Tuesday, November 28, 2006

street cleaners

Back in Budapest for probably the last time on this trip. Andy and Laurie have gone to Rome for a few days, but left me their keys to their apartment. Nice. Not that I don't enjoy other people's company, it's just nice to have some quite time to myself. Almost like normal life, whatever that is.

On Saturday, Mizik and a couple of his friends went to hills between Esztergom and Komárom to dig garden beds. On the way we stopped at a Kasdabalo Kotchma (knife throwing pub), which was occupied by lethargic alcoholics rather than the promised blade toting fight starters. After our coffees, we ventured to a local small scale winery and purchased two litres of white wine to accompany the day's digging activities. Mizik's mate's dog had been put down earlier that morning due to old age, and we got down to burring the dog first. Then we flew a kite, which was a more fun than I remembered, but the string kept breaking. With no more distractions at hand, we all took turns digging at the ground, getting a couple of garden beds ready for when spring comes. As winter is coming, we didn't plant anything, opting instead to place unopened bags of cow shit on the top of the garden beds. When the sun went down (4pm), we packed up and left.

While I was digging, forgotten events from the previous night of drinking came back to me.

Mizik and I had walked from Hungary into Slovakia, which aside from the stamps and passport control, was as eventful as stopping for a picture next to a "thanks for visiting SA" sign.

In the later part of the evening, while I was using the facilities I looked at the pictures hanging around the urinal. Right in front of me was a half naked girl emerging from a pool with an expression somewhere between "oh this is a nice ice cream" and "I'm having trouble with this bowel motion". To my left was a poster for the upcoming gig for a mean looking metal band who by the looks of it had got their mum to take their promo photos. To my right was a poster of such greatness, I promptly stuffed it down my trousers, to be posted back home at a later date.

I don't remember the stamps being put in my passport on the way back into Hungary, or much of the walk back. At a time when I thought I was drinking too much in my life, I assumed my tolerance for alcohol would be much better. We ended up at a bar where a cookie monster metal band was playing. It may or may not have been the same metal band as the one on the poster from earlier in the evening.

The following day Mizik and I took a tour around town. We walked through the more exclusive part of Esztergom, where through renovations and investment, the old houses and cottages nestled in the hilly bits near the Basilica, are slowly transforming into a nice looking postcard. Then we visited a lake, which from what I could gather used to be a large open cut mine. We drove past the Suzuki factory and I remembered Kate (the Japanese fan girl I had met in Székesfehérvár), worked there. When we got back to Mizik's place, I went to send her an email, only to find an email from her saying that she had read my blog and saw I was in town. It's still a small world.

I think my laptop needs an overhaul. The hard drive occasionally makes a faint clicking noise, the ram seems to be on the fritz and now I'm getting blue screens on a regular basis. As you can see from the photo above, my camera's sensor is starting to die.

Unlike me, I've been reading books on a regular basis lately. Can people leave suggestions on authors or books which they think I'd enjoy? And if you know any Hungarian authors/books translated into English which are good, let me know.

A few things of interest:

The Encyclopædia of South Australian Culture
Luke Toop's media challenge to me

Saturday, November 25, 2006


In Esztergom. Caught a bus which had more rust on it than paint.

Last night, Marcel and I went across the border to Slovakia to drink cheap beer. The bar we went to had an impressive collection of money from all over the world. I spotted an Australian $5, a 50c, a 20c (Platypus in Hungarian is kacsacsőrű emlős which translates to 'bird lips animal'), and learnt how the Romanian lei has recently been revalued. The bar tender said he had lived in Melbourne for a year or so, I heard a ghastly remixed version of 'land downunder', spoke to some guy about sharks and ate funny looking cheese.

I have a hangover and need a coffee.. So much for winding things back.

My dreams last night were vivid and the first non-bad ones for a while. The one I remember involved a river flowing uphill, a large apple tree and Peter Allen performing 'I still call Australia home' on a grand piano on top of a small hill, while an audience of about 20 people danced around him with some fairly impressive synchronised choreography. I think there were streamers and sparklers.

In a little while we drive 50km to a garden plot to dig some earth and plant some seeds. This will be a fuzzy day.

Friday, November 24, 2006

cherry beer

I had another strange Adelaide-esq experience.

Last night I went for a ride up one of the Buda side's hills. At the top, I found a cool view of the city, as I was looking towards it from the north, seeing the profile of Parliament and the castle from an angle I've not seen before. It was about 16:30 and the transition between overcast day and overcast night had begun, providing a grayish moody light over the city. I could still see the outlines of buildings, read unlit advertising billboards and see people getting onto the train. But thanks to the fading light, houses started to light up, the cars in the distance became microscopic fireflies and I watched rows of pinky-orange street lamps flick on across the city. Nice little treat. Things like this can't be captured in a photo, so I didn't even try. After about 15 minutes of watching the light show and before it got too dark, I rode down the side of the hill into the Buda streets. A few near misses later and I arrived at Bambi, the soviet era cafe Vera had introduced me to last time I was in Budapest, where I had arranged to meet Andy and Laurie. I was early, so I found a table ordered a coffee and read my book. Straight after drinking the coffee, a twitch (which has been bugging me for the last couple of weeks), started playing up in my eyes and it was then I decided to lay off coffee for a while.

It's weird.

