Sunday, May 09, 2010

Sunday in the park with Gyorgy

So. I'm in Budapest. Bet you didn't see that coming! Actually, since only about 5 people read this blog and all of them know me personally, you all probably did see that coming. Sean and Curtis' latest movie, Something Blue, was selected to screen at this year's INPUT Conference, an international conference of public television programmers which is meeting this year in Budapest.

I am a nervous flier, but of course I wanted to see some more of Europe. Armed with anti-anxiety medication, we left LAX on Thursday. Someone stowed away with us: Chuck Pocket, my pal Lucy's little legless buddy whom I believe she envisions as her personal Travelocity Roaming Gnome. I told Lucy I'd carry him around in my purse and take him out every so often to see the sights. Yes, I am a 44-year-old woman. Wanna make something of it?

Here's Chuck enjoying his last taste of Mexican food for some time. (Though I doubt the Camacho's Grill at LAX could in any way be dubbed authentic.)

Thanks to Ativan, my new favorite pharmaceutical, I dozed much of the flight from Los Angeles to London. Things have changed a bit since the last time I flew, way back in 2004. For instance, this is the first time I've had my own personal TV/movie screen. I watched the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123 (not very good) and sampled episodes of The Big Bang Theory (overrated) and How I Met Your Mother (also overrated). I was expecting the very worst in food and amenities, but that wasn't so bad: British Air supplied us with toothbrushes and toothpaste, eye masks, and socks. Dinner was a choice between chicken and lasagna, both decent, and we ate a perfectly serviceable breakfast (served at 3 a.m. L.A. time).

Chuck waits patiently at Heathrow to board the flight to Budapest. We ate lunch on this flight; Sean and I were offered a choice of either a cheese or tuna sandwich, but Veronika, Curtis' girlfriend, told me later that their flight a few days previous to ours provided only a coleslaw and cheese sandwich. The hell . . .?!

The flight to Budapest lasted only a couple of hours and it was still light when we arrived. I didn't take any pictures as we cabbed it from the airport to our hotel, but suffice it to say that the Soviet style of architecture is still alive and well in post-Communist Hungary. LOTS of big, blocky, gray, impersonal buildings, mixed in with a few historical structures. Our hotel is quite nondescript and our room is best described as spartan. Since we are being offered nothing in the way of amenities, I don't feel too bad about asking for a clean towel every day. Still, it's clean and not too expensive, and we're right next to a subway stop. Budapest has the oldest subway system in Europe.

This is where we had dinner Friday night. The place has this funky, woodsy theme going on; it reminds me of, of all places, Clifton's Cafeteria, although it's not quite as wacky as that L.A. landmark. We ate downstairs, where fewer people seemed to be smoking. Smoking is allowed in many places in Budapest, and there are cigarette butts everywhere as testament to just how many people indulge.

One of the pages from the menu. (A lot of signs, menus, advertisements, etc. are bilingual or in English exclusively, and lots of people speak English and German.) I wanted to order the Dangerous Plate or the Wooden Plate of Profusion, simply because they sounded so silly. I ended up ordering a chicken cutlet with peaches and Gorgonzola, with a side of mushroom rice. Side dishes are referred to as "garnishes," and they are heavy on the rice and potatoes around here.

Vern and Curtis looking happy. I think their beer had just arrived.

Chuck hangs out by the salt cellar.

Here's my dinner. Yeah, canned peaches with Gorgonzola sauce sounds weird, and it probably was, but it tasted good.

On Saturday Sean and Curtis took off early for the INPUT conference. Vern and I got a more leisurely start. Since she and Curtis had already been in town a few days, I let her decide where we'd go. We took off towards the major market in town, which is housed in a large building close to the center of town.

After we got off the metro, we walked down a couple of little side streets to get to the market. The blobby yellow thing above is a much-used candelabra covered in old, dripped wax, sitting in the window of a little cafe. It was late morning, too late for breakfast and too early for lunch, and the streets were quiet. The cafes that lined our route all had patios, and it looked like it would be a bustling spot in a couple of hours.

Hey, Vern! The center of this street was closed to traffic and instead lined with tables, chairs and umbrellas. It's hard to describe, but it felt very European.

This is the market building. I wish my camera had a wide-angle lens so I could capture how enormous it is. There are three floors. The ground floor is full of market stalls selling fresh meats and vegetables; the second floor is nonstop artisan goods, much of it tacky but some really cool, aimed squarely at tourists; the basement is fish and other supermarket goods, like canned foods. Vern and I immediately headed upstairs.

Here's a view from one end of the second floor. The building is obviously old and filled with lots of natural light. The shops on the second floor mostly hug the walls and the aisles are very crowded. Vern advised me to push through the crowds because no one will just stand aside and let me pass; she turned out to be right. I bought a pretty hand embroidered table scarf for myself and a couple of gifts for others.

