Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Since then I have traveled extensively, and have been to nearly 75 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on I have made friends all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met in the past and present and hopefully will meet in the future.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Trolling in Norway

Spring had still not completely overtaken winter in Budapest, but I was assured by my dear long-term friend Helene that Norway was bursting with sunshine and warm breezes. So, OK, off to this country’s west coast, mainly the oil cities of Stavanger and Sandnes. For long-time devotees of my former hard-copy, snail-mail Lukatch Newsletter, you may recall that the exchange student my daughter and I hosted in 1986 was from Sandnes; too bad Eirik has moved to Ghent, so I won’t be able to see him this trip, but his moves might occasion another trip to visit him and also to see Brugge, both of them places on my List of Great Little Cities to See. More on that later.

I booked my departure flight more sensibly this time, leaving Budapest at 11:30 AM on Thursday, May 19. This time, instead of having to run to catch my connecting flight, I had a 2 ½-hour layover in Amsterdam. So here’s some good info re: Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport: if you happen to have a connection in the “B” Concourse, go to the little snack stand/bar next to Gate B16; they have great fried calamari and wonderful specialty beer, 6.5% alcohol, which will give you a very nice little buzz until your plane leaves. After my accommodating bartender Patrick foisted three of these little beauties on me, I seem to recall vaguely a strange American trying to get passing flyers to do the Macarena while riding on the moving sidewalk. Fortunately, my plane was called and I settled into (read: passed out) a comfy KLM seat and checked my eyelids for holes the entire rest of the trip.

I arrived at the Stavanger airport at 5:30 PM and there was Helene, waiting for me. Having exited so many airports alone over the years, I have now been greeted by friends at two consecutive arrivals; what a treat. I hopped into Helene’s cute little Renault electric car and away we went. It was my first time in one of these gems and I have to say I was impressed. Very quiet, no key to start up the system, and a rear-facing camera to guide you when moving in reverse and to tell you if you are out of line. Cool!

Helene and her husband Sten and their two daughters live on top of a hill in the general area of Sandnes, just a short drive from Stavanger. I met Helene when she and her other Norwegian friends and colleagues were wild and crazy medical students at Semmelweis University in Budapest, in the early 2000s. They’re now both settled down with kids and husbands and houses and doing good doctor work back home, but underneath it all I could still see those med students who danced on the tables at Beckett’s.

The hilltop was covered in either fog or low-hanging clouds, couldn’t tell which, but the view from their windows was only about 50 meters into the forest. Guess spring hadn’t quite arrived in Sandnes either. It’s a compact residential area up there in the clouds, however, with similar houses in the neighborhood, plus the kids’ schools, markets, trees and general quiet; must be all the electric cars. Two little blonde girls peeked out the doorway as we pulled into the driveway, Ragnhild (there’s a name to live up to!), who is six, and her sister Ingrid, 4. What a couple of cuties. Between them they probably had about three words of English, but we communicated just fine. We spent the evening at home, supping on Thai curry and maybe a few alcoholic concoctions and generally catching up on the years gone past. I’d met Sten briefly many years ago when he visited Budapest with Helene, but never had a chance to talk to him for very long, so it was good after all that time to be able to get to know him better. We stayed up talking until it finally got dark around 11 PM or so; it was, after all, nearly the time of the White Nights, where the sun hardly sets at all.

Friday dawned (as it were!) cloudy and rainy. I was bedded down in the bottom level of the three-level house and my windows faced almost east, so morning light visited me quite early. Helene had scheduled me for a fjord cruise that day, but the weather was so bad we decided to put it off until Monday, and hope for better weather. Breakfast with the family was continental style: salami, cheeses (lots of cheeses!), break bread (a Norwegian specialty, homemade by Helene before my arrival), fruits, juices, tea, etc. I was able again to have some of that great Norwegian goat cheese, which I dearly love; has the consistency of chocolate. And that break bread! Sort of a hard, flat biscuit, to be spread with jams, butter, cheeses, or whatever your taste buds desire; yummy.

The girls got off to school (Ragnhild walks the block or so with friends) and Helene off to work; she returned around noon and, since the rain had eased up, she took me on a tour of the surrounding area.
We went to Sola beach, which still had WWII bunkers perched on low-lying hillocks, along with tiny little summer houses for Norwegians lucky enough to be able to come to the shore for their vacations.
We also stopped by to see one of the ancient stone circles that abound in Norway, this one called “Domsteinane.” It was at least from the Iron Age and, you may think me crazy, but still seemed to exude a sense of power, although greatly diminished by time; weird.

