Sunday, 21 August 2016

"The Amazing Race" Kind of Summer: Budapest

Listen, I'm no TripAdvisor.
Chain Bridge closed for the Air Races (and iPhone photo opportunities)
Please don't expect me to wow here with my review of the veal cutlet served over corn polenta with spicy tomato and roasted red pepper spread, topped with a slice of calf liver done so deliciously to perfection it qualifies as one of the best five dishes my palate has ever experienced. Ever. Or expect me to choose for you the best goulash soup in town, review the intricate layers of the Esterházy torte, recommend the ambiance of Café Pierrot on the Buda side or insist you can't leave without Szeged's Hungarian hot paprika as a souvenir (what's weed for Amsterdam is paprika for Budapest). Nope.

And if I sound a little grumpy to you, there's a reason. Budapest and I - I discovered - have this complicated relationship. You see, this wasn't our first time. It only dawned on me late afternoon on our third day as I was impressing my husband and our boys by navigating like a pro through the city streets on both sides of river Danube, that is not really schönen let alone blauen  showing them the major landmarks, that the previous three visits to this magnificent city had nothing to do with sightseeing. They more resemble a young woman’s shaky journal entries and serve as monuments to my eventful personal history. 

The first visit was in 1990 with my boyfriend - a magical stay in this majestic city that was going through one of its hungry years, just fresh from shedding the communist era and - like a rebellious teenager - having no clue how it all would end. I remember being struck by witnessing old women selling family heirlooms for cash on the pedestrian-only Vaci Utca: art, china, silverware, intricate hand-made lace ornaments. Those forints were food money. We were young and with long-weekend pocket money of about 200 dollars we were beyond wealthy. Caviar for breakfast anyone?

Second visit - 1994 - same boy turned man and husband. My first husband. Atrium Hyatt hotel and a room with the mesmerizing view of the Chain Bridge. After a few days of empty small talk and group sightseeings with his entire family, captured on the photographs I recently happened to have found, there was one evening and a critical conversation with his mighty uncle from America during which we made our first emigration plans that both felt like a breakthrough and a more-than-solid lifeboat out of former Yugoslavia. What a relief! He would re-enrol in university and get a degree. I would license as a pharmacist in Texas. We wouldn’t be sharing a bathroom with all the smokers in his family nor be helplessly waiting in Belgrade for NATO to bomb!

The final visit in 1995 was far less glamorous. Now we were the poor ones, arriving at the TOEFL test with an overnight bus loaded with smugglers. Sausages, toothpaste, laundry detergent and diapers were hot items on Belgrade's black market. When the bus doors closed at midnight at the Central terminal, cigarettes lit, shoes came off and we marinated for 378 point 4 fucken kilometres in odours I can still recall, ears numb from the turbo-folk music that blasted all night through the crackle of worn-out speakers. We took the test at 10:00 a.m. Then we each savoured a Big Mac at the Vaci Street McDonald’s. By then, the city was all done up, facades renovated and posh world brands had moved into Budapest’s prime locations. Everybody had a cellphone. We hung around the river banks and the Chain Bridge for as long as we could then rushed back to board that same bus for the same many-hours-long ordeal back, the experience only enhanced by the mandatory 10 Deutschmarks per person bribe for the customs officer not to open the the trunk to check for possible imported goods.  
     “But we didn’t buy anything, we just went…” we tried to fight the injustice of it all. 
     “You are welcome to walk home" the toothless driver replied with a grin, cigarette dangling off the corner of his mouth. “In my bus we’re all equal: everyone pays the racket!” 

Nevertheless I passed my test of English as a Foreign Language with flying colours (the then-husband did not do as well but still adequately for the mediocre private university in Texas that had accepted his uncle’s tuition cheque) and we were cleared for emigration. 

The jolly never-ending tune playing in between the tourist sights information on channel 2 for English on Budapest’s double decker bus woke me up. Or was it my family alerting me to our final stop - the 5 star Boscolo Hotel. It was day 6 of us gumping* over Europe, I must have dozed off in exhaustion.

So if I sounded crabby - forgive me. It is from the stark contrast of this before and after for me. The life I willingly signed up for as a young, educated woman and this beautiful life I turned out to be living. The many different dead-ends and near-fatal turns that could have occurred has left me vulnerable in retrospect. I wish my happily-ever right now was more than just happenstance -  that I actually had had a say in it.

Somewhat ignorant or simply unaware, Budapest the beautiful has witnessed all of my personal drama that unfolded over the past quarter of a century, seemingly analyzing my life with equal emotion - oh well: here comes the rain, here comes the sun, take a walk, take a seat, sip a coffee, eat a cake, take a long soothing bath - you will most certainly feel better. This too shall pass. 
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" inspiration?

