Podcast #130 — Notes from Hungary


It’s a Mitteleuropa episode, talking about last month’s travels through Vienna and Hungary. I came away with good first impressions of Austrian Airlines and the Vienna airport. And, for the first time in many visits, saw Hungary through a tourist’s eyes, spending time in Budapest and the Tokaj wine region. We also talk about how Google Translate has become pretty much indistinguishable from magic and the potential impact the privatization of the US air traffic control system might have on the general aviation industry. All this and more at the direct link to the podcast file or listening to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.

Here is the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #130:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you from the TravelCommons studios outside of Chicago, IL, after a good bit of travel — I think the technical unit of measure is “a slug”. I’ve done a “slug” of travel recently. We got back from 9 days in Hungary on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, which gave us that Monday to recover a bit. After that short week at home, I got back on the road — a week in Richmond and then last week and this week in Atlanta. Some folks wanted me to do stupid day trips — say up to Michigan from Atlanta for a 90-minute meeting, but in a fit of, what is for me, rare realism, I said, “Uh, no”.
  • This was the first time I’d spent any time in Richmond — other than driving around it — from Charlottesville to the airport, from DC over to Williamsburg. We were downtown. There are some nice pockets. Found a couple of restaurants and a microbrewery with a taproom, so I was happy. Even happier because it was just a 20-minute cab ride from the airport, and a 10-minute walk to the client. Contrast that to Atlanta, which I just hate having to travel to for business. It starts with the location of the airport — at 6 o’clock, on the bottom of the I-285 perimeter, and all the business at the opposite side — between 11 and 1 o’clock on the perimeter. And therein lies the most important question that every business traveler faces when they arrive and they leave Atlanta — do I drive through the city or around it? Outside of rush hour, it’s not bad — maybe 35 minutes. But when you’re trying to catch that 6pm flight home on Thursday night, the trip starts at an hour and deteriorates fast.
  • And deterioration is a nice word for last week’s trip back. After an hour-and-a quarter drive through the city that would’ve been a lot worse except that there were 3 of us in the car, so we got to whiz by the beginnings of the traffic jam in the HOV lanes. Once in the center of the city, the HOV lanes were just as crowded, but it probably cut at least 5 minutes off our trip. We drop the car off at Hertz, board the Skytrain, are on our way to the terminal when it just stops. OK, maybe a bit of congestion at the station in front of us. So we wait, and wait,… and wait. No announcement, no nothing. Just wait. 10 minutes, 15 minutes. Finally, someone near the door presses the phone button. A voice comes on — “We’re working on it; thanks for your patience.” Click. No reason for the delay; no thought on when we’d start up again. Another 5 minutes. Another guy presses the phone button. Same story. After 30 minutes, the train whirs to life and starts to move. And I never thought I’d get nostalgic for those car rental buses.
  • Bridge Music — Brilliant Day by Hans Atom (c) copyright 2014 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial license.  Ft: Lisa DeBenedictis

