Operation Pen Pal & A Soggy Trip to Berlin

Yes, I know it’s been a long absence. Let’s just say that between work, travel, a visitor, and being sick with two colds in a row, I haven’t gotten to blogging in awhile. Mea culpa.

My sister Carol visited for two weeks recently. We had a wonderful visit (despite both of us getting sick in Berlin), and I feel a bit bereft now that she has gone. Having a visitor drives home the sense of isolation that comes with living in a strange place. At least the weather has improved–sunny and about 60. There was mainly rain and 40s/low 50s for my poor sister; she was, I’m sure, very happy to get back to sunny Arizona!

My sister teaches middle school English in a Catholic school and had the brilliant idea of trying to find Hungarian pen pals for her students. I asked one of my colleagues, who fortuitously has a friend who teaches English at a local Catholic school, the Karolina school and gymnasium. We arranged a meeting with the wonderful Ágnes, who arranged for us to meet with students in 6th-8th grades there. Carol was in her element with the students, who were shy but warmed up to her. We had some lively discussion, wherein we told them about Arizona and New York, exchanged information about the schools (this one is much bigger than hers). We learned from the students about Hungarian sports, pastimes, and dog breeds, such as the Puli, a herding dog with dreadlocks, which resembles a dust mop.


I talked with a boy who had spent time in Toronto and had been to Niagara Falls, and a girl from Transylvania, with whom I shared a laugh at Americans who think vampires live there. Carol distributed the letters her students had written to the appropriate classes. We later met with Ágnes to pick up the replies her students had written. The students on both sides are very excited about having pen pals (although not necessarily as excited about writing the letters). The teachers insisted on hand-written old-fashioned letters (Carol had to teach her students how to write such a thing!), although I’m sure some of the students may end up contacting each other through Facebook also. I absolutely loved having a pen pal (from New Zealand) when I was a kid, and it is great to know that kids are still interested in this. An old-fashioned but still relevant force for globalization!

I will be returning to the Karolina school probably in December, as I have been invited to talk with some of the students about American holidays. Before that, however, I’ll be meeting with high school students to talk about Halloween at the Community House of the Szeged Csányi Foundation, set up to develop the talents of underprivileged kids.

Carol and I traveled to Berlin for a few days. Neither of us had been, and, like they say, there’s so much history there. (Ha, there is history everywhere, says the historian!) Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate. My impressions of Berlin: gray, dreary, cold, rainy. The architecture tends to the ponderous and many buildings need cleaning, which added to the dreariness. Luckily the rain spared us one day to do a marathon walk around the city center, from Alexander Platz and down the Unter den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag Building (Bundestag), then along the path of the wall to Checkpoint Charlie.

A piece of the Wall at Potsdamer Platz
A piece of the Wall at
Potsdamer Platz
Memorial to Roma murdered in Holocaust
Memorial to Roma
murdered in Holocaust

Despite the weather, there were hundreds of other tourists on the march. It was sobering to see memorials to the Roma and the Jews murdered in the Holocaust, to view an open air exhibition on the Third Reich, and to walk along the route where the wall divided East and West.Perhaps gray weather is fitting for such a somber trek. Here and there were remaining panels from the wall (at least, I believe they were authentic, although it wasn’t entirely clear). I really wanted to make it to the East Side Gallery, where the last big piece of the wall was given over to artists to decorate, but that would have been another several miles away, and we ran out of steam.

Contemporary architecture in Berlin
Contemporary architecture in Berlin

Of course, Berlin is a dynamic city, as evidenced by the huge numbers of cranes and construction projects dotting the city. And while I was not a fan of most of the buildings in town , I found the contemporary architecture more interesting. But the highlight of the trip for me was the fabulous Pergamon Museum, home of amazing antiquities such as the Pergamon Altar (sadly unavailable for visitors due to renovations), the Miletus Market Gate, the Ishtar Gate and processional way from Babylon, and a host of others from Mesopotamia, the Near East, etc., as well as an amazing collection of early Islamic architecture and art. I

Miletus Gate
Miletus Gate

had the opportunity to visit Miletus and Pergamon when I was in Turkey, and it was really cool to see the reconstructed market gate (massive), complete with little etched signs advertising vendors, as well as a fabulous mosaic floor from the dining room of a private home, also from Miletus. The huge Ishtar Gate and procession way, with its blue bricks and lions, was at least equally impressive.

Processional way, from Babylon
Part of processional way, from

And yes, I found out that Ishtar was the Babylonian goddess of love and war, not just a really bad movie from the 1980s. So many wonderful antiquities here; I literally wandered around for hours, listening to the guide and taking lots of photos.

Colossal bird, Tell Halaf
Colossal bird, Tell Halaf

This giant bird made me think of Horus. There were incredible fountains, statues, water basins, Islamic prayer niches and ceramics, palace reliefs, and much, much more. This museum was truly a place of sensory overload.

