Be Sure to Visit Hungary!

We were an odd lot of people to be the first team into Hungary, ranging in age from an admitted 79 years to early 20’s people. One volunteer couple who owned a winery in California looked forward to learning about famous Hungarian wines. What Sally Swartz and I knew about wine was that we enjoyed drinking it, but we were assigned to a high school.

What a delight the students were. Eager, smiling, welcoming, with enough mischief to make them fun…..but they were also smart, Hungary - 2003 008well-behaved, and open to learning, unlike my then-current clutch of U.S. high school students. One morning the Hungarian students came into my classroom, all excited. (In this small European country, everyone knew “stuff” in the news, far exceeding typical U.S. interests, unfortunately.) What had excited them today? The election of a governor in a state in the U.S……yes, in California and it was Arnold Schwarzenegger—who they instantly claimed was of Hungarian descent. Now, what U.S. student would know where Hungary is located, much less who the leader of that country was? I was learning more than I was teaching.

Hungary - 2003 003The teachers took us on weekend day trips, visiting small towns with big histories—walking through cemeteries with centuries-old dates of burial, the fallen in some long-forgotten war; visiting fabled churches with soaring vaulted ceilings and walls showcasing Hungarian artistic talent; strolling past statues, some funny, some respectful of people in Hungary’s past. That past included a cruel Nazi invasion before the U.S. was involved in WWII, but we felt the anger and sorrow shown by our Hungarian friends as they told stories of unbelievable German brutality, particularly as it focused on the large Jewish population of the country.

Hungary - 2003 005But we had time to visit the markets, filled with food and other items that we didn’tHungary - 2003 004 even recognize. We walked the streets, admiring all those statues that showed the talent of Hungarian artists. And, we happily ate the plethora of food—especially the mashed potatoes one young lady ladled onto my plate. And, Irish or not, I couldn’t possibly eat all those potatoes.

If you haven’t been to Hungary—put it on your visitor list. Food, festivals, friends….and then to top it with a visit to Budapest, the two-pronged city divided by a lovely river.Hungary - 2003 006

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Hungarian Goulash

Hungary - 2003 007There’s a country that few Americans visit, but a student of history and culture should include it.  That country is Hungary, a small nation which warring armies of many countries crossed and nearly destroyed on their way to somewhere else.  It’s a European history book in one small, amazing nation.

Sally Schwartz from Las Vegas and I were privileged to spend several weeks in Hungary a few years ago as part of a Global Volunteer opening effort to “help” a school in a small town, the name of which I still can’t pronounce.  We were the first team into this country from GV, and it was a privilege to “open” it to future teams.

Sally and I were assigned to a high school—warned we were not there to “tell themHungarian classroom how to run their school”…..but it took a bit of tongue-biting for me to keep my mouth shut, even concerning such simple things as the layout of the classrooms and stairs.  But all that faded in our appreciation of the welcome mat that the teachers laid out before us.  They invited us to their parties; took us on “field trips” to famous sites; and nodded agreement when I raised an eyebrow at some aspect of the school’s operation.

But it’s Hungary itself that is worth a visit.  It’s that history book already mentioned. Hungary - 2003 001 The Crusaders passed through Hungary on their way to the Holy Land; centuries later Adolph Hitler made Hungary the #1 country in his aim of European conquest.  Today, the country is peppered with amazing statues, building structures, and markets that entice and intrigue a visitor.  I’ll be writing more about Hungary and what it offers to the world.  Such a small country; such a wealth of beauty, art, and friendship.

London, London, That’s My Town

When the noticeable bomb went off in the London hotel next door, I decided to move from my upscale digs to find something less grand—and maybe safer.  So I checked with friends, who suggested several, but I decided to take a walk and find a place where I’d feel comfortable…and safe.  (Good shoes make walking in London comfortable. One can pass the statue of Churchill smoking his famous cigar; one can pass the Franklin Roosevelt statue and tip one’s hat his way; and cross a bridge made famous because of a famous woman leader of a rebel group­—oh, then eventually find just the right hotel.)

It was the County Hotel, where “local” visitors stay.  Clean rooms, three meals a day, a lobby pay telephone about which I never learned how to use, showers, a friendly staff, and a small bar adjoining where one might find a sandwich in the afternoon.  I’ve stayed there during several visits to England, using the laundry machines down the street, past the park with several interesting figures encouraging a visit within the park.

After 9/11, my granddaughter and I stayed at the hotel, walked the street to then nearby tube station/train station, pausing for a moment to see where a bus had been blown up by the same bunch who hit New York.  The hotel restaurant had a rather limited menu: beans, eggs, soup, did I mention beans?, and sometimes may try to appeal to French guests more than U.S. guests, who often prefer staying in hotels with recognizable names…..their loss.  That’s okay, part of the fun of travel. Beans?

London is an easy city through which to walk, always being aware of one’s surroundings, checking into church gardenA London street sales, then finding lunch at the numerous outlets offering reasonable and delicious food. One place, I overheard (I eavesdropped a great deal everywhere I went) three college age fellows talking about the University of Oregon, a play directed by a world famous  man, and getting great reviews. Yes, of course, I struck up a conversation. And it was fun!  (My granddaughter rolled her eyes!)  It turned out these were Oregon chaps enjoying working in the play.