Dobos torte

I did manage to relax, unaware of the PTSD-like 3-day walk down the memory lane which was lodged somewhere in my subconscious, only to resurface during a short bus ride. Like most European cities there are scars and the monuments of real suffering all around Budapest, once home to a vibrant Jewish community. 
Names of Hungarian Jews killed in Holocaust inscribed on each leaf
But it is what we do with these scars that makes the whole difference. We expose them, we honour them. And we are certain they won’t happen ever again. Never again.
Never again
Just below the Buda Castle there is this 3m tall limestone sculpture called the Zero Kilometre Stone. Erected at the Adam Clark square this stone marks the reference point from which all road distances to Budapest are measured in the country. While kids were busy chasing one another around it and my husband waited in a long line-up for the tickets to the Budapest Castle Hill Funicular, I placed my forehead on the warm, rough stone. The symbolism of how far I've got to go from this true zero point in my life made me sigh in gratitude. There was never a need for a helping hand or a rescue boat. We are all capable of doing it all by ourselves.        
            "Hey guys!" I summoned my crew. "Forget the shortcut! Who's with me to climb the hill on foot?" And so we did.  
Here comes the Sun!
*gumping - the Hasson family trademark name and signature activity. While Forrest Gump was aimlessly running, we aimlessly walk. 

Monday, 8 August 2016

"The Amazing Race" Kind of Summer: Amsterdam

I would love to think I'm cool. 

Not necessarily in the super-confident "I've got swag" kind of way. Just a decent every-day brand of ordinary cool. Three days in Amsterdam, Netherlands showed me I am so hopelessly not.

Amsterdam with an iPhone
This summer my family decided to try something new: invade Europe! The planning part was fun - combining West with East, parts known and unknown, authentic foods, a bit of history and a lot of nostalgia. The result: 2 weeks, 4 cities, 268 821 steps made with kids sans stroller (an equivalent of us walking from Toronto, ON to well past Buffalo, NY). Needless to say - we learned a lot about who we are individually and as a family. Hop on, and I'll try to give you a tour!

Here is what I expected of Amsterdam based on stereotypes and stories told by other travellers: bicycles, tulips, canals, cheese and pastry, Anne Frank house, weed, Red Light District.

All in all - expectations were correct and we got to witness them all.

Mokummers aka Amsterdammers (a nickname derived from Hebrew word 'mokum' which means place) love their bicycles and make space for them pretty much everywhere, which is great news when travelling with kids... apparently ringing a million bicycle bells in a day is very rewarding, hence on this first leg of our travels we got away without having to bribe the boys!

Flag of the city of Amsterdam comes with a triple X and is proudly displayed everywhere, from squares and stations to tall ships and five star hotels. That's why I assumed that the XXX probably doesn't have to do with the 'red light district' and all it's R-rated content has to offer to an unsuspecting visitor. Amsterdam's symbol has to do with the three deaths that almost extinguished all life in this city by the sea: fire, flood and plague.

It took only a few steps down the first couple of streets for my un-cool to start showing up in full light. Here's what you get when you travel to Amsterdam with kids:
"Mama, what's that smell? Is it a skunk?!"
The leisurely stroll then turned into a lengthy explanation how it does smell like a skunk but is not a skunk; instead it's marijuana which is a plant people grow and then dry and then roll into cigarettes and then smoke to get high, which doesn't mean grow taller but happier and funnier and allegedly hungrier (and hornier although I didn't share that) and some of them report feeling less pain and possibly even reduction of convulsions... By the time I finished my extensive yet careful-not-to-judge THC ramblings their mouths were all packed with Nutella filled croissants and all I've got in reply was: "Wha'?" Good. Phew.

Reads funny
Does funny
Yes, Amsterdam is all about weed, fully legalized and available in every single breath one takes. It's sold in places called "coffee shop" as in 😉COFFEE. And for weed-virgins like my hubby and I, that came as a shock and then a scoff and also a temptation. Sharing this one 'space cake' (although we've been advised to eat one whole each - but that was way too many carbs!) we happily decided we were immune to whatever hype there has been since the Woodstock year - the year we were both born. We recalled the many times everyone else smoked and we didn't even get the secondary effect most people claim is enough. Ok, I admit, I laughed one night away with friends this past winter after a THC-laden jelly bean but other than having a brilliant idea for a screenplay occur in my mind with lightening speed, everything else was just the same. Oh yes, and I was also very, very sleepy.

