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).




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…


Last weekend we took another short trip, this time to Sopron, a small city on the west side of Hungary, and (briefly) to Vienna, Austria.  We stayed at a small panzio (almost like a bed and breakfast) in Sopron, and spent most of our time there.  The weather was bitter cold all weekend, but we did a good job of balancing indoor and outdoor activities.

The Fire Tower in Sopron

Sopron is a beautiful old city — the central downtown has narrow winding streets with some buildings dating from the 12th century. During the evenings, there was a Christmas market in the central square, so both night we braved the elements to enjoy some food and music (Dora even met up with one of her former high school classmates, who is a jazz musician that was performing).


 A highlight on Saturday was our visit to the Esterháza,  palace in the nearby village of Fertőd.  The palace was built in the mid-1700s and was one of several gigantic homes owned by the Esterházy family (a part of the palace can be seen in the panorama photo at the top).  They had some child-friendly holiday programs on the afternoon that we visited.  First was a very nice puppet show, which the kids liked a lot (Matthew even sat relatively still, despite bursting out in laughter periodically even though there wasn’t anything funny).  After that came a visit from, Mikulas!  In Hungary, Santa doesn’t visit the malls (at least not that I know of, though I don’t visit often), and he travels in style!

Mikulas walks to the palace

Mikulas arrives at palace

On Sunday, we drove to Vienna, less than an hour north from Sopron.  We navigated into and through the city and found a nice parking garage near the center.  We walked through the walking street to Stephensdom, a large cathedral with one of the tallest towers in the city. We (and many other tourists) entered the cathedral, trying hard not to disturb the ongoing mass.  We took an elevator to the top of one of the towers for a view of the city — the kids were not thrilled to step onto the wire grated floor of the lookout high above the city.
 After St. Stephendom, we wandered through more of the city, eventually arriving at one of Vienna’s famed Christmas markets.  It was a bit funny, we went to a similar market in Budapest and liked it a lot better.  However, the one in Budapest had very few Hungarian visitors (mostly tourists), while the Vienna market was packed with Hungarians.  Someone should tell them to save their money and shop at home.


Yesterday, December 6th, was the  Mikulás celebration in Hungary.  Mikulás (the Hungarian equivalent of Nicholas aka Jolly ol’ St. Nic) is the day when “Santa” (Mikulás, or “Télapu”- winter father) visits the children. It is celebrated on the 6th of December, so as to separate St. Nicholas from the religious celebration of Christmas. Mikulás serves as the equivalent of the stockings children in the US receive on Christmas morning, while larger presents are still exchanged at Christmas.

The night before Mikulás, the kids must set out their boots to be filled with goodies.  Presentation is important — the kids must have there boots nicely cleaned or risk being left with nothing. We told our kids to clean their boots, and Daniel and Panka vigerously set off with the brushes we provided.  Matthew disappeared with his boots; we became concerned when we heard the bathroom faucet turning on.  We found Matthew along with two boots full of water — not quite what we had in mind.  In the morning, the kids (if they were good) awake to find a bag of treats awaiting them.

A Lesson in Hungarian History – Dora Intervenes

So Tim wrote a blog post about our trip to Margitsziget and about ‘some ruins’ we visited on the island. Well, I have to put my two cents in here because we didn’t just visit ‘some ruins’. Every kid in Hungary knows the story of Margitsziget (Margaret Island) and it is an important part of the Hungarian folklore (besides its culture and history). So here it is:

Hungary had a king named Béla the fourth and during his rule the country was invaded by the Tatars, a nomadic group from the East (I’m sure you have heard about Genghis Khan). This was the year of 1241. After losing a major battle at Muhi, the King Béla and his queen fled to what is today Croatia (Dalmatia). There, in the fortress of Klis, was born their 9th child, Margit (Margaret), in January of 1242. The king and the queen were desperate, as after the invasion the Tatars had free reign and had occupied and ransacked most of the country. They offered their newborn, Margit, to God in order to save their kingdom. Then suddenly the Mongols – as they were readying to attack the king’s fortress in the spring of 1242 – decided to withdraw and leave the country altogether (Genghis Khan had died).

The king and the queen were true to their words and when Margit turned three she was placed in the care of Dominican nuns in Veszprém (a pretty town in Hungary, worthy of its own blog post). Later she moved to the Dominican convent on Rabbit’s Island (what is known today as Margitsziget) and became a nun at age 12. The ruins that you can see today are the remnants of the convent which was established by Margit’s father, Béla the fourth, in honor of the Virgin Mary.

Margit lived on the island for the rest of her life refusing to abandon her solemn vows when marriage was offered to her (once by the Czech king, Otokar the second and once by the polish king). She is revered as an example of Christian humility and love; she worked the most menial jobs and wore the worst dresses. Margit died on the island in January of 1270 and became a saint in 1276. Her resting place can be found today among the ruins with her full name in Hungarian: Árpád-házi Szent Margit.

The convent on the island was abandoned by the nuns during the Turkish invasion of Hungary in the 16th century and hasn’t been used since then. The island has been referred to by different names since the 14th century, but since the 19thcentury Margitsziget is the name it is known by. Today, as Tim described it, the island is a spot of green in the middle of the busy city where people go to take a stroll, bike or ride one of the bringos. Or to play capture the flag (‘számháború’ in Hungarian, meaning ‘number war’) among century old ruins. And that’s part of what makes our trip to Budapest special: the ability to live and play among ruins that predate Columbus.