So Berlin definitely has things to recommend it to the visitor. And who knows, perhaps in the summer it is an absolutely charming place (but even more overrun with tourists). One piece of advice if you plan to come via Schönefeld Airport: get very explicit directions as to which train to take, as there was no one working at the airport train station, and it was by no means clear which train came on which track, and which train we needed to take. We knew the train number, but that wasn’t enough, as we got on two incorrect trains with the correct number. Thankfully other passengers helped us find our way to Alexander Platz. The train and transit signs seem much better to me in Hungary.

More to come, on my recent travels around Hungary.

Things I Miss (and Not)

So now that I’m pretty well settled, after six weeks, time for an assessment of sorts.

Things I miss, in no particular order: my bed (okay, so I lied–this is way up at the top for sure!) and my recliner; my friends and family (also up at the top); fluffy towels (air dried towels lack that essential fluffiness); hoppy beers, especially good old American IPAs; my well-stocked kitchen (I can never find what I need when trying to cook here); being able to call my sister or my father without planning it out ahead of time with them; being able to read the ingredients and instructions on packages at the grocery store (though I’m getting a bit better at this); tap water that doesn’t taste metallic; Burger Night at the White Inn with Dani, Carmen, and Phil.

Things I (somewhat surprisingly) don’t miss much: TV (except for some nights when I am bored and tired of work or reading  and would like to watch something mindless instead of online news); my car (although it would sure be nice to have it for the trip to Pécs next week–3.5 hours on a bus that leaves at 6:25 a.m., ugh!); “American food” (I haven’t had a burger since I’ve been here, although there are lots of places that actually serve them–I will rectify this soon, I’m sure; hot dogs are also common here); my yard (okay, that’s not really surprising).

My back is almost back to normal, which is good, since I have a busy couple of weeks ahead. I head to Debrecen, a city east of here, for a Fulbright weekend trip. I am proud of myself for purchasing the train tickets on my own today, even though no one at the ticket office spoke English! (Of course, it helped that I had written down the trains and times I wanted, using the online timetable.) Then Wednesday and Thursday I take that early bus ride to Pécs (west of here) to give two presentations at the University of Pécs. And next Saturday I will welcome my first visitor: my sister comes for two weeks!! I am looking forward to showing her around my town, and to our trip to Berlin.

I continue to enjoy my classes, my students, and my colleagues here at Szeged. I look forward to attending part of a conference the American Studies Department is having with professors from the University of Manitoba; unfortunately the Debrecen trip means I cannot attend most of the sessions. I am also enjoying my Hungarian language and culture classes, and making a little progress in my Hungarian. At many restaurants and shops you hardly need Hungarian, but it sure helps at places that don’t deal with many tourists–the train ticket office, the grocery store, the hair salon, the front desk at my dorm, etc.

For the most part, the people of Szeged are quite kind to this alien in their midst. After losing my sunglasses on the train last week, I went hunting for some new ones today. At first the only place I could find them was the optician, and they were quite expensive. But then I saw that DM, one of the drugstores, had a few pairs left. Not particularly liking any of them, I selected the best of the lot, only to find out the price was more than I cared to spend for glasses I didn’t really like. The clerk then kindly directed me to a spot where there were a few pair that were 50% off. I found a pair I liked much better for half the price. Köszönöm szépen, DM clerk!!

Egy kicsit magyarul beszélek (I speak a little Hungarian), which can be dangerous. I now know just enough  to inspire people to unleash torrents of Hungarian in response, to which I can still only reply, “Sajnálom, nem értem.” But I feel I am making progress, anyway.

A little bit of this, a little bit of that

Sorry for my rather long absence; it has been a busy couple of weeks! Classes are going well, and I have found out a bit more about the exam and university system. Seems that indeed this is a European system of sorts; I am told it is the result of the Bologna Process, aimed at developing comparability among European university systems, to ease international study (with the Erasmus program, e.g.) and job placement in differing countries after degree. So it is kind of akin to SUNY’s “seamless transfer” program, on a much bigger and multi-national scale. (For more, see this.) Bologna produced, for instance, the 3-year bachelor’s and the long exam period with retakes, I am informed. And while the single-exam-takes-all system may be stressful for the students, they are appalled that U.S. students have no opportunity to retake an exam. (I asked my graduate class, which includes a German Erasmus student as well as Hungarian students, about this.) I suppose when one exam is all, you almost have to allow retakes.

I am still trying to learn some Hungarian. Some days I feel that I’ve made progress, others not so much. My vocabulary has definitely expanded, but my ability to make sentences out of it seems permanently stalled! I have been sitting in on some of the Hungarian language and culture courses offered at the university (for foreign students). I see some of the American students at these; there are only six here, all from the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. This also helps to keep me busy, although my life is now getting busier anyway. I gave my first presentation last week, to the students in my colleague Ágnes’s class. Although I was originally going to talk about the Puritans, Hawthorne, and May Day, I ended up presenting about the U.S. border with Mexico. I have been thinking a lot about the parallels  between U.S. border security and immigration issues and what’s happening here with the refugee crisis, and it seemed like a timely topic. In fact, I will be giving this presentation again to a class at the University of Pécs in a couple of weeks. (Note: If you are interested in my reflections on the refugee crisis here in Europe, please let me know and I will be happy to share, in a less public space.)

