Tag Archives: Travel

Vacation! Part 1: Budapest

30 Oct

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After nearly a year-long hiatus, I’m back with a post because we’re on vacation and this is the closest thing I have to a journal. Let’s pick up where we left off, shall we?

Long story short: Alan and I arrived in Budapest last Sunday morning, the first of three stops (Vienna and Prague being the other two). Here are travel tips for people coming to Budapest for the first time:

  1. Don’t sweat the language. The people here are friendly and (generally) speak great English. You can be a lazy American and they will still be nice to you. Repeat after me: We are so lucky.
  2. Public transit is clean, easy to use, and intuitive – assuming you generally know how to take a bus or train in any US city.
  3. It might not be the prettiest European city you’ve visited, but that’s because it had the shit kicked out of it in WWII – and then had to suffer under Soviet design aesthetics for nearly 50 years. You can’t fault it for looking a bit battered and bruised.
  4. The local currency will spend like Monopoly money to you:
    • In part, because it has a weird name: It’s listed places as HUF which made me think alternately of HuffPo and The Hoff. We ended up referring to it either Hufflepuffs or FlibbertyJibbits, depending on our mood.
    • And because it comes in crazy denominations. Hot tip: When you go to withdraw cash from an ATM, do NOT select “100” unless you want 100,000 HUFs, which is about $400.
    • Good news: it’s possible to find a solid meal with drinks or dessert for two people for 5500 HUFs – or about $22 – though good dinners are more in the 10000 HUF (or $40) range. Still a great deal, especially for delicious food.
  5. Speaking of food: you’re going to have to seek out vegetables – otherwise, it’s possible to pass your time eating nothing but meat and carbs. We actually (pathetically?) hit an Irish pub one night because I was craving salad and couldn’t find it on any traditional Hungarian menus.
  6. FYI: Soviet rule may have ended in the late 80s, but there is still be a bit of tension between the Hungarians and the Russians. We awkwardly witnessed a pissing match between a restauranteur and a group of Russian tourists that she didn’t want to seat.
  7. Don’t ask me about the baths. Since Budapest is perched on top of thermal springs, it’s famous for its public baths. It’s apparently the #1 thing to do when you visit. Unfortunately I can’t share a recommendation with you. We checked out two different bathhouses (even going so far as to take swimsuits, flipflops and towels) but ended up passing on both because it was too complicated for my vacation-oriented decision-making system. As it turns out, you can’t just show up, buy a ticket and get wet. Here are all the decisions you need to be prepared to make if you go:
    • Locker or cabin – where do you want to change? (I’m still not clear why this matters, but locals made it seem like  a cabin was the only reasonable choice a human would make.)
    • Thermal baths or pools – sometimes this matters and sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes the decision is made for you because only women could use the thermal baths at one place we looked at, while only men could use them in another place – and between specific hours. I thought Europe was supposed to be progressive – can’t it just be all gender identities at all times?
    • Morning ticket or full day – depends on how long you think you might stay and what time you arrive.
    • Massage. Don’t get me started here. Not only are there multiple kinds of massages (aroma, pressure, stone, royal, etc.), there are also different durations (20/50/70 min), and options for how many people are in the room – which I assume (hope!) is for couples massages and not some sort of group massage.
  8. Be sure to check out at least one ruin pub, a concept unique to Budapest. These started in the early aughts, when recent college grads wanted a bar where they could hang out all night. They purchased a dilapidated building in the Jewish District, turned it into a pub for their friends, and just decorated it with thrift store finds. The concept caught on, and there are now hundreds of these around Budapest. We loved the original (Szimpla – check out their photos to get a sense of it), where we counted more than eight distinct bars. We decided it would be an amazing place to host a scavenger hunt because of all the random stuff on the walls.

That’s all from Budapest. On to Vienna next…

 

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Random act of kindness: FAIL

7 Aug

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While I was in Chicago for work last week, I met up with a friend for breakfast one day before the office opened. We agreed to meet at Do-Rite Donuts because it was close to my hotel AND had gluten-free and vegan options. (I don’t even want to know what they use to make a donut that doesn’t contain flour or eggs – I assume tree bark.)

Because I’m mildly OCD (and – more realistically – because she had to take a combination of trains and busses, whereas I only had to walk around the corner), I arrived 10 minutes before she did. I decided to grab a donut and hold a table for us outside since the place seemed fairly busy.

The donut selection was overwhelming, and it became even harder to focus when a homeless man shuffled into the place, slowly panhandling his way along the line leading up to the small counter. Everyone looked uncomfortable, so when he got to me, I said, “I won’t give you money, but I’ll buy you a donut if you’d like one.”

The cashiers heard me and we exchanged a look while they patiently waited for him to point to a donut. (Of course he chose a premium gluten-free flavor.) Then he leaned across the counter and tried to get them to bring him a cup of milk (which they said they didn’t have) and started asking about what else they had back there that he could eat. I felt a bit callous, denying a homeless person food, but I also don’t like being taken advantage of, so I reset expectations with him quickly. “No – sorry. I’ll buy you a donut, but that’s all. Let’s go.”

I paid and left, heading outside to claim a table. He, however, remained inside, presumably asking someone else for something. He must not have been successful, because he emerged a few minutes later, holding the donut I’d bought him. Looking at him, I allowed myself the small feel-good moment that comes with performing a random act of kindness, thinking that maybe we could fix all the world’s problems if we each just help each other out a bit more.

And then I watched as he walked to the curb and threw the donut on the ground. He stumbled around it for a bit, and I couldn’t tell if he was trying to pick it up or what, but he resolved my curiosity by drawing back his foot and kicking it, sending it sailing out into the rush hour traffic. Without a backwards glance, he shuffled down the block.

I guess he decided gluten-free was some bullshit.

Hair past a freckle

24 Apr

IMG_3836When we arrived in London, Kelly asked if I wanted any specific souvenirs from the trip. “I don’t have room in my suitcase,” I told her, nodding to the small carry-on I was hoping would get me through two weeks. “But I DO need a watch, so maybe if I find one I like, that could be a good keepsake.”

A few days later, I’m sure she agreed that it would not only be a good keepsake, but an essential item for the rest of the trip, as I asked her to check her watch for what felt like the fiftieth time.

I didn’t buy a watch, however, and instead used my iPhone as my timepiece when I wasn’t bugging Kelly for the time.

That was fine until we arrived in Paris, where we entered a bit of a time-warp. We arrived Friday night and made plans to meet the next morning at 9am for breakfast. I woke early the next day (as I tend to do every day) and spent the wee hours reading and planning the agenda for the day.

At about 8:30, I received a text from Kelly. “Have you eaten already?”

“No!” I wrote back. (I’m not sure why I was excited enough to use an exclamation point.)

“Want to meet downstairs in 30 minutes?” She wrote.

“Perfect.” I responded, thinking, “Isn’t that what we decided last night??”

Half an hour later, I was seated a table enjoying a croissant. “I’m here,” I wrote to her. “Got a table for two near the back. No rush.”

She wrote back, “I ate already. Want to let me know when you’re done?”

Confused, I thought maybe she decided she was tired of me and needed a bit more down-time. I plowed through my meal and met her in the lobby 30 minutes later.

“Sorry for the confusion this morning,” I said.

“Yeah, I think I must’ve been tired when we made plans last night,” she offered.

“No biggie!” I dismissed it, excited to get our day started. “I found a walking tour for us over in Montmartre – if we head out now, we should have perfect timing!”

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 7.31.28 AMWe popped up at the Metro station near the Moulin Rouge about five minutes before the tour was slated to leave. “I don’t remember what they said they would be wearing,” I told her. “Let’s check both sides of the street to see if there is a group forming.”

We spent the next ten minutes looking everywhere that seemed plausible for a tour to meet, without any luck. Then Kelly said, “Wait. What time was the tour supposed to leave?”