When I quit my job and started uni in 2003, I didn't drink that much booze or coffee. As the work load increased, so did the coffee intake. And as I was doing the uni thing for the first time, beer had found itself elevated into the "regular things I did" category. After what I would call a fairly traumatic caffeine withdrawal episode in early 2004 (where I had signed up for one of those CMAX medical trials and had to go cold turkey for a few days, waking up on the second day without coffee feeling like absolute shit), I gave up coffee for almost a year. And as booze was something I seem to only enjoy occasionally, I reduced my intake of that too. I would go to gigs and order cranberry juice instead of beer, drink tea instead of coffee and was declared "no fun" by a couple of people simply because I didn't drink the same thing they did. But come 2005-06, the caffeine and alcohol uptake slowly increased, visits to Cibo were a daily ritural and since travelling, I think I've drank more booze in the last 5 months than I have in past two yearback at home. Normally I only like getting drunk under failry specific conditions, and while coffee lifts me up, it slams me into the ground later in the day.
Time to wind back me thinks. But back to the cafe.

I met Andy and Laurie, and we drank hot wine (already lapsing, I'm hopeless), ate sausage and shared cake. We then went back to the flat, dropped our stuff and headed over to Szimpla for a few quite ones. There I ran into Jodi - a New Zealander I met a Sziget in August - and she said she had only emailed me an hour before to see if I was still in Budapest. She spent the next 20 minutes sitting in the corner with a bit of a stunned expression on her face. Jodi and her Hungarian friend (sorry, I have no idea how to spell your name), took the Americans and I to a little hidden bar around the corner from Szimpla where old lounge chairs and cherry beer were all the go. After about an hour of being there, an American couple walked in and we struck a conversation. They had visited Australia and without being prompted, waxed lyrical about how much they enjoyed Adelaide, rating it above Sydney and Melbourne based on weather, culture, vibe, the markets, wine and just all round loveliness. Aww..

Today, Andy and Laurie have gone to Rome for the weekend. Rather than inviting a bunch of random Hungarians over for a unauthorised house party, I'm catching a bus to Esztergom to hang out with photo buddy Marcel for a couple of days.

My time in Hungary is coming to a close :(

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

midnight cooking adventures

Tuesday's plan was simple. Go for a bike ride, explore more of the unseen bits of Budapest, catch up with Su at a Cuban night and cook pumpkin soup at midnight with Vera. All these things happened, but not how I imagined.

The ride was first. It was a cool day and a fog had rolled in over the city. Autumn in Europe is so beautiful. So many colours and different ways to keep warm. On my way to the river, I turned a corner on a section of road which was made of slate. Not sure why it was made of slate, but my front tyre lost traction, the bike collapsed underneath me and I added two more grazes to my karaoke wounds. The ride was cool. One of the places I haven't visited yet is right out the front of the Parliament building, one of the key tourist attractions in Budapest. Admittedly, during my last visit, the place was blocked off, but still, it's one of those places most tourist walk through at some stage. There was a nice fog over the river and some fancy riding required to stay on the dry side of the bank. However, seeing the shoe monument was a little sobering.

After the ride, I went to buy supplies for the pumpkin soup, and walked into a nearby SPAR store. There were several types of pumpkins all in the same section, but with only one price marked. In most places I've seen in Europe, you weigh it for yourself and put a sticker on it, and I got what I thought was the code and gave it a shot. I bought one long one, shaped like Mr Wobbly Man and a smaller, traditional looking pumpkin to complete the set. As I walked past the security guy, he stopped me and shook his head. I made a few "I'm not sure what your talking about" gestures and he peeled the sticker from the smaller pumpkin off, supposedly indicating that this type is sold as a single item and not by the kilo. "oh ok.. Thanks" i say, and do another lap of the fruit 'n' veg section to make sure I hadn't missed anything. On my second passing of the security guard, he pulls me aside to a quite corner of the store and takes the the Mr Wobbly Man pumpkin from me. Rather than fix another error in pricing, he places it in front of his crotch and started making ungodly Elvis-like movements with his new phallus, elbowing me in the side and laughing in only a way a dirty old man can. Too taken back by his actions to swap pumpkins, I made my way to the check out, where I was chastised by the lady for using the wrong stickers on my pumpkins.

Su's invite to a Cuban night was a good one. Admittedly, based on the last Cuban experience I had in Vienna, I assumed our night would be spent in the basement of a smokey club, dancing away to fun Cuban sounds, drinking bucket sized Mojitos, mock smoking cigars and being entertained by old guys cuing up to dance with (read: rub crouches on), unwilling females. But at 200 HUF (about $1.30 AUD), for a 'tap of the nose', "yeah, no worries" ticket, how could I say no?

I met Su near to where she had been checking out her potential new flat, about 1km from where I am staying. Side story: Last week, after sitting through 3 interviews in one day, Su got the call saying she had got the job she wanted. This meant within a week she would have to find a place to live in Budapest, move her stuff from Zalaegerszeg and Veszprém, and start a new job. Thankfully for Su, she's an optimist, so these things were tackled with grace and confidence.|| Su looks at me and my bike and says "you brought your bike? We're catching a tram." So we wheeled my bike back to the flat and left it there, where on exiting the building, I cut my hand on the door. Su gave me a band aid and we hopped a tram. We got off a few stops too early and had to get on another tram. I did see a Trabant with it's rear quarter panel missing, offering the contents of it's boot up to the world. "sorry.. no time for photos" - We get to the interchange and decide not to wait the ten minutes for the tram and walk to the venue instead. It took us 20, and 2 trams overtook us. We walked past an office building and were rather startled by two people running on treadmills in a gym set up on the ground floor.