Big news: I finally moved into the renovated apartment!! After being here for 5 weeks and watching the interminable progress of the renovations, I was informed on Tuesday morning as I was leaving for campus that I “had to move today.” Suddenly they were in a huge hurry. So I moved everything over and here I am. The budget for new furniture apparently did not materialize, but the apartment is, nevertheless, a significant improvement over the first one. The furniture, while not new, is nicer than what was in the first place, there is more room for visitors, and the bathroom and kitchen are very nice! So now I am settled in for the duration. I’m still living in the workzone (as they are now working on the first apartment), but at least once I’m inside it is more of a home.

Work zone
Work zone

The other day I attended a reception for Fulbright grantees, past and present, given by the U.S. Embassy. The event was at a beautiful home high in the Buda hills, on the rather amusingly named Bimbo Utca (yes, I’m childish; it actually means Bud, as in flower, Street). It was fun to see my Fulbright pals again, and to meet former grantees and Embassy folks. I will have the opportunity to hang with the Fulbright folks again next weekend when we have an outing to Debrecen, a city east of here.

Also this week I received a loaner bike from dear Ágnes. Of course, being me, I promptly crashed it into a pole on the way home. In my defense, it was a bit confusing as to which way the path went, and I hesitated a moment too long and ended up  hitting the pole (which was in the middle of the path, I might add). Two days later I was barely able to move from back pain. It took me another day to figure out that this was the result of the bike crash (yeah, I can be a bit slow on the uptake). So I am taking it easy, taking Aleve, and hoping this will end soon! I have had only one ride so far, and I’m not really sure when the next will be. But for sure I will be riding away from traffic and crowded conditions for awhile once I get back on the bike!

Foodwise, I have been exploring the Turkish and Thai offerings here (not bad and a change of pace). I also went to a Serbian restaurant, which was quite nice.  And I bought some of the local homemade kolbasz–a little similar to Mexican chorizo. And, believe it or not, I went to the wine festival here last weekend. And I drank not just one but three glasses of wine (okay, they were very small, but still)–two white and one red. I also had some white wine at the Embassy party (because there was no beer). And you know what, the wine wasn’t bad. So maybe I will actually start drinking wine once in awhile, as my pal Jan keeps encouraging me to do. The wines here are quite nice, and dry (at least in this region), so don’t be fooled by the Tokay. That’s only one type of the many Hungarian wines available. Among the food sold at the wine festival, by the way, was blood and onion stew, or hagyma vér (I kid you not).

Blood & Onions
Blood & Onions

While we’re on food, I may as well discuss the piac, or market. I got a tour last Saturday morning from my colleague, Zoltán. The market is open every day, but is largest and busiest on weekends. There are many, many farmers there selling all types of produce, which is delicious and low in price. Paradicsom (tomatoes), uborka (cucumbers), baracka (peaches), hagyma (onions), paprikas of course, alma (apples), etc., etc. Then there are the separate stalls that sell pickled goods (pickles, slaws, pickled veggies, etc.), sausages of various sorts, chicken (separate from the other meats), meats (pork, beef), fish, bread, pastries, etc. It is truly a treat for all the senses to wander around this vast market!




The Hungarian University

I began teaching on Tuesday at the University of Szeged. I am teaching, for the American Studies Department, an undergraduate lecture course (on American Holidays) with about 24 students, and a graduate seminar (on American Material Culture) with 4 students. The students, thus far, do not strike me as all that different from American university students. Although I’ve been told they are less likely to talk and more deferential, I asked questions in the lecture and got responses, so I haven’t noticed this so far. One difference in going to teach is that the classrooms are kept locked, and the professor must sign out the key from the front security desk before each class. My classes are in very nice “smart rooms” with computer, projector, etc., similar to those at Fredonia.

There are some profound and interesting differences between American and Hungarian course structure, teaching styles, and examinations and assignments. Some background: a bachelor’s degree here is a three-year degree, with 180 credit hours, as opposed to the 120-hour standard four-year program in the U.S.  (A masters’ degree requires another 60 credits, compared to generally 30 in the U.S.) So their credit hour system is a bit different than ours, and the students take far more classes per semester than American students do. Classes meet just once a week, for 90 minutes total, and the semester is 14 weeks long. Given that, on a Tuesday/Thursday teaching schedule at Fredonia each class is 80 minutes, you can see that there is much less teaching time over the course of the semester here. This makes sense, considering the higher number of classes and credits the students take, although it has required me to reorganize and cut parts of my courses.

