and a river runs through it

I expect sleep to remain elusive for a few more days. It is 3:30 am as I pen these lines after repeatedly dozing for an hour or less at a time. So be it. In trying to synthesize a series of jumbled impressions from the day it is of the flow of history and the people who populated it through these lands and abroad. We often complain about the craziness that we see populating the people of our country but traveling puts you face to face, literally or historically with craziness far more potent than the instability we whine about daily. Given the context of some of the crap going on around the world today, our whining is a little like an adolescent complaining to an octogenarian about acne.

Imagine the sacred serendipity of stopping at one of Budapest’s premier coffee houses, Gerbaud, (map) for lunch and world class pastry and finding ourselves seated next to a couple of friends in their 20’s from Capetown, South Africa. One, works for Red Bull and is travelling for work to the corporate offices in Austria. The other is studying oceanic electrical generation (wave and tidal generation) at university in Sweden. They decided to meet for the weekend in Budapest. This kind of chance encounter is exactly why we travel. We chatted about politics, about South Africa, the experience of going from winter in warm sunny South Africa to winter in cold dark Sweden and found ourselves marveling at how different the lives of these two men is so much different than they might have been not that long ago from our perspective but from before they were born from theirs.

Our tour guide, seeing history through the eyes of a Magyar, the Hungarian people since about the 9th century, was clearly proud of her tenacious people through all the changes over the centuries. The Turks spent time here and left behind the Turkish baths.

The Nazis were here and left behind their own devastation. A small but powerful reminder is an art installation on the Pest side of the Danube known as Shoes on the Danube Bank, which remembers hundreds of people rounded up by the far right wing Arrow Cross party who were in power for a short 5 and a half months at the end of WWII and during that time were able to murder some 10 – 15 thousand people and deport some 80,000 to various concentration camps. This memorial created in 2005 remembers those who were brought to the Danube, ordered to remove their shoes and shot on the banks of the Danube so they would fall into the river and be carried downstream. Perhaps when we whine about our situation we are mindful of how much damage bad actors can cause even when in power for a short while.

The Russians came into Hungary and defeated the Germans only to then impose Soviet rule. You can still see the Hungarians recovering from the years of deterioration during that time. Communism was never an econmic powerhouse where it was imposed and you can still see rebuilding going on throughout the city.

There is great beauty here. Ruby initially was lured to Budapest by the Viking commercials which depicted a cruise down the Danube in front of this incredible building that, as it turns out, is the Parliament building. Apparently it cost as much to build as the entire rest of Budapest combined.

After our circuitous tour of the city we took the option of having the bus drop us off downtown and we strolled along the Danube. It was during our stroll that we met the gentlemen from Cape Town and took in the Shoes along the Danube. We walked about 5 miles through town marveling at beautiful Art Nouveau architecture as well as Soviet style apartment blocks. Finally we arrived back at our hotel and napped (crashed) when we got back to the room.

Dinner would be a relaxing cruise on the Danube with traditional Hungarian fare and taking in the lights of the city.

Haute Cuisine

Today we landed in Budapest. We are 7 hours earlier than our time zone, trying to get ready for bed at local time 10 PM and home time of 1PM. We travelled and layed over about 11 hours. So even if we did spend much of it sitting on our butts we’re tired. Our butts are tired. So I’ll not regale you with the wonders of the land or people or food or further information about my butt, I’ll be able to do that after we’ve slept, however I do want to talk briefly about food, food on the plane.

Eating dinner on the plane is an acquired skill. Now, I’ve heard magical stories about the wonders of what goes on behind the curtain that leads to first class but that is not where we sit. Back in the cattle car, dinner is a very scripted and efficient endeavor. Once you’ve made your choice, meatballs or vegetable pasta, vegetable for me this time, the flight attendant (I think that is what they are called now) deftly places a perfectly architected tray with little containers, containing each course. The trays perfectly fit the space on those flip down table tops, leaving only room to put your beverage of choice in the little round indentation on the upper right side. You of course are squeezed in closely enough so that any wrong move will spill that beverage of choice all over your complimentary pillow and blanket (thankfully the blanket comes wrapped in plastic for just such an eventuality).

Everything is covered with plastic lids or plastic film that need to be removed before you can eat. Tip: always remember to tip the container with the corner that you are removing, elevating it a little from the rest of the container, or the air pressure that has built up inside the container from now flying at 36,000 feet will spit the wet contents out. Again, lucky they thought of that plastic cover for the blanket. Not so lucky for the little pillow.

The whole meal is like those little plastic 15-puzzles that you got as a party favor when a child. There are 15 numbered tiles in four columns of 4, with one tile missing. Your job is to slide the tiles up, down, left, or right to put the tiles in numeric order. There is one tile missing so you have an empty space to move into.

That, however, is where the similarity ends. In the airplane dinner puzzle there are no empty spaces. In order to make an empty space you need to be holding one of the “tiles.”

So, let’s start with the entree. Lift up the entree. See, now you’ve magically created an empty space into which you can move the other tiles, however that empty space will be needed for those lids and plastic coverings and “silverware” packaging and salt and pepper packets. Firmly holding the entree with the corner you are opening slightly elevated, gently tear the cellophane off the meal. You were holding gently right. You didn’t squeeze the meal too hard when the cellophane came off? Remember that pillow.

Good. Now that filmy piece of plastic needs to be set down in the newly opened empty space. Be careful, because one side is covered with the gravy or alfredo sauce from your pasta. Did I mention that you should make sure that the air vent over your head should be turned closed before executing this step because those gale force winds from the ceiling will pick up that cellophane and drop it, sauce side down, on your pants, or your blanket.

You can now eat your entree, holding it in your non-dominant hand and your fork in the other. Did I remind you to take your fork out of it’s cellophane package. You’ll need two hands (or your teeth) for this and you can’t put your entree back in the empty space since the gravy covered plastic is now there. If you’d like to have a little of your coleslaw with your veggie pasta, you will have to take the top off the coleslaw, with one hand, careful not to jiggle the seat back table since your are holding your entree. You’ll need to stick your fork into the entree to free up your hand. Did I mention that your beverage of choice is red wine. No risk there. Place the lid on top of the little pile of detritus that you are accumulating. It never seems to pile neatly, however, always threatening to topple to the floor or pillow.

Once you’ve finished the entree you are now home free because you can start stacking containers inside containers and freeing up more room so your chocolate cake can be eaten in peace.

One final complication: did I mention that all of this needs to be done without moving your elbows. Since you are squeezed in firmly with the rest of the cattle, elbow movement is not allowed. Hopefully you are traveling with an intimate who is already used to your elbows, but even then movement is not allowed.

I need to get to bed. This is crazy talk.

On our way to Vienna, Budapest, and Prague

Last stop before we embark for the tour. From time to time we complain about the horrendous traffic in Madison, the beltline, fighting students and cars during Badger football games, sitting at crosswalks between classes, the annoying politeness of Wisconsin drivers at intersections (my New York and Chicago sensibilities taught me that the right of way is something you take not give), what with the competitive waving (you go, no you go, no go ahead, its OK I’m happy waiting for you….).

Every once in a while we have to come back to Chicago to remember perspective.

From the 8th Floor of the Hyatt Regency O’Hare

When we return to Madison all of a sudden it looks positively pastoral, including the cows.

We embark on our flight this afternoon just after 4 for Amsterdam and after a 2 hour layover on to Budapest.

See you there.