Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Name:
Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Now I travel extensively, and have been to more than 65 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on amazon.com. I have made friends from all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met, past, present and hopefully in the future.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Travels and Travails

The last week of January 2008 was spent in quiet low-level suffering after my dental surgery on the 25th. I was in the chair for an hour and a half, while my dentist scraped and gouged and cut and ground and picked and generally made a nuisance of himself. Luckily, he has good drugs, so I didn’t feel a thing. He put in some artificial bone and then stitched me up nice and pretty. I did very little for the rest of that week, mainly just sat around the house and took it easy, gulping antibiotics and pain pills and reading some of the new books I’d gotten the previous weekend at Treehugger Dan’s Book Sale.
Caught some more Six-Nations rugby at the pubs and sports bars with the guys, and began preparing for my next Mystery Shopper trip, this time to Lisbon, Portugal. Took off for Lisbon in the early morning hours of Sunday, March 9; arrived in Lisbon around noon and found my limo to the hotel. Hotel management picks up all of these little perks and charges, as I need to audit them as part of my hotel reviews. Cool, hah? Anyway, I checked in OK and went out to walk around the area and see what I could see. I immediately found an ATM and tried to get some cash. Imagine my surprise when the Multibanco system, which is the only one in Lisbon, and to which all of the banks in the city subscribe, told me my card wasn’t valid for the Multibanco system. Oh, joy, another wonderful glitch in my travels.
Well, undaunted, I figured I needed some food before doing anything else. So I found a local restaurant in the central part of Lisbon and decided on seafood for lunch. My first choice was paelha, which I presumed was Portuguese for paella. It was. The waiter brought me a large covered bowl of stuff, along with a separate plate which contained the tools I was supposed to need to eat my lunch properly: a small hard-plastic hammer, a claw crusher, a meat pick and two other strange-looking utensils I didn’t recognize. Great; I hadn’t even lifted the lid off my lunch and already I was feeling daunted.
I wasn’t really in a mood to fight for my food, so I just picked out what I could and ate the rice and peeled prawns and calamari and mussels and to hell with the damned shelled beings. If I wasn’t prepared to kill my food, I certainly wasn’t prepared to attack it and beat it after it was already dead.
Next day I trammed downtown and walked around in the rain for awhile and finally had the obligatory hamburger at the Hard Rock Café. My tours during the week included a nice tram ride up to the castle district and the Baixa-Chiado area. I also did the Alfama district and the Bairro Alto, where I walked around and found all the good fado music clubs. One evening I had my mandatory Guinness at O’Gilin’s Irish pub. Also did a fun evening at the Luso fado music club, which was actually a dinner show complete with folk dancing and songs.
On my last day in Lisbon I stumbled across a free wine-tasting establishment and got quietly inebriated tasting quite a few of the Portuguese wines. I had a nice conversation with the young woman who ran the tasting, and even gave her my card, as she was interested in coming to Budapest for our wine festival in August. You never can tell.
So it was another good week on my trail of hotel reviews. Upon my return to Budapest, I was immediately swept up into our early spring social whirl. First it was off to Champs sports pub for an afternoon of the final matches of the Six-Nations rugby tournament. That day, March 15, is also an annual Hungarian holiday and yet another occasion for the locals to demonstrate their disfavor with their government. The police were out in force this time, however, so the hooligans were kept to a mild rumble. Monday was St. Paddy’s Day and another celebration at Beckett’s Irish pub. Tuesday was a monthly Comedy Club evening, one of the best we’ve had so far. Wednesday was our monthly Curry Club meeting at a place I never much cared for. It was a little better this time, but not enough to make me want to go back anytime soon.
The following Monday I checked into the Corinthia Royal five-star hotel here in Budapest for my first Quality Audit, which is a big expanded version of the Integrity Check. I had to make my reservation in a false name so they wouldn’t know I was coming. It was an interesting experience, after having been out of the real audit business for so many years. I have a 51-page audit checklist to go through, and the detail is truly amazing. Stayed in the hotel for five days and worked my butt off! I also probably gained about 10 pounds due to having to sample the food in all of the hotel’s restaurants.
