Monday, September 30, 2013

Viszlát (au revoir), Budapest

It’s not like you’d have to pull teeth to get me to return to Budapest (though I’m leaving with two fewer than I arrived with). It’s a fabulous city to visit, and I think it would be a great place to live. Mind you, I’ve only been here a month, and in that time it’s gone from summer to cold autumn and I don’t really do cold. I’ve actually needed the winter coat I bought back when it was still hot. (It was a good price and style; I didn’t think I’d be wearing it here!) I’m planning a quick return visit in December, when it will be seriously cold. If I’m going to be freezing, at least I hope there’ll be snow on the ground.

I’m impressed with the dental surgery I was recommended. I’d been having trouble with a couple of back teeth and they had to go. I really liked that the dentist and periodontist actually listened when I said I was anxious about the procedure. They organised for me to have intravenous sedation, which did the trick but also knocked me around for a few days. Julie came along to keep me company and to make sure I got home OK afterwards. In December I’ll decide on any follow-up work.

For this last week I’ve been staying in the former Jewish ghetto area in District VII. It’s a fabulous area, within easy walking distance of anywhere I want to go. I’m always happy to walk everywhere, but the trams and metro are also very close by, as are the two cinemas I’ve been to and some great restaurants. 

I’ve checked a few things off my “to do” list, including making visits to St Stephen’s Basilica, the House of Terror (a museum housed in a building where both the fascist Arrow Cross Party and the communist Department for Political Police after 1945 (which became the State Security police) tortured and executed thousands of people), and the quite disturbing Holocaust Museum.

It’s not surprising, given Hungary’s long history of occupation, that there is now a real sense that Budapest is a city filled with young people enjoying themselves and their freedom. Kids in their twenties are the first free generation within living memory. Their parents and grandparents grew up under communism, and their great-grandparents went through the hell of the Second World War. There is a lot of creativity evident in the city’s fashion, music, art, design, graffiti, filmmaking, café and bar/”ruin” pub scenes.

This past week, Jules and I spent a beautiful afternoon walking up Gellert Hill, from where there are great views over the city. Tonight I’m leaving for Dublin, on my way back to New York, where I have a November marathon to train for.

It feels like I’ve been here longer than just four weeks. Quite a lot has been happening behind the scenes, too, including a very exciting creative project with Patrick, in Bali. We’ve stayed in very close touch since we said our au revoirs in Kuala Lumpur in March.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Prague: A Bohemian rhapsody

As the Czech Republic was once known as Bohemia, and Czechs as Bohemians, I felt right at home in Prague, being a bit of a bohemian myself. In the 1970s I shared a couple of houses in Sydney with a woman who had emigrated to Australia from Prague following the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. I don’t think of her as a former friend, but I do regret my lack of curiosity about what she had gone through and what led her to leave such a beautiful city and settle in Oz.

I didn’t use any public transport in the three days I was in Prague, as it’s a perfect city for getting around on foot. On my first morning I ran over the famous Charles Bridge and two other bridges on the Vltava River as part of a two-hour run/walk on the mainly cobblestoned streets. There are so many visual treats everywhere. I found a beautiful walled garden, part of the Valdstejnska Palace, where peacocks wandered about on the lawns.

There is a lot of public art, which I always enjoy, but the highlight for me was an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art in the grounds of Prague Castle. I just spotted a poster by chance and yelped with glee when I saw the exhibition was current and open. I was a very happy gal wandering through that artspace.

I stayed near Petrin Hill, in the very funky Vintage Design Sax Hotel. This big park has lots of paths and trails. I spent an hour or so wandering around, then climbed up to the top of the Observation Tower for views across to the Old City and up to Prague Castle. There's an interesting mirror maze to wander through.

The Old City is stunning. I love the Church of St Nicolaus, the buttery yellow facades of apartment blocks, the art nouveau details on some buildings. Like the historic centre of Florence, this area is mainly pedestrianised and there are hordes of people following tour guides holding aloft little flags. I climbed to the top of the tower that houses the famous astronomical clock, for fabulous views over the narrow, winding streets and wavy roofs.

My friend Giorgio in Italy jokes that, like Budapest with its Buda and Pest sides of the Danube, Prague is split by the Vltava River into Pra and Gue. Both the Old City and the Lesser City are very appealing. The Kampa contemporary art museum on the river has an interesting permanent collection, plus I saw two temporary exhibitions: Klimt and some fellow Czech artists, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall designer and illustrator Gerald Scarfe. I liked best an illuminated cube that went from a dull grey to bright white, and back again, every couple of minutes; and a standing group of men made of plaster covered in hessian. The museum building was badly damaged by floods in June of this year, as shown in an outdoor display of photographs.

