Monday, November 12, 2007

Mission to Budapest

This is an internet ad from the Helia Hotel showing a model in the hotel's thermal pools. Or maybe it's I in disguise?
I flew to Budapest this weekend, confirming the suspicions of some friends that I am a CIA operative: "Rosemary, Are you an assassin, or are you simply gathering data? Budapest? Is that where you pick up the information capsule on the new Russian fighter plane?"
In mundane fact, three of us from the Center attended a conference on investigative reporting in eastern and southern Europe and sat through presentations on such things as diploma forging in Macedonia, gold mining ravages to Bulgaria and Serbian mercenaries training to fight for the US in Iraq.
It has been wintery, windy and snowing, which discouraged me from the long walks and sightseeing I'd normally crave in this gorgeous city. We canceled a boat ride along the Danube out of fear of frostbite.
But I did visit the thermal pools at the Helia Hotel, not far from our convention hotel. The Helia is not as rich in history and turn of the last century architectural fittings as the legendary Gellert, but the hot water pools in three temperatures of regular, hot and hotter plus bubbles felt wonderful after the walk there in freezing rain.
Conventioneers then herded onto the metro and went to Sunday dinner at the Central Coffeehouse or Kavehaz. I don't know who chose this, but it was appropriate for a group of journalists. Since 1887 it's been a gathering place for writers and thinkers and poets. It's not an original, though it feels like it. it was rebuilt in 1913 and has gone through periods as a student canteen and gaming room. But now it's back to being a coffeehouse with photos and a plaque on the wall commemorating the great minds who have eaten and drunk there.
They are perhaps the inspiration for a menu whose English translations had us howling.
"Goose mush with safron." Doesn't that make your mouth water?
"Gander essense with rosepepper wheathmeal (cq) dumplings." We pondered illectually speaking for a bit about what is the essense of gander.
And my favorite: Tepid bake gooseliver in a cesarean bun and re donion(cq) salad.
"Cesarean," one of the conventioneers asked, "Does that mean it had to be surgically removed from the mother bun?"
I ended up with goulash soup (can't miss with the ordinary) and "pumpkin pie with nutmeg foam." I did have the money to pay for anything on the menu. Or everything.
We made the fatal travel error of not checking the conversion rate for Hungarian Florints before leaving Sarajevo. So at the airport when the ATM asked how many HUFS we wanted we were stymied. A Hungarian waiting for his luggage nearby said there were about 1000 hufs to the dollar so I punched a button to get about 100 dollars worth. Unfortunately the buttons on the Hungarian ATM were a little off so I didn't get the right one.
And then we found out that the Hungarian men at the luggage carousel is not a monetary expert.
In fact, I removed $867 from the ATM.

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