Skiing in the Alps

Alps mergeAfter 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.
sunrise mergeAustria castle

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 Family semmering1000 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.

Hot csoki

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:



Skiing on M1?

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 M1 linewere 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.

M1snow2The 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

Food distribution

Food distribution

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 M1 ski2around 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!

Here’s a video blog about our experience:

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.

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!

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.

Dani’s Foci (Soccer)

One of Dani’s favorite things to do here in Hungary is to play soccer. He plays with a club that meets at his school 3 afternoons each week for practice (In fact, he is there right now)..

The practice typically begins with some exercise drills.  Running, running backwards, running on your toes, etc.

The majority of the time is spent on skill drills.  Dribbling through cones with the inside of the foot, dribbling with the outside of the foot, repeat.  Both feet receive equal attention.  At the end of the practice, there are usually a couple of games.  There are about 14-16 kids, so they are split into 3-vs-3 or 4-vs4 games. 

I have to say, Dani’s skill level has increased tremendously since he’s been here.  I’ve thought a lot about why and there are a couple of factors at play:

1.  The other kids around him have a lot of skill.  When he started, it was clear that he was less skilled than the other kids his age.  The kids here just grow up around soccer much more.  If you go to a park, you will always find kids (even 2 year olds) with a ball at their feet, either playing with their friends, or parents, or grandparent (mothers and grandparents have a surprising amount of technical skill, Dora included).

2.  The emphasis in the clubs is very different.  In the US, Daniel’s soccer team practiced some, but mostly just played games against other clubs.  Here in Hungary, Daniel has no formal games, just practice 3 days each week.  The club, which has groups at several different schools in the district  does have teams for the best players at each age level, but this is not applicable to the vast majority of kids.

Dad, Can I Have a…?

This question is asked by children all over the world (if the desired response is not given, it is usually followed closely by, “Mom, can I have a…?”).  However, the object of a child’s fancy changes from country to country.  Here are a couple of our children’s favorite things here in Hungary:

Kid Kave (Coffee).  This is a powdered mix that allows kids to have their morning coffee with no caffeine.  It isn’t actually decaf (which still contains small amounts of caffeine), but instead is made of chickory, a natural, coffee-flavored alternative.



Sportszelet.  This is sort of like a candy bar.  There is a thin layer of chocolate on the outside and a sort of fudge on the inside.  The second picture shows Matthew demonstrating his love of Sportszelet.


Panka’s Óvoda (preschool)

While Daniel is trying to navigate his way through the second grade, Panka is enjoying another year of preschool/daycare.  Panka is 5 years old now and would be in kindergarten in the US (and is being taught the kindergarten material at home), but there is no kindergarten in Hungary.  In fact, it seems as though many (most?) children don’t begin school (1st grade) in Hungary until they are 7 years old; Daniel is 7 with a February birthday and he is the youngest of about 25 children in his second grade class.

Anyway, onto Panka’s school…  There seems to be a variety of ages in her class, ranging from about 4 to 6 years old.  They play some games and sing songs and do quite a few crafts.  Here is a picture of Panka at the entrance of her school:

On Friday, they had a special harvest celebration at her Óvoda. All of the children brought in some grapes and other treats, and they pressed the grapes to get the juice (nothing like teaching the winemaking tradition early). In the afternoon, all of the families came for a program where all the children were dressed in traditional outfits and there was dancing and then refreshements.  Here are some pictures from the dancing:

Below you can see Panka with a couple of her friends.  The girl behind Panka in the beige skirt is Lola.  Lola is Panka’s best friend, since her dad is British and she is able to understand English. In front of Panka is a small boy named Mark.  Mark just started at the Óvoda at the same time as Panka and really has taken a liking to her.  When she arrives in the morning, he usually comes to the door and grabs her hand.

Finally, here is Panka with her two teachers, Kati néni and Rita néni.  Both are really great with the children.


This weekend’s excursion brought us to the town of Visegrád, which lies along the Duna (Danube), about a 1 hour drive north from Budapest.  It has some beautiful hills and marks where the river takes a 90° bend and heads south toward Budapest. Visegrád’s position at the river’s bend was of strategic importance, thus high above the Duna sit the remains (and some reconstruction) of a castle, seen here from the adjacent hill:

Accessing the castle requires a bit of a hike (or alternatively, you can drive, but that’s not as fun).  It’s not to long, but obviously involves a bit of climbing. The kids did well, but Matthew was firmly against sitting in the backpack carrier we have and wound up doing most of the climb by foot.  At the start of the climb sits a gate and a tower (shown here)

Once at the top, one has impressive views of the Duna and the surrounding landscape:

Here is a part of the castle itself.  Dani and Panka are at the top of the steps, while Matthew is just beginning his ascent.

And of course no outing is complete without a treat of some kind.  This week we enjoyed a Hungarian favorite, lángos, which is perhaps most similar to fried dough in the US.  You can get lángos with a variety of toppings; most common are sour cream and/or cheese.  Below you see us enjoying our lángos sima (literally: “flat” but meaning plain here), but with a bit of garlic sauce on top.

From here we continued our hike to a neighboring hill (where the first picture of the castle was taken from).  Fortunately, Matthew relented and agreed to go into the backback carrier, eventually succumbing to a well-deserved nap.


Kérsz Fagyit?

They say that you can tell a lot about people from the ice cream that they eat (actually, I just made that up, but it sounds about right, doesn’t it?). The ice cream in Hungary differs dramatically from the US, both in consistency and flavors. It is less creamy, but still packs a lot of flavor, with lots of flavors to choose from. Some of the more unusual flavors that I’ve encountered include: gesténye (chestnut), sárgadinnye (Melon, one of Matthew’s favorites), and túró (cottage cheese). I’ve never really been disappointed by any of them.  Also, you can get an ice cream cone (albeit a small scoop) for very cheap.  Thus, we can go as a family for ice cream for a couple of dollars total at night and not feel like we’re doing serious damage to our health or pocketbook.

In the picture below, you’ll find one of the more decorative ice cream stands that we’ve encountered.  This one is at the base of the castle hill in the village of Szigliget, along the shore of lake Balaton. Some of the unusual flavors in this display are zöldalma (green apple, 2nd from the left and my choice on this day) and sárgadinnye (bottom row toward middle).