Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A bit further afield - Szentendre and Eger

I’ve been able to get out of the city a couple times so far, once on a class field trip and another on a short day trip just north of Budapest.  When leaving Budapest, there’s a fairly clear and immediate infrastructural drop off.  The road quality declines, the buildings become noticeably shabbier: it just appears as a country in which wealth is strongly centralized.  We took the suburban train on the day trip, only at the border of Budapest proper the train tracks were under maintenance, which necessitated transferring to a replacement bus.

Szentendre was the closer of the two destinations, accessible by the aforementioned suburban train/replacement bus.  It’s only about 20 km north of Budapest, but the opposite side of Budapest from where I live in southeast Pest, so it still took about 90 minutes to go door-to-door.  It basically felt like the Hungarian version of the Black Hills, one of those inexplicable tourist destinations that arose in response to nothing more than geographic proximity.  As such, it is overrun with tourists with little to do except walk from tiny kitschy jewelry shop to tiny overpriced knife shop.  Also, our waitress was essentially Ursula from Mad About You.

The main theoretical attraction of Szentendre, beyond its location convenient to Budapest on the Danube, is that it is the historical center of the Serb minority in Budapest.  As such, there are lots of Orthodox churches around the city.  Besides the legacy of religious buildings, though, the Serb influence did not feel considerable.

Eger, our full class field trip destination, is outside of the Budapest metro area bubble, a couple hours east and slightly north in Northern Hungary.  Eger falls in the foothills between the Great Hungarian Plain and the Mátra Mountains.  Though “mountains” is a pretty strong term, since the highest point is less than 3000 feet.

Given that physical geography, it’s unsurprising that Eger is the core of Hungarian wine country.  Eger is also historically significant for several sieges – the most important of which in 1552 essentially stopped the Ottoman advance in Europe and serves as a major Hungarian national sociohistorical touchstone.  Eger was ultimately occupied in 1596 by the Ottomans and as such has the northernmost Turkish minaret in the world.  

The main reason the town survived and the siege unsuccessful was due to the Castle of Eger, which was built in the 13th Century after the Mongol invasions destroyed the nearby castle at Várhegy.  (Hegy means hill in Hungarian, one of the few things I’ve been able to retain thus far).  It’s partially ruined because the Austrians blew part of it up in 1701 – I’m not sure if it’s as bad a circumstance as when the Venetians blew up the Parthenon because it was storing gunpowder inexplicably, but either way, it similarly exists today in only partial form.

Castle aside, Eger felt like a fairly typical smaller central European city, albeit one with a slight Turkish influence owing to its occupation from 1596 to 1687.  I would guess that without the cultural significance that the battle in 1552 retroactively acquired as a symbol of Hungarian resistance to outside oppression, Eger would be rather more limited as a tourist destination itself as well.

Just as both a method for you and I to both know what’s coming, the following posts are in the theoretical pipeline, some suggested at other people’s urging:

-       Pest
-       Transportation
-       Legacy of Communism
-       Language
-       Classes
-       Retroactive post from my week in Vienna this past summer if I have a few weeks with little happening

I am entirely open to topic suggestions, so if there’s something that you might be curious about, please let me know and I’ll see if I can write anything coherent and possibly remotely interesting about it.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A (re)-Introduction to Budapest: Buda and the Danube

Before I got too far along with this blog entry, I stepped back to read my first impressions of Budapest the last time I was here.  They were a bit superficial (given the time frame and the fact that I had been to three countries that I was unfamiliar with immediately before Hungary), but that's not terribly surprising.  It of course takes longer than three days to really get a sense of the place.  Longer than two weeks as well.  So I won't intend for this to be comprehensive, as there's much of Budapest left to see and left to experience. 

Much of modern Budapest dates from the turn of the century.  Most of the most famous Budapest buildings were all built for the 1896 millennial celebrations, celebrating the 1000th anniversary of Árpád settling in the old Roman town of Aquincum (currently located in the northern parts of the Buda side of the river).  The role of the river - as well as the strong differentiation between the banks - gives Budapest sort of a Paris-of-the-east feel at times. 

That said, there's a grittiness to Budapest in ways that the inner arrondissements of Paris lack.  The ordinary stone buildings, though architecturally beautiful, show the scars of 50 years of Communist apathy.  Of course, the further you get from the center of the city you can see the apathy of communist design, not maintenance, so it's a trade off. 

Just for some semblance of organization to the rest of the post (and as a method of conveying pictures to appease some people who shall remain nameless), I'll do a bit of Buda/Pest/Danube division.

So far, Budapest has an interesting relationship with the Danube.  There's an architectural nod to be sure - buildings façades often face the river rather than anything more logical for an engineering point of view.  But there's no readily apparent sense that it was the economic lifeblood of the area in a fashion like the Mississippi has been for most of the cities on its banks.

Budapest does do Bridges fairly well.  All of the inner city bridges are in completely different architectural styles.  I'll go through the four major ones from north to south.

The Margaret Bridge is the longest of the inner city ones and connects Buda and Pest to Margaret Island, an outdoor recreation center that is one of the biggest parks in the city.  It's currently under reconstruction, but tram lines are still running across it.  