As we approach the venue, I realise that it isn't some smokey little club in Bumfuck Budapest, but rather the massive and quite new national theatre building. Think a compound for a cashed up new aged religious cult and you've got the mental. We go through the doors, spot the people from Veszprém we were meeting up with and say hello. As soon as we ask for direction on where to buy tickets, an announcement over the PA blares out in Hungarian. No need for a babblefish as the defeated shoulders and disappointed looks said it all. No more 200 HUF tickets. Arse. It was either spring for the full 3500HUF ticket or admit defeat and go somewhere else with our Cuban tails between our legs. Not to be perturbed, a plan was hatched to get us in with the ticket stubs of the others, and we made our way to the top level of the theatre. There we found a bar, two entrances and a huge balcony over looking the southern part of Budapest. Shame I had already checked my bag with my camera. Arse. Su and I were asked to wait for the others to find their places and then come and get us once the performance had started. We waited. We flipped coins, made vague attempts at apologising for making each other late, admired the view and warmed ourselves on the huge pink spotlights which illuminated the building.

Su and I must have been out there for about 30 minutes, when we got the call to meet one of the others in the stairwell for the handover. The ticket stubs were exchanged and we went to our separate entrances. Su did some fast talking (or just polite conversation, I can never tell with the Hungarian language), with the usher and we soon found ourselves waiting in a theatrical airlock, a room between the foyer and the auditorium which bore a vague resemblance to the rooms you go through before viewing Lenin. To the sound of applause, we entered the room, where we were pointed to walk along a narrow pathway, between lights, chains and other 200 HUF paying customers. We found spots on the walkway, about 25 metres above the stage and looked down.

The surviving members of the Buena Vista Social Club accompanied by Hungary's Danubia Symphony Orchestra, with a huge audience of fancy dressed socialites. Nice one. I had a great view of the piano player and his magic hands gliding across the keys, plus I caught some of the more loutish behaviour between the horn section blokes, which couldn't be seen by the rest of the audience. In some of the more uptempo numbers, I found myself thinking some of the magic of this music is lost when you fill the dance floor with seat and make everyone sit down. I was impressed with the 76 year old Omara Portuondo's energy, dancing and belting out song after song for the whole concert. We had to stand for the whole gig, but why pay 3500HUF for a seat when you could pay 200HUF (or nothing), and have the ability to dance. They played for about 100 minutes, with Su and I having a bit of a bop in the funkier bits waving stupidly to the others on the opposite side of the hall. Did I mention it was free?

After saying goodbye, I walked back to the tram and made my way to Vera's place. I made a really tasty pumpkin soup and I told her about my evening while she bitched about her work colleagues. For lunch today, one of Vera's mates came around and we cooked Hungarian food (bacon, cottage cheese and pasta all baked together - yum but heavy), and ate some more pumpkin soup. Later I visited a new photography gallery around the corner and chatted photos with the curator for a while. At some point I'd like to put together photos collected from people's travels, put em up on a wall somewhere, lash out on some wine, invite a bunch of people and call the event "slide night". I've set up a flickr group, so if you have some nice looking photos from your travels which you'd like to add, join up and submit some. Maybe one day I'll get around to the wine and party bit too.

I just got an email from the Hirschengasse peeps in Vienna. It looks like hot wine and snowboarding awaits my return in December. Oh yeah.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Budapest? Igen?

I had such a good time hanging out with Su in Vesprem. We could be watching a movie, riding bikes, dancing drunkingly at a club or just sitting around talking about nothing and it was cool. As friends, we clicked really well and look forward to hanging out again next week when she comes to Budapest. Congrats on the job.

Back in Budapest.. I decided it would be easier to jump (literally), a train and go back to Budapest than ride to Szombathely, where I was having trouble sorting out accommodation. In true me style, I got to the train station at Vesprem with about 8 minutes to spare. I went into the ticket office, and managed to land one of the cheaper variety of tickets for myself and the bike. However, while the ticket vendor was printing out the tickets, the machine jammed and she had to shut down her terminal and go to the next window to get the other part of my ticket printed. This made my time a little tighter and I headed out to the platform with 3 minutes to spare. On the advice of a station guard, I went to cross the tracks at the engineer / wheelchair access path, but the guard on the opposite platform made angry gestures at me and turned me back, pointing to the stairs of the underpass. I pointed at my bike and triler, but he just gave me "that's your problem" look. The first guard just shrugged his shoulders in a way that said "sorry.. the other guy said so", and watched as I, with no other option, hurled myself, the bike and the trailer down the stairs, then drag it up the stairs on the other side. Great. Now to actually get on the train. As I approached the rear of the train, the dude with the little sign used to signal the all clear looked like he was about to do his thing. With some restrained frantic waving I got his attention, pointed at the train and asked "Budapest?". He took a look at me and my kit, sighed and yelled some Hungarian to the conductor further up the platform. I quickly dismantled the trailer and got all my stuff on the train in about 10-15 seconds. Before I had even closed the door, the dude gave the all clear and the train began to move. Budapest, here I come.

I've been here for a couple of days now, staying with Andy and Laurie, the Americans I stayed with last 3 weeks ago. It's a bit different as this time Andy's mum (mom) is visiting, so they've been taking day trips out the outlying sights of the city while I've been riding doing my own thing. We went to the touristy strip of restaurants the other night and ate a pizza without a base, then to Kuplung for a beer and watched a couple of movies (including Death Race 2000, the best stupidest movie I've seen in ages.) It's weird practicing my English again, picking up a little bit of an American accent on the reentry to my mother tongue. There's a little culture shock coming back to the big smoke. Not that the towns I've been in were particularly small, but Budapest is quite big and city-like in comparison. Plus the little villages and country back roads had no real traffic on them, and my arrival during peak hour Budapest traffic was a little hairy at times.

