Exploring the Caves of Hungary

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 caves 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, concert hallstarting 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 arFamily caveseas, 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 miskolc tappools 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!


Néptánc (traditional dance)


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 pankagreti(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).

Hungarian Reggae

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 reg1across 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.

Life in the lab

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.


panka witchLast 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.

Skiing with snow!

Pan merge

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!

Introducing: The Orrszívó Porszívó


Matthew had an ear infection last week and was all stuffed up.  Like most 2-year olds, he refused to blow his nose properly, instead sniffing the snot back in most of the time.  However, we’ve solved the problem — Dora went out and bought what I believe to be the greatest invention of all time: the orrszívó porszívó.  To describe the orrszívó porszívó, it is best to start by translating a couple key words: orr = nose, porszívó = vacuum cleaner.  And that’s basically what it is: an attachment that you can insert into your vacuum cleaner hose to suck the snot out of your toddler’s nose.

I know this sounds terribly uncomfortable, but it is not as bad as you would think and it works like a charm — much more effective than those nasal aspirator bulbs that we had in the US.  The vacuum isn’t overly powerful when you hook it up and fire up the vacuum cleaner; I think they may have engineered a few leaks into the system to avoid pulling too hard.  Still, toddlers don’t generally like it (though I guess they don’t like people poking anything in their nose or ears).  The ads show a baby smiling with his orrszívó porszívó (see the picture at the top, or this official youtube video, where they somehow found a small kid that would use it on himself). This youtube video, where a mother demonstrates her restraining techniques, is closer to reality. In our case, the mere sight of the orrszívó porszívó sends Matthew screaming, “No porszívó” and running in the opposite direction.  As an added benefit to adopting the orrszívó porszívó, after a couple of rounds, Matthew has suddenly “remembered” how to blow his nose properly!

Boldog névnapot, Dóra! (Happy Nameday, Dora!)

HikeBest wishes to my wife, Dora, as we celebrate her nameday today.  In Hungary, there is a tradition where each given name is celebrated on a particular day; often this corresponds to the birthdate of a saint with the same name (if such a person exists). So today, February 6th, all the Doras in Hungary are celebrated.  Families will gather, best wishes will be sent, and flowers or chocolates will be given. Most calendars in Hungary come equipped with the nameday listed for each day. My own nameday (at least for the Hungarian form of my name, Timót — though I’ve never met a Hungarian with this name) was celebrated last month.

Edinburgh with a Small Child

As I mentioned earlier, our trip to Edinburgh was with Matthew (age 2) in tow.  Because most of the main attractions in Edinburgh are more appealing to adults then children (the castle, Holyrood palace, etc), we were careful to pick out a couple of programs that would engage Matthew too.

SNM racecar

Matthew at National Museum of Scotland

One was an afternoon outing to the National Museum of Scotland. This museum has an extensive science and technology section with lots of hands-on exhibits.  Matthew especially liked the race cars.  There was even a Formula 1 race car simulator that you could drive.  Matthew and I tried it out; I controlled the pedals while he handled the steering.  Needless to say, we spent a lot of time crashing into walls.  Hopefully he does a little better when he turns 16.  The museum also had a nice exhibit about animals, as well as a room of activities for small children.  All in all, it was a nice place for Matthew to spend a couple of hours.

On the last day, we decided to spend the morning at a museum near the castle called Camera Obscura.  I wasn’t sold on the plan at first, since it really doesn’t have much to do with Scotland specifically, but we (Matthew included) all had a great time.  The museum was filled with optical illusions, 3D holograms, and other interesting exhibits and interactive games.  We especially liked walking through the dizzying vortex tunnel and trying to get through the mirror maze (where all the walls are mirrors).  At one point in the maze, Matthew got a bit panicked and sprinted face first into one of the mirrors.  It was also nice that we adults could take our time and look at lots of the pictures and exhibits, because each area seemed to have one interactive part that could occupy Matthew for an extended period of time.

What my students have often wanted: my head on a platter

What my students have often wanted: my head on a platter

Matthew and I "play" soccer on an interactive video floor

Matthew and I “play” soccer on an interactive video floor

Edinburgh Castle

During the first half of this week, Dora, Matthew, and I enjoyed 3 days in Edinburgh, Scotland (Daniel and Panka stayed behind for school with Dora’s mom).  Dora’s brother works in Edinburgh; fortunately for us he works in one of the city’s finest hotels, which means we could live in luxury at a reduced rate.  Much like our trip in Slovenia, our hotel room came with a prime view, in this case of the Edinburgh castle. 

Edinburgh Castle and cultural district as viewed from our hotel window

Edinburgh Castle and cultural district as viewed from our hotel window

On Tuesday, we visited the castle, which consists of a series of buildings, some of them


museums devoted to Scotland’s military history, others memorials and chapels.  Still other buildings harken back to the days when the castle served as home to Scotland’s royalty; you can even find the crown jewels of Scotland on display in one of the castle buildings.

castle memorial

War memorial at castle

One of our favorites was a set of rooms tucked underneath the castle, which formerly served as quarters for prisoners of war.  The rooms gave a feel for what it must have been like, and there were also some interesting stories about life in and escapes from the prison.