We strolled through Sandnes’s downtown pedestrian shopping area, quaint and clean and not very busy on a Friday afternoon. The Norwegian economy had taken a beating recently, especially the oil industry, which employs most of the people in this part of the country, so there was a significantly high unemployment rate in general and, even for those who still had jobs, there just wasn’t a lot of disposable income after the high taxes. Difficult times for a lot of people.

That night was a barbecue feast with various meats, potatoes, salads, etc. Sten spent about an hour or so assembling the family’s new trampoline set for the kids; it seems the former trampoline had been unhooked from the grounding bars to mow the lawn, when a giant wind swept it away where it landed in the neighbors’ yard and virtually crumpled the entire thing (the trampoline, not the yard). The kids, with their friends, wore themselves out while we adults sucked down beer and gorged on barbecue. It was fun being back in a family atmosphere again after so many years away, and even the family cat seemed to enjoy my presence.

Saturday morning did actually dawn, with the sun and lots of light, but it was only Mother Nature playing tricks on us again, as the clouds rolled in after an hour or two and it was back to Norwegian Normal. Like my previous visit to Lina and Tom in Geneva, Helene and Sten slept in on Saturday mornings as long as possible, until the kids demanded they get up and play. After a continental breakfast, with that great break bread, Helene and I picked up our friend AK (Anna Katrina) and her youngest son and headed out to explore more of the area. We found an Iron Age cave near the coastline (named “Svartehola” – the cave, not the coastline) and then three gigantic swords thrust into the rocky ground of a nearby bay as a reminder of a huge Viking battle on the spot many centuries ago. Even though it was still raining, we also explored a Stone Age farm, complete with longhouse, although it was locked so we couldn’t go in.

Lunch was down at the Stavanger port area, a great seafood pasta accompanied by a very good local beer. More driving around, a few stops to check out local sights, then it was time for fish and chips at home. A Netflix movie rounded out the night.

Sunday was another late rising day and, after a light breakfast, we were off to the Oil Museum, down at the Stavanger port area. Now, you may think to yourself (as I did), “Hmm, oil museum? How exciting can that be? And how can they have an entire museum devoted to oil?” Well, I have to tell you, it was fun and exciting and informative and generally an all-around cool experience. After the kids played on the “Old Oil and Ship Equipment Playground” outside the museum, we met AK and her family and we all entered the interactive world of Big Oil.

Oil has been Stavanger’s raison d’etre for many years now and this museum is the industry’s public relations arm. Indoor structures for the kids to climb on, big models of oil rigs and platforms and ships, escape and disaster exhibits, escape chutes for adults (Sten did one with Ingrid, albeit rather slowly), firefighting suits you could put on and in which you could have your picture taken, some really interesting films devoted to oil and its origins and lots of other stuff to give you a feel for what working on the big oil platforms is like. A very worthwhile and entertaining 2-3 hours.

Then we all repaired to AK’s home for a typical Norwegian dinner of baked salmon, cucumbers with sour cream, veggies and potatoes, juice, ice cream or strawberries with cream – in short, your typical low-cal feast. With Helene and Sten, AK and her husband Joar, six kids (I think; I sort of lost count), and the appearance of AK’s brother, wife and newborn son, it was quite a crowd. A really fun and relaxed family gathering, so typical of home-based parties in Norway, where prices in restaurants are so high and space so dear. It was a great day and I reveled in it all. Home around 8 PM to get the kids to bed. I relaxed on the sofa and next thing I knew I had been formally accepted into the household when the family cat jumped up on the sofa and settled in my lap. Excellent!

Monday started out cloudy and misty, but cleared up by the time I was on the fjord. Light continental breakfast, kids off to school, Helene off to work; Sten drove me down to the port area to catch my 10 AM fjord cruise boat. I’d packed my suitcase and put it in Helen’s car, as she would pick me up in the afternoon and drive me to the airport, hopefully not interrupting her day too badly. I grabbed a window seat inside the boat, as the weather was still rather chilly, and we were off.

For interested parties, we traversed the Hogsfjord and entered the Lysefjord, making stops here and there to pick up other passengers. The fjord is breathtaking when cruising down its middle, even in cloudy weather. We saw a few sights along the way, including the Jettegrytten (pothole) in a small bay, a small mountain cave, local mountain goats which the boat crew fed from stored stocks (since the goats do not appear to have a way out of their tiny enclave along the banks) and finally came to the Big Sight of the day. Pulpit Rock is that flat-topped rock 600 meters above the fjord and is the most photographed image of Norway seen in all the travel advertisements, hanging precariously out over the fjord with courageous climbers sitting on the rock, often on its edge, looking out into space and amazing views. Not for me; I was happy seeing Pulpit Rock from down below and felt no need to take the two-hour climb to its top. It really is waaaay up there!

