Friday, October 28, 2011

Be Sure to Take Your Coat to the Afterlife

It's our last night in Budapest and it's making us a little wistful as we've really grown accustomed to the city and our life here. We have favorite walks, parks and restaurants where we've gotten to know the wait staff.

Today is also the eve of All Saints' Day, a national holiday here in Hungary where people pay tribute to their deceased loved ones by visiting the cemeteries and lighting candles or placing flowers on the graves. At the suggestion of our host, Rita, we decided to pay a visit to the famous Farkasreti Cemetery where many Hungarian poets, inventors, and celebrities are buried. Unfortunately, we decided to go after dark thinking the lights would be even more spectacular while not realizing that the cemetery would be close to pitch black except for the candles. I could see just enough to make out the spectacular tombstones such as a giant, stone melting candle. We decided it was well worth a trip back in daylight on our way out of town tomorrow.

Halloween is not formally celebrated here but like Zagreb, a solid ex-pat community has begun working it into the mainstream. On Saturday we met up with Rita and her young daughter to go to a community center celebration that featured pumpkin carving, musical entertainment and multiple art tables for sewing and gluing costumes. Vaughn has been a little bummed about missing Trick-or-Treating so we made it up to him in pumpkins which he finally burnt out on carving.

Last Thursday we decided to set out on foot for Margaret island which is accessible via one of the bridges. We had heard that you could rent bikes and that it was a nice place to go for a walk. The whole island is essentially one giant park and pretty soon we found ourselves comfortably seated on a bicycle built for three to tour the island. About ten minutes in we passed a roadside stand selling hot, mulled wine for just $2.

The island was awash in autumnal splendor with all the trees in various shades of red, orange and yellow. Jacob kept making us stop the bike to pose in front of trees for "Christmas card pictures" while acknowledging we would never get around to sending said cards.

On the way home while we waited outside of a store for Jacob, a man came up to gently chastise me for Vaughn wearing only a short sleeved shirt on such a cool autumn day. I'm surmising here based on the fact that when it was clear I had no idea what he was saying, he pointed at Vaughn and wrapped his arms around himself while scowling, shaking and saying "BRRRR". I'm sure I seemed like a great parent, standing there in my coat and scarf but thankfully I was able to reach over and tug on the jacket Vaughn had tucked under his arm which sent Chasty McChastiser backing up with a series of embarrassed "Ohhhh! 'Scuzie!" Yeah - too late pal. No matter how many time I explain it to him, Vaughn still doesn't get how him not wearing a jacket or donning sandals with no socks makes ME look bad and ups my chances for a visit from Child Protective Services. But this isn't the first time I've had to deal with a public admonishment so now, when Vaughn doesn't want to dress properly, instead of explaining the weather, I simply say, "Well Vaughn, I don't want you to have to go live with another family but perhaps you do" and he sighs dramatically and takes the coat.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Something Fishy This Way Comes

I think I'm going to be the only person to go backpacking around Europe and return having gained weight. This is probably because by "backpacking" I mean hauling my backpack out to the car every few days and the "around Europe" part seems to only mean that we lay around in various houses in Europe. In short, we've become super lazy. Yesterday Vaughn never even bothered to put on clothes and spent the entire day in his underwear. I told Jacob I thought that we were likely more active when we had sedentary, cubicle dwelling jobs.

So today we decided we were going to get out. The first stop was the Budapest Zoo and Botanical Gardens, which is one of the oldest zoos in Europe. With the exception of a pair of zebras who came over to a fence and interacted with us just like horses, the whole experience was semi-depressing as zoos often are. Jacob and Vaughn wanted to leave after just 20 minutes but I made them stick it out until we got to go see the cabybaras, Roger and Fruszina, and their three kids. I left with a sweet cabybara keychain that will find a home right next to the unicorn and my "Don't Mess With Texas" one.

