Monday, September 22, 2008

Ryan the Robber

It was a big week in our new locale. F turned 6 and started 1st grade. In German tradition she received a "schuletutte", a large paper cone filled with gifts, on her first day of school. 1st grade is only 1/2 day here, but she and her classmates are still much more knowledgeable than their American counterparts. They can add and subtract 2-digit figures, they can read pretty well, and most of she and her friends are as comfortable in English as they are in German. How do they fit it all in? Plus they teach religion in schools, so that's even less time for fundamentals.

Saturday was her birthday party and it was a wild event. Her favorite game is "Detective" and for her birthday she wanted to "catch a real robber and get his treasure." Ryan graciously agreed to play the robber and we planned a scavenger hunt in a nearby park. Ryan hid by a small hut in the woods wearing a black mask. Wanted posters were hung of him, and so he may be famous in Pasing now. Apparently a few people stopped him and asked what he was doing.

We are settling in nicely with the family, I think. I worried that it would be awkward, I didn't know what Ryan's role would be with the family and if he would like it. But he is very generous toward the kids and they seem to like him a lot. It will be funny for us when we move out of here and go back to living just the two of us again.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Another Month, Another Move

I have been at my new au pair job for a week now. That includes Ryan and I living on the 3rd floor of a family house in Pasing, a Munich suburb.

During the cab ride over (cheapest move to date!) I was really really nervous. What would the family be like? Would they respect our contractual agreement, or would I be working non-stop? Would the whole experience put Ryan off kids forever?

But so far, so good. I work 4-6 hours a day, playing and feeding the kids. I make dinner once or twice a week. Ryan's commute is shorter now, and he walks 10-15 minutes to his bus stop each day. When he comes home we eat with the family and usually play a bit with F. the older daughter (6 today!) she is very competitive and energetic, but also sweet.

The other child is a boy, A. who is 1. There was some confusion over this. When I interviewed I thought they said he was 1, but when we sat down to our first dinner last Sunday night I said "he speaks quite a lot, he's not quite 2, right?" and the mother said "no, since January." Which was embarrassing since I thought I messed up. But I think she meant until instead of since. It is confusing, he is quite big for his age, but developmentally he's more inline with a 1.5 year old. Finally, I saw his birth certificate when we were looking a baby pics yesterday and that solved the puzzle.

So, we are here until late December/early January (still working on dates for a trip to the US for Christmas). One of Ryan's coworkers thought certainly he'd be offered a job with his current company, but they are not ready to expand yet. So, post-New Year's plans are narrowing to: California, Frankfurt, Spain, Italy, and maybe back to the UK. We couldn't go another few months without moving, could we?

P.S. A's vocabulary so far: hello, mama, oba, uuu ("tchus"= bye). Ryan and I have decided to teach him "Obama" since he already has those syllables. No luck so far, but his parents find it amusing.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Budapest, part 3

Sunday morning, as I said, Ryan realized his miscalculation and that we could splurge a bit. We started off at the haunting "House of Terror" museum, a building that actually housed the headquarters of the Arrow-Cross (Hungarian Nazis) and later the Communists, including a basement prison. Creepy, but very informative.

We had some so-so falafel for lunch in the Jewish district, then headed out to the Szechenyi Baths. Hungary is famous for its thermal spas, and Szechenyi is located in a beautiful park at the north end of Andrassy Ut, Pest's main drag. We made the mistake of walking there (we walk nearly everywhere) and it is a really really long street. But the baths were great. Different baths have different ingredients and temperatures and you're supposed to go from luke-warm to hot and then take a cold plunge. Ryan actually convinced me to do it, and it was really invigorating. Nice way to spend a sunny afternoon.

There were fliers everywhere for the Prague Symphony Orchestra playing at St. Stephen's Basilica, so we picked up tickets (the prices were even a bit negotiable) and had a nice dinner on Franz Liszt square. It was all very beautiful, though the wine and the classical music did make me a bit sleepy. I must not be very cultured! But a lovely evening none the less.

Before we left on Monday we wanted to climb to the top of the Basilica and eat Langos (famous Hungarian fry bread). The Basilica tower was nice, the langos was the greasiest thing I've eaten in years. Another tip, don't show up at the train station an hour early, it has no chairs. But it does have beer, so you can at least take advantage of that.

Overall, a great mini-break in Budapest, and I think it came out to around 300 euros minus the train. Not bad at all.

