Grocery Shopping, Hungarian style (by Dora)

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.

spar Piac

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

pulleymotorof 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.

Néptánc (traditional dance)

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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.

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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.

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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.

Introducing: The Orrszívó Porszívó

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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!

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.

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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.

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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…).

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).