30 December 2005

Buda, Pest

Joel, Mike, Ryan, and Julia celebrate New Years in BudapestFor the first couple of days in Budapest, it was just Ryan, his friend Bill from Boston, and me. They had arrived several hours earlier on the Thursday morning, and thus had taken in an extra site—the Great Synagogue. This lead to ongoing discussions for the rest of our trip, which eventually brought about the concept: Santa Yarmulke. Since men must cover their heads when entering a synagogue, and must remove any hat before entering a Catholic church (both ostensibly for the same reason), we wondered who would be more offend by the wearing of a Santa yarmulke. I thought this was so incredibly unique and bizarre that I even checked to see if I could buy the domain santayarmulke.com, only to find someone has already done so a year ago. It’s amazing how hard it is to come up with an original expression; I challenge you to google your personal catch-phrase and see how many people have already used it!

We stayed at the Mellow Mood Central Hostel; not sure how it is more mellow than any other hostel, but certainly the central location was much appreciated as we wandered the streets by foot everyday. Our room had six beds, which—for various reasons—were never simultaneously occupied. I’m actually becoming a fan of hostels; you don’t get the amenities and privacy of a hotel, but it’s just more fun than the isolation inherent in living in a hotel room even with a few people. Julia’s assessment of staying with us was not as positive: she compared it to “a sophomore dorm” followed—under her breath—by an almost subliminal: “never again.”

In marked contrast to Bulgaria, Hungary seems to have little qualms about facing its recent communist past. In addition to exhibits about the earliest history of the people and the (at times very large) territory of Hungary, the National Museum features exhibitions about life in the communist era, complete with propaganda posters. On Friday we visited the House of Terror which specifically explores Nazi and communist repression in a building that had actually been used to house (and execute) political prisoner. I just don’t see something like this happening anytime soon in Sofia; they still seem to be in love with the Russians who liberated them from the Ottomans exactly 128 years ago today (4 January 2006)!

The Scam

Galaxia a.k.a rip-off centerFriday night after dinner, Ryan, Bill, and I were walking back to the hostel when two rather attractive girls stopped us and invited us to join them at a nearby restaurant/bar, which happened to be directly across the street from our hostel. They said they were from Slovakia and were in Budapest for a cosmetics convention. Red flags immediately went off, because I’ve heard Dave’s (my IMBA classmate) story about how he got stuck with an exorbitant tab after the girls that invited him order three of the most expensive drinks each and insisted he pay for them. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I followed along into the Galaxia Restaurant. One of them immediately ordered a round of drinks without looking at the menu (which I later noticed was laying on the table under one of their arms.) Bill was having a good time talking up one of the girls, but I started to notice discrepancies in their stories and becoming more concerned. The same girl ordered another round of drinks and a tomato and mozzarella platter, which she encouraged us to share with her. Eventually I suggested we go somewhere else; when the bill came, my worst fears were confirmed—it was 102,400 Forints (approximately $500!) Actually they had written it as 10,2400; I suspect some guys not clear on the exchange rate anyhow, just pay with a credit card never notice it until they get their statement. However, I jumped up and started to cause a big scene until the manager and two of his goons showed up. Long story short, we were able to get the girls to pay for their portion (which, of course they will get back,) and after Bill got more money from the ATM, we were released. There was really nothing we could do; their exorbitant prices were clearly listed in the menu. It was an expensive way to learn a lesson and embarrassing to publish here, but I do it as a public service to anyone coming to Budapest (and, I suspect, many other cities in the world)—always look at the menu first, and be more suspicious when attractive women stop you on the street (I know, it sounds obvious now!) Afterwards I felt violated and vulnerable, but more than anything: stupid; how could I let this happen to my friends when I knew better? However, unlike Dave, I am not going to let this sour me on Budapest—it is just too beautiful a city; I will just be smarter.

Then came the rain

On Saturday, Mike finally joined us from his world-wind holiday travels (Chicago, Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, Bucharest, and probably some points between) in time to have lunch with us. I had contacted Justin Scott, a fellow USC IMBA who had graduated a year ahead me and I had met in June 2004 on a trip to Budapest from Vienna. Inexplicably, the café he had chosen for us to meet at was closed despite the fact there were people inside smugly enjoying their meals/coffee. After we found an alternate venue we were finally able to do the MBA networking that I had intended. Justin had done his MBA internship in Budapest, and after graduating in May of 2004, he returned and has been there ever since; we were blown away by his mastery the notoriously difficult Hungarian language; this has given me some serious motivation to learn Bulgarian now. When Julia finally arrived that afternoon, this was the only accomplishment we could point to for the whole day.

Ringing in the new year with localsDespite a reasonable amount of research out New Year’s evening began something like this: Ryan, map in hand and navigating, “let’s try this one place, OK they’re not open, but let’s check out this other place just around the corner” and so on. We probably ended up walking 5 km of cold, rainy street before deciding on the one place where we actually rang in the New Year. I will not go into more details, but the new year found us taking care of a vomiting girl whom we had befriended thanks to Bill. (left to right: cute girl [who Bill was hitting on], vomit girl [my target, since I was playing "wing man" for Bill], Ryan, Bill, and myself in the back)

Sunday morning was a race to be up, dressed, and packed before the 10:00 checkout time. After breakfast we could only wander the cold, wet streets of Budapest—everything but the church was closed (being that it was New Years day) so eventually we settled in a café and nursed our tea/coffee/hot chocolate for several hours, then headed to a Mexican restaurant for dinner and to burn our remaining hours in Budapest (as well as to keep warm and dry—this felt a lot like my February 2004 trip to Venice.) This theme of killing time did not end there; at the airport, we learned our flight had been delayed 3 hours, and we were stuck in departure lounge beyond passport exit control (which—being a non-smoking area—was particularly hard on Bill and other nicotine addicts, but a sweet relief for the few non-smokers.) This meant we didn’t get home until the wee hours of the morning—what a long day!
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