One person on my list to catch up and have a coffee with was Vera, the Hungarian I stayed with while I was here last time. We had got on really well and our late night Hungarian cooking adventures and crack of noon coffee chats were somewhat of a highlight of my time in Budapest. Today around noon, I went over to her flat and I met up with her for another Hungarian cooking lesson. Deep fried battered apples. While we prepared the apples and mixed the batter, we talked about our respective squirrels, what has been happening at Vera's cinema job and my adventures around Lake Balaton. I started talking about the places I had stayed in and Balatonboglar came up. Vera mentioned that she had worked for her uncle at his hotel over the summers of 1997-2000. I asked "what's his name?" Vera said "Imre", and the weirdness began again. It turns out that Imre (the guy I stayed with while in Boglar), is the paternal uncle of Vera, and she had worked for him during the summer when she was a teenager. I mentioned Agi's cooking, and Vera agreed that it was above excellent Hungarian cuisine. As Vera is a member of Hospitalityclub, she was totally unaware that her uncle had signed on for couchsurfing. It is a small world after all.

I've seen my second set of ferret walkers and have explored some of the southern part of Buda, which I missed last time. A visit to the old school Turkish baths are on the cards, plus some more Hungarian style cooking thanks to Vera.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Zen and the art of Frankenbike maintenance

Yesterday was entertaining. After dicking around with my computer for a bit, I went for an explore of the town on my bike. Unlike the other places in Hungary I've seen, Veszprém has hills. Nothing like Brisbane or San Francisco, but still there are hills. This does make bike riding a little more of an effort, but it means when I get to the top of a hill, I can survey the land around, get a good idea of how the town is laid out and have a fast ride down to the next place. I rode up to what I thought was the castle hill, only to see it about 1km away. I re-explored the hill where Szu and I had met the Mormons on the first day, and took a few photos of the cool clouds which had settled over the town. Then checked out the castle and had a look around some of the old parts. I walked past the house where Szu said an old punker guy had lived since the 90s, but since the 2000, he had gone a bit mad and had become a hermit. For the last 6 years he preferred to shout random insults in various language out his window at passes by, but in the last year had preferred to do it from the confines of his house. I didn't hear anything.

By 4:30pm, the daylight had begun to disappear so I made my way back to the centre to grab some groceries and have something to eat. I found a hotdog stand which made a pretty mean chili hot dog for $2 Aussie, and happily munched away on that while I watched some of my neighbouring eaters devour 2-4 hamburgers a piece. I returned to what I thought was the flat and had a bit of a Marty McFly moment, where I found that my surroundings while familiar, were somewhat different to what I had remembered. I said to myself; "this is the house, but I don't remember that tree being there.. oh well", and promptly walked through the open front door. A girl greeted me at the bottom of her stairs and I assumed this was the mystery third girl who lived in the flat whom I hadn't met yet. "Hi", I say. "You must be the other girl who lives here. I'm Dan, Szu's Australian friend". The young woman just looked at me with an expression of complete confusion, shook her head and said something in Hungarian. I took a quick look around the hallway I was standing in and realised that this was not the house I had been in a few hours earlier. I apologised, exited and went to the next row of flats over and found the correct house.

When Szu got back from her 3 (count them, three!!), job interviews in Budapest, we went along to a BEST meeting, and then to a pub where I met a few of her study buddies, drank beer and ate spiced pigs brains on toast. Tasty stuff. Then we went to another place (Espresso), where a metal night was being held. There was only a small turn out with the highlight being some guy throwing up on the bar and being forcably removed. The idea of going to a karaoke night was floated amongst the group, we were all keen, so we made our way there. I began chatting with one of the guys (Adam), who studies computer science, with an aim to work in programming backend stuff for websites after he graduates. At first, he seemed a little reserved, but the night was young. When we got to the venue, we had a few beers and made some requests. Szu liked the idea of Adam and I doing a duet for Survivor - Eye of the Tiger, and requested it for us. Adam and I put in a sterling performance, and by the end of the night we had both done a few songs between us, with Adam being asked to give back the microphone after stealing it and surreptitiously providing back up vocals on three consecutive songs. Gold.

Now for something completely different:

When I was in Passau, I chatted with a bike shop repair guy about his personal biking pursuits. He said that he had found a constant in his life, where elements of interest were counterbalanced with a degree of technical intricacy. He said that as sports go, neither car racing or running appealed to him, as both had not an even balance between the physical and the technical. He found the balance between the technical maintaining of a bicycle and the physical of bike riding brought his soul much happiness. Deep stuff to chat about over truing one of the rims of my bike trailer, but it was a pleasant day and I think we caught each other in a thoughtful mood. For me, right now my bike is my comfort zone. It's something that I know from home and can relate to easily, making the road from Székesfehérvár to Balatonboglár seem like the road from Norwood to Mawson Lakes, albeit on the opposite side. But this balance the bike guy spoke about I can relate to when talking about photography. I love the technical: light metring, ISO speed, colour balance, shutter speed, aperture, pixel count, buttons, photoshop. And I love the *ahem* art of photography: composition, candid smiles, the story behind, the moment, capturing a person's personality, being able to convey what I've seen without words. It was with great joy that I started to experiment with the custom white balance function on my camera. Having owned my camera for 4 years, I can't believe I haven't used this yet. Something that is a mandatory practice for me when using a video camera, Custom WB is not something I have fooled with on a still camera. After taken many washed out photos of things under failing light, I was desperate. I'm really happy with the results, and here are a couple of examples: WB1 & WB2

I haven't found the balance with working with video yet. The technical of codecs, bit rates and video size is still outweighing the artistic side of actually making videos. Doing the placement at Channel 10 last year got me a little closer, with their fancy equipment doing what I wanted it to do without protest or hesitation. But we work with what we are given, and after discovering a few little tricks in Windows (completely by accident mind you), I'm finding the operating system to be more user friendly than I've previously thought.

