The day my plane landed in Budapest, Hungary, was the first time I had ever been abroad. I would experience a lot of firsts that year and so would the country. The Soviets had just pulled out of the Eastern-Bloc and Hungary had its freedom. Immersed in a new culture, a new language and with a new set of friends, my mind was opened to a whole new world. I got a crash course in being patient, flexible and most importantly-adaptable.
There was no internet back then. No email. No camera phones. My experiences are stored in albums on very low resolution and grainy photographs I got printed at Fox Photo. But they will forever be stored as crystal clear memories in my mind and my heart.
And some of the memories are hilarious...
I could have written a book just on the experiences of finding a restroom. This was when I began to appreciate the influence European countries have on each other. First, it's called the WC which stands for water closet, an English term. Almost no English is used in Hungary but they use it for their toilets. It's usually pronounced "vay tsay" as they would say in German. I don't think I ever heard it called "dupla vay tsay" which would be the Hungarian pronunciation.
In homes, toilets and bathtubs are not usually together but in different parts of the house. So when you ask your host to use the bathroom, they take you to where the tub is, the whole time wondering why you need to take a bath during their dinner party. I should have asked where the WC was.
Out in public, there were often attendants in the WC that you must pay to use the toilets. It's usually an elderly woman who sits there with a plate where you place a single coin. Sometimes they are the keepers of the toilet paper handing you a single square once you've paid up. My first experience with this, I walked by the woman, used the restroom and then walked right out. I had seen the woman but had no idea why she was there. The next thing I knew, the woman came chasing out after me screaming in Hungarian. My friends were able to calm the red-faced woman by explaining I was an American and presenting her with 2 coins for her trouble. Only in the country a couple of days, and already I'm causing trouble.
Stand up showers might have existed back then, but I never saw one. A sprayer on a hose connected to the bathtub faucet was our shower.
Washing clothes was a fun household chore. The washing machine that was supplied in our apartment only vaguely resembled a washing machine at all. Jeanne, my friend and roommate, called it a centrifuge. I called it the devil. It was about an 18" tall cylindrical tank that you filled with water and drained from a rubber tube. We had to start the motor by using a long wooden spoon to kick start the agitator. Next, we added a little detergent and waited for it to get soapy. Then you could add a few clothes, and by that I mean 2 pair of socks and a tee shirt. Once you were satisfied with the agitation process you would drain the soapy water through the tube and start the process over again to rinse the clothes. Of course, we had no dryer which meant our socks dried stiff as boards. We learned to wash our clothes ONLY when absolutely necessary .
Cooking....To be honest, I'm not much of a cook. Not that I can't, I just don't like it. It takes too long and when I'm hungry I don't want to wait to prepare something. I had to get over that. In our little village we didn't have any grocery super centers and certainly no drive-thrus, not that I had a car anyway. When you needed bread, you went to the bakery who offered several types of fresh loaf bread that was usually still warm. For some reason, however, it was rock hard in 24 hours. This was always the case. We wondered about preservatives or the lack thereof. So we had to buy bread almost daily.
Milk came in sealed pouches on a shelf and not always refrigerated. You would cut a corner of the pouch to pour the milk. If there was any left, you would transfer it to a container or throw it out.
The outdoor market in the town center was where most people bought their eggs and produce. When you bought eggs you had to supply your own containers. Quite often the eggs still had straw and chicken poop on them. That was unsettling at first, but where did I think eggs came from anyway? What was more unsettling was buying a chicken with the head, feet and/or feathers still attached. We learned to buy chicken at the butcher after that.
Born and raised in Texas, I took beef for granted. I did not consider it a luxury but a staple. Not only was beef hard to find in Hungary, it was very expensive (and usually not very good). Meat dishes were made with pork or chicken. Spaghetti was made with ground pork and hamburgers were pork burgers. Whenever we got a craving for beef we would take the train into Budapest and get a Big Mac from one of the 2 McDonald's they had back then (and also get ice in our drinks!)
The other thing that was difficult to find was turkey. We prepared a big Thanksgiving feast for our friends but we had to use chicken, lots and lots of chicken. We asked the guests to bring side dishes, like we do in America. Turns out, American and Hungarian side dishes are a lot alike. We all had such a wonderful time. I think our new friends were just as excited as we were to celebrate this very important American tradition.
I did love Hungarian food, though. Most dishes were served with a rich pink sauce made from cream, butter and paprika. Oh, and the sausage! The markets would have it hanging by links from the tops of displays. I would eat it sliced on fresh bread with delicious white cheese. (I never saw yellow cheese the whole time I was in Europe.) I would eat this open faced sandwich every single day. Never since have I eaten such good sausage.
In the winter, the selection of fresh produce was slim. We became very skilled on the many ways to cook potatoes, onions and pickled paprika peppers. I learned how to make potato latkes which I loved and continued to make for many years later.
In all seriousness, these experiences changed and shaped my perspective about, well, everything. I feel so fortunate to have had my time in Hungary.
Next time...Wine!...Travelling through Hungary visiting the vineyards and other wonderful towns.