When I see this promo,, it means I’m in an art house cinema somewhere in Europe and I’m about to see a fine film with English soundtrack or English subtitles. I’m like Pavlov’s dog: I start to salivate. On Saturday at Kino Svetozor I saw “Lovelace”, which was more about the blows Linda Lovelace received from her abusive husband than about those she gave. Some key scenes were revisited later in the film to give a fuller account of certain events.

At the Globe bookstore I bought Alex Kershaw’s book, To Save a People, about Raoul Wallenberg’s mission to save Budapest’s Jews in 1944, the “last Jews of Europe”. On the Jewish tour in Budapest Jules and I had seen the sculpture erected in his memory behind the main synagogue, financed by the actor Tony Curtis who is Hungarian.

I’m now back in Budapest for my final week before I return to New York via Dublin. I started my four-day getaway by taking a hydrofoil from Budapest to Vienna, which took about six hours as we passed through a couple of locks on the Danube. In a taxi on the way from the pier to my hotel in Vienna, I realised I no longer had my shoulder bag, which contained my passport, cards, money…  It was a horrible feeling: disbelief mixed with fear. Luckily, when I got back to the river, I found the boat had gone to refuel for the next day and hadn’t headed back to Budapest. I was reunited with my bag after an hour’s wait by the pier, where a swan kept me company for some of the time. I was very grateful that the whole incident ended up being nothing worse than a reminder of the need to be mindful.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Besotted with Budapest

Everyone I know who has been to Budapest has loved it, so I had high expectations. However, I felt underwhelmed by the place for the first couple of days. Maybe it was the construction work going on everywhere: half the city’s landmark buildings are shrouded in scaffolding and construction netting. Maybe it was my initial difficulty in getting my bearings. Or perhaps it was the apartment I’d booked and paid for ages ago, which was dark and dingy and lacked some of the basic amenities (proper pillow, top sheet, shower curtain…). In any case, it wasn’t until day three, when I walked for about eight hours in gorgeous weather, that I started to warm to the place. Now, three weeks later, I’m besotted.

Budapest has all the qualities that I enjoy in a city. It’s easy to walk around.  There are scenic places to run. It’s rich in culture, and has a long, fascinating history. The people are generally nice, even if I can’t understand a word they’re saying. I feel safe. The architecture is appealing/interesting. There is an art cinema where I can see films in English or with English subtitles. I like the food, and the gelato is cheap. There is good public transport. And it’s near other places of interest.

I reckon I’ve walked a couple of hundred miles here, on both sides of the Danube (Buda and Pest), and I love that the pieces of the puzzle are coming together.

I ran the Budapest half marathon on 8 September and placed sixth out of 17 in my age group. My time was 12 minutes slower than in Dublin last month, but I’d only had a few runs in the lead-up. It was very scenic, following a UNESCO heritage-listed boulevard from City Park into the historical centre and then back and forth along the Danube beneath the Royal Palace buildings and in front of Parliament. It was a very warm day, and there was one fatality: a guy aged 27, possibly from heart, rather than heat, problems.

Margaret Island has a dedicated running track (c. 3 miles) around the waterline. I ran there one morning, but it’s a bit far from where I’ve been staying in the Kalvin Square neighbourhood, so my fallback run is multiple crossings of the Liberty, Elizabeth and Chain bridges. Gorgeous, and I love bridges.

I’m still trying to see all the main attractions. There are lots of museums. I saw a big exhibition of works by the Austrian painter Egon Schiele at the Museum of Fine Arts. At the Gellert Hotel, I took a dip in the thermal pools. Budapest’s famous spa baths are housed in gorgeous buildings.

Everywhere I’ve walked there has been amazing architecture. The Art Nouveau style is known here as Secession. Very beautiful. Ironically, many grand old buildings that are in need of restoration are falling into disrepair because they are owned by the government, whose hands are tied if the original papers have been lost. Having said that, there is a lot of work going on around the city to maintain landmark buildings, and there is a sense in the city of prosperity and progress. The public transport infrastructure (trams, metro and buses) is terrific.