After all we are both super responsible parents, each holding one "subject" firmly by the hand so they would not get lost, run over by a bicycle or God forbid plop into a canal - of course we didn't get high! It took about 5h and utter exhaustion from roaming the city for the crazy street names and illegible street signs to start sounding hilarious when we read them aloud to one another. He called me his "Vettewinkel''. I called him 'Verkoopster'.
Nope not high, just really funny. And hungry. Hence the best Malaysian curry we waited in a long line-up for and gobbled way above our spice level after a full dinner. Weed cakes. They work.

But the effect wore-off quickly - or did I just imagine there was an effect? - because the very next sight completely sobered me up. Right around the corner there was a store that sold accessories. As I was trying to see if this was a shell (a fun project we can make next time we are in Florida!) or clay, my little one read the name of the store to me and started laughing because he had finally found a name written in English he could understand. Thankfully, not fully. The Pussy Pendant store. Nice.
I just started contemplating how grateful I actually am that I mothered three boys and at least while parenting don't have to walk the fine line between feminism and liberation, when screams and giggles made me turn.
One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, Three Mississippi on the Amstel river... it took me three seconds to grasp the full view of the scene in front of me. A whole bunch of drunk girls were crowding a boat, shouting and laughing out loud, cheering for the Bride to be. There were balloons and beads and beers and a bachelorette sporting a hairband with dildos on the top of her head.
Again, I wish I was cool. Wish I had a longing of being a younger version of myself on that boat, kicking it up with my bestie. But I just couldn't. I immediately defaulted to their mothers and yet to be born daughters and I somehow - if there had to be a stupid party - preferred the princess theme rather than a slutty one. Then I almost got run over by a BeerBikeBar!

As for the guys - they have their fair share of fun in this city; bachelor's parties are overwhelmingly outnumbering the girls. Actually, not just parties - it seemed that men outnumber women on every street, restaurant and bar. No wonder my little one still refers to our first stop as "Mansterdam"! They came in droves, often in the same outfits, jolly and drunk regardless of the time of the day. At night they swarmed the red light district, checking the offerings behind many glass doors as if it was an ordinary shopping day. And again, I thought to my-not-cool-self, thank goodness we live with our boys safely removed by an entire ocean from all this. Although it seems freer than freedom, there is something deeply disturbing and sad in the industry that benefits from the temporary purchase of female bodies.

The "Red Light" district lives up to it's hype. Rows of narrow windows line the streets. During the day the red velvet curtains are down and it seems that regular working people occupy the packed apartments above them. Come 5 o'clock, the women mastering the oldest profession on the planet start showing up to work. They are often very young, in ripped jeans, with a lot of make up and a pimple or two that just couldn't have been covered. I observed them drinking pop, smoking and chatting with their girlfriends as they leisurely strolled down the street and into their workplace. With the first sign of dusk, the neon lights will start flashing promising anything in exchange for Euros. Banana show, S&M show, live sex on stage show. The girls we saw just half an hour earlier will start showing up in the windows, obscurely dressed, puckering their lips, inviting men to come closer.
Dying of curiosity I tried not to look but of course I did, albeit briefly - and I saw images that still haunt me, painfully proving that this is not right - a bruise under the knee; stretch marks over a belly; cellulite on thighs. These are real women, not rubber toys. No one should earn a living on a mattress covered in pleather in a small tiled room just off the street. The rational part of me knows that this is a choice. In Netherlands, they are actually protected, even unionized, have healthcare and all the rights not to do what they don't feel like doing and still - as uncool as I really am it all made me feel sick. Someone's daughter. Someone's sister. Someone's mom.

When you look at virtually any row of houses lining up the canals of Amsterdam, although cute and postcard-like, you might notice that at least one of them is crooked. And no, you are not drunk - they often are. The ancient wooden beams on which they stand have been immersed into the water for centuries and are starting to rot and break, causing this ever so slightly visible lean of one house onto another. Eventually some will collapse and will have to be replaced by new sturdy materials and a more solid foundation. This serves as a somber metaphor for this otherwise delightful city.

And that's what my utterly uncool wish for Amsterdam is: preserve The Night Watch and the Sunflowers, enjoy the beer and the boat ride, grow the tulips, keep the healthy bicycle thing going; yet please replace the rotten, the decadent and the unnecessary. Let's begin:

Yes to growing gardens at the door
No to growing gardens on the head
Yes to Stroopwafel
No to burgers from a vending machine

And so it goes, one predictably safe and uncool choice after another. Oh well, after all I am just a travelling mom.