Our final stop was the lovely Hengjane Waterfall, which the boat approached close enough to grab a bucket of fresh Norwegian mountain spring water we could all taste. I sipped mine slowly and savored the taste of…yep, fresh Norwegian mountain spring water.

It was about an hour or so back to Stavanger and we maneuvered in between two huge cruise ships to the tiny little dock area. I had enough time to have a lunch of fresh mussels at the Phineas Fogg’s Around the World in Eighty Days restaurant. Mussels and beer, yum, and the restaurant is a truly magnificent place, decorated in the 19th century style of London clubs and pubs and various stops around the world. I wish I could have had Sunday brunch of roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding. Maybe next time.

And so it was time to go. Helene picked me up and took me to the airport, where my KLM flight was only 45 minutes late due to weather problems in Amsterdam. Back to Budapest and home by midnight, a fairly easy trip. And so we draw the curtain on yet another adventure of Travelin’ Man, my fourth trip of 2016. Watch this space for more to come; ten more days and off to Bosnia-Herzegovina, so you’ll barely have time to digest this present trip before you’ll be ready for another blog.

Until soonest…..

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

In The Land of Switzer

In the year 1223 of the Common Era, a young itinerant baker and fledgling money changer named Johann Switzer was following a pass through the mountains of Mittel Europa when he suddenly rounded a corner to view before him an amazing vista: a lovely blue lake, ringed by majestic snow-capped mountains. He immediately delved into his backpack and came out with a small, but arrestingly painted, flag: red with a large white cross in the middle. He carried the flag just in case he ever had the idea of founding the Red Cross organization.

He planted the flag next to the invitingly sun-dappled lake and proclaimed to anyone within hearing distance (no one else had as yet found this lake, so he was quite alone, but he loved to hear himself shout, so that was OK too): “I hereby claim this land, this lake and these mountains as my property, in the name of the Almighty and King Francisco” (whoever he was; since there were no witnesses to this proclamation, we are forced to take Johann’s word for what he said). “I also hereby proclaim that this land shall be named ‘Switzer’s Land’ for now and all eternity.”

And thus it came to pass, and over time more newly-arriving wanderers and public accountants settled down by the lake and shortened the area’s name to Switzerland, and it has remained so to this day. How Geneva got its name is another story for another rainy day. Onward and upward.

I thought this year would be a good time to visit some old friends who now lived in places I hadn’t visited previously. So, for my first brief weekend trip, I contacted my friend Lina, originally from Greece, but also a world traveler, who now lives and works in Geneva, Switzerland. Not wanting to overstay my welcome, I figured to fly in on Friday and out again on Sunday evening, thus not interfering with her work. She and her partner Tom were kind enough to offer me the hospitality of their home for the two nights I’d be in town. So, why not?

As spring continued to creep ever-so-slowly down the Danube and across Budapest, I caught a 9:30 AM flight on Friday, April 29, to Frankfurt and then a very quick connecting flight to Geneva (for once I didn’t have to run to my connecting gate, which this time was only three gates from my arrival gate), arriving just after 1 PM. With the demise of Hungary’s national airline Malev, it is now quite difficult to find any direct flights to nearby European cities, so I’m resigned to most of the airlines servicing the places I want to go having at least one stop en route. Ah, well, life marches on.

Lina and Tom picked me up at the airport, as they both had that Friday off work. The day was sunny and beautiful (rare in Geneva, as we shall shortly discover) and we followed the road paralleling the lake, then on to Geneva’s only bridge across the lake and settled in for a lunch of lake fish and steaks at the Geneva Yacht Club. Not a bad introduction to the area, my first time here. There was a light breeze, the sun was shining, the sky was blue and the temp was in the low 60s (say, around 17 degrees Celsius); there were also hordes of hardy mosquitoes the size of dragonflies hovering around the terrace, where we were soaking up the sunshine and a wonderful local rosé wine. Fortunately, they were more interested in staying warm than in sinking their needles into us, so we were able to enjoy the meal in peace.