Something you might like

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

making tracks

Yesterday, after having a bit of a wrestle to get the bike and trailer through the doors, I took a train from Zalaegerszeg to Veszprém with Szu and Barbie (Szu’s Veszprém flatmate). With a little hand drawn map and a bit of borrowed female intuition I managed to find my way to their place from the station. I got a quick look at the town, with a rad old military base near the rail yard with about 20 old soviet radar trucks. When I got to the girl's place, I dumped my stuff and Szu and I went for a walk around the town. She pointed out her favourite parts and explained why it was 10x better than living in Zalaegerszeg. Great tourist I am, forgetting my camera at the house. We had a look at the main strip, ate at a really cheap place hidden at the back of an expensive clothing store, went to the castle and walked out onto a peninsular like outcrop of hill to get a closer look at the crucifix perched on the rock. As we turned to return to the castle, we ran into a couple of young guys. They had on suits, ties, backpacks, were clad in heavy black jackets and wore beanies. They said hello to me in English, so I struck up a conversation with them. On their jackets were badges, and even though they were written in Hungarian, I could tell these guys were Mormons. One of them was about to return to the States after living in Veszprém for the past 14 months and was giving his replacement the 20 cent tour of the town. We had a friendly chat about Hungary, bikes, Utah, the cold and what the JCLDS scene was like in Hungary. I usually feel quite hostile to overtly religious types, especially if they knock on my front door on a Saturday morning. But whether through increased tolerance of other’s beliefs, plain curiosity or lack of a front door, rather than chew their ear off in an attempt to sway them to my heathen ways, I just wanted to know if they were doing the bike thing. A couple of times they just said, “You do know who we are?”, and I just said “yeah” and continued talking to them about what we had in common rather than what we didn’t.

After the Mormons, Szu and I went and had hot white chocolate (my banana one was so sickly, I couldn’t finish it), and played Mastermind. We then went back, ate pizza and watched a movie. I fixed their wifi network for them, so from about 10pm till 12:30, each of us sat with our separate laptops on our errr.. laps, and did the net thing. Szu and Barbie’s flatmate and landlord is a disgusting pig. I think he inherited the house from a dead relative and refuses to clean anything. The toilet near his room stinks worse than any men’s room I’ve been in, minus the trough lollies, and the kitchen is a biological hazard. The girls don’t cook, keep all their food in their room, use a different bathroom and toilet and prefer not to interact with the beast.

I did a magic dance, clapped three times, pressed some more buttons and magically got my computer and video camera talking again. It seems Windows doesn’t perform that little bit of code which tells the camera what format the video is coming out as, therefore confusing the camera while it’s in auto switch mode. This does mean I’ve been able to put all the footage from Mongolia back onto tape and delete it from my drive. I also took my wifi detector apart and fixed things somewhat. I still need a soldering iron to make things kosher, but the little bit of silver paper from a cigarette packet is doing the job nicely currently. However, right now I hate technology. I’ve known it for a while, but now that I’m trying to access my photos from my trip I burnt onto a DVD about two months ago, there is a whole bunch that are missing. Arse. And trying to find the ASUS service centre in Budapest was a big shit, with multiple phone calls to an occasionally working telephone number only yielding a “yeah.. Call back tomorrow”, response from the company, several days running. I feel like punching a nerd right now. Ouch

this is cool
my new heroes
Hungarian girls the most violent?

Sunday, November 12, 2006

ferret walking

This would have to be the strangest place I've written a blog entry from. I was sitting outside an apartment building, using an open wifi network when it began to rain. Rather than packing up, I snuck inside and found a little hidey hole under the stairs where I am currently sitting writing this entry.

Imre and Agi were excellent hosts. They opened their home and hearts to me and made me feel really welcome. Long chats over wine and Palinka about Trabbis, Hungarian politics and life in a lake side town with Agi's fantastic cooking made my time on Lake Balaton really enjoyable. Imre's story about driving through the Austrian Alps near Grossglockner in a Trabant, using hollowed out melons filled with snow to cool the breaks as they descended was entertaining. Molnars, thanks for everything.

Thursday was riding day - about 90km from Balatonboglar to Zalaegerszeg. I stopped off in Heviz, the thermal bath town, for lunch around 2pm. With no signs of Smile Lady, I sat and enjoyed a coffee and some pickled chillies at a cafe on the main strip. An old guy with dead eyes, similar to that of the Mafia guy in Russia, kept starring at me while I ate. I met his look, gave him a nod, he nodded back but continued to stare, ignoring all known nod protocol. There was a friendly cat patrolling the cafe floor for scraps, so patted him until the weird guy found some other hapless tourist to stare at. I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but all through this trip, I've been getting this feeling that I look like someone off the telly. You know, when you catch someone's eye and their expression says "I know you from somewhere". I had this in Russian, Germany, Austria and Hungary.

I arrived in Zalaegerszeg around 6 and had a couple of hours to kill before meeting up with my new host. I found my way to the centre of town and had a look around. It's a little place, with not much open during the colder months. There was a funky looking three-faced clock which used lights and tones to tell the time. I didn't take the time to see how it worked, but on the hour it played tones which sounded just like an old Casio Tone - After that I navigated my way to Szu's place, and saw a women walking her pet ferret.

I met up with Szu, my new host. She's a totally cool bike loving, photo taking, international student superstar, who reminds me a lot of my good mate Leda back home in Australia. She comes back to Zalaegerszeg every second weekend to stay with her folks (who have been keeping us well fed), and usually lives in the student town of Veszprém (about halfway between Zalaegerszeg and Budapest). Szu is part of an organisation of European students, so she is used to entertaining people from other countries. So far we've ridden to the big telecom tower on the hill (read: pushed bikes up an incredibly steep slope), seen a few local punk bands (including Slovakia sensation "Konflikt"), and have attempted to check out Zalaegerszeg's tourist attractions (such as the village museum), only to find them all closed for the winter.