During my hiatus between hotel audits I kept generally busy with dinners, friends and relaxing. Also got word that Budapest’s former party animals, Mark and Matt, will be in town the first weekend of May. Better start practicing now, as don’t want to be left behind when the Last Call bell rings (Ed. Note: it never does in Budapest).
This time in Tunisia I was in Gammarth, right on the Mediterranean Sea. Nice area, beautiful beach, but, like The Gambia, nothing to do around the hotel. Anyway, I spent five days at the Ramada Plaza Gammarth, resting and getting a great suntan. My visit started off rather inauspiciously, when I checked into my room, opened the bathroom door and found a HUGE cockroach perched on the edge of the bathtub. I exited the bathroom quickly, and subsequent visits revealed he had apparently gone back to his cockroach hideout. Whew!
I mostly stayed around the hotel, although I did go in to Tunis one day, to visit the Medina (like a souk), which was fun. It hadn’t changed in the five years since I was there last; of course, it probably hadn’t changed in the past thousand years or so either. Got most of my Christmas presents and even visited the little sidewalk restaurant at which I ate most of my meals back in the winter of 2002 (see Newsletter #39). Still a great place to get crepes thon fromage.
One afternoon I signed up for a Quad Bike 50 ride around the area. You should have seen me – pumping my Quad bike at around 40 mph down the beach, laughing maniacally and spitting bugs out of my teeth. We raced by the tourists riding their tame camels and even managed to demolish a couple of sand castles left by previous beach builders. How much fun was that?! But mostly I just lazed around the pool and worked on my tan, and I was really dark by the time I left.
In the 12 days between trips, the spring party season kicked into high. Old buds Mark Wills and Matt Bresler were in town for the May 1st weekend, which also included the annual Cinco de Mayo street party at Iguana restaurant. A Friday visit to The Stage pub was pretty much mandatory. Good to see the guys. A special surprise was a visit from Sandra Minkel, who is in Tbilisi, Georgia for the present, but will be going to Nepal later this year. She said I could come visit next summer. Katmandu, watch out!
And then St. Petersburg. My trip started off poorly (although the situation was mended quickly) and ended even worse. Got to the Budapest airport on time, only to find my plane was broken. Luckily, I was flying Lufthansa and, no matter what else anyone might say about the Germans, they are efficient. The Reservations people managed to get me on another plane within a couple of hours, routing me through Munich and on to St. Petersburg.
Anyway, got to Pulkovo airport around 12:30 the same night, May 8. I had emailed the hotel to request a limo pick me up, and there it was, waiting just for me. Another item I need to review for my checklist. Gotta love it. The Nevskij Palace hotel is another five-star place, but, the room was small and cramped, and not anywhere near worth the 252 euro charged (plus tax = 305 euro! That’s about 450 dollars US per night). However, the bathtub did have a nice little yellow rubber ducky perched on its rim – much better than a cockroach. And yes, it did squeak when squeezed.
The next day, May 9, was Victory Day in Russia, like our VE Day. There were parades and military uniforms all over town, and most everything was closed. Oh, joy, another well-planned trip. That evening I stopped off at the Tribunal Bar for a quick beer or two, and hopefully some karaoke, but the bar, in its new location just off Nevsky Prospekt, is not the good old scene it once was. The girls still dance on the bar, but the karaoke list is all in Russian these days.
The hotel’s five-star award-winning restaurant was closed during a major renovation, but the Concierge suggested another place nearby, Palkin. Well, lemme tell ya, that dinner was one of life’s perfect moments. It was the Taj Mahal of dinners. It replaced other dinners on my Lifetime Dinner List as Number One. It was truly amazing. Everything was perfection: the atmosphere; the service, which was what service should be – attentive but not intrusive; the food and the price.