After lunch it was off to fish pedicures. The treatments are done by submerging your feet in a small, individual tank with approximately 50 Garra rufa fish, a toothless carp that sloughs off your dead skin as part of its forging for food activities. We selected the 20 minute treatment but poor Jacob, who really didn't want to do it to begin with, had to pull his feet out after just 10 minutes. The hebbie-jebbie factor on this activity is high and every part of you wants to shake your feet to get the little buggers off. At times it tickles but at other times it feels like you've got little electric wires poking you and it's particularly disconcerting when they go to town on a really tender area like that hollow part behind your ankle bone. Mostly I was disappointed because they aren't particularly thorough and I left with feet still in dire need of a good pumicing.

**Note: I have noticed my page views go up dramatically when I have cutesy titles so you have only yourself to blame if you opened this post only to say, "Awww man, Budapest again?!"

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Baby's hungry and the money's all gone....

Just kidding - we're not even in Mexico silly! But who doesn't love a little James Taylor?

At any rate we ARE in Budapest. We got here on Monday and while we were only planning on staying a week, our place here is so great that we extended our stay through the end of October. We're staying in a little two-bedroom apartment on the more quiet and residential Buda side of things and it's close to a couple parks and grocery stores.

Yesterday we hoofed it over the Danube River to the more cosmopolitan Pest (pronounced Pesht) side to eat falafel and check out some bookstores. We spent quite a bit of time hanging out in a park watching kids skateboard which reinvigorated Vaughn's desire to practice.

Today we splurged and Jacob and I got Thai massages. There are places to get Thai massage everywhere and the prices are a real bargain - just under $40 (including tip) for an hour and a half. I had never had a Thai massage before and the experience reminded me of those cartoons where someone gets caught on a conveyor belt and goes through a piece of machinery that pummels, stretches, and twists them until they come out on the other side in the shape of pretzel. About 20 minutes in I really started to regret having a cup of coffee beforehand. I laid there and debated whether or not to tell my masseuse that I needed to go to the bathroom before deciding I could just stick it out. About 45 minutes in she rolled me onto my back and dug her thumbs into my lower abdomen and held them there - for 10 whole seconds. I think a tear actually rolled down my cheek. Nonetheless the experience was incredible and on the way home I started to envision becoming a Thai massage junkie and never leaving Budapest and having to beg friends for money to come home.

Next up on Hungarian indulgences is to check out the famous thermal baths and then all three of us are going to get one of those pedicures where tiny fish eat the dead skin off your feet because, after three months in flip flops, really only fish should be touching my feet.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Activism and Joy in Zagreb

Today was pretty much as close to perfect as days get. We met up with Marco and Marina, a couple from Couch Surfing, and their four-year old son to do a little tour of Zagreb. We were originally going to stay with them but at the last minute Marina's parents came into town so we found a tiny studio through Air BNB.

We met them in the central square and found ourselves smack in the middle of a pro-vegan/sustainability festival that neither of us had known was going on. I wanted to pick up a shirt but the only one not in English was a shirt with a picture of a dog that said "Friend - Not Toy" and really, with my track record on dogs I should own a shirt that says "Friend - Not Disposable Napkin" (It's good to laugh at yourself! *Sob!*).

After hanging out and getting to know each other for a bit, they took us on a little walking tour of Zagreb, which is a really incredible city. Before we met up with Marco and Marina I had been feeling a little self-conscious since it is also a really stylish city and between my goofy brown rain jacket and my tennis shoes (which aren't even looking good by tennis shoes standards anymore) I am looking a little rough. So getting out and doing things was just what was needed. We walked through open air flower markets and produce markets, traditional craft markets and streets known just for coffee bars. We stopped outside a little hole in the wall bar where Marco bought us six shots of different flavors of Croatian distilled alcohol. We saw several historical sites and even passed by the Museum of Broken Relationships which I initially thought must be a translation error but it turns out that it is actually a museum to which people bring their mementos and stories of past loves. Then we made our way down to the vegan restaurant we had eaten at yesterday for a late lunch/early dinner before visiting a bookstore.

The day was getting late so Marco suggested we drink giant beers in the park which sounded pretty good to us. In addition to the giant beers he bought us traditional Croatian pepper cookies and an ornament made out of dough that we'll hang on our Christmas tree.