I found an art cinema called Puskin, where I’ve seen a few films (Geoffrey Rush and Donald Sutherland in “Best Offer”; Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in the Liberace biopic “Beyond the Candelabra”; Steve Coogan in “The Look of Love”; and “Regina”, a Hungarian documentary about Germany’s first female rabbi, who was killed at Auschwitz). My new friend Julie introduced me to Urania, another cinema near the Puskin that is housed in a beautiful building. We saw an Italian film there about prisoners in a penitentiary putting on a performance of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”.

It’s been great to meet Jules. I rarely feel lonely, but it’s great to meet someone who is fun and interesting, and whose schedule works with mine for excursions and meetups. Her family background is Hungarian, but she’s from Ohio. She has taken leave of her family for a couple of months, and is studying Hungarian and doing yoga in Budapest. She is a retired university professor of French and Italian and has a real ear for languages. I’m amazed that she can carry on conversations already in Hungarian, which is a very difficult language. After three weeks I know about five words! We have become Budapest best buddies.

One day we went to Szentendre, the artists village upriver on the Danube, where we checked out the work of some local artists, ate chicken paprika and gelato, and walked around for a few hours. A pretty place, and easily reached by train from Budapest. Last night we went to the Palace of Art to see a contemporary dance performance of “Carmina Burana” by the Szegedi Kortras ballet company. It was a terrific modern venue in which to experience one of my favourite pieces of music.

Jules has done all the free walking tours on offer. I still want to do the Communist tour, to get a better sense of what it was like for Budapest’s citizens to live under Soviet rule, which started at the end of the Second World War and ended only in 1992. The Jewish tour took us into the former Jewish ghetto, where I’ve been staying the last couple of days and where my next apartment (22–30 September) is located. I went back to the Kazinsky Synagogue yesterday to take a look inside, and I want to do a tour of the main synagogue next week. The actor Tony Curtis, who is Hungarian, paid for a memorial sculpture behind the building. During the Second World War, from 1944, the synagogue was occupied by the Nazis and turned into a radio station. Adolf Eichmann, who headed up the extermination of Jews in Europe, lived for a time at the Astoria Hotel, which is just around the corner. It’s right by the little Turkish place where I’m now well known for my addiction to their rice pudding.

It hasn’t all been sightseeing in Budapest. I’m back at work, so I’ve been fitting in my excursions around whatever is in my in-tray. And I’ve been having some dental work done. I’m such a wuss I’ve asked the dentist to line up an anaesthesiologist for the molar extraction I’m booked in for on Monday.

I had a few dramas with my accommodation, but the company I used to book an apartment for a month reimbursed me half the rent when the place just didn’t measure up. I took another place for a couple of nights, then a hotel for two nights. After I return to Budapest on Sunday I’ll move into the place I’ll call home until I leave at the end of the month.

Another fun thing I’ve done this month is start a page on Facebook for fans of the colour orange. I think I really started to love orange when I chose it as the highlight colour for my renovated kitchen back in 2002. In the last few years I’ve started to wear it more, too. Some other friends on FB also enjoy it, and it’s been fun to share images featuring this cheerful, uplifting colour.

I’m writing this update on board a hydrofoil that’s heading up the Danube to Vienna, from where I’ll take the train to Prague for a few days tomorrow.

Monday, September 2, 2013

What I did on my summer holiday, by Robyn Flemming, age 60

What an amazing month August was! After finishing up a road trip with Sarah in Ireland, I’ve been traipsing through Wales and southern England. I haven’t run since Ireland, but I’ve been doing lots of walking. First up was an ascent of Mt Snowdon with my English walking buddies, Tony and Jo. Phil and their dog George have now joined our intrepid threesome. While Tony and I were driving from Shropshire for our meet-up on the Friday, the others were doing a practice ascent in dismal weather. (Jo is about to do the Three Peaks Challenge – climbing the highest peaks in Wales, England and Scotland one after the other in one weekend – as a charity walk.) Luckily, the conditions were perfect on the Saturday, giving us great views over the valleys and to the coast. I didn’t find it too hard, and managed not to slip on the loose surface and stones on the descent, which had been my fear.

To Stratford-upon-Avon for the night at Jo’s mum’s place, where I got to meet their wacky new dog, Wolfie, then on to Cheltenham on Sunday to stay with Peter and Amanda. (We go back to the late 1980s in Hong Kong, but now catch up fairly regularly.) Jo and Phil drove me over from Stratford for the handover. We took a walk up on the hillside behind the house, and had dinner with three of their kids at an Asian restaurant. A great catch-up before they dropped me at Reading station.