Aside from the scheduling and time of courses, there are strict definitions of the types of courses. There are two basic types: lecture and seminar. Lecture classes are to consist pretty much solely of lectures. Attendance at lectures is not mandatory. You assign the students readings, and can certainly try to have them discuss them, but you cannot grade them on this. In fact, their sole grade in the class comes from a final examination, which may be oral or written. Of course, you test them on the readings and your lectures.

The examination system is worth its own paragraph. Students are allowed to take an examination up to three times to improve their grades. So rather than one examination week, as at Fredonia, there are weeks of examinations. Classes end on Dec. 5, and the exam period runs from Dec. 7-23, and from Jan. 4-22. Then there is a “repeat exam period” from Jan. 25-29. You may choose to give your students oral examinations (about 15 minutes) or written examinations (I am not sure of the length of these). The professor is supposed to have set times each week during the exam period when she will give examinations. Believe me, I am thoroughly confused by all of this, but Réka, my wonderful department chair and friend, has assured me she will guide me through these unfamiliar waters. I have chosen, upon Réka’s advice, to give oral examinations. This should prove interesting, as my only previous experience with this type of exam is my oral exams in graduate school. Distilling an entire course to a 15-minute exam seems challenging, to say the least!  Oh, and you must tell the student his/her grade immediately afterward.

You might be thinking that such a system puts a great deal of stress on students, and I am told that it does, but here’s the thing:  This system is also what the students want. Believe me, professors would not have dreamed up such a system. Professors are not allowed to have other assignments or midterms for grading; or, more accurately, they may do so but the students can refuse to do them or file a complaint. I guess the stress of the all-powerful final exam is relieved by the potential to spread it over many weeks, and retake and retake to improve one’s grade. This, too, is at the students’ insistence, I am told. Far be it from me to criticize another system, but this system seems to be a difficult one for students and professors alike. This exam system is one reason I am staying until the end of January. Many Fulbright profs cannot do so, as they must teach in January. In this case, someone else must give their exams (written) and scan and send them on for grading. As you may imagine, neither the students nor the professors like that much.

There are lecture courses at both the undergrad and graduate level, by the way. The other type of course, also available at both the undergraduate and graduate level, is the seminar. My graduate course is a seminar. Seminars are run pretty much like seminars at U.S. universities. You are required to have at least three grading components (e.g., discussion, papers, presentations) and the classes are discussion-based rather than lecture. You do not have a final examination, but the papers must be due by the last week of class and you must turn in your grades that week. In other words, I will be done with that class by the first week in December.

So there it is, your introduction to the Hungarian university system. As I always say, when in Rome . . . Part of the adventure of the Fulbright is encountering very different systems, and being reminded  that American norms and ideas about pedagogy are norms in the United States only! I believe that the Hungarian system is more along typical European lines, but I don’t have enough familiarity with other European universities to be sure. Given that they are part of the Erasmus system, which allows students from European universities to take courses at universities in other countries, I would assume that Hungary’s system cannot be too different than other European universities, at any rate.

I met a couple of American study-abroad students the other day (from Wisconsin), and I cannot help but wonder how they will adjust to this system! In any case, I have embarked on my Hungarian teaching adventure, and I will keep you posted of any new and interesting developments.

Dugonics Ter
U-Szeged Main Admin. bldg, Dugonics Ter

Food, part 2

I know I should write about Budapest (and I will), but I feel compelled to write more about food tonight. I’ve come to the conclusion, after three weeks, that the main food groups here are fat, sugar, bread, and meat. The food is delicious, but I’m not sure it’s quite as healthy as our instructor in Budapest claimed! The most ubiquitous foodstuffs are breads and pastries of all kinds, meats & fish, particularly the local fish, and fat. The last I mean literally, as in  a booth at the festival with huge baskets of duck, goose, and pork cracklings for sale.

duck cracklings for sale
duck cracklings for sale

Fat also stars, of course, in the delicious sauces, soups and baked goods. Vegetables, particularly green veggies, are a little harder to come by. There are certainly vegetables (zöldseg) to be had: the main ones are peppers (paprika) of all sorts above all else, cabbage, onions (hagyma), potatoes (the wonderfully named krumpli).  This is an agricultural country, so these are supplemented this time of year by luscious tomatoes (paradiscom) and such. Indeed, when you go into a market or grocery, the vast majority of the produce seems to come from Hungary. Only the tropical fruits come from elsewhere. This is great right now during the season, of course–there are glorious grapes, wonderful peaches, blueberries, etc., in addition to veggies of various sorts.

This weekend was the fish soup festival, or Halfesztivál, which gave me the opportunity to try more Hungarian specialties. This festival was begun 20 years or so ago by a local restaurateur who runs the premier fish restaurant (halászcsárda) in town.