At 6:00 we headed back the main square where hundreds of people had gathered as part of one of the world wide protests spurred by Occupy Wall Street. This was really exciting for us since we felt sort of left out from everything happening back home. The PA system was pretty bad so it felt a little disjointed and subdued but the turnout was exciting.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Plitvice Lakes - Croatia

Today we went and spent the day hiking at Plitvice Lakes, a Croatian national park and UNESCO world heritage site. I have a bad head cold right now so I'm not exactly on top of my game (I also made the mistake of taking half a Sudafed on top of two cups of coffee so I started the day both sniffly and cracky) but I've been looking forward to this day since I started researching Croatia.

The park gets over 900,000 visitors a year but it was pretty quiet today and for long stretches it was just the three of us. We hiked for a solid five hours, much of it spent listening to Vaughn telling us made up stories in a steady in a stream of consciousness. The park contains 16 lakes and several waterfalls, all connected by a series of trails and wooden foot bridges that hover just above the water. The mineral and organic content of the lakes makes the clear water a brilliant aquamarine blue and there are fish everywhere. The leaves along the trail had started changing and it felt like we were getting our first taste of fall (in the pictures you'll notice Jacob and I are both wearing the hats he crocheted for us).

Toward the end, Vaughn decided he wanted to talk about the band he's been wanting to form with Jacob upon our return (It was going to be called Chips and Salsa - an homage to his favorite and currently hard-to-get snack- but now the name is up for consideration). Vaughn announced to me that my role would be to pop my head in occasionally and announce "Lunch is ready!" - which pretty much matches my musical ability so I was hard pressed to get offended.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Croatia - Hvar

We decided that it would be crazy to come all the way to Croatia and not make a trip to the island of Hvar, vacation destination for celebrities and heavily lauded paradise. Being the off season, we found a little apartment that was a steal at just $33 a night. Our hosts are a couple in their 40's who met us at the ferry dock so we could follow them to the apartment in Stari Grad. The owners live on the property as well and after we arrived they invited us to join them out back for a drink and to see the garden. The man's name is Davor and he led us over to show us an outdoor area housing a tortoise. Thinking I might impress him with my reptile knowledge I asked him if it was box tortoise to which he politely but gruffly replied, "What do you mean? It is a turtle. A normal turtle!" We also had to back out of a dinner invitation since we were exhausted and the meal was octopus. It was a little awkward but we decided not to feel too bad about it since they were having several people over and we are paying tenants as opposed to guests in their home.

Davor built the building himself over the course of ten years and it is a traditional stone home. It's a great place for us for a couple nights but there are a couple of wonky things that suggest both home job and lack of building codes. Both the toilet and sink in the bathroom leak and there is a slight but disconcerting electrical charge if your hand lingers too long on the kitchen sink.

Today we drove into the city of Hvar and walked along the promenade for a good couple of miles. Although the temperature was pleasant, there was a threat of a storm on the horizon which kept the waves choppy and the air breezy. After so many hot days it was a refreshing change. Overall the place felt deserted - a little like sneaking into an amusement park after it was closed. Restaurants were open but there were only a few, if any, customers sitting outside. There was music pumping over the loud speakers but deck chairs that normally rent for $20 sat empty and the guy folding towels at a posh hotel let Vaughn go in the pool for free. Jacob and I sat on the deck chairs and chatted while Vaughn went down the waterslide and played under the waterfall from the upper pool.

This morning Jacob and I had a big conversation about our living plans for when we return. Some of our friends have expressed sadness that we are already thinking about jobs and homes and the like but it is in this space, when we are away from 'real life' and our heads are clear that we can really think about our priorities and what our dreams are. In short, this is the optimum time to think about such things. At any rate, we had recently gotten excited about the idea of subletting a place for just a few months until we could get established in jobs and then buy something again since the market is so good right now. But this morning we Jacob reminded me how different life had become since we stopped being homeowners. We finally had money in savings, we weren't beholden to our jobs, we could pick up and leave at any point, and we didn't worry about every little thing aging and creaking in the house. We decided that home ownership wasn't something we needed to get back into right away and if this trip is to have any purpose, it should be that we question these goals that we've been pre-programmed to believe.

