Wednesday, October 10, 2007

9/13/2007 - The Trip to Budapest

I had been thinking about whether to take the day trips to Budapest and/or Bratislava, and in the end decided to do just the trip to Budapest. If I'd had more time, I'd have gone to Bratislava as well, but I didn't want to spend half of my would-be time in Vienna going elsewhere, since Vienna was so nice. Next time, perhaps. : )

The trip was terrific. It took about two hours to reach Budapest by bus. It was a nice ride, and we passed by the Hungarian city of Tatabánya, which is home to the "Turul" monument, which is the mythical bird of the Magyars' (Hungarian people's) origin myth. It is the largest bird statue in Central Europe, but to me, it was fairly unimpressive from our vantage point.

When we reached Budapest, we had a short bus tour through the city, and then lunch. It was beautiful, though I learned that 70% of it had been leveled during World War II. In contrast to Austria (which had also been widely damaged, evidently), the country was not rich enough to instantly rebuild it, so it was, in many places, still run down.

At lunch it was as though I was back in America; we were eating at a restaurant in a Best Western (Hungarian food though), and I was at a table talking with a couple from California and a woman from Phoenix. We talked about various things, including travel, and then the whole real-estate crisis. Needless to say, I ended up telling my story, and then the couple from California was talking about theirs; they had traveled a lot, and had been to a few different places on this trip, including having taken the day-tour to Prague the previous day. They said they preferred to see things in depth, and so on a two-week vacation they might see only one or two cities, because they wanted to really experience them and remember them and so forth – I didn't quite understand how that philosophy fit together with their taking these one-day trips to Prague and Budapest. The topic shifted to the real-estate stuff in the US, and they said they were not shedding any tears about the realtors, as they went through some of their bad experiences (they've moved seven times), though I kind of lost interest.

After lunch, we subsequently went on a walking tour through the city. There was a Russian couple (living in the US) with whom I chatted briefly; I had heard them ask the guide whether she'd ever been to any of a few ex-Soviet countries they named (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, etc). Consequently, I wondered whether they were Russian, and then heard them speaking to each other. Another element of Russia that was strange to see here were Russian nesting dolls as souvenirs. I didn't quite understand what they had to do with anything here. Apparently someone else raised a similar question or the guide read my mind, because I overheard her say that they were Hungarian-made, which she imagined might have been the point; she too disagreed with selling them there since they had no relevance to local culture, but admitted that they were popular souvenirs, so it benefits them in the economic sense. Shrug. The ironic thing is that this "traditional symbol of Russia" was actually brought there by the Japanese.

After the walking tour, we then had some free time (two hours or so); I went up to the cupola of St. Stephen's Basilica, offering a great view of the city, and then walked around "Andrassy Street", one of the main pedestrian boulevards. I indeed ended up making it to Budapest after all, although I regretted the almost uselessly short amount of time, although between the walking tour and the free time, I did get to see a lot of the city.

On the way home, I talked at length with a man from Singapore. I hadn't realized English was the native language there, as he did have what I would consider an accent. He was a real estate lawyer who was on a 2-week vacation; he had succeeded where I hadn't, arriving in Italy and seeing two or three cities there (Milan, Venice, and Florence maybe) by train before taking the train to Vienna, playing it by ear. He gave me his card, telling me to let him know if I ended up traveling to Singapore someday. Ironically, earlier in the day, the man from California had said Asia was a lot of fun, except for Singapore. Hm. Guess I'll have to see for myself.

Anyway, he also helpfully reminded me (as have others along the way) that this is an opportunity I won't see again once I start working full time – yeah, I'm acutely aware of that (thus visions of sugarplums and teaching or the Foreign Service dance in my head). Черт знает.

He also was telling me of some of Singapore's draconian laws, among them being caned for vandalism – I have little sympathy for this; vandalism is a crime that benefits no one and is just a big nuisance. Another one is being hanged for drug trafficking. Wow.

We talked about music a bit also. He had ended up buying 20 books (many were thin; it was a few small bags) at a store and remarked at how gloomy and unfriendly the staff was. I remarked at how friendly Vienna seemed, and he agreed, but said he hadn't had the same level of friendliness that I had, encountering some less helpful people in the train station information office, and his first night's hotel.

In Budapest, there is a "6-star" hotel, the Four Seasons. We wondered about this, and then wondered what the point is, since if you're traveling somewhere you're usually only in the hotel for a few hours a day, mainly to sleep – as long as the hotel is nice enough and close enough, why pay thousands a night?

He had bought some food (there was lunch on our trip, but not dinner) and gave me some, as he'd bought too much for himself. It was a slice of pizza with peppers, corn, and other flora non grata embedded in it, so I "saved it for later" and tried to eat around the vegetables before just tossing it. So it goes. I met the first bum/beggar I'd seen as I walked around before returning to my hotel. I was relieved as I pulled out a bit of change (to "feed his dog"), that I had succeeded in not grabbing any full Euro/two-Euro coins. On that note, those Euro coins are a psychological menace, because it's very easy to spend some "spare change" that amounts to several dollars!

Sunday, October 7, 2007

10/1/2007 – Scott Adams Predicts the News

I have in fact come home, but I have been too busy at the moment to catch up with writing entries about my trip. Nevertheless, I saw the following and had to share it:

Scott Adams describing the news (

"Indeed, all of the news is nothing but basic stories with randomized features. Watch as I predict tomorrow's headlines today:


(NB: Scott Adams proposes that, "As regular readers of [his] blog know, all coincidences are clues that we are holograms programmed by our long dead ancestors before the planet was annihilated.")

This was amusing because the same formula seems to apply internationally as well (I thought it was just the U.S. that had shallow obsessions with irrelevant "newsworthy" figures, but Europe is quite obsessed with Madeleine McCann in the same exact "JonBenet Ramsey" kind of way. And even if there is real news on the case, that's no excuse not to indulge in baseless speculation! Ugh.)

The other day (ok, last week in fact), I went into the city [i.e. Manhattan] to hang out with some of my Stony Brook friends. One might think that, having had to deal with several different foreign subways in other languages, the NYC subway system would be a piece of cake. Nope. It's significantly more complex, even more so than that of Moscow (map). I took an "express" train instead of a "local" and thus missed my stop and had to backtrack, wherein I had to wait nearly twenty minutes for another train (apparently there was construction) since the first one that came did not match the platform. (The express was an A train, the local was a C train – I was waiting at the C platform, but an A train came, and not sure which to believe, I waited for a second train to be sure).

The finicky metro cards are a fairly terrible design. There is always a huge funnel of people trying to go through the turnstiles, and it seems that there's about a one-in-a-million chance of the reader actually working on the first (or even second) swipe. The other subways that had electronic cards sucked in the ticket and spit it back out, which always worked the first time (unless it was invalid). The better of those sucked in the ticket at the front, and then spit it out at the actual turnstile just as you approached it. The voices on the trains were automated (and thus audible), instead of mumbling gibberish, and in many cases there was also a visual indicator of the stops as well as where you were (as with some of the newer subway cars).

Scott Adams describes his experiences here, hilariously as always: