Read, Write, Run, Roam

Budapest

You can take the girl out of Chipotle, but you can’t take Chipotle out of the girl: American expats and Mexican food

 

Two years ago, I briefly joined friends who were taking a year-long trip around the world. We met in Thailand while they were eight months into their adventure. Over Chang beer and fiery noodles, I asked them what they missed about America.

I thought they would say “knowing the language,” “fabric softener,” or “hot showers and air conditioning.” The answer was none of the above. They missed Mexican food.

Now that I have an extra appreciation for how our friends felt, I’m even happier that we tried Mexican food in Thailand. It was a mad experiment in international food relations. Our burrito was more of a spring roll, with thoughtfully applied ketchup in place of salsa. Mexican food in Siem Reap, Cambodia was a little better.  The “guacamole” was bright green and appeared to be made of peas, but at least the consistency was right. The chips were made of crispy rice paper and the salsa was edible. I watched my friends savor each bite and thought, these poor souls. They simply don’t remember what it tastes like.

Mexican food is a uniquely American experience. You’d think it would be a uniquely Mexican experience, but no. Unless you live in Texas, the Southwest, or Southern California, “Mexican food” is a bizarre hybrid of American, Latin American, Caribbean and South American cuisine. It’s massive burritos with sour cream AND guacamole, margaritas from a machine, Cuban black beans, and deep-fried taco bowls with salad inside (you know, so it’s healthy). It’s kind of disgusting, and I totally miss it.

This year, I can relate to my worldly friends more than ever. Belgrade doesn’t really do Mexican food. Serbians are generally not fond of anything spicy. Mexican ingredients are rarer than an empty seat on the 41 bus line. Black beans? Forget it. Hot sauce? Ha! Cilantro is the Bigfoot of Belgrade markets–people claim they’ve seen it, but they can’t remember where. If they do find it, they paid a huge price and then never see it again. Maybe that’s how I should have spent my time here–forming a black market for cilantro and picante sauce.

There are Mexican restaurants in Belgrade–just not any good ones. Beans are canned and bland. phyllo dough is used instead of tortillas. Some grocery stores do sell flour tortillas (how are Serbians using these?) so at least I can make my own fajitas and tacos. It’s not quite the same.

Fortunately, we found authentic American-Mexican food at Iguana. Unfortunately, Iguana is in…Budapest. Yes, that’s three hours away, but we travel there pretty frequently and three hours is a lot closer than Texas. When the craving gets too bad, Muz and I count down the days until we’re back in Budapest so we can get the best quesadillas this side of the Atlantic. On our last visit, we even ordered jalepeno poppers.

I wouldn’t order these in the States if you paid me, but here they were good. Actual jalepenos, lightly battered, served with a local cheese that was a better replacement for cheddar and sour cream. What’s that on the side? Why, it’s a Michelada: a delicious concoction of lime juice and beer with a salt rim. Technically there should be some tomato juice too, but I’m not complaining.

We’ve been to Iguana five or six times this year, and it never failed to make us happy. It’s a little slice of home in a part of the world where “run for the border” has an entirely different connotation. But now that we’re leaving, I can’t help but wonder if I even remember what it should taste like. I guess I’ll find out soon.

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Church on Sunday: A rocky afternoon at Sziklatemplom Church, Budapest

On a previous trip to Budapest with friends, someone asked me about the cross on top of a rock near Gellért Baths. A quick peek at the guidebook revealed that it was Sziklatemplom, a church built in a natural cave. While my companions decided to relax in Gellert’s thermal baths, I explored the cave church. Dedicated blogger or poor decision-maker? You decide.

Church admission comes with a free audio guide. The church chapels were created from a natural cave system. The caves were first inhabited by a hermit monk who used the hill’s thermal waters to help cure the sick. (If he was a hermit, how was he meeting and treating people? Just a thought.) The cave turned into an official Paulite church in 1926 and it was later expanded. The Paulite order is the only native Hungarian order. According to random internet sources (only the best for you guys!) it was founded in 1256, ended in 1773, and was re-instated in 1923; the monks of the order were once confessors to Hugarian Kings.

Oddly, the audio guide didn’t detail some of the church’s more interesting–and tragic–history. In 1951, during Hungary’s Communist era, the police sentenced Sziklatemplom’s chief Bishop to treason and death. Other monks were given prison sentences, and the church was sealed. After the fall of Communism in 1989, the Paulite order reopened the church for service.

The audio guide also featured a surprising amount of proselytizing. I skipped over some of this to focus on the discussion of the church, but to be honest, the architecture isn’t that interesting. It’s a simple church but not quite humble and not quite quaint. If you don’t have a lot of time in Budapest, I’d advise you to follow the lead of my friends and check out Gellért instead. Or go to a jewelry store on Vaci Utca and check out the best kind of rocks: sparkly.

To reach the church, go to Gellért hotel, face outside of the doors. Look for the big white cross; the church is below the cross and next to a statue of St. Istvan. 


Bizarre Budapest II: A perplexing people mover

Riding a scary Budapest “vertical escalator” in four steps:


Step one: See that gold ledge on the right? That’s the platform. Step on it before it goes up too high, or risk hitting your head. Or miss it entirely and look like an idiot in front of everyone else waiting for the elevator.

Step two: Pretend you’re in something larger than a coffin.

Step three: face outward. (You don’t actually have to do this, but everyone else does.)

Step four: When you get to your desired floor, hop off quickly. Otherwise, the ledge merely flips over–yes, flips–and you may have to learn how to say “Doctor, I think I broke my leg” in Hungarian.

Step five: congratulate yourself for (1) not dying and (2) refraining from pretending you’re in a Harry Potter movie. Out loud.

Have a happy weekend, everyone!


Frugal feasting at Budapest’s Central Market

Budapest isn’t a backpackers’ paradise anymore. EU membership has its privileges—and its prices. Budget accommodations are scarce and restaurants can be pricey.  Fortunately, there’s one place that a Real Housewife can find great deals and greater food: the Central Market.

I wrote about the Central Market last November, when I focused on souvenirs and smoked meats. There’s nothing wrong with making lunch of salami and a bottle of Tokaj, but the Central Market has more to offer. Upon entering the market, don’t be distracted by people carrying old-school wicker baskets, fruit vendors, and endless paprika stands. Don’t be tempted to buy a pre-made sandwich; STOP RIGHT THERE. That is for amateurs. Go to the second floor and make your way to the left side of the main entrance. You will see a long array of take-away hot food stands. This is where you want to be.

You’ll probably pass a long line of people waiting for langos, a Hungarian specialty of fried bread traditionally topped with cheese and sour cream.

Skip the langos line. Fried bread is okay, but there are far better ways to consume 1,500 calories. It’s not that great, not that cheap (even in the market) and the wait is way too long since every guidebook mentions this place. Pass the glazed eyes of Lonely Planet devotees, walk (or stop) by the wine and beer stand selling 20 ounce white wine spritzers, and end your journey at Fakanal Bistro.

It’s small, humble, and delicious. They’ve got stuffed cabbage, goose legs, fresh breads, goulash—you name it. The service is friendly, and the food is delicious. The location is peaceful but lively. And the prices are low for restaurant-quality food.

If you have room in your stomach after that, make your way downstairs to the bakeries dotting the first floor. There are several, so just choose a place that smells and looks promising. Some specialize in strudel; others have croissants and cookies. My favorite stand has dobos cake to die for.* Dobos cake is named after Hungarian baker József Dobos. It has five layers of cake between chocolate buttercream frosting and is topped with crunchy caramel. The caramel apparently keeps the cake from drying out. It also ensures that the cake will be eaten long before it becomes stale. YUM.

After cake, feel free to get a coffee upstairs or just pass out in the park across from the main entrance. Or better yet, walk off your meal by looking at some of the cheapest souvenir stands in town; they’re located on the other side of the second floor. Your wallet (and your stomach) will thank you.  Your skinny jeans….not so much.

To go to the Dobos cake place I mentioned, walk in the main entrance and make your first left. At the end of that row, there will be a bakery on your right and a slightly tired-looking vegetable stand across the way. This is the bakery—apologies for not writing down its name! Get there before 11am for the best selection. The Central market is closed on Sundays.


Detective RHOB and mystery of John…D’oh! *

It had been a while since my last case, and I wasn’t too broken up about it. I figured the lack of Belgrade Mysteries meant that I was finally understanding this joint. I was no longer searching for clues about ice trays or dumpsters. In fact, I was now able to give directions or help people weigh their vegetables at the Mini Maxi. But just as I thought it was all over, another mystery pulled me back into the fray.

I was having lunch with American visitors when one of them returned from the bathroom. He had a puzzled look on his face, and I knew something was up. In a low voice, he asked, “um…so how to I flush the toilet here?”

Detective RHOB was on the case. I asked, “Can you describe the toilet? I’ll need the approximate height of the tank.” After some discussion, I realized he was talking about something like this:

I solved the case faster than a DC meter maid gives tickets. “There’s a tab on the top right side of the tank,” I said. “Push the right side of the tab and the toilet will flush.” Case closed. But I realized that it wasn’t the first time I’ve been presented with a bathroom brain-twister. Here’s a breakdown for the Balkan travelers presented with a “Dear John” case of their own.

