Thursday, March 23, 2006

Spring Sprung?

A wonderful thing happened earlier this week. A traditional event in the Hungarian calandar where people cast off the cold grey winter and welcome in the bright new sunny season. I'm not talking about celebrations for the March 15th revolution or the just-around-the-corner Easter. I'm refering to tables sprouting up on Liszt Ferenc tér.

There may be blankets on the seats in case you get cold, but once their those chairs and tables hit the square, they'll cling on like limpets until September (or even October). A friend and I rejoiced with our first midday Meaf under blue skies. Alfresco at Fresco.

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The event was slightly sullied by a small pocket of grit exploding and spraying itself over our thankfully finished plates but these are risks worth taking. For the short-term, the tér is not just cafes, tables and chairs, but also prowling bobcats. That's not a euphimism for certain ladies (I think) but in fact the name of the mini-diggers and bulldozers, the type of which are reshaping good ol' LFT in a major way.

A few weeks ago I noticed a protest on the tér. It looked both pathetic and shocking at the same time. Pathetic as although there were TV crews from RTL Klub and Duna, there was only a handful of people holding placards and chanting. Shocking because it looked like someone was trying to bulldoze the square.

Turned out that the developers didn't have full permission to start the work. It had been picked up by the various political parties and they were making a fuss out of it. The work was stopped but later that day they were allowed to carry on.

There's a map at the ends of Liszt Ferenc tér that shows what they're planning. A series of walkways through the dog toilets green parts. The normal benchs will be chucked (I think) and replaced with seats afixed to the actual walls (so the dogs can pee on your shoulders as they get to business). I suppose the plan is to open up the square even more to squeeze even more tourists in. Or maybe the meandering paths are meant to make the place seem more magical. You'll have to make up your own minds when it's completed in the summer.

The paths are being worked on constantly so they should be finished soon. Until then, make sure you've got another diner/drinker on the outside tables to shield your own dish/drink from the curse of the flying grit.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Bank Machine Mechanics

Here's an interesting pic from the phone. It's from a bank on Andrassy a few weeks ago. It looked like someone had ripped the front off their cash machine, revealing all sorts of slots and wires just waiting to be tampered with.

Unfortunately there was a security guard standing next to it so fiddling about with it for the sake of furthering cash science was out of the question.

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It did make me think about how hard the ATM manufacturers are meant to be trying to protect these machines from hacker (by both software and by axe). I remember reading about all sorts of measures they take but then the fraudsters get even more imaginative. The basic method being the simple but effective Lebanese Loop and the more sophisticated ATM skimmer complete with hidden camera.

The Lebanese Loop and skimmers target the individuals. For targetting the big wad of cash held in the actual machine, well, you have to take the whole machine. I recall a spate of ATM thefts in the UK a few years back. The robbers would "borrow" a JCB from a nearby building site and then smash through everything, using the digger to scoop up the whole machine then carry it off in a truck. They've probably installed motion / tracking devices into them now but it doesn't stop some people from a good old smash and grab.

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Monday, March 20, 2006

On The Buses

One of the excuses I have for my break in posting on The Hungary Years is that I spent a week snowboarding in France. It's great fun and I highly recommend it. Though perhaps it would be better to go somewhere a little closer.

I've been on some great slopes in Austria and I've also heard good things about Slovakia and Bulgaria, though maybe they don't have it sorted as much as the Austrians.

The last time I went to the Austrian mountains, it was about 8 hours in a car. Maybe less. It effectively means you can go there just for the weekend, leaving early on a Thursday or Friday afternoon and returning in a too-tired-to-drive-safely-journey on Sunday night.

France was a little bit further and the sensible thing to do would have been to take a cheap flight to Paris and then hop on the TGV down to Grenoble. Instead, as we were on a budget, we hopped onto a bus at Varosliget and then crawled there over what was meant to be a 16 hour ride.

16 hours on a bus would have made it the longest single bus journey ever for me. Unfortunately, fate decided to really stretch it out and make it into a 32 hour ride.

Just to put that into perspective, normally if someone travels for 32 hours, it means they are jetting off to the other side of the world. With a stopover in Hong Kong.

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Here's a quick catalog of our hold-ups:
15:30 - Departure time

16:30 - Real departure time. 1 hour late leaving as people are late turning up, they have too much luggage and the drivers are suspiciously checking the engine

17:30 - Drivers announce that the engine is knackered and we have to replace the "generator" (I think this translates into the "accumulator" in English). We stop at the exotic Budaors petrol station on the M7. At least there's a toilet (the one on the bus is out of order) and a McDonalds. Tip: If you're ever stuck at the McDonalds here, go to the kids playroom, there's tons of stuff to play with (cso-cso, air hockey etc) and you're bigger than the kids so you get to play more.

19:30 - After 2 hours of backbreaking work (the small cso-cso table is much lower and it really does give you backache) we set off again.