“Eleven,” I told her, pointing to my phone. “Basically, right now. Maybe they’re being very French about it and it doesn’t start on time?”

“Alison,” she said, pointing to her watch, “It’s noon.”

I looked at my phone again. “No, it’s 11.”

She shook her head and showed me her watch. “Noon.”

Suddenly, our confused dining plans earlier in the morning made perfect sense. The clock on my phone hadn’t automatically gained an hour when we arrived in Paris, so I was still operating on London time with an hour delay. No wonder we had missed each other in the dining room. As I paged back through our texts, the mistake was obvious.

Realizing a tour guide was never going to meet us, we started up the hill toward Sacré Coeur on our own. And I never DID find a watch I liked. Next time…

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Sacré Coeur, which inexplicably smelled like cheese and manure.

Totally dropped that ball…

10 Mar

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Imagine you’re planning a trip to Europe with a colleague. You’ve put together to do lists and have reminded your colleague to authorize her bank card for overseas use and make sure her passport is still valid. “Check the date,” you tell her, “because you technically can’t travel on a passport that is set to expire in the next six months.”

You continue on your merry way, booking arrangements and finalizing your agenda. Then, four weeks before your trip, you wake up at 3am on a Saturday, staring at the ceiling, haunted by a question. “When does MY passport expire?” you ask yourself, a question you should’ve considered months ago with the trip was an initial glimmer in the back of your brain.

You calmly rise from bed and approach your safe, reassuring yourself. “I’d never let my passport expire. I’m sure it’s fine,” you repeat as you tap in the code. The door springs open and you retrieve your passport. You open it and see the date of expiration: January 2016.

 

NO. WAY.

What then unfolds is a scramble. You’re grateful for the internet because you quickly learn that you can rush a passport renewal for a small fee. You call the passport agency to see if you can get an appointment to do a same-week passport. You learn that unfortunately (fortunately?) you must be traveling within two weeks to warrant the kind of desperate service that results in an in-person interview and passport replacement.

Instead, you’re told you need to go the “expedited processing by mail” route. It makes you nervous to entrust your passport to the USPS and a post office box. You imagine all the scenarios in which you could be worse off than you currently are: your application could get lost en route to Philadelphia; it could fall into a crevice in the processing center and never get renewed; your new passport could get lost in the mail on its way back to your; it could get stolen from the lobby of your apartment building if the envelope doesn’t fit in your mailbox.

All the scenarios you imagine end with you not having a passport, unable to go on the trip you’ve been meticulously planning. You imagine telling your colleague that she’s flying solo. You imagine her eyes widening like saucers as she realizes she will be single-handedly leading ten days of training for 60 people.

You decide not to tell anyone about your predicament until you have your new passport safely in-hand.

You sit back and wait for your passport to arrive, so you start writing a blog post to bide your time…

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I suppose it could be worse…

Birthday Roadtrip: Passing Time in Asheville

11 Nov

Pisgah Forest - Near Asheville

Alan’s company requires that he submit his vacation dates for the upcoming year each January. In fact, there’s even a two hour conference call that everyone on his team attends to “battle out” any dates they’re all interested in before submitting requests to their manager.

As a result, any spontaneity to seize a TravelZoo deal is effectively squashed – and yet you better not book your vacation until you know your dates are approved or you might have to eat those airline tickets. While his firm is otherwise generous and generally a good employer, I find this approach to vacation vexing.

All of this is backstory to explain why we took a random vacation the last week of October. When Alan had submitted his dates last January, he thought it would be fun to take a trip for my birthday. (Very sweet of him.) As the date grew closer, we realized we needed to figure out what to do with the time.

I would’ve loved to go to Greece or somewhere in South America, but we went to Hawaii earlier this year so we couldn’t justify an additional long-haul flight. (Ah the joy of environmental guilt!) Instead, I suggested that we do a roadtrip and find something within an eight hour drive of DC to explore. After lots of Googling and rejected ideas, we landed on Asheville, North Carolina, as our destination.

