Friday, July 24, 2015

Bratislava and Budapest

Before leaving the weeklong Esperanto class in Martin, Slovakia, I asked the organizer how many vegetarians had been in the group. It appeared that many people had been getting the vegetarian meals, which seemed unlikely, but the numbers confirmed it. Meat eaters were 34%, vegetarians were 58%, and vegans were 8%. I know that some people were just taking advantage of the opportunity to try out vegetarian eating, because a comment on the feedback board at the end expressed surprise at how easy it had been to go a week without meat. But I think it's safe to say that Esperantists have more than the normal share of vegetarians.

The train to Bratislava was another terrible one, with the corridors filled by people and luggage, and very hot; it was like being in a sauna for a few hours. But at least we had reserved seats. We had a few hours the next morning to see Bratislava, but I didn't find it at all appealing. Many buildings were crumbling or abandoned, it was colorless, even the section along the Danube seemed dreary, a lot of the streets were torn up by construction, and when I was lost at one point people were not at all anxious to help.

A groundskeeper shooed Les away when he started to walk on the grass. This iconic list of "no-nos" seemed to epitomize the unfriendly atmosphere of Bratislava.

Our train to Budapest was super—comfortable and not too hot. Like Prague, Budapest uses a currency different from the euro. Not having a clue about the exchange rate, we weren't sure how many forints to ask for from the ATM machine; we didn't want to end up with hundreds of dollars worth, only to have to exchange them back at the end at a bad rate. I decided to use the "pee ratio"; see how much it costs to use a bathroom at the train station and multiply by a hundred, in other words getting "a hundred pees" worth of currency. That worked out well, and we'll try it again when we get to Switzerland, another non-euro country.

We both enjoyed Budapest, despite temperatures reaching 100. A favorite was Matthias Church. I especially wanted to go there because of a description from Julie's trip there after high school graduation: "As we passed one of the churches, we heard a choir singing and went in. What I experienced there will stay with me for the rest of my life. The high arches and intricate stained glass windows were the most glorious sight I have ever seen. The acoustics in the church were indescribable...the music seemed to start even before the singers had opened their mouths and rang for seconds afterwards." Unfortunately there was no singing while we were there, but I could relish the other aspects that so pleased Julie. From there we tried to find where Julie had gone to school for four months in 1991; we're not sure we had the correct building, but at least we saw the area.

Matthias Church

We walked a lot, as usual, trying to be sure we were in our air-conditioned hotel during the hottest part of the day. I know that we missed most of the "must-see" tourist sights, but that's OK.

These sculpted shoes are a memorial to 60 Jews who were shot here in 1944 for refusing to go to concentration camps; they had to remove their valuable shoes first, and the bodies were dumped into the Danube.

We did a load of wash, and what a contrast to the laundromat in York, England! This one was bright, cheerful, roomy, and spotlessly clean, with even an appealing children's corner.

What a pleasure to do our laundry here!

Then came the day Les has been dreading for months: the time to fly on Wizz Air to Brussels. Les knew that Wizz Air is especially strict about luggage size and weight. We paid extra for carry-ons, but even that limited us each to 10 kilograms (22 pounds) in one suitcase, no extra purse or small bag. We spent a morning disposing of anything not crucial, and Les "hid" his heavy electronic gadgets in his rainjacket pockets, because Wizz Air does allow you to carry a coat. In the end, they never weighed the bags, just eyeballed them to be sure they were the right size.

Performing a toothpaste transfusion, moving it from the large tube to the smaller tube before discarding the large tube in our efforts to get below the Wizz Air permitted weight limit

We left the hotel, and thus began possibly the worst day so far on our trip. I knew we had to go to the end of the subway line to pick up a public bus to the airport, but I somehow chose the wrong direction, so we had to go back through 20 stops to get to the correct end. Then the bus driver wouldn't accept our metro ticket, contrary to what we'd been told, and we didn't have enough forints (because we purposely used up most of them) to buy a bus ticket. A kindhearted woman on the line sold us two spare tickets for euros.

When we got to the airport, it was so jammed with people, we could hardly force our way through the crowds to get to the gate area. At security our little children's scissors raised an alarm in the X-ray machine, but they let us keep them. (We'd already that morning, with great regret, thrown out the paring knife we bought in Scotland, which had been so useful.) Despite all the delays, we'd allowed for lots of time, so I wandered around, marveling that food prices were three times what they were in downtown Budapest (where we could get a fine vegan lunch for four dollars each). With the hot weather the last few weeks, my standard comparison in each city has become the price of a cold Coke.

Our plane was delayed half an hour due to thunderstorms for the incoming flights. We walked and walked to a warehouse-like area, separate from the main airport. We waited there a long time, then were led single-file to a row of planes. But, alas, our plane wasn't there, so then they herded us all back to the warehouse. No one offered an explanation, nor a guess as to whether we might be jammed in there for hours. There were about 20 seats for 180 people, so I found myself a place to sit on the concrete floor, which resulted in six large insect bites (I assume) on my neck that are still bothering me today.

Wizz Air's passenger holding area, better described as a warehouse

Eventually we got onto our plane, and the 2-hour flight to Brussels wasn't all that bad. Except that I was sitting far from Les, because we hadn't felt like paying extra for reserved seats and just took the random seats they gave us. When we reached Charleroi Airport, south of Brussels, we tried walking to our hotel, only half a mile away (hardly anything by our standards), but there were no sidewalks; eventually we gave up and paid $9 for a taxi for the short distance. We got to the hotel at 9pm, and I immediately fell asleep in my clothes, and didn't wake up until this morning.

Today was a lot better. We took the taxi back to the airport, where we hopped on a private shuttle bus to Lille. (Les says I should give the nod here to Flibco, which provided a comfortable and timely bus despite its dubious name.) To our great surprise, we found a group of Esperantists aboard, so it became like a 90-minute party. They were from Poland, eastern Hungary, and Canary Islands; like us, they all had flown in to Charleroi on their way to the Universala Kongreso in Lille.

We're just vegging out today, knowing that the weeklong Kongreso, which starts tomorrow, will be very hectic and filled with activities until late at night. We bought some needed items in Lille: a paring knife to replace the one we had to discard; steroid nasal spray for Les to try to alleviate his severe hayfever/cold (he doesn't know which); a cable to be able to listen to music from our computer playlist (ironically, almost every hotel has had a TV, which we've never turned on, and it just occurred to Les that with a stereo cable he'd be able to use our computer to play music through the TV's speakers).

In our spare time we've been reading a blog called The author has good advice about packing, products, and light travel in general.