Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ring in the New Year 2012

Here we're sitting in the Hilton Budapest Executive Lounge, snacking on goodies and sipping Hungarian red wine, reflecting on the past 30 hours or so here in what used to be called the Paris of Eastern Europe.

The Hungarian House of Parliament
After arriving here yesterday afternoon by plane from Dortmund, Sabine and I have been trying to slowly get a grasp of this European capital that was never really Communist and is certainly not really Capitalist now. It's not a place where one goes to shop; like Vienna, it moves a little slower than some of the glitzy metropolises of the west. One comes here to catch a glimpse of the past with the amenities of the present. Case in point: our digs in the Hilton.
One of the amazingly (really) steep and (really) fast escalators in Budapest's underground system
Budapest (and Hungary) have a few claims to "firsts," among them the use of the word "hello," which was used by a Hungarian operator of the first telephone line from Boston to somewhere—"hallom" simply meant "I hear you." Also, the first subway ran here in Budapest, a tiny little thing that has not changed much from Line 2, which took us to ... the baths. And really, for me, the main thing in coming to Budapest was just that: sharing some of the city's many baths with Sabine.
A man after my own mustache: Tas, one of the legendary Magyars

Today we paid a four-and-a-half hour visit to the Szechenyi baths close to Heroes Square and City Park, on the Pest side of Budapest. (Buda is the old-town area with the castle and also the stunning Hilton, where we are staying.) It was Saturday and New Year's Eve all in one, so people were out in droves to either ice-skate or take the waters. We took the waters.
Winter Wonderland in City Park
For about $10 one buys weekend admittance to the largest of all the spa complexes in Budapest, and if you've ever seen the iconic travel-guide picture of the old fellows playing chess while sitting in what seems to be steaming water, well, you've seen a pic of Szechenyi. We spent most of the day either inside of the sprawling complex, sitting with dozens and hundreds of people in small and large basins with sulfuric (or plain) water at temperatures from 16 degrees Celsius to 40 degrees—about 66 F to right around 100 F). Old and young, skinny and fat, Speedo-clad or Bermuda-shorted, they come out en masse. THIS is what you do in Budapest! There are flip-flops everywhere, people stroll between basins, and bottles of water mingle with bottles of vodka, beer, and champagne. It's life, man!
Old and young, lovers and singles, skinny and fat—they all participate
Indoors are the various medicinal baths, while the outside features two symmetrical 36 C basins and a lap-swimming pool. Better wear your bathing cap to swim laps, lest you want to be rudely told by the lifeguard to get out of the water! Bottles of champagne abounded, probably because it was New Year's Eve, and beer flowed happily thanks to the on-site commissary.
Ringing in the New Year in a Speedo
Yes, we did see the iconoclastic chess players, and yes, I am sure that the fat guys in the four-sizes-too-small Speedos would have stood around with a beer in their hands even if the sun had not shone brilliantly, warming the air temp to about 5 C.
Using the noggin while getting pruny
I decided that, by golly, next time I go to Budapest I will bring my own Speedo, which by now is about appropriate for Hungarian haute couture. We spent an absolutely fabulous day, taking the waters.
Taking the waters in Budapest

And now it is almost time to get gussied up for tonight's New Year's Eve celebrations. I've made reservations for the Budapest Jazz Club's NYE bufe and jam session, and it's about 7:30 p.m., and we better find something to wear. Well, not what you think: Last night we had tried to have a late-night beer in the trendy district where the cool pubs are, and every time we opened a door we simply couldn't make ourselves cut through the unbelievable curtain of smoke! While most of Europe has gone smoke-free in most commercial establishments, Hungary has no such restrictions, and it seemed as if every smoker in the rest of Europe has now been banished to one fo these pubs to create the second coming of Mount Vesuvius. So, when I bought tonight's tickets online a few days ago I did not take the smoking factor into consideration, and thus we may get pipped hard. So, whatever we wear tonight, it will probably already be stained, spilled with beer, and rolled over by a truck because we know that when we get home tonight, we will stink to High Heaven.

With that happy thought, here's a very Happy New Year from Budapest, wherever you may be!
Happy New Year 2012!!!!

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