The man who started it all
The man who started it all

Various local restaurants and bars set up booths selling food and drink, and there were lots of handicrafts as well. At the place selling the cracklings I bought a loaf of what I believe is pumpernickel bread (but no cracklings!). I had the fish soup, natch, which is eaten with a huge roll (of course). I also tried a Transylvanian specialty, the kürtöskalács. This is my new favorite baked good–heaven on a spit. You take some sweet yeasty dough, wrap it in spiral fashion around a wooden spit, baste it with a glaze (honey and egg yolk, and I think a bit of butter) and roast it over hot coals on said spit (rotisserie). When it’s browned nicely they roll it in sugar (and they might add other things at this point, such as ground walnuts or almonds, or cocoa), slip it off the spit into a cellophane bag, and sell it to you. Yum, yum, yum, is all I can say!!

heaven on a spit
heaven on a spit
noshing by the cauldron
noshing by the cauldron

The festival has a historical feature, too. It seems that Szeged is infamous for being the place where the last people were executed (burned at the stake) for witchcraft, in the 18th C. (I suggested that Szeged should become a sister city of Salem.) This was on an island or peninsula in the Tisza called today, appropriately, Witch Island. They call this Witch City and sell magnets and such to this effect. So for the festival, they have a giant cauldron of soup cooking in the traditional manner over a wood fire by the side of the river. And a “witch” parachutes in to bring the paprika for the soup (I kid you not). Indeed, a guy did parachute in.

witch parachuting in
witch parachuting in
"bubble, bubble" witch adding paprika
“bubble, bubble”; witch adding paprika

Once he landed, he ran up (in witch costume) to the big cauldron, posed for pictures, and then ceremonially threw some paprika in the cauldron. And I suppose that marked the official start of the festival.

Some other tastes: In Budapest, where the Fulbright folks treated us royally to fabulous lunches and dinners, I tried several things for the first time. One was goose (which tasted pretty similar to the duck we had the day before), which we had at a medieval restaurant. Another was veal, which was in a fabulous soup (with lemon and tarragon) we had at dinner the first night. The soup at the medieval restaurant, almost as good, starred venison. We had savory and sweet strudels in a place famous for the same, where you could watch them make it.

making strudel
making strudel

And I had the most beautiful ice cream cone at a place that scooped it into the shape of rose petals–mango and raspberry, if you’re wondering. About double the price of most ice cream here at 550 HUF (c. $2), but well worth it!

the most beautiful ice cream cone ever!
the most beautiful ice
cream cone ever!

Finally, I learned what the mysterious Pöttyös is. I’ve seen these things around; they look rather like a Mounds bar, so I have avoided them because I don’t like coconut. Turns out they are a chocolate bar called Túró Rudi that has a cottage cheese filling.

Pöttyös Túro Rudí
Pöttyös Túro Rudí

This was the brainchild of the dairy industry in the 1960s, apparently. (Did I forget to mention that they eat a lot of cottage cheese here?) I guess I’ll have to try one after all. They are apparently a favorite candy bar in Hungary, but found in the dairy aisle.

Okay, enough already about food for awhile. Next I’ll turn to more weighty topics (not that all the food I’ve been eating won’t be turning soon to weighty topics, haha). By the racket going on outside, I realize that I have missed a big fireworks display that must have closed the Halfesztivál for another year. But not to worry. Soon, no doubt, another festival will be upon us here in Szeged.

Update: I tried a Túró Rudi the other day; not a fan. Perhaps the cottage cheese filling is an acquired taste. No matter, there are plenty of other wonderful foods to eat here!




Sör, Fagylalt, és Szegedi Halászlé

These are a few of my favorite things. Yes, this is the first food post. Translated, those are “beer, ice cream, and Szeged fish soup.” All are superb here! I’ve been tasting my way around Szeged for the past couple of weeks, and there is much good to report.

The beer is excellent–generally lagers and pilsner styles, with some German weiss beers thrown in. Funny how all those styles taste so much better to me here than they do at home. I actually read today on a German beer site that the lagers and pilsners are more bitter, which may explain it. There is a bar or two that serve craft beers, but I have not gotten to those yet, other than to taste the craft beers at the festival last week. I favor the Dreher (a big Budapest brewery) Hidegkomlós at home; I picked it because it had hops on the can, and it doesn’t disappoint! And have I mentioned that beer is quite affordable? Along the lines of $1-2 per draft beer (for about a 12 oz. size); the most I paid was the equivalent of $3.50 for a large craft-brewed IPA at the festival. At the grocery store you can only buy individual cans, although a few imports come bottled. A half-liter can of beer at the grocery store will set you back about $.85.  A favorite late afternoon ritual here is to sit at a sidewalk cafe sipping a beer (yes, I have partaken in this ritual a time or two!).

And you all know my weakness for ice cream, gelato, sorbet. I haven’t found much sorbet here among the gelato. They generally sell gelato, something called “desserts” which are fancier ice creams and cost a little more, and something mysteriously called “paleo” gelato, which may actually be sorbets. Not sure what paleo means, but I’m guessing perhaps uncooked. I have tried quite a few, because they, too, are inexpensive–less than $1 for one scoop, and less than $2 for two. My favorites so far are a fabulous passion fruit/raspberry and a cinnamon. It’s been hot, so some fagylalt each afternoon is a basic requirement!