I hadn’t seen Lina since I last visited her and her now-ex in London way back in March 2005, so it was great to see her again. Even after two kids and more travels, she hasn’t aged a bit, still the lovely olive-skinned, black-haired Greek Aphrodite. She and Tom have now been together for a couple of years, sharing a large house in a beautiful, green, quiet section of Geneva with their five children (two hers, three his). All of the kids were visiting other parents for the weekend, so the house was unusually peaceful. After lunch, since the day was so beautiful and warm, we went downtown to Old Geneva and walked around, checking out the ambiance. A beer or two (Calvinus, a local amber beer – wow!) on the Place du Bourg de Four, the Old Town’s main square, at the café L’Clémence, topped off a perfect afternoon.
Tom and Lina had planned a quiet night at home for Friday, knowing Saturday would be action-packed, so we drove to their house and spent an hour or so preparing a pot-luck dinner: BBQ ribs and chicken (flavored with Tabasco’s Habanero sauce!), baked potatoes, various veggies and cold salad, mushrooms, avocados, etc. A nice evening at home where Lina and I could get caught up on happenings since our last meeting and where Tom and I could get better acquainted. We watched a movie (Bridge of Spies) off and on and, as the night deepened, we slowly sank off to bed.

With the kids away, I was able to pre-empt one of Tom’s son’s bedrooms in the basement level of their three-level house, which also contained another two bedrooms and separate bathroom. Lots of room for lots of children.

Also due to the weekend being sans children, mine hosts managed a Saturday morning lie-in, finally emerging around 11 o’clock or so. I had been up since eight, so everyone was well-rested for the rigors of the day ahead. We drove back down to Geneva proper, this time to the main shopping area, filled with luxury stores and restaurants. By the time we had strolled around in the light rain, we were ready for lunch; the problem was that almost all of the restaurants in town close between 2 PM and 7 PM, obviously taking their cue from next-door Italy.
Fortunately, there are two local eateries that do stay open during Siesta Time, and we chose the Italian pizza place, Molino, for yummy pizzas and beer (for me). Another brief walk around the area, a few errands to be taken care of, and a short stop at the Lord Nelson Microbrewery for some of their home-brewed beer. Tom and Lina had to return rental skis for one of Tom’s kids, so they took me into France (only a few kilometers away) and we did a sightseeing drive around the area, ringed with hills and mountains, while searching for the rental building. It really is a magnificent landscape.

Back to the house around 7 PM or so, a brief power nap, a light repast (pasta, leftover BBQ, salad and the ever-present beer) and we were ready to hit the hot spots of Saturday Night Geneva. First stop in the club, pub and restaurant district was a place I seem to recall was named Langolier Bistro – probably not the correct name, but subsequent events (and beers) clouded my memory of the earlier ones. Anyway, it’s a funky little expat hangout, lots of dark wood, vigas (ceiling beams), darkly lit, nice but crowded bar, tables, etc. My kind of place. Since the karaoke didn’t get going until at least 11 PM, we had drinks at this first stop and chatted with regulars, the owner, a pretty girl or two (at least in my fantasy world) and waited for the rain to stop. It never did quite, but we braved the elements and finally walked over to Glams Club, a big, raucous, nightclub sort of place, with a large stage, a karaoke DJ who also played the piano, beer at 12 Swiss francs a bottle and very, very few patrons as of yet. There were several regulars already in place and singing their hearts out, pretty much only French songs, which always seem to be either romantic or sad. But the singers were very good and, as always, I was slightly intimidated by such good voices. But then I figured, no one sings rock and roll like Americans, so what the heck, it’s Showtime!

Of course, I was a newbie and the locals didn’t know what to expect, but when I hit them with Great Balls of Fire, they sang along and danced in place and even applauded when it was over. A good start. The night progressed and more and more people came in, some other very good singers, men and women. I was able to do a few more old favorites – Blue Suede Shoes, etc – and then Lina insisted I sing Summer Nights with her. She dragged me onto the stage and did her very credible Olivia Newton-John impression and we were off and running. The crowd loved it. Tom and I were signed up to do Wild Thing, but D’Artagnan the DJ never called it; however, he did let me do Joe Cocker’s You Can Leave Your Hat On, so I was satisfied. The place really was a fun, happy, energetic karaoke club. The middle-aged male bartender also sang and laughed and mingled with the patrons, the DJ was here, there and everywhere, smiles abounded and a great time was had by all. It was everything a top-notch karaoke club should be.
By 2:30 in the morning, Tom and Lina were ready for the quiet and peace of their home. I’d had my brief nap and some Panadol, so could have gone on for another 5-10 minutes or so, but why overstay a good thing, so we headed out of Glams, another venue successfully invaded by the American and Greek contingent. That nice warm bed was a welcome sight.