Here's another shot from the second floor. The roofs cover the food stalls on the bottom floor. Later, Vern and I headed down there to look at the food. There were all sorts of fruits and vegetables, including quite a few we couldn't identify. There were lots of booths devoted exclusively to paprika, which seems to be the national spice of Hungary. We were both struck by the meat markets -- it looks as if no part of the animal goes to waste around here.

Case in point: chicken heads and chicken feet.

After the market, Veronika and I cabbed to the INPUT Conference to catch Sean and Curtis' program. They had prepared a special one-hour cut of Something Blue (which normally runs about an hour-and-a-half -- don't worry, Norman, your big scene is mostly intact) for the conference, and it was on the program with 3 other public television shows. (And just in case you're wondering, yes, Something Blue was shown on public television. In South Carolina. Last week.) The first show was from Belarus and ran about 20 minutes. It was a depressing, wordless little film shot from a photographer's apartment of the street outside his apartment over the course of several months. Most of the action seemed to consist of a group of men getting drunk, starting fights, and then passing out in a small park. To be honest, I dozed off a few times, which made the film seem even longer. After it was over, the audience got to question the filmmaker, who said that the show couldn't be shown on TV in Belarus (because Belarus is "the best country in the world" and things like guys getting publicly drunk on what seems like a daily basis just "doesn't happen there"), so it originally aired in Poland. Like I said, depressing. It was followed by an episode from the British TV series Wonderland, called "The British in Bed." A number of British couples were interviewed in their beds, and they talked about all aspects of their relationships. My favorite was the couple who opened and closed the show, an elderly Jewish duo who had been together for about 50 years. They talked over each other and poked not-so-gentle fun at one another; they were surprisingly candid and quite funny. That show seemed a little long, but it was a blessed relief after seeing the same drunk young Belarusian guy fall over a picnic table for the fifth time. The third item on the program was an episode of a Danish TV show called The Farmer, which is a reality show that follows a twenty-something guy around his small farm as he tries to create a life for himself that he considers simple and good. It's an incredibly popular show in Denmark (I think it's Denmark; it could be Norway), but it raised some hackles with the audience, some of whom seemed incensed that the farmer is now being paid by the TV network to work his farm. "He's not a farmer; he's a celebrity!" seemed to be the complaint. Eh, it didn't bother me. Curtis thought the show was awful but the concept interesting. I kind of liked it.

Here are Sean and Curtis on the right, along with the moderator, discussing Something Blue after its screening. The audience was pretty subdued during the Q&A, possibly because they liked the show overall and had no complaints, but also possibly because they were tired and hungry. Some dim bulb actually asked why Sean and Curtis didn't make a documentary instead of a mockumentary. Um, because there are no real blue-skinned people? I think the mockumentary format was lost on a few of them, but a couple of guys were very enthusiastic and talked to Sean at length in the lobby after the screening. I liked the one-hour cut of the movie a lot, though my big scene as the incompetent florist was left on the cutting-room floor.

There was a cocktail and dinner party in an adjoining building so the four of us headed over there.

The five of us, I mean. Chuck basks in the glow of bulk-purchased blush wine.

Ready to disco!

Enjoying the free libations.

I don't know why Sean looks so angry. Maybe he's just hungry; it was getting pretty late, with no dinner in sight. Please don't ask me to explain our surroundings.

Members of "Hungary's most famous dance club" performed a couple of numbers for the guests. BORING! Obviously none of them have ever seen Dancing with the Stars. I couldn't imagine any of these staid couples shaking it up.

This couple was supposed to be dancing the "hot salsa." Trust me, it was mild. While they were prancing about, I wandered over to the buffet table and perused the appetizers. We hadn't been informed that it was chow time yet, but come on -- there were platters and platters of hors d'oeuvres just sitting there! I grabbed a slice of baguette with some salami on it and went back to our table. I peeled the tomato and cucumber off and ate the bland rest, which was nothing more than salami, butter and bread, but at least it was food. Vern was starving so she headed off for the table. Within a minute she was back, pulling on her jacket and announcing she was leaving. Apparently, when she picked up an appetizer, a waiter grabbed it out of her hand and told her no one could eat until the dancers were done. Veronika said, "Well, I've touched it. What are you going to do now, put it back for someone else to eat?" No, said the waiter, he was going to throw it out. The whole thing was kind of ugly so we left.

I was glad I had eaten one of these before the screening. It's hard to describe -- I don't think it's ice cream, but it's chilled. It tastes kind of like a chocolate-covered marzipan-flavored ice cream bar. I really liked it, despite the horrible name.

