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…).

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).




Lots of people have dogs here in Budapest.  That’s great; people really seem to enjoy their companionship.  What’s not great is that people aren’t as great about cleaning up after their dogs as they are in the US.  After several bad experiences, Dora has developed a complete mental map of each and every dog poop between our apartment building and Panka’s preschool.  I, unfortunately, have not.  Panka is well trained and kept trying to alert me to approaching danger, but alas, I wound up cleaning my shoe (again) this morning…

Breakfast, Hungarian style

I’ve never been a big breakfast guy, but it may be my favorite meal here in Hungary.  In the US, I eat a healthy breakfast each day, it’s just that I’m not that picky about what I eat and it’s more about nourishment than enjoyment.  I’d conservatively estimate that I’ve eaten 3,000 bowls of Raisen Bran (mostly Kellogg’s) in my life.  It’s not that I love it that much, it’s just that I can eat it every day and never really tire of it.

In Hungary breakfast is a different story altogether.  The components of the meal are nothing to out of the ordinary; it all starts with a good chunck of fresh bread.  Bread of substance, where a loaf often weighs a kilogram (2.2 pounds for those who don’t compute in metric). Certainly better than any bread that I get in the grocery store in the US.  I suppose good bread is available in bakeries in the US, but here it seems that you can only get really good bread, whether from the bakery just down the street or in the grocery stores.

Next we have kolbasz, a Hungarian specialty.  A sausage (the origin of the meat is not known to me, but likely pork) spiced with Hungarian red pepper (paprika).  Very tasty, with a variety of different flavors (some spicy, some not).available. A whole kolbasz is shown in the picture at the top; this can last the family a good week.  Only about six small slices are enough for a good breakfast.

Sometimes I’ll mix it up and add in some fresh vegatables (pepper, tomatoes, etc) on the side.  Typically, I just have my bread with butter, but there are other toppings that I like to, like körözött, a cottage cheese/paprika (red pepper)/garlic spread that is quite tasty.  And now I have a breakfast and can, and do, eat and enjoy every day (now I’m hungary…).

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.

So I got a Green Card….

sort of…except that it’s red.  Those of you that have been reading religiously may remember that at the beginning of the trip, I had to file some papers for residency.  We had tried our best to navigate the many options and requirements, and finally were informed that, since Dora is a citizen, I should be applying for temporary residency.  Since then, we’ve had some visits from the immigration authorities.  On the first visit, we weren’t home, but they were able to verify from others in the building that I did indeed live there.  The next time they came at a scheduled time; I was at work but Dora gave them all the information they needed.  They seemed surprised that I had filed in the first place; apparently what  I do doesn’t actually qualify as work (since I’m paid by LVC), and I could legally stay in the country for 90 days at a time as long as I leave briefly in between (not that anyone’s checking).  So, all for naught, but I was approved and now can legally work and reside in Hungary for the next 5 years.  I even have the red card with a terrible mug shot to prove it!

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.


October 23

Memorial Plaque at "October 23 Street" that I walk past each day

While we’ve been in Budapest that last few weekends, we’ll be back to the lake for a long weekend starting on Friday.  There will be a 4-day weekend, as Tuesday is October 23rd, a national holiday in Hungary.  No, they aren’t so enthusiastic about chemistry that the nation stops for mole day (for the non-chemists, October 23 (10/23) is celebrated by chemists as “mole day” to commemorate the mole, a unit in chemistry that is equal to 6.02 x 10^23). Instead, October 23 marks the start of the Hungarian Revolution against the Soviet Union in 1956.  During the revolution, Hungarian protestors seized control of the country from the communist government and maintained control of the country for about 2 weeks, until tanks from Moscow rolled in and squelched the opposition. If you’ve encountered Hungarians in the United States, there’s a good chance that they immigrated in or around 1956. For an interesting take on the revolution through the eyes of the men’s Olympic Water Polo team competing at the same time, I highly recommend the movie “Freedom’s Fury“, or a really great Sports Illustrated article about the story of the defections of many of the Hungarians at the 1956 Melbourne olympics.