As for the fish soup, Szeged is famous for this; in fact this is a popular dish around Hungary. But Szeged claims to have the best, because of the special Szeged paprika used. Szeged is one of the two big paprika growing areas of the country. Side note: it is amazing how many different varieties of paprika you can buy here–from mild and sweet to very hot, there are many gradations. Apparently what is distinctive about Szeged’s halászlé, aside from the paprika, is that it is always made with three kinds of fish. It usually includes carp and catfish, which are the main local fish, I am told, and also perhaps pike for the third. The broth is made with lots of paprika, also the actual peppers, some tomato, and some onion (paprika and onions seem to go on everything here). I tried some at a restaurant by the river the other day. The broth was amazing, and the soup was great. It comes in a giant bowl–this is not a soup you order for one person.

Szeged fish soup
Szeged fish soup

It must be shared! I’m very excited that I will be back from Budapest in time for the annual fish soup festival in Szeged next week. I will report on that afterward.

As for other tastes of Szeged: Salami is ubiquitous here; indeed, there is a large factory (Pick) in town. And the salami is quite good; believe me, I’ve sampled it (a lot!). There is always the Hungarian staple of gulyás (goulash), which I believe can be served as soup or more of a stew. I have had the soup, which consists of beef, vegetables, and some little dumpling noodles in a rich paprika (of course) broth. There is the lángos, which I described in an earlier post. I still haven’t tried the dough cooked on the rotisserie; it’s on my to do list. But I was introduced the other day to something called cremasnit, which is another Hungarian specialty (although apparently the Austrians and others also lay claim). This is a flaky pastry bar (huge) with a custard filling. Unlike some such pastries, which look great and disappoint (usually because they are too sweet), this was perfect and not overly sweet. I had this at a little pastry shop, where everything is made fresh daily. Indeed, there are many bakeries and sweet shops here, which are generally called “cukrászda” (confectionery). They often also sell ice cream at these. I have to say I have yet to taste a bad pastry here.

Soup: Midday meals often feature a soup course; all restaurants have 4 or 5 soups on their menus. Soup is called “leves,” by the way. Every soup I have had so far has been tasty; some have been superb. I’m a soup person, so this is wonderful in my view. It reminds me of when I went to Poland, which also had many, many soups. I decided then that my love of soup came from my Polish heritage.

Other food tidbits: If you go to a restaurant at midday, you can usually get the “menu,” which is a two or three course meal for a set price. This seems to range from about 900 to a couple thousand forints, depending on how close the place is to the tourist areas. 900 forints is about $3.50, by the way. The times I’ve had this, it has included a soup course and a main course. Sometimes it also includes a drink. Not bad at all! They also seem to love pizza here; there are a number of pizza places. The Szeged style pizza has salami (natch), onions, spicy local sausage, and cheese. Finally, one of my favorite meals here was not particularly Szegedi, but it sure was tasty. It was a delicious grilled salmon  over stir-fried vegetables, which included eggplant (amazing), zucchini, tomato, mushrooms, and others.

So, now you can see why I must walk several miles each day and jog in the parks! I’ve been eating too much! Actually, I’ve been eating big lunches and then having salad at night generally. So perhaps that helps to make up for the beer and ice cream, haha. I leave for Budapest in the morning, and who knows what gastronomic wonders await me there? I’ll keep you posted.


The Street Where I Live

The street where I live is called Fó fasor (or Fo Alley); the dorm faces onto Temesvári Krt (Boulevard), but I look out on Fó. The dorm where I live, by the way, is named after Otto Herman (1835-1914), who, according to Wikipedia, was a zoologist, archaeologist, ethnographer, and politician. In other words, your typical 19th C. Renaissance man. Sorry about Wikipedia, but couldn’t find anything else about him. I did see his picture in the local museum, however, but couldn’t read what it said about him!

I’ve already mentioned the big park across Temesvári, through which I walk to the main part of town. This park seems to be variously called Erzébet Park or Liszt Ferenc Park, depending on where you look. The part of Szeged where I live, across the Tisza, is called Ujszeged, or “New Szeged.” As this suggests, it is the newer part of town. It is a rather leafy suburban looking place. When you walk around you can see lots of big nice houses, but they are (unlike many American suburbs) also intermixed with apartment buildings (probably condos, not rentals), businesses, and dorms (mine isn’t the only one). The Biology School of the University of Szeged is also over here; apparently most of the students in Otto Herman are biology students. More on the students later.

My street is lovely and leafy: It is lined with stately trees, and there is a wide walkway, which pedestrians and bicyclists share. Rather unnervingly, mopeds also drive on these pathways. One quickly learns around here that pedestrians stay on their side, if marked, or to one side, if not. Otherwise they will be run over by the many bikers!