Most toilets here have a dual-flush system. Press the bigger button for, um, bigger events and the smaller button…you get the idea. Here’s an example from an OMV rest stop. Most people could figure this one out, but I’m giving this john extra points for his buddy, “Big Willie.”

 

With other commodes, the mystery lingers like cevapcici with onions. I encountered the head on the right in Budapest. I thought I had to turn the knob, but nothing happened. (That I know of. I probably caused a small flood somewhere.) After using my detective skills I realized that the lever below was not fixed as I had previously thought. Another mystery solved. I was becoming an expert on Balkan toilets. And my guidance counselor said I’d never amount to anything…(Actually, he said I’d regret not taking typing class. FALSE.)

My detective skills were no match for the loo on the left, but it gets an honorary mention for being overly complicated.  There’s a large panel, a lever, and a sort of aerodynamic design to it. Someone is spending a lot of time thinking about designing toilets. Then again, I devoted a lot of time photographing and writing about them. Who am I to judge?

Finally, there’s the deepest, darkest mystery of them all: pit toilets and the people who install them. If confronted with a pit toilet in the Balkans, stay away. Or bring tissue, soap, and quads of steel. I hesitated to post this, but I didn’t get my detective rank by turning away from the ugly cases. Sorry if you’re eating lunch right now.

The Balkans are full of mysteries large and small, so I’ll keep my detective hat on a little longer. I never know when I’ll open the door to a new case.

 

 

*  Confused or non-native English speakers, the post title is a play on “John Doe,” the legal name given to an unidentified person, and the word “John” which is slang for toilet. I can’t get away from puns, sorry.


Church on Sunday: St. Matthias in Budapest

It took four trips to Budapest, two visitors, and the one day I decided against bringing a big camera, but we finally saw Matthias church. Matthias church is one of the highlights of the Castle District in Budapest. We first walked by this marvel on our first Budapest trip in November. At that time, and then again in April, the church was closed for renovation. But on our last trip, we noticed the doors were open and bought tickets to see what all that scaffolding was about.

Though the interior is a bit dark, it’s hard to miss how colorful the church is. It was originally built in 1015, but Turkish occupation (when the church became a mosque) and subsequent renovations have changed the building significantly. The current style dates from the late 19th century, when the surrounding Fisherman’s Bastion was also built. The church is officially the Church of Our Lady but King Matthias helped renovate the church and was married there-twice. The church was also the site of Hungarian coronations.

Budapest tourism was in high swing so there were some crowds and a lot of tour guides. After overhearing varying reports about what each window meant, I can’t vouch for any accuracy. We decided to simply wander around and take in the distinct colors used on walls, windows and the pulpit.

 

The church also features an interesting detail echoed throughout the Castle District: a bird with a ring in its mouth. The bird is the symbol of King Matthias, who, legend has it, once killed a bird after it stole a ring from the King. The truth is more elaborate, but the moral is the same: birds stink.

 

Lesson learned, King Matthias. Lesson learned.


Synagogue Sunday: Tabakgasse, Budapest

I primarily wanted to see the Tabakgasse Synagogue for “Church on Sunday” material, but it turned out to be one of Budapest’s most interesting sights. The synagogue holds three thousand people and is the second largest synagogue in the world. That means it can also hold a lot of visitors, but don’t plan on strolling inside–we waited in line for about 20 minutes to purchase tickets for a tour.

Tabakgasse (also known as Dohany Street Synagogue) is a neolog synagogue, a specific brach of Judaism that originated in Hungary. That’s unusual in itself, but the interior is even more unique. It’s gorgeous–but something gave me pause. I couldn’t quite explain my puzzlement until the tour guide confirmed that the the altar-like podium, pulpit and general byzantine design were more common in churches than in synagogues. There’s even an organ, something highly unusual for a synagogue.

 

 

 

Our tour guide explained that when the synagogue was built in 1859 it was purposefully designed to echo Hungary’s Christian houses of worship as a kind of see, we’re not so different gesture. Unfortunately, sinister forces disagreed. In 1944 Germany occupied Hungary and the Arrow Cross imposed brutal restrictions on the Jewish Community. The synagogue became part of the Jewish ghetto. That same year, thousands of Jews died in the ghetto from malnutrition and cold were buried in the synagogue’s courtyard.

The back of the synagogue features a memorial park dedicated to the people who died under the Nazi regime. A metal weeping willow features leaves inscribed with the names of thousands of victims.

Yet the synagogue’s best feature can’t be shown in photographs: the expert tour guides and organized atmosphere. Tabakgasse’s patient, informed staff made our visit even more interesting. If you’re planning a trip to Budapest, make sure to stop here for a Synagogue Sunday of your own–there are no tours on Saturdays.