I began with an iced shot of Russkiy Brilliant vodka, then a complimentary order of Borodin bread and garlic butter, along with a small piece of salmon in cream. As a starter, I had the Carpaccio Tiger shrimp served with a light sauce which covered the plate and which was --- frozen! It was an iced sauce.
My entrée was turbot, served with black ravioli stuffed with crabmeat and a small shell of red caviar. Roman, my waiter, surprised me again with a small dish of sorbet, then I had to have the Palkin Carousel of desserts. There were berries and mints and other fruit and chocolate to satisfy even the most hedonistic of tastes.
OK, so you’re wondering what all this cost. Well, Virginia, it wasn’t cheap. Final total was about $150 US, but I have rarely if ever gotten my money’s worth to the extent I did that night. The meal was a true feast for the senses: sight, taste, feel, aroma, and I swear I could even hear some of that lovely food talking to me, urging me on to greater and greater culinary heights. In fact, it was such a sensual experience, I felt like I should hurry back to my room and take off all my clothes and touch myself all over.
Saturday morning I breakfasted at the hotel, which was a big disappointment. A five-star hotel which served frozen fried potatoes! Shame on them!
Saturday and Sunday were tourist days. On Saturday I took a tour to Peterhof, Peter the Great’s palace. We went in a minivan with our guide, Raiza, a middle-aged Russian lady who knew everything about everything at the palace. Peterhof was an amazing sight – everything in gold leaf and opulent silks and rare china and silver. Almost too overpowering, there was so much of it.
When we got back to town decided on the Office Pub for a burger and fries and Guinness. Good burger, great Guinness. Sunday it was yet another tour, this time to Catherine’s Palace (that’s Catherine the Great). I boarded the minivan with the other tourists and who should get on as our guide but Raiza. I wonder if she planned that. Catherine’s Palace was even better than Peterhof, if that was possible. This time we got to see the reproduced Amber Room, which was sublime. The original was lost during WWII and has never been found, but there were detailed pictures of the original, so Russian artisans decided to try and duplicate it. They did a fantastic job.
I had an okay dinner in the hotel’s Beerstube restaurant (hey, I get reimbursed for all meals in the hotel), then relaxed in my room. Part of my checklist is to visit the hotel’s bar late at night, so around 11 PM I wandered down to see what was happening, I figured a shot or two of vodka, then call it an early night.
I started chatting to one of the guys at the bar, as one does in bars, and it turned out he was the Harbormaster in Galway, Ireland, and was in town for the annual conference of Harbormasters from all over Europe. We started buying each other vodka shots, and it was all downhill from there. A bunch of his buddies and a few wives came in, and the party kicked up a notch or three. You know who they were, right? Yep, all my old buds and budettes in the Association of Credit Union Internal Auditors. Well, not the same people exactly, but exactly the same type: partiers, drinkers and fun folks.
I lost count after seven vodka shots, but the craic was flowing. There were harbormasters from Dublin and Cork, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Oslo, and others I couldn’t quite catch. It was a fun night, but Brian (Galway) told me the next morning he paid dearly for it.
Monday I met old bud Patrick Naughter, former Chief Financial Officer of the Budapest Marriott and now General Manager of the five-star St. Petersburg Renaissance hotel, for dinner. His wife Irina, one of my former students, couldn’t join us, but we had a memorable dinner in his hotel. The tiramisu was sublime.
The rest of my stay was just relaxing and quiet. I was pretty much whacked out by then, so I just took some short walks and ate some light meals and took it easy. All in all, it was good to get back home. My return was marred only by the fact that some baggage handler along the way had trashed my suitcase. Luckily, nothing was missing.
So, May is almost over. Not sure where my next trip will take me, but I also have to say I am not really happy with the Mystery Shopper arrangements. May have to bag the whole thing fairly soon. Will let you now in the next Blog. Until then, y’all take care and keep the home fires burning – never know when I might show up.