Sidewalk, Fo fasor

A few blocks down is the water tower, of which there are many attractive ones around here. And just beyond that is a lovely little park along a small tributary of the river, lined with weeping willows. There are pathways along both sides; I see I’ve found an alternative walking/jogging path. There is the sweetest bridge crossing (picture above). I spied a man fishing, and I even saw a fish jump (although he didn’t catch it). Looming over the trees is the water tower.

water tower
water tower

On the way back I discovered a small garden maze near the water tower as well, buzzing with bees and butterflies. There are some benches to rest on, as I have found in all the parks here and along the pedestrian streets. They provide nice benches for the weary walker!

Maze on Fo Alley
Maze on Fo Alley

After this walk, I had a nice weiss beer at the local beer garden, as well as some pork, cabbage slaw, and the best potato salad I’ve had in awhile. The folks around here really take advantage of the nice weather with lots of sidewalk cafes and garden seating–so charming.

Alas, my street is also noisy, as is my dorm (periodically). There is a lot of traffic on both streets, for one thing. And this week there is a huge music festival going on in the big park, which has meant music wafting in all night (past midnight). And then there are the students, who begin classes next week. In Fredonia I purposely live far from the student houses, dorms, and pathways to the bars. So it’s kind of ironic that I am living in a dorm here. The drinking age is 18 here, so the students can drink in the dorm. They also drink outside the dorm, since there seems to be no real law against drinking in public, (or at least  not one that is enforced). Yesterday a group of students was walking down the street chanting and screaming at the top of their lungs. They seem to like to do that. The other night another group was playing soccer outside til quite late, cheering and screaming.

Last night really took the cake, though. They had what seemed to be some sort of welcoming party (at least I devoutly hope it was a one-off!) downstairs, which consisted of lots of singing, shouting, drinking, etc. I am on the first floor up, so needless to say, it was extremely noisy in my apartment. Around 10 p.m. this was accompanied by thumping dance music, which lasted until after 1 a.m. Yes, I had to dig out the ear plugs to try to get some sleep.  Ah, youth. I’m just hoping that once classes begin, they will be too busy to party (haha). I’m quite sure that many of the students are charming individually but they seem to be one loud screech (of the nails on a blackboard variety) as a group! Tonight, at least, it is blessedly quiet (for now). Keeping my fingers crossed this will continue.

Tomorrow I pack for Budapest. Going to the train station Sunday will afford me the first glimpse of the migrants coming through from Serbia. More to come on that.

Szent István has a holiday

Last week (August 20) was the national holiday in Hungary, which commemorates Szent István (St. Stephen), Hungary’s first king, crowned in 1000 C.E. This was the founding of the Hungarian nation, so this is the main national holiday. Tidbit: István was also a Christian, and, according to my guidebook, required all Hungarians to get married! The August 20 date is the date that he was canonized (in 1083). So that is the history. How do the Hungarians celebrate?

Well, for one thing they put Hungarian flags up everywhere, and in Budapest they have both a cake-cutting ceremony, with a special national cake, and a procession of the saint’s right hand at St. Stephen’s Basilica. In Szeged, I saw many Hungarian flags on the Belvárosi Bridge that I cross each day. They also lay a wreath at István’s statue in Széchenyi tér, the main square in the center of town.

St. Stephen with wreath
St. Stephen with wreath

But the main celebration is a big beer and food festival along the Tisza River, featuring lots of craft breweries, as well as booth selling Hungarian wines and palinka (the traditional fruit brandy);  food of all types, ranging from Hungarian specialties to hot dogs and even “Texas Barbecue”; rides for the kids; some craft booths; and live music.

Festival, Szeged, 8/20/15

On the holiday I headed over for food and a beer or two, and the fireworks. I almost immediately saw a beer booth that had an IPA. What, an IPA here in Hungary?  I had to check that out. The friendly woman and man working there rustled me up said IPA, and it was quite nice–more of an English IPA than the American IPA I prefer, but nice just the same. The brewery, whose name I unfortunately do not recall, is near Budapest. Thus fortified with beer, I set off to find food. Such an abundance of foods, some mystifying (big tubular rolls that looked like some sort of pastry being grillled on a rotisserie?), others seeming out of place (Texas barbecue?), lots of sausage, salami, hamburgers, etc. I decided to try a lángos, which is a fried potato flour dough base on which they put toppings, generally including sour cream, onions (red and scallions), and your choice of others. I chose one that had salami (of course), cheese, and I think it also had tomatoes or peppers. It was sort of the Hungarian version of the Navajo taco. It was huge and quite tasty; I couldn’t finish it. (One thing I have found about eating out in Hungary is that portion sizes tend to be huge, as in American style huge.)  For more on lángos you can check out the recent New York Times piece.

After such a feast, I was ready for another beer, and this time I found yet another IPA brewed by Zips Brewery. This one was hoppier and quite tasty. Ah, but there were still a couple of hours until the fireworks, so I listened to the music for awhile, then went for a walk around the area, checking out the wonderful National Theater and the lovely Hungarian Secessionist Deutsch Palace, with its blue ceramic folk art-inspired tulips, hearts, and other ornaments on the facade.