Asheville is one of those towns that seems to show up on all the top city lists – Best Places to Retire, Healthiest Cities, Best Places to Raise a Family, etc. Granted, I’m not interested in retiring or raising children, but when a town you’ve never heard of takes the prize in a bunch of different categories, it’s time to investigate.

We planned to leave on Sunday and take our sweet time heading down the Blue Ridge, breaking the drive into two days and poking into wineries or whatever other off-road curiosities grabbed our attention. But we were both doggedly sick the week before, so we pushed our departure back a day and just made a beeline for Asheville.

(Note to self: the next time we drive down, we need to make time to detour to see the Natural Bridge, the oddly placed D-Day Memorial in Bedford, VA, the stuffed skin of “Sorrel” the horse at VMI, and State Street in Bristol – where we can stand with one foot in Virginia and one in Tennessee.)

As it was, we arrived Asheville late Monday afternoon, following a truly gorgeous seven hour drive. I think Alan got sick of me pointing out every brilliant red maple along the way, which is fair since we were surrounded by rolling hills (or mountains) covered with impressive color the whole way down.

During the drive, I noticed MANY fields sporting three large crosses. On the way home, I was sufficiently curious about them to google for more information. Here’s what I learned from this website:

Those sets of crosses were all put up by the same man, Bernard Coffindaffer, a once-wealthy West Virginia businessman. He spent more than $2.5 million putting them up after a vision following open heart surgery told him to start building “crosses of mercy.” The first trio was built north of Charleston, WV, and eventually some 1,800 were planted across 29 states. Coffindaffer’s crosses are two pale blue ones and a yellow one, painted these colors to represent the colors of the sky and the light of the sun over Jerusalem. The crosses are treated with a saline solution and built to last 35 years. Coffindaffer eventually went broke, and died in October, 1993, after more than ten years of building. 

Fascinating, right? In the pre-google days, I would’ve seen them, said, “Why are there three crosses?” And Alan would’ve said, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit?” And I would’ve said, “There would only be two crosses then because ghosts don’t need crosses. Duh.” And Alan would’ve gotten annoyed with me. And we never would’ve known about Bernard Coffindaffer, who should be famous on the basis of his last name alone.

Anyway, I’ll spare you a blow-by-blow of what we did and just share a couple of the highlights:

  • Sierra Nevada Brewery – tours book up two months in advance, but it’s still a great place to chill by a fire pit or play cornhole with a brew in hand if the weather is nice
  • Waterfalls – lots of great hiking, pretty views and waterfalls 20 minutes south of the city; we followed signs to Looking Glass Falls and ended up driving the Blue Ridge Parkway after
  • The Biltmore – yeah, it’s touristy (hell, it’s the reason Asheville is even on the map) and it’s pricey, but it’s definitely worth it; where else will you see a 250+ room home AND get a wine tasting that samples 20 different pours?

We returned to DC on Friday. Having been surrounded by beautiful color for the entire week, we were somewhat numb to it as we drove north. Without the constant narration of the foliage to distract us, the drive passed more slowly. To liven it up, I turned to Alan and asked, “Who was your favorite elementary school teacher and why?”

Without moving his eyes off the road or considering the question, he said, “I’m not really interested in answering that right now.”

I’m not used to people opting out of my activities, so I was momentarily stunned. “What the hell kind of response is that?” I asked. “You’re ‘not interested in answering?'”

“That’s right,” he responded, not bothering to elaborate, though I could see the corners of his mouth twitching as if he were proud of himself.

“It’s not like you have anything better to do,” I pushed him. “I’m just trying to find ways to pass the time.”

He considered that for a long minute, then said, “Well, the time is passing whether or not we discuss our favorite teachers. It’s what time does.”

For some reason, I couldn’t stop laughing. And he was right – the time managed to pass just fine on its own. Just like the previous year had. And the year before that.

A good reminder on my birthday.

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