The most famous and first bridge across the Danube in Budapest, the Chain Bridge.  It, of course, was reconstructed after World War II as well, but still retains its original character.

 The Elizabeth Bridge, a more traditional suspension bridge, with the moon rising in the background.

The wrought metal Freedom/Liberty Bridge (depending on your translation - and depending if you've also rejected the recently rejected name of the Franz-Joseph Bridge).  Hungary has a peculiar habit of renaming things when new administrations take power.  On my metro line there are two stops that have been renamed for purely political reasons within the past year. 
There is one historical center-city bridge missing - just south of the Parliament was the Kossuth Bridge, a bridge that the Soviets had to rapidly construct as a river crossing after the retreating Nazis destroyed all of the existing bridges in Budapest.  Rumors have it that a new bridge will be constructed on the site sometime in the next decade to make river crossing easier.   If you want to put that in river order, it would fall between the Margaret Bridge and Chain Bridge.

There are of course other bridges further north and south, but they are A. outside of the typically walked inner city and B. much less architecturally interesting.

Buda is the wealthier, stodgier, and more omnipresently touristy of the halves of Budapest.  Not to say that there isn't touristy stuff in Pest or that no one lives in Buda.  It's more that no one WORKS in Buda.  It simply moves from tourist sites along the river (Buda Castle, the Fisherman's Bastion) to progressively more expensive houses as it feels like you're moving further up into the Hollywood Hills.  It's much quieter than Pest.  I would like to say slower paced, but everything is at the more leisurely European speed; perhaps I can say even more slowly paced. 

Beyond the economics of the situation, the biggest difference between Buda and Pest is elevation.  Buda is hilly, whereas Pest seems to be the beginning of the plains of eastern Hungary that the country is so famous for.  I've spent a couple days within the last week going up two of the more significant Buda Hills: Géllert Hill in the city and János Hill out the far side of Buda.

János Hill is the highest hill in Budapest proper.  It's peaked by a stone lookout tower that emerges from the trees looking like a Lost set.  The day we climbed was a bit smoggy, but you can still oversee all of Buda and much of Pest - if you look closely, the Parliament is visible on the right side of the frame just above the river.  Apparently on clear days you can see as far as 77 miles.

Closer to the main city... Géllert Hill - next to the similarly named Géllert Hotel

 - is notable for two things.  This statue:

 The Hungarian Statue of Liberty, which is visible from pretty much anywhere in Budapest.

and this view:

With that I'll leave you for today, as classes start tomorrow.  I'll talk about Pest sometime soon, as well as my day trip to Eger and whatever else grabs me in the interim.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Germany was rigorous in its application of rules, but there seemed to be an inherent logic to how everything worked, ultimately.  Regulations seem to - at least generally - have purposes that even as a foreigner one can generally surmise the meaning of.

Hungary is an entirely different beast.  I've spent much of the past two weeks trying to navigate the municipal, national, and university bureaucracies.  I still haven't completed.  And it makes little to no sense whatsoever.

The university layer of bureaucracy is perhaps the most frustrating.  I've been in universities for the past six years of drastically different characters, sizes, and purposes, but nothing has quite reached the level of pure arbitrariness of restrictions as I've encountered here.  Telling us to come to meetings and then kicking us out for not bringing the documents that they didn't tell us to bring; organizing mandatory things simultaneously; requiring the student shuffling papers from office to office in the same building, only the offices are all open different sets of hours on different days, requiring multiple trips; telling us that our temporary student ID cards couldn't be ready for a week and to buy a week pass, and then turning around and giving us them the next day.

The temporary student ID is necessary because it takes up to two months to get a real Hungarian student ID - which of course is not the same as my Central European University ID (or my student pass for the Budapest public transportation).  When one factors in that my lodging uses a hotel-style key as well, the Hungarian bureaucracy requires carrying 5 extra credit-card style objects in my wallet at all times.

The fifth among those is the residence permit.  Unlike in many places, where residence permits appear as a stamp/sticker/long term visa in your passport, I will receive yet another official ID card to carry around at all times.  That is, once I have the opportunity to finally finish collecting all of the documents needed for it.

Despite all of that, nothing quite sums up the post-Communist bureaucracy quite like the post office.  The Hungarian Posta fills all of the roles of the Western post office.  But it's much more than that.  The Posta also serves as the method of payment for basically all government functions.  One has to go to a post office (and figure out what button to press on the machine to get the appropriate numbered slip for when getting called to the desk) and pay fees for any and all unrelated government functions.  Then, the receipt is taken to the government office you actually need to go to wherever that might be in the city.  The appropriate government offices cannot take payment and you will be directed back to the post office (and have to wait in the long lines again) if you don't have the correct receipts ahead of time.

Even small functions like opening a bank account (where you usually receive the check card day of in the US) or picking up a pre-paid cell phone (which in the US you can do at a gas station with no forms of ID as far as The Wire has taught me) are lengthy processes here.  I had to sign several pages in Hungarian, give photocopies of my passport and address papers - all for just a prepaid SIM card in my existing German phone.