Tomorrow Szu and I catch a train to Veszprém, where we'll hang out with her friends for a few days.

My computer continues to shit me. I can get the video onto it, but can't get it off. So I am running out of hard drive space quickly. I am seriuosly considering getting one of those fancy new macs, as the guess work and randomness involved with digital video editting in Windows is getting to me. And my wifi detector broke. Arse.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


The day began very bleary eyed and sleepily with a 5:30am wake up, a quick breakfast and a 50km drive to a little village about 20km northwest of Lake Balaton. Heviz, the village in question, has Hungary’s most concentrated collection of thermal baths and has a sizable fitness resort located on the biggest of the hot springs. As we approached the town, the fog which uniformly carpeted the ground was raised about 30 metres over the hot springs. A fantastic sight, which I completely forgot to take a picture of. Arse. As we drove through the village and past the hot lake, I saw steam rising from the water and I mentally noted to take a picture of that.

As we approached, the main touristy looking building, situated on the lake, stuck out the most. However, it is more suited to summer conditions and wasn’t opened when we got there at 7am. I had the option to wait for the place to open at 7:30 and swim in the 23 degree outside lake, or join the Molnars inside for the 35 – 40 degree baths. As I was freezing my arse off then and there, I decided to join them. The building we went looked more like a hospital than it did a health spa, with Soviet overtones just to remind you who was in charge not so long ago. We paid our money, changed and hopped into the toasty but stinky hot baths. Imre had already booked in for a hot stone and massage treatment, but said that there was a slim possibility that I too could get a pummelling by one of the psych-nurse look-a-like Hungarian masseuses. He asked me to wait for him for about 20 minutes and if he didn’t come in that time that I had missed out on the massage and should explore the other pools. I agreed to wait around to see if there was an opening, Imre and his wife left and I promptly fell asleep in the pool. After what felt like 3 seconds, I was woken up by one of the lifeguards, regained my composure and made an expression that said, “No, I haven’t just been asleep for the past 10 minutes”. The place wasn’t nearly as varied as the one I went to in Budapest, but the water was warm and the wrinklies were quite friendly, a little too friendly. As I shifted from pool to pool, sampling the different minerals and temperatures, I got the distinct feeling that one of oldies (who by the looks of it, had had more facelifts than hot dinners), was following me. When I decided that I was a little tired of the water (and my new friend), I got out to explore the grounds. I changed, went to the café and grabbed a coffee to wake up a little. As I was distracted by fiddling with my camera, permanent smile lady sat a few tables away from me, and as I looked up she gave me what I think was a smile different to that which was her constant. Time to go get a few photos outside.

I went out and by that time the nice day which was developing had scared away the mist on the hot water, removing any chance of getting a cool photo of that. Arse. Instead, I snapped happy for a few minutes, strategically hiding from smile lady when she exited the health clinic. I met a couple of Russians who asked me to take their picture for them in front of a statue. Unfortunately they couldn’t speak English and I don’t speak Russian, which meant I could ask them about getting friction from the locals based on where they were from. I went back inside and waited for the Molnars to finish up. In the car on the way back to Balatonboglar I fell asleep and had a weid dream about the Joker from Batman.

After lunch, Imre expressed his disappointment at not being able to secure me a massage at the clinic. So he phoned up one of the local masseuses and booked me in for that afternoon. One hour massage = 2500 Forint. Nice. By the time I returned to the house, I was so relaxed that I had almost forgot that Imre’s friend was coming over to show off his Trabant.


About 15 minutes after I got back from my massage, Tibot pulls up in his noisy little car and we go for a fang around the town. He tells me (through Imre), about some of the adventures he’s had in the car and educates me in the delicate art that is maintaining a Trabbi. We get to a secluded street and Imre asks me "you drive?" Perfect. Not only is this the first car I’ve driven in 9 months, it is also the first left hand drive car I’ve ever driven.

Here’s a little video documenting the experience. Link

He has owned it for 17 years since new and at the end of this year will be replacing it for a Berina. Poos and wees. He aims to sell it at the beginning of January for 100,000 forint (About $650 Aussie). Very tempting, as they are a cute car and this one is in good nick. But it’s one of the older 2-stroke models, and the likelihood of buying one of the rare 4-stroke variety is slim to none. Plus, the idea of getting a Skoda is still much more desirable. Luke Toop has signed on for next year’s Eastern Euro adventure.. and maybe even Dave B. That leaves one more seat. Any takers?

Tomorrow I ride to Zalaegerszeg, which is about 80km from Balatonboglar. Imre says it will be the best weather of all the week and a good road, so there will be no excuses when it comes to catching trains and any of that non-bike riding nonsense.

In other news:

Daniel, one of the Dutchlanders I met in Mongolia, sent me the link to his
blog, It'll be good to catch up with him and Kees again when i eventually make it to Holland.

Clara, one of the coolest Austrians I've met, just wrote something really nice for me. Her and her family are champs and it'll be fun to hang out with them in Berndorf again this December. With snow!!

The Fram, from space

Monday, November 06, 2006

pig of a day

I'm now in Balatonbolár, which is on the South Western side of Lake Balaton, Hungary’s (and most of Germany's), favourite summertime retreat. Imagine Sorrento, Lorne and a collection of Murray River shacks, with some castles, old churches and huge mansions situated around Central Europe’s largest lake and you’ve got the mental picture. My hosts, the Molnárs, both work as hotel managers in nearby lakeside hotels. As it is currently the off-season, they have plenty of free time and they like to fill in the hospitality gap by inviting couchsurfers like myself into their home. It was a wet 80km ride from Székesfehérvár, with the first 40km stretch of sketchy road covered by a cheeky and rather lazy $3 train trip. But before I write about this place, I still have a few tales from Székesfehérvár to tell.