Wendy and Chris met my train. (We met in late 2008 in Kathmandu.) We did a big walk around the town, some of which we had done a couple of years ago and all of which was beautiful. Afternoon tea of scones, clotted cream and jam at a grand country house called Avington Park.

The next morning, Wendy and I set off for a two-day holiday on the Dorset coast. On the Tuesday, we did a 12-mile walk along the coastal path that hugs the cliff-tops on what’s known as the Jurassic Coast. Absolutely spectacular views and a perfect day. We stayed with friends in an amazing house not far from Corfe Castle, where we had breakfast the next morning before hanging out on a nudist beach at Studland Bay for a couple of hours. The weirdest thing was watching the men who stand among the low grasses in the small dunes that line the back of the beach looking for action. I’m reading Paul Theroux’s book, Kingdom by the Sea, about his trip around the coast of the UK in 1982, and he mentions that this was a phenomenon on this beach even then. I got sunburned, which wasn’t something I ever expected to happen in England, even in August!

A fabulous week in the Welsh and English countryside with old friends, after which I felt in need of a home base and a recharge for a week.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see Suzie (a friend from Hong Kong) on my way to London. We couldn’t get our schedules to match after I decided to go straight to London. I stayed at a small hotel near Hyde Park and within walking distance of Oxford Street. My room was so small, I felt almost claustrophobic, but room to swing a cat comes at too great a price in London.

I spent the next week working, checking out exhibitions and a couple of films (“Alan Partridge” and “What Maisie Knew”, both featuring Steve Coogan), and seeing friends who live in or near, or were visiting, London. Lauren and Bill are friends from New York who have relocated to the UK for a few years. We run for the same team in New York, the Hudson Dusters, and were in competing teams in a 24-hour relay in Vermont in 2009. We had pizza in Islington and took a walk along the canal towpath. I used to live nearby in 1983 and never saw that part of London!

On Friday I caught up with Michael and Eddie in Hanover Street, where their antiques business is located. Michael was formerly an author of mine, but he has reinvented himself as a high-end dealer of gold and silver antiques from mainly Asia (far and near) and Africa. His showrooms are like Aladdin’s cave. They took me to dinner at the Cinnamon Club, near Carnaby Street. Fabulous modern Indian food. And I took them for gelato. Michael is always a hoot.

Saturday morning was a fun DRS (Dead Runners Society) encounter: a meetup with Jon, a Dead Runner from near London, with his partner Jennifer and a niece, Paola; and Nangel, from Portland, Oregon, with Mark and the two boys. Jon, Jennifer, Nangel, Mark and I were all in Austin, Texas for the 2012 DRS World Conference, and Nangel and I ran the Hippie Chick half marathon near Portland that May. Last weekend we met up at the site of the 2012 London Olympics on a dreary, wet London day. I couldn’t stay for the tour of the Olympic Stadium, as I was due to meet Linda back in town, but it was great to see everyone.

Linda was the first friend I made in Hong Kong, in 1985. She now runs a cosy retreat for couples and others at her converted barn and farm buildings in Cornwall. I stayed with her family there in 2007. She came up to London for a day and a night so that we could catch up on all our news in person. I last saw her, and her sister Pam, in 2010 in Exeter. We also squeezed in “What Maisie Knew” at the Curzon. After breakfast on Sunday, when we bounced all sorts of ideas around in our usual way, we said our goodbyes and I got the train to Oxford to see Gordon and Jo.

I met Gordon and Joanna in Albury, Oz a few years ago (2008?), when I was looking for an illustrator to work with me on a book idea. A friend suggested Gordon, and he and Jo and I have been friends ever since. They moved back to the UK a couple of years ago with their Westie, Jock, but are thinking of moving on again. Jo is a dentist, if anyone knows of a position going somewhere nice! Gordon is a writer, so (like me) he can work from anywhere. Jock isn’t fussed about where he hangs his leash. We walked for a couple of hours around Oxford after having lunch in a restaurant by the river. A beautiful day, and it was great to see them.

My last catch-up was at Paddington station before I got the train to Heathrow. Sallie and I worked together in the 1980s in Hong Kong for a travel guide publisher. I don’t think we’ve seen each other since 1989, when I stayed with her and Thomas in London before I headed for the Outer Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. (That was the furthest place on the planet from Hong Kong, and that’s where I wanted to be at that time.) It was like we had just stepped straight back into comfort and ease and fun together. 

I am really very fortunate in having the friends I do. They are such a support to me, even when I don’t see them for years. I never take them for granted.

So, now I’m in Eastern Europe for a month for a rest!