20:30 - The bus fills up a bit more as we stop to pick up more people at Szekesfehervar.

01:10 - Nasty Austrian border guards hold us up for well over an hour. At first it looks like they'll just let us through. Then they seen there's some non-Hungarians on board (me and some Romanians), so they as to see these passports separately. After handing them back and waiting an hour, they decide it's not enough and we have to get out and go past the passport window to get them checked individually. And I thought things were meant to get easier in the EU.

07:40 - BANG! Bus driver deals with a blow-out very well. Changing the inside tyre of the bus takes a bit of time though. At least they have a good spare on board. Everyone crowds round to see the huge gash in the old tyre made by what looks like electrical cable left on the road.

13:20 - Getting close. We pass by Torino and are told it's only another 2 or 3 hours.

17:30 - 26 hours on the road and the snow we've been hoping for has arrived. Only, there's a little bit of an excess. It's snowing so hard that they've closed our road up the mountain. We have to turn back and find another route up.

20:00 - Back down the mountain and figure out route. The new ETA is extended by yet another 2 or 3 hours (didn't they say that back at Torino?)

23:30 - Hurrah! Finally arrive at hotel. 32 hours after planned departure. All should be okay except for the fact that no one is at reception and the 3 apartments we've booked turn out to be only 2. No matter, we're so glad of any accomodation, we squeeze in and sort it out in the morning. The girl (and her boyfriend) that left her big bag with all her clothes on the bus aren't so lucky. The drivers refuse to drive out from their hotel (about 3 hours away) to deliver it so they spend the next day hopping on and off more buses to get it back.

The snowboarding turned out great. Weather was a bit hit and miss also. The avalanche warnings were at their highest level every day and the rescue helicopters seemed to be working non-stop. When the sun came out, the views were amazing. When the snow came, temperature at the top went down to -22C and visibility was reduced to nothing and it was difficult to see the slope. But it all added up to "the experience".

Now the above sounds like a nightmare journey, but to be honest it wasn't that bad. There was plenty of food and drink. Good old, home-made palinka was passed around and everyone cleared their throats in concert as the old guy in front coughed up his lungs in his last days (he did survive the week to inflict his diseases on everyone on the return journey). Though saying that, I think next time, it's either the plane and TGV combo or Austria.

In a short but relevent snippet, I took this snap of a tourist bus passing through Budapest. I'm sure it's fine in Czech, but would you really want your bus emblazoned with "Sad Tourist"?

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Friday, March 17, 2006

Better Late Than Never

I wrote before about good old Két Szerecsen that was closed for renovations. It was meant to open back in February but there was a small delay. I walked past it the other day to see that it's finally reopened and found that the work wasn't just a splash of paint.

Didn't have time to pop in but hope their management and staff are the same people that make the place warm and welcoming as well as serving out great food and one of the best iced coffees in Budapest.

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The renovations seem to be quite extensive and expansive. At first glance throught the window you could be forgiven thinking that nothing has changed. The decor is the same. However, cast your eyes to the back of the main room and you'll see that they knocked through where the toilets used to be, creating a huge new dining area complete with gallery.

Where the toilets have moved to, I have no idea. Maybe they've even dug down into the cellars.

No matter. The extra space is great because it means that it should become more of a reliable eatery in terms of being able to get a table. Not that not getting a table is a big problem with the tér round the corner but still, it's one of my favourite places.

So book up and try out the cuisine, or perhaps just pop in for a coffee.

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Uborka PLU 4593

Barring a few short months at dodgy Danko utca in the VIII district, I the first 3 years in Budapest at Kertesz utca. It was good as it's central, good for transport, has a good csarnok round the corner and didn't have the prostitutes, mafia, druggies and drunk homeless that Danko had.

I thought I'd mention uborkas today as I found one in my kitchen that is individually shrink wrapped and stamped. It made me think back to my time at Kertesz utca and the csarnok there.

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Back in '94, even though the shop was pretty big, they didn't sell any sort of fruit or veg or eggs for that matter. To get the fresh produce, you had to go out back and buy it from one of many independent stalls. Of course you had to make sure you brought your own bag or egg cartons as they didn't supply any.

I also remember the great feeling of when they first started stocking fruit and veg there so that there was no need to go out into the weather to get the rest of the shopping. Such convenience.

Now things have gone a step further. Perhaps it's part of EU regulations that every item has to be sealed and isolated from potential hazards. My uborka is no longer an uborka. It's a sealed vegetable product with reference number PLU 4593.

Of course you can go to the big Interspars, Tescos and Auchans to pick up such lovelies as pre-packed veggies for your soup. Or maybe you fancy the pre-grated cheese to save you the wrist work.

This post isn't really meant to be a rant at pre-packaged foods. Just another snapshot of then and now. PLU 4593 suprised me.

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