In Székesfehérvár, (which, as we all know, was the capital of Hungary 1,000 years ago - thanks Gabriel), I stayed with Kata, an English teacher, who teaches from home, has three grown children, a colourful past with about a billion stories and a disliking for hot beverages. Her house, while situated in a rural looking area, is pretty close to old the town centre, with one of the oldest standing churches in Hungary (it was turned into a mosque when the Turks invaded and still has a little crescent moon near the steeple). Her two daughters and one son all have interesting lives. Daughter number one is married to the son of the mayor of Casablanca, her son came third in the national Hungarian Folk music awards and daughter number two is an ex-pro basketball player for the national female team.

On my first day, Kata took me for a quick tour of the old town, showed me a few historical sites and then pointed out one of the cafes in the area. "This place is great. It has cute little tables, pots full of coffee beans from all over the world and a great atmosphere". As it was a public holiday, I asked if she would like to join me the following day for a coffee.. "oh no. I hate coffee. Hate it." Fair enough. - I went back on a solo mission a couple of days later to try the coffee and it is below ordinary. The town has its share of old school Hungarian-Euro architecture, mixed in with Soviet housing estates and various industry on the outskirts. Kata introduced me to a few of her friends, including Gabor, who is a theatrical actor by night and works in a bookshop by day (we sell shit). On Friday, Kata's basketballing daughter Othillia came back from Budapest. We made a plan for the following night to see a basketball game and then go for drinks with her friends at a few of the local establishments. That was the plan, but the following morning changed everything.

I was woken up around 6am by the sounds of people laughing and banging stuff from just outside my window. I laid in bed thinking "I’m not getting out of bed for anything. This is nice and warm and I'll drift back to sleep any moment now". The kafuffle from next door didn't stop, my curiosity got the better of me, I got out of bed and peered out the window. The scene I was presented with didn't really work with my morning "Chinese" brain. There were 5 people standing around a table, which had a dead pig laying on it. They were taking turns at blowtorching the pig, then shaving the burnt hair from it. Still half asleep, I grabbed some breakfast, said good morning to Othillia and shared with her how I had been woken up. She too had been woken up by this bizarre pig burning ritual and said this was a normal Hungarian thing to do during the lead up to winter. Ok then, things were starting to click. She left for work and I put on some warm clothes and ventured outside to see if I could get a closer look at the pig.

As I approached the fence, the group turned and faced me with suspicious expressions. They asked something in Hungarian with the only two words I recognised being "Kata" and "Othillia". I somehow indicated I was a guest at Kata's, I was curious about what they were doing and I was from Australia. This last piece of information broke the ice, smiles cracked their suspicion and they gestured to me to join them. I walked around, went through the front gate and I was in. But first, Hungarian formalities. "Pálinka?" Being 7am, I hesitated for a second, but thought better of it and gave it a go. It certainly warms you up when it's -3. I was then invited in for breakfast, which consisted of blood sausage and eggs.

Over the next 5 hours, I assisted the family with dissecting the pig, turning it into bacon, sausage, ham, soup and stuffed stomach. This was accomplished with minimal English, minimal German, minimal Hungarian, plenty of wine and lots of gore. I got to eat raw pigskin (chewy but tasty), grind meat, taste fresh sausage mix and watch the process of a whole pig turning into the various by-products of pig. The family invited me back for dinner (which, as no surprise, was pig based), where we had pig soup and fried pig sausage with pickled paprika. Fatty but yum. They now have about 2 dozen salamis hanging in their pantry, which have been dubbed the "Kangaroo" salami.

Once a year, most rural Hunagrian families will spend an entire day working on a pig. This day is called disznótor (pig killing and butchering day). The day starts with the killing of the pig (traditionally with a knife, but this one had been electrocuted, as most pigs we eat these days are), then the family spend the day making the many things that comes from pig. Apart from a couple of snooty Budapestians, the Hungarians I’ve spoken to since have said that I was very lucky to be a part of such a genuine Hungarian family tradition.

If you eat meat, it is really important you see and understand the process behind getting the meat. People are so disconnected with what they eat that we happily shovel in stuff filled with synthetic preservatives and artificial flavours, but cringe at the idea of seeing where a meat lover’s pizza come from. Go to a farm, go to a butcher or watch a film at least once to see how an animal is killed (and most times suffers), for your taste buds. When I was about 14, I saw a cow go from walking around and chewing grass, to being bits of meat hanging up, with the occasional twitch now and then reminding me of just how fresh it was. There was the violent (but quick), gun shot to the head death; the butcher skinning and carving up the corpse; my dog Dermot chewing happily on the testicles; and the burial of the unused bits (head, tail, arse, innards, etc). It hardened my then vegetarian resolve, made more of a man out of me and taught me about the inner workings of a bull – all in one day. If you get a chance and can tolerate piss-poor quality video, I recommend watching one of John Safran’s non-aired docos Master Chef. It can be viewed here.

When I arrived back at Kata’s, Othillia was just leaving the house to go to the Basketball game. I tagged along and spent the first half of the game, musing at how weird my life had become over the last few months. It was some the most surreal cheerleading I’ve ever seen, but that was a result of my head contrasting the pompoms and calastenics with the people I’ve met and the places I’ve seen during my trip. If you're curious, it was close for most of the game, but the local team, Albacomp, ended up thumping Eastern Hungary quite convincingly. After the game, we met up with Othillia’s friends, went to a couple of drinking places and talked about life in Hungary.

Tomorrow I have to wake up at 5am, because at 6, the Molnárs are taking me to Hévíz, a town about 50km to the North West, which has hot springs, public baths and traditional Hungarian style massage. Nice one.