Sunday was another rather late day. I was supposed to be up and ready to go by 9 AM, which I was, but it was another 90 minutes or so before my compatriots roused themselves and were ready to take me back to winter. When the kids are away, you get what sleep you can. I’d packed my suitcase, as we’d go straight to the airport from the mountains, and I had brought one of my winter ski shells, as I’d been warned about today’s jaunt. We drove about an hour south of Geneva to Chamonix and the Mont Blanc ski area, in the mountains of southern France. The higher we got, the colder it got and the more snow we saw still on the mountaintops and trees. We drove through the little mountain town of Chamonix straight to the ski area of Mont Blanc, which was having its end-of-season party to celebrate this final weekend of the ski resort’s opening. The parking lot was full as revelers crowded onto the cable cars and lifts to get to the top of the ski runs and hit the slopes.
We also took the cable car up. Tom had brought his snowboard in anticipation of at least a few runs down the mountain. When we reached the top of the ski area, it was under a white-out, as the clouds had descended over the mountain and visibility was limited to about 50 meters; not the best ski or party conditions. Most of the party-goers were sitting around in the warming hut area and on the cloud-shrouded terrace, drinking beer and wine and whatever other interesting concoctions they could order, waiting for the clouds to clear; I feared they’d wait a long time. Lina and I headed back down in the cable car, while Tom, determined to get in one run, snowboarded down and met us at a small café/restaurant at the bottom. That was also crowded and really didn’t offer more than snack-type food (pizza, burgers, etc), so we had one drink and then bagged the Mont Blanc idea and headed back into Chamonix for a more civilized meal.
We strolled through the small but pretty (quaint?) mountain ski village, with its very few shops still open, and found a restaurant named L’M, which I’m not sure I can pronounce in French or English. Anyway, they definitely had what we were after, what everyone who visits this mountainous region must have, either in France or Switzerland, a dish that is apparently mandatory (as in, required by law!) for all visitors: Cheese Fondue. I hadn’t even realized I craved it until Lina suggested it, then I couldn’t stop salivating.

Along with the also-mandatory French white wine, it was as fantastic as it sounds. Big chunks of crusty home-made bread skewered on long fondue forks and dipped into the bubbling cheese; I really tried not to appear too eager and to keep my hand from shaking as I propelled the cheese-dipped bread to my waiting maw, but I fear I was unsuccessful. It’s been a long time since I’ve had cheese fondue and I was determined to make the most of it.
Tom and I polished it off in a leisurely record time and he showed me something to do when you think the dish is finished. You turn off the flame and scrape the cheese that is “burned on” to the bottom of the fondue pot and make that your final bites; tangy, burned cheese residue, sort of like saganaki; a perfect finish to another perfect meal.

And then it was time to go. An all-too-brief weekend, but filled with great long-term friendships and new friends and that special ambiance that one only finds in a French restaurant or next to a Swiss lake with great company. We drove the hour back to Geneva, going through a border customs checkpoint (I keep forgetting that Switzerland is NOT part of the European Union!) and Tom and Lina dropped me at the airport a couple of hours before my flight. We said our goodbyes and they promised to try and visit Budapest in the late summer, so I hope it won’t be too long before our next meeting. A really special weekend.

But wait for it! My adventures weren’t quite over yet. Solo travel is so much fun, I never know what to expect around the next corner. I checked in and cleared Security easily (the bottle of habanero-flavored Tabasco sauce Tom had kindly given me even made it through, with only a strange look from one of the guards) and I settled in at my gate to await my flight. A woman across from me seemed uncertain as to whether she was in the right place and she obviously had only minimal English, so she showed me her boarding pass and I confirmed she was OK and this was the right gate for her flight to Frankfurt.

We started to chat and it turned out she was from Argentina and had been visiting friends in Geneva, but was anxious to get home (to her six sons and one daughter, I learned during our conversation) because she thought people in Switzerland were somewhat aloof and stand-offish and never talked to anyone (even taking into account the multitudes who played nonstop with their iphones). Anyway, we chatted away the waiting time, she in her very broken English and me in my long-ago high school Spanish; turned out she worked in the Admin section of a local school and danced and taught tango on the side, and it was with reluctance that I said goodbye to Margot Tasco, but we did promise to try to find each other on Facebook, so we shall see.

Home to Budapest around 10:30 PM after two easy flights – although it was business as usual with my connecting gate, which was two miles from my arrival gate and, with only a 40-minute layover, I once again had to hustle my poor abused old body from the entrance to Terminal One all the way to Gate A36. I think I sweated out that last glass of French wine and pretty much all of the fondue, but it was worth every drop of sweat and I couldn’t have asked for a better weekend.
All for now, next trip: the west coast of Norway in three weeks to visit more old friends. Watch this space for updates. And to all a Good Night.