Plan at least a week in London; take in the plays (I think Wednesday is dark, but check), go out to nearby towns famous for flowers or some historic event—the tube is simply a great, fast, clean way to travel…and not expensive. And Londoners almost speak English—although it often seemed like a foreign language to me.London

Let’s Talk Toilets and Paperbacks

Let’s say you are traveling in China, Mexico, or No. Africa, and have checked in to your modest or very modest (okay, cheap) hotel room.  (This advice probably (note the shifty word) doesn’t apply to elite or posh accommodations.)  One of the first things you will want to do is to use the bathroom, where a small basket, often woven, sits next to you.  That basket is to receive the used toilet paper…..do not flush it down, because the little basket tells you that the plumbing system is not quite up to par.  At least our par.

When I was in Mexico last, I thought Mexico City at least had upgraded the plumbing–wrong.  The city sits on a wobbly (in an earthquake) sub-system of questionable plumbing in porous dirt…and if everyone used a flush toilet as designed, the results wouldn’t be desirable.  SO, when in the areas I’ve mentioned, just note the little basket.  And use it.  The same is true in many restaurants, stores, etc.  And, sometimes there is a nice young man (men’s room) or nice young woman (women’s restroom) to hand you a hopefully adequate amount of toilet paper. And usually, one leaves a modest tip, very modest. And don’t make fun of the facilities.  We’re there to have adventures, right?  So, just consider it a toilet adventure…

Oh, by the way, paper products are very, very expensive in most countries, so be gentle with the amount you buy/use.  Have you ever bought a paperback book in England or Mexico or Australia?  Well, even if you can find a good selection from which to choose, the price sticker may give you a shock.

If everything worked in these places as well as it usually does here in the U.S., what would be the fun in traveling?   Suggestion:  Carry your own paperbacks, and plan to “dump them” for the maid or a new friend as you finish reading them.  Another suggestion:  check the languages in which the paperbacks in foreign stores are printed.  Since most countries, not the U.S., have so many international travelers, they have books written in those languages.  You might be unhappy, after paying an exorbitant amount for a paperback, to find the novel is written in German or French, etc.

You’ll usually want to do some reading; many countries “roll up the streets” when people are home from work for the day.  Now, in Spain, that might not be true…..somehow those towns come back to life after “siesta”–although one doesn’t notice that as much as in the past; many countries are trying to accommodate American or western “tastes.”

Just watch for the little basket!

Musings From My Early Travels

The primary goal of this website is to interest you, help you evaluate, and perhaps inform you, as well as add something valuable to your interest in the world, via my travels.  Or, perhaps I should say, travails. You get to decide.

I believe strongly in the delightful value of traveling to see other places, with those “strange sounding names,” but I will also present some warnings/difficulties/possible Chloe at the Great Wall; Pyramidsdisappointments. (I didn’t get to Petra, but I did get to the pyramids; I didn’t get to Angkor Wat or Vat, but I did climb Machu Picchu; I didn’t get to Singapore, but I did walk a bit of the Great Wall of China.)

The preparation for travel on my own was predicated on the experiences I had traveling with student groups. Most of our students don’t study the cultural basis for most countries they visit; it was up to me to try to fill in the gaps. Many of the “gaps” I saw, in the tour bus driver’s mirror, were the gaping mouths of students snoozing as we drove past historic monuments to a nation’s heroes, or past battlefields.  But they came eagerly awake when we drove past Harrod’s in London—perhaps the world’s most famous store, with slightly infamous owners.

One cultural “situation.” We were in Rome; I had 9 high school students with me.  One gorgeous girl wanted to go outside right after we’d checked in to our hotel—a former convent for nuns.  The girl was wearing too-short shorts.  I told her she’d need to change. She objected and stormed out of the lobby.  Within 3 minutes, she returned, blushing and nearly in tears.  (Yes–you’re right; she’d been pinched—several times—by some hot-blooded Italian boys.)  I never had that problem again.

Another cultural “situation.”  In many countries, youthful drinking is just part of life. This was in Mexico, and one of the members of my Global Volunteer team had been drinking. He climbed to the top of the hotel and wanted to fly.  Another team leader, male, yanked him off the roof before he splatted on the ground below.  (Global Volunteers is a terrific Minnesota group that offers people of all ages the chance to “do a good deed or two” by teaching or training individuals in other countries.  The oldest volunteer I met was 83; the youngest was 15.)

One caveat here:  if you become a “counselor” leading part of a student group, here’s a warning tip.  When we were in Rome, two of “my own” teachers kept asking me to “keep an eye on” their group, which was about 15 high school students. (They had so many students because there were two of them; not one.) Of course, I said, “sure.”  So now I had my own group and their 15; after twice agreeing to that, I told them “no” the next time.  Even an octopus couldn’t keep an “eye” on that many antsy students!

But keep an “eye” on this website—I’ll try to stick to interesting topics.