If nothing else, the Hungarian bureaucracy has taught me to appreciate the at least theoretical modicum of logic that is the DMV.  I have had a bit of time to (re-)explore Budapest a bit more, so I hope to write a more fun broad city scope post soon.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Reopening for business

Well, as most of you know (since most of you told me to restart doing this when I arrived), I am now in Budapest. And rather than go through the whole creation of blog process, I figured the best option would be to simply re-utilize the existing system we had going. Of course, the Adam Ant song lyric based title is no longer applicable. I could theoretically use a song lyric from "Budapest" by Poni Hoax; however, that song is sort of creepy. Somehow I don't think people would want to read a blog called "What is soaking is now croaking in Budapest." Though "Street cars tearing up the skies" out of context is a little poetic and not so disorienting.


Youtube, as always, an effective resource if French electronic with odd Budapest references intrigues you.

Lyrical digressions aside, this will be my first long term foray abroad since Freiburg. I've attended a couple conferences in the interim, so I have made brief returns to Prague and Bratislava and visited Vienna for the first time, but I didn't find it to be a cohesive enough experience to coherently write about at the time. Maybe I'll devise some thread for incorporation into a larger, retroactive thematic element in the future, but either way, this is a new chapter. And though I've only been here a few days, Budapest is already proving to be a completely different animal than Germany was.

The differences from the United States are predictable and perhaps a bit banal. They are what you would expect. That said, the differences from Germany are a lot more interesting and suggestive of the diversity of Europe. After all, the distance between Budapest and Freiburg is roughly similar to those between Tulsa and Minneapolis.

Language and food aside (again, those differences aren't surprising), in my first 30 hours, Budapest has thrown a few curveballs at me. The most interesting to me has been wardrobe: shorts and flipflops appear to be perfectly prevalent attire. The long-stated French/Italian/Spanish aversion to them appears to not be in effect here. More than anything, it makes me immediately regret packing decisions. The idea of fanatical disgust at the idea of shorts is one long-enduring European stereotype in the minds of Americans, and it had been reinforced in my own mind after spending 95º days in Florence, Madrid, and Paris surrounded by locals wearing dark jeans. Don't get me wrong: I'm thrilled if this is a socially acceptable wardrobe choice (as long as the weather is appropriately summery, presumably), but it was certainly an unexpected development.

The most positive difference from Germany has been more of a conception of a service culture. I landed in Budapest late on Saturday, which in Germany would have meant I couldn't go to a store with any measure of success until Monday morning. Here, grocery stores and malls are open on Sundays, allowing me to accomplish errands I was afraid I would have to leave until my lunch break tomorrow.

I live in Budapest proper, though I live in the Xth district. Budapest X is the biggest district in Budapest and is outside the center of the city (though another layer of districts is still beyond Budapest X). I have not quite figured out the subdistricts of the area yet, but live past the end of the Metro line by three bus stops. I've spent minimal time going into the city thus far (There are two malls in the Xth and school is downtown so I'll be spending more than enough time there to not rush in until I get my student passes for travel), but I have walked to where the Metro station is several times. Needless to say, the walk is rather different than I was used to in Germany. On the occasions I walked to the IES villa instead of taking the straßenbahn in Freiburg, I walked past old buildings, an occasional vineyard, and the Dreisam. here, I walk past communist apartment blocks, decaying light industrial facilities, and car dealerships. At least urban planners can take solace in the fact that major apartment blocks are indeed concentrated around the end of the metro line to maximize ridership.

German walk to school
Hungarian walk to school

Another major shift is in the student facilities. The student housing in Freiburg certainly had its sets of rules and regulations as much of German official society does. But underneath all of that, Vauban retained a bit of its anarchic spirit: not so much in check-out procedures and room inspections, but at least in terms of self-expression. Rooms were extraordinarily nonstandard within the same complex (and building at times), they were decorated differently, and you never really got the sense of significant oversight. CEU's student housing doesn't have the flexibility or even pretend to encourage personalization of any sort. We are forbidden from putting anything on walls at all. And there certainly aren't pirate ships, hippie vans, or multicolored rolling metal grates. (Sadly, the system of linens with only a duvet and bottom sheet - no top sheet or blankets of any sort has remained).
German Room
Hungarian Room
German Building Complex
Hungarian Building Complex

In an especially minute difference that became apparent to me very quickly, CEU actively discourages you from opening your windows. This is completely opposite from the German system of wanting you to open your windows all the time to get good air into rooms, regardless of the weather outside. (For a comprehensive account and explanation of that apparently-peculiarly German routine, there's a well-written summary here by a travel blogger based in Freiburg: http://www.groundedtraveler.com/2011/02/18/german-obsession-with-fresh-air/).
German apartment view
Hungarian View

With time, I might acclimate myself to the Hungarian apartment situation better, but so far it seems like some of the more endearing qualities of the German WGs (like having a kitchen! and that whole pirate ship thing) are going to be difficult to replicate. School responsibilities will begin in the morning, so my next post can take me further afield from the Xth district if you want to see pretty things. Of course, if you're wanting immediate Danube and Parliament gratification, you can scroll back in time and see my first go round from Budapest while living in Germany to tide you over until the next time I am able to blog.