Deutsch Palace
Deutsch Palace

I also saw the spirit of the river, a statue of a woman representing the Tisza, along the bank. Then it was back to the festival for the fireworks show and one more beer, this time a Hungarian lager; I’m not an American lager fan, but the ones here are terrific!

Statue of River Tisza
Statue of River Tisza

And oh, the fireworks. In the U.S. they tend to parcel them out one by one, with oohs and aahs at each. In Hungary they send up 10 and more at a time–some high, some low, different types. And they keep sending them up this way for about 15 minutes. It was fantastic!

Concluding thoughts? The festival was much like the many festivals held throughout the U.S.–food booths, rides, craft booths, music, groups of teenagers hanging out, children running around, and families strolling. What struck me as most different: the fireworks, as already mentioned, and the multiple booths selling alcohol, which you could walk around the whole festival drinking. No need to go to a restricted area to have a beer. And yes, I did go back a couple more times over the weekend for another beer or two, more music, and I even tried the “Texas Barbecue,” where the speakers play Johnny Cash and they have a smoker and sell ribs, pulled pork, beef, chicken, sausage, etc. I tried the pulled pork and they even served it North Carolina style (topped with coleslaw, add your own sauce if you like); it was pretty darn good, actually. And the sandwich was sold to me by a young woman who, it turns out, had spent three months working at a camp in the Adirondacks, so we chatted about her experiences in New York. And that was my first Szeged festival. The next one is less than two weeks away. I can hardly wait!

Nem értem

“I don’t understand.” I have been in Szeged almost a week now, and I feel like this simple phrase should be emblazoned on my forehead as I struggle to learn the basics of Hungarian. I find myself seeking out cafes and restaurants where there are English translations on the menus, and at least one English speaking staff member. But no one speaks English at the grocery stores. I’ve been having fun trying to find things there, using the pictures on products when available and scanning my small travel Hungarian dictionary otherwise.

I actually love looking around grocery stores, oddly enough, and it’s particularly fascinating in a new country. Yesterday I was trying to find salt and pepper. Pepper, predictably, was with the spices as in the U.S. But salt was another story. I finally found it on an aisle with sugar, flour, and rice. Perhaps all white food products stick together? Then there were so many different bags of salt, with indecipherable descriptions. What kind did I want? Just as in the U.S., I faced too many options! I settled on the smallest package I could find of plain old table salt (at least I think that’s what it is). Looking at all the dried soup packages was another trip into the mysterious. Gulyas I could understand, but the rest were trickier. I decided to try a dumpling soup, which I found listed in my menu decoder.

Cashing out is another challenge. I know enough to say “Jó napot” (hello, good afternoon) and “köszönöm” (thank you), and I can read the amount on the register. But yesterday, a cashier asked me something when I gave her a bill and I had no clue. She said it again and I shook my head, lamely telling her I didn’t understand (and of course forgetting how to say that). Finally she wrote “.50” on a scrap of paper. Ah, did I have the 50 forints; why, yes, I did! See what I mean? I need it emblazoned on my forehead: “Nem értem.”

On the other hand, many people in restaurants and cafes seem to speak a bit (and sometimes much more) of English. Yesterday at the “Texas Barbecue” stand at the festival (more on this later) I talked to a young woman working there, who had spent three months in the Adirondacks as a camp counselor. So I asked her how she liked NY, and we had a nice little chat. The BBQ wasn’t half bad, either. They even served the pulled pork Carolina style (despite the eatery’s name) with coleslaw on top. And the pilsner was a good accompaniment!

Just as big a challenge as the grocery store is the staff at my home for the duration, the Otto Herman Kollegium (that’s dorm, yes, dorm), where I have a small apartment. Most of them speak very little English, but they know me. I can only imagine what they are thinking–oh, here comes that dumb American again! But they are friendly, and we exchange “Jó napots” as I turn in my key when I leave and pick it up when I return. I tried a new phrase the other day on one of the guys: “Hogy vagy?” or “How are you?” (pronounced sort of like ‘haj vaj,’ so it’s fun to say). This cracked the guy up. So I am making some progress (I think). The correct response, by the way, is “Jól. És te?” (Fine. And you?)

One final adventure in interpreting Hungarian. My apartment has a small washing machine with very different controls. There is an instruction sheet in English, but it left off a few things, such as how to turn it on, whether it was plugged in (it was not), whether the water was on (it was not). After figuring out the latter two, the mystery of turning it on remained. But I tried the only option I could see, which said “500.” I looked up a manual online (have I mentioned how much I love Google Translate?), which wasn’t much more enlightening about the on button, but did suggest I was on the right track. And, yes, it did work. So I have mastered the washing machine. Looking at my wet things hanging here, I’m wondering, however, why I didn’t bring more of my typical, fast-drying travel clothing with me!


Well, I believe that is enough for a first post. This may be a strange first post from Szeged, but this language confusion is an overriding thing right now. There is much more to come on the city and the university, of course. Stay tuned!