Vernokina wasn't feeling good this morning, so she stayed in while Sean, Curtis and I walked to St. Margaret's Island in the middle of the Danube River, which flows through the center of Budapest. It was a cool, overcast morning, perfect for a stroll through town.

Paul Anka's coming to Budapest! Does America know how to export culture or what?

Name me one American distilled liquor company that would feature redwork embroidery in its ad campaign. Just one!

Huh. The Beautiful Blue Danube is neither.

The skyline visible from the bridge to the island was kind of pretty, though. It was easy to look at it and imagine an earlier time.

This is a fancy resort and spa on St. Margaret's Island. Here, let me give you an idea of the beauty of the architecture:

Standard issue Soviet. It reminds me of the dorm I lived in my freshman year of college, which had been designed by a guy whose previous experience was in designing prisons. I kid you not.

A little church on the island. I wanted to get some closer shots, but I think a service was in progress.

There were busts of noteworthy people all over the island. We were struck by how familiar many of them looked. For instance, this guy was a dead ringer for John Malkovich.

President Taft.

The somnambulist from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

We couldn't decide between Sam Neill, Hugo Weaving, or this guy Sean and Curtis went to grad school with, but I can't expect my readers to recognize Jeremy Simonson.

Orson Welles.

Omar Sharif.

This is part of a ruined 12-century abbey that stands on the island. I was struck by the sensitivity with which part of it has been restored. Yeah, those cinder blocks blend right in!

Chuck enjoyed visiting St. Margaret's grave. Apparently Margaret (or, more properly, Margit) was "given to God" by her father, the king, after he successfully drove the Mongols from Budapest. She tended to lepers and reportedly never bathed herself above her ankles. Chuck has a bit of a foot fetish, not having any himself, so Margaret is right up his alley.

Sometimes you just gotta be fabulous, even if it's on the altar of an ancient place of worship.

This fountain was covered with graffiti and filled with trash. It was kind of depressing. The whole island, as a matter of fact, was muddy, covered in weeds, and home to a lot of garbage, especially cigarette butts. People aren't fastidious about cleaning up after their pets, so there is definitely a tang of dog shit in the air.

A water tower on the island. We walked by it once and completely missed it and had to catch it on the way back.

At first I thought this was a poster for the new movie version of Robin Hood, but then I realized it's a musical theatre production opening in Budapest this summer. It looks like a vampire version, if you ask me.

Here is a little Japanese garden kind of randomly located on Margaret Island. There were two ducks (one of them asleep) and some tiny fish the same color as the mud at the bottom of the pond.

This little turtle kept arching his neck and staring winsomely at the nude statue. Part of me wants to think it was love, but another part realizes there were hardly any places for the little guy to crawl out of the water; this rather narrow ledge was one of them, and he looked uncomfortable rather than amorous.

A little waterfall disguising the side of a building.

After we left Margaret Island we went to lunch at a little bar/cafe down the street from our hotel. Even though it was sprinkling, we opted to sit outside because the bar was stuffy; out by the street the air was fresh and cool, and an awning protected us from the elements.

This monstrous building was across the street from the cafe. Curtis said it's a smaller version of the big market Veronika and I visited yesterday. What the hell is going on with all those yellow curves and filigrees? Just because you can design a building any old way you want to doesn't mean you should do it.

Sean found the best thing on the menu: a chicken cutlet stuffed with kielbasa and smothered in an herbed cheese sauce.

Chuck and I finally got to sample some goulash! I remember my mom's goulash being a stew that either had noodles in it or was poured over noodles. On all the menus here, though, it's listed as "goulash soup," and it's considered an appetizer. It's a tomato-based broth heavily seasoned with paprika and caraway, filled with beef, carrots, and potato. It's all right but hardly something to tout as an international delicacy. Dessert was pretty damn good, though -- basically, they were small, warm cake doughnuts covered in a creamy custard sauce.

It's about 6 p.m. local time and I'm pretty wiped out. Sean and Curtis are back at the conference and headed to a dinner afterward, while Vern has finally ventured out of the hotel for some food and fresh air. I think I'm going to stay in tonight and read.


Lucy said...

Fantastic post!!! Thanks so much for sharing details. I love reading all about travel. It sounds like the conference is going well. I'm so glad.

Also, thank you for showing Chuck such a good time. What a lucky little man. The great pix will be going up on his Facebook page right away.

Continued good times and safe travels. I"ll see you when you get back. I'm looking forward to hearing more.


kb said...

Thanks for sharing Budapest...and Chuck...with us. Mike and I enjoyed reading your post. Mike wants to know if any ill-fate comes to you while you are there, can we all say you enjoyed your "journey" in your obituary? :) Can't wait to hear and see more!

Mr Maskrado said...

Awesome travelogue!

Loved the celebrity statues.

And, of course, all the photos of your food...