Budapest, part 2

We arrived in Budapest Friday evening, checked into our shared apartment, and set out to peruse the neighborhood and scout some dinner. The first two places our guidebook recommended were closed-down, but we ended up in the courtyard of an artist's colony with large trees and candles. It was gorgeous. After dinner we walked along the Danube through the very touristy and over-priced Belvaros neighborhood. We witnessed many drunk Americans and Brits eating at Cuban/Mexican/etc margarita bars. Why would you go to Eastern Europe to eat ala North America? Bad move!

The next morning Ryan woke me up with his muttering. I planned 90% of this trip, doing my usual printed an itinerary with our sight-seeing destinations clearly google mapped. I had also taken care of estimating costs and getting the necessary Hungarian money from the bank. Normally, banks charge the least commission when changing money, but our new bank (Deutsche Bank) this was not the case! Their commission was almost 20% and Ryan had begun to worry that we wouldn't have enough money to do everything we wanted on the trip.

I pause at this point, reflecting on the fact that this was our one-year anniversary trip, and at this point in the game I should take Ryan's financial worries with a grain of salt. He tends to get worked up about these things until I get worked up and then come back and say "oh its not really bad at all" as if he simply enjoys worrying.

So, momentarily freaked out, I slashed at the itinerary, removing the walking tour, concert, and other expensive items and replacing them with free museums and picnicing. And the next day when Ryan realized he had overestimated any money glitches, I wasn't disappointed. (I might have slugged him, but the free things we did were great)

We breakfasted at McDonalds (not our first choice but Hungarian cafes don't open before 10 and we starve by then!) and hit the Hungarian National Museum (history), the Great Market Hall (picnic supplies), and walked across the colossal Danube over to Buda and the Castle District.

This district is atop a hill and walled-in. Very touristy, but I love these old city centers. Rough Guide redeemed itself with a walking tour through the old sites and up to the castle. Inside are three museums: Military History, National Gallery, and Budapest History. We hit the almost free National Gallery, and on our way out ran into some belly dancers passing out fliers in Hungarian. I couldn't read the flier, but it figured it was a belly-dancing show and was only 500 Forints (about 2 euros) so dragged Ryan to find it. It turned out to be some kind of Renaissance Fair/battle reenactment that we'd normally never go for, but hey we're in Hungary, so we sat in the grass and spent 40 minutes watching the Hungarians defeat the Turks.

We ate picnic supper at Fisherman's Bastion (see photo) which has beautiful views of the city, split a bottle of red wine from the market and Ryan dragged me back across the river a bit tipsy.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Budapest, part 1

I've been trying to gather my thoughts about our recent trip to Budapest for a few days now. Some cities are very central, easy to know, and give you one simple image. Par example, Munich: giant heart-shaped cookies that look like Cuckoo clocks.

But both Berlin and Budapest are large, decentralized towns in the midst of reconstruction. In Berlin, this is obvious enough as a city that was divided for 28 years. But Budapest is more complex. The excellent "House of Terror" museum explains the "double-occupation" of Hungary, first by the Nazis and secondly by the Soviets. While ideologically different, these two regimes both terrorized and abducted Hungarians, while simultaneously stomping out Hungary's unique history and culture. The city's decaying architecture is shocking after Western Europe's splendor and complete transformation into tourist central.

But Budapest is coming back. Half the city is under restoration. We navigated the torn-up roads to connect our sight-seeing dots. While Budapest is not the newest, trendiest destination (I'm looking at you, Krakow) there is still a dearth of pre-trip information. Our Rough Guide was at least two years out of date. But, perhaps it is good for me to release my death grip on the guide book and be a bit more spontaneous.

The second obstacle of the trip was language. Hungarian is considered by many to be one of the most difficult languages in the world. It was nerve-wracking only knowing how to say "thank you" and "do you speak English/German?" but luckily nearly everyone we ran into spoke English, including McDonald's employees. (I'll explain that one later)

My primary impression of Hungary is that it is an earthy place. We didn't see sun on our 7 hour train ride until we crossed the Hungarian border. Then we were no longer amidst manicured wind-turbine strewn Austrian plains, but in golden waist-high grain fields. There German/Austrian sense of control clearly has not been exported. Budapest is a dirty place as well (though I suppose after Germany's crazy littering policies, most countries are) But even in the heart of this large city it is still easy to find a picnic place to enjoy their special red wine, "Bull's Blood."