Tomorrow we jump back on a ferry and head northeast to spend a few days visiting the national park, Plitvice Lakes.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Croatia - Split

They say first impressions are lasting but I've found that with places, pretty much the opposite is true. I can clearly remember Jacob and I moving up to Portland on a cold, gray (in other words, typical) day and having a sad feeling of dread and remorse at how industrial it felt. I have also found that the initial days in a new place are hard on me as I'm a little threadbare from traveling and I don't quite relax until everything is settled and I know all our details and logistics of where we are. And so, with these two things in mind, it is fair to say I felt mildly crestfallen for my first 24 hours in Croatia, the place I'd been most looking forward to visiting. Despite being in a really great little apartment in the "good" area of Split with just a five minute walk to the beach, I couldn't get past all the trash everywhere. The beach by our house is covered in piles of cigarettes, pizza boxes, plastic bottles and disgustingly, a good handful of used condoms. Outside the historic old town where things are fancied up for tourists, the rest of the city is pretty gritty. The school where Jacob and Vaughn play basketball is an aging tan block covered in graffiti (including a large "NATO Go Home" message) that has to rival anything we could come up with in the US.

But now we've been here a couple days and I'm perking up. We're enjoying some down time from sightseeing and indulging in a lot of laying around, playing games, cooking and reading. We found a great health food store, juice bar, and a restaurant that made the best and cheapest vegan meal we've had in a while (Note: Even though the Dollar is worth about 5.6 Kuna, this does not necessarily equal cheap as evidenced by the $10 bottle of tamari that Vaughn accidentally dropped on the way home that was replaced by an $8 bottle of soy sauce). Today we bought a whole backpack's worth of fruits and vegetables on at the open air "green" market where squat little old ladies with kerchiefs and braids tied around their heads peddle whatever they've been growing. We bought an intricate handmade little doily thingie for Jacob's mom from a woman who was cranking them out right there on the street - a gorgeous example of old world craftsmanship (I actually felt bad because she kept trying to sell me the other one by holding up it's mate to show me they were done so accurately that they lined up perfectly like twin snowflakes).

And now I'm drinking wine and blogging from our little deck that overlooks the sea so it's fair if my complaining makes you want to stop reading this blog forever (and possibly defriend me on Facebook for good measure) but traveling does get a little draining from time to time. Jacob and I went into a little tailspin of worrying about jobs and places to live when we return last week and were only mollified when we accepted that with three months still to go, nothing can be done at this point.

We're in Split until Thursday when we catch a ferry over to the island of Hvar and then head up to Plitvice Lakes (a national park) before making our way over to Istra (#2 in Lonely Planet's Top Ten Best Regions for 2011) and finally the capital of Zagreb.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Sillico, Italy

Before we leave Italy I wanted to introduce a little gem called Sillico, right up the hill from the house where we stayed. I think you'd be hard pressed to find it in a guidebook and the one restaurant is pretty mediocre but it is a tiny, magical place of just 92 residents; a good number of the buildings appearing to be abandoned. A sign outside the entrance at the edge of a parking lot (you can't drive on the steep and narrow cobblestone streets) says it was first mentioned as a community in 952 AD under the jurisdiction of Fosciana's parish church. At the very front of the community some of the homes were being fixed up while little treasures like what appeared to be an outdoor eating area in the back were succumbing to time and neglect. All the pictures in this post are from Sillico.

Today we went to Florence for my mom's last day. I'm starting to think that I'm a bad tourist. I just couldn't handle another line/crowd and so I let everyone see the David without me in favor of sitting on the curb outside to read Machiavelli's The Prince (a steal at just 3.50 Euros!). As a bonus, I got to listen to a street performer belt out some pretty fantastic opera. This trip to Florence and all our Medici-related sightseeing made me wish that I'd made even a half-hearted effort to pay attention in my Italian Political Thought class in grad school. Who knew that would ever come in handy? But before you judge me too much Gentle Reader, consider that my professor skipped a good third of the classes on account of an ill cat. Ahhh San Francisco State, that alumni check is in the mail.

At any rate, tomorrow concludes almost a month in Italy and we will be catching an 11 hour ferry over to Croatia, arriving on the coastal town of Split. We're a little late in the season but we're hoping to skip the crowds and still catch some sunny beach days.