he didn’t know but said (sarcastically) that he anticipated “long fun”.

Picking up where we left off

It was off to work for me again yesterday after an extended Christmas break.  Zoli (the professor I work with) gave everyone off until January 7 because the campus was to be shut down with no heat, but he said in actuality they didn’t turn off the heat and it was hotter than usual in the building.  Before we left for break, our last official get together was the group Christmas party.  This was a lot of fun, with lots of conversation (some of which I could follow), a gift exchange, and insane amounts of food and drink.  Given my slight frame and relatively low tolerance, I’ve learned to drink slowly and leave early.


The group assembled at the Novak/Kele Christmas party. Third from the left (next to me in the gray sweater) is Zoli (Zoltan Novak). At the end of the table (in the sportscoat next to the guy in the red shirt) is Peter Kele, another professor that we work closely with.

Yesterday, on the first day back, we got a call in the lab at 3:30 PM that there was a gathering for wine in the breakroom.  Sure enough, all the PhD students and advisors in the Novak and Kele groups were there, with a few bottles of red wine on the table.  Where did they come from?  Apparantly, they were gifts from the area VWR (a large chemical and lab supply company) sales rep. This doesn’t happen in the US (is it even legal?).  They also received a VWR baseball cap (I’m guessing this was left from the US promotional items…).

Kézilabda Meccs (Handball game)

A highlight for Daniel and I over the break was the chance to see the Hungarian national team play a handball match.  The team handball world championships will be held this month in Spain and the Hungarian team faced off against Serbia in a warm-up match in the nearby city of Veszprém.  Daniel and I (along with Dora’s dad) drove down to see the team and sport first-hand.

Team handball doesn’t get a lot of attention in the US (an understatement), other than getting some coverage in the Olympics every fours years.  In Hungary (and much of Europe), it is quite a different story; the game is quite popular with fully professional leagues and televised matches (it is a similar case for water polo in Hungary). For those not familiar with the game, I offer this link to highlights of Hungary’s upset of favored powerhouse, Iceland (yes, Iceland) in the last Olympics as an introduction. In this game, Hungary trails by 1 in the final 10 seconds and concedes a penalty shot to Iceland.  Usually these things are automatic, but… well, watch the video. I feared for my mother-in-laws health when she watched the game this summer.

But I digress…Daniel was pretty excited about going to the match.  The day before the match we were at a music/craft festival and the kids made masks.  Daniel made his using the design of the Hungarian flag.  Here he is in his mask at the game (with the Hungarian squad warming up in the background).  You can see that Dora managed to get us pretty good seats (4th row near midcourt); since it was an exhibition they didn’t cost very much (~$10).

We also had a chance to see one of Hungary’s most famous sportsmen up close. Nagy László is Hungary’s best player (and one of the top 10 in the world): tall, athletic, and left-handed (all advantages in the sport).  Combined with his rugged good looks, he is easily one of the most recognized figures in the country.

As for the game itself, it was an entertaining match.  Both teams competed hard, in fact there was almost a fight in the second half when Nagy László tussled with one of the Serbian players. The game is very fast-paced with two 30-minute halves and almost no breaks.  Even after a goal (pretty frequently, the game ended with Hungary winning 36-31), the keeper usually quickly throws the ball to midcourt for a quick restart to try to catch the other team out of position. The game is pretty physical, the players in the middle are typically pretty big and push and grab a lot (sort of like post players in basketball).  The players all are pretty athletic — jumping high and releasing killer shots with accuracy. The goalies don’t often have a chance, but every now and then come up with an amazing save. Here are a couple of pictures from the game; I tried hard to get the perfect action shot — a player rising high and releasing a shot — but that’s pretty tough to do!

Hungarian defense tries to block the Serbian player's shot

Hungarian player jumps into restricted area for a shot

Nagy Laszlo bangs up against a Serbian defender

Athletic save attempt by Serbia's goalie

Christmas Break

Well, it’s back to blogging after a restful Christmas and New Years.  I hope those of you who are folowing along had an enjoyable holiday season as well.

We spent the entire break in Budapest, but still managed to see and do quite a few things. With the cold weather (around the freezing point most days) and small apartment, we had to be creative in making sure the kids didn’t sit around and watch TV the whole vacation (though they didn’t seem to think this was a problem).  So off it was…to an aquarium, to a nearby palace in Gödöllő, to playgrounds (on nicer days), to a children’s music and craft festival, and visits with relatives and Dora’s friends.  Almost everyday had a program of some sorts.  I’ll describe one of them in the next post (a handball match), but I also wanted to share a couple of Hungarian seasonal treats.  One of them is the Szaloncukor, a wrapped, chocolate covered treat that hangs from the tree as a decoration (at least until Matthew gets ahold of it). 



The second treat is a pastry — bejgli.  It is a long roll that has a spiral filling, traditionally either a walnut paste (quite yummy) or poppyseed (not a favorite in the Peelen household).