Saturday, November 04, 2006


What just happened? I was standing on a hill on the outskirts of a Hungarian village watching a fantastic sunset, enjoying the crisp but clear weather and talking about how the simple things in life are not always cornflakes, but usually the best when things suddenly got dark. A massive black cloud approached from the north and the weather changed drastically. As Timmi and I clambered down from the hill and walked past the first few houses of the village, the storm broke and we took cover next to a large brick fence as darkness surrounded us.

For the last two months, the weather has been more than acceptable. While the nights are cold, the days have been clear, the sun has been warming and the winds have been refreshing. The Hungarians call it Ven Asszonyok Nyara (old woman’s summer), where autumn is unseasonably warm, but no one really minds. This good weather has made my bike riding a relatively easy affair, with the Hungarian pot-holed roads and lack of motivation being my only hindrance. But while I was in Halásztelek, the weather changed quickly. Really quickly. To exaggerate this change, last Sunday daylight savings shifted the clocks back an hour, so things get dark around 5pm now. Whoppie Do. I shared an email with the Americans I stayed with in Budapest, and they expressed their surprise at the cold snap in a way only Southern Californians can: “What the crap? It’s so freakin cold”. It's been snowing for the last three days with the temperature hovering around -4 and maxing out at 1. I got an email from Vienna last night saying they just had 10cm of snow around the outskirts of town. Awesome. I’m already booked in for some sledding and ice skating when I return.

The ride from Halásztelek (Hal-ass-ta-lek) to Székesfehérvár (See-Kash-fa-hear-var)

A nice an easy journey with plenty of countryside to soak in and a few abandoned (but heavily guarded), soviet-era factories. The weather, in defiance of the previous days, was quite pleasant. One of the villages I stopped in to grab some food and sat down on the step outside to prepare my impromptu lunch. A little kid came up to me, pointed at my bike and trailer and started babbling away to me in Hungarian. I apologised and said that I didn’t speak Hungarian, to which he took a step back, thought about it, then fired up the Hungarian babble again. I showed him the kangaroo hanging off of my bag and his mum translated to him that I was from Australia. He took another step back, thought about it, and started the babble once more. The next village I went through was Tölök, where I met Karo and Kasper, two really short guys (possibly midgets), who were raking up leaves and keeping the place tidy. I stopped and walked over to them and we communicated through gestures and guesswork. Kasper offered me an apple and evil looking cocoa drink. In exchange, I gave them some of the cheese I had bought earlier, and asked if I could take a few photos. They obliged and took up a photo pose. As I was looking through the viewfinder at these men, dressed in their overalls and mismatched children’s clothing, I started to think about just how fake my life is. At that moment, my only worries in the world were what white balance to use and where I could next pick up wireless internet from. A few other white boy pain issues, but basically the complications in my life are all a construct. I took my photos and the two of them talked amongst themselves for a bit. I began to imagine what their lives must be like and I started to I envy their simple existence. An old log cabin with their bikes outside collecting frost. A rabbit hutch full of tomorrow night’s dinner. A pile of wood waiting for the winter. Sleep when the sun goes down, wake when the sun comes up. I think 'Wow.. They probably just gave me everything they had to for food today'. Much in the way I experienced when talking to a Shinto monk in Japan, my head wandered off on its own philosophical journey and suddenly my life became the sum total of nothing more than the result of a consumption fuelled society. My squirrel put down his card game and coffee, pulled out an abacus and started to calculate the mathematical equivalent of life, the universe and everything.

Tree falling in the woods.
Waking up dead.
One hand clapping.
Bah dit da da - da da darr.

Kasper’s polyphonic A-Team ringtone shatters the moment. So much for the simple life.

After that little existential detour, I jumped back on the bike and continued on my way. I hadn’t realised when I first went to Halásztelek that it is on an island (Sziget), with the Danube and the Soroksári Duna carving out a separate land mass stretching 50km south from the outskirts of Budapest. This meant I had to find a place to cross, but according to the map, the only bridges off the island were back in Budapest or over the Soroksári, which was in the wrong direction. If I wanted to head southwest, I needed to use one of the ferry crossings over the Danube and this made me a little nervous. I was fine though, as the signage at the dock, while not in English, used easy to understand pictograms to explain cost and times. I had to wait forty minutes for the 400ft ferry ride. I spent this time eating cheap but tasty pistachios and drinking a beer from the little shop nearby. Once on the other side, it was a short ride to the next village, where I would have to take the northern road around a small lake. I screwed up and ended up taking the southern road around the lake, which took me to another one of those annoying roads where the bike lane stops, a sign clearly states that bike cannot use the road ahead, but don't indicate an alternate route for us two wheeled adventurers.

Bad roads aside, it was an easy ride to Székesfehérvár, which was the capital of Hungary 1,000 years ago. The name can be broken down into Székes (The throne) and fehérvár (the white castle), but apparently the two words have no connection other than the name of the town. I am staying with Katalin, a Hungarian English teacher who has a million different stories of fun and adventure with the places she has been and the people she has met. I will write a bit more about her later. I have a dinner date with the neighbour’s freshly slaughtered pig tonight, but I’ll write a bit more about that later as well.

I’m keen on buying an old Škoda (preferably a 110), and driving it around Eastern Europe for a couple of months during next year's spring. Plus on Jan 1 2007, Croatia and Bulgaria become EU countries, making adventures in those places a little easier. My possibly-maybe cameo back in Australia will determine the dates, but if the idea of being a co-driver appeals, seed this one in your head.

Tomorrow I ride 60km south-west to Balatonboglar, a town on the banks of Lake Balaton, Hungary's favorite lake. The colours of the late autumn trees combined with the recent snow should look pretty cool.