Following Up

  • My son Andrew and I flew Austrian Air from Chicago to Budapest last month with an — obvious — connection in Vienna. Couple of things… First, why Austrian Air? Because it was among the cheapest non-budget fares over and because I could construct an 8-hr layover which meant we spent Saturday eating schnitzel and drinking beer in Vienna. We landed at 8:45 Saturday morning, checked our bags in Held Luggage, and then hopped a cab into the city. It wasn’t a cheap taxi — probably around €40 — but we didn’t have time to figure out and wait for the train. We went first to the Naschmarkt and met up with a friend of mine — ex-client and ex-boss — who’s now running the Polish development center for a stealth start-up. He came down Friday night; it was a good excuse to spend 3 hours on his new BMW motorcycle. We started out with coffee and then quickly moved to the beer crawl. At noon, we walked into a small place, Gasthaus Pöschl (Weihburggasse 17), just as they were opening. We promised to be out in an hour, so they picked up one of the “Reserved” signs and gave us great big plates of schnitzel and glasses of Grüner Veltliner. We needed a bit of a walk after that, a bit more beer, and we found a cab back to the airport. One of the best layovers I’ve had…
  • And then the second thing — Vienna Airport. I’ve whined over a couple of episodes about how much I don’t like Munich Airport. Indeed, one of my ORD-BUD options was on Lufthansa through MUC. That didn’t make the first cut. But Vienna was great. Pleasant folks in the immigration booths, efficient and well-staffed security, nice food and beer selection — it was the anti-MUC. And the in-air service? Pretty good. Fairly new 777-200; typical kinda tight coach seat configuration; pleasant flight attendants. There was nothing that wowed me, but then again, I wasn’t expecting anything to. All I wanted was not to be annoyed; not to have a gate agent or flight attendant piss me off. Kinda the air travel version of the Hippocratic oath — Do no harm to the passenger. And Austrian succeeded. If I were to ding them on anything, it would be that the bright red plane upholstery was a bit tough on the eyes. I’ll fly them again.
  • I actually was two-for-two on airports on that trip. Budapest airport has had a significant upgrade since my last visit maybe 12 years ago. Again, efficient security lines, bright clean terminal, good places to grab a coffee and some breakfast. Much more pleasant than my first time passing through there in 1989, some Army guy checking that my exit visa had the right stamps. Much happier vibe this time. Two great airport experiences; I think I’ll need to consciously ratchet down my expectations for my next trip, though. I’ll be hitting London’s Gatwick and Heathrow next week.
  • Thinking through my international travel this year — Paris, Vienna, Budapest — Google Translate has evolved to being pretty close to magic. Last September, Google made a big announcement that they moved Translate from a statistics-based approach to a neural network running in Google’s cloud. It was the cover story for the New York Times Sunday Magazine The Great AI Awakening — using it as a case study of how artificial intelligence will “reinvent computing itself”. That’s all good — and it was a good article — but what’s really seems like magic is what Google calls Word Lens, where you activate your camera within Google Translate, point it at some text — a menu or, say, the washing machine controls in a vacation rental — and you see English words replacing the French or Hungarian words in real time. Amazingly useful. Saves you from blasting your delicates with hot water, or mistakenly ordering chicken when you mix up poulet and poisson after a couple of cocktails. The French translations seemed better than the Hungarian ones — which makes sense when you remember that the quality of the neural network is dependent on the amount of training data — but even the Hungarian was very useful. And Translate lets you download some amount of language data onto your phone so you don’t blow through $100 of roaming data trying to avoid brussels sprouts. As you can tell, a huge TravelCommons endorsement.
  • A few weeks back, I retweeted an NPR story about the proposal to privatize US air traffic control. As someone who has had cumulative months if not years wasted on ATC delays, I commented that I can’t understand all the angst over this proposal. ATC privatization has worked for years in Canada and Europe. And it’s not like the FAA has bathed itself in glory with the NextGen program that was authorized in 2003. Rich Fraser, a long-time TravelCommons listener, fellow Midwesterner, and a pilot, came back with a great series of tweets explaining his objections, specifically on privatization’s impact on general aviation. I retweeted a number of them — “Privatization decimated general aviation industries everywhere it was tried. GA is a $200 billion industry here. 1.4 mil jobs…” and “And Canada’s general aviation industry is a tiny fraction the size of ours. Apples and oranges doesn’t even begin to describe.” I was only thinking of the impact on commercial aviation — the only aviation I experience. Rich’s tweets did a nice job of opening the aperture on the discussion to include the often unconsidered world of general aviation. Thanks for that, Rich.
  • And if you have any thoughts, questions, a story, a comment, a travel tip – the voice of the traveler, send it along. The e-mail address is comments@travelcommons.com — you can use your smartphone to record and send in an audio comment; send a Twitter message to mpeacock, or you can post your thoughts on the TravelCommons’ Facebook page — or you can always go old-school and post your thoughts on the web site at TravelCommons.com.
  • Bridge Music — Fistful of Dub (Feat. Snowflake and DJ Vadim) by spinningmerkaba (c) copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.  Ft: snowflake and DJ Vadim

Notes from Hungary

  • The flight from Vienna to Budapest is 40 minutes on a 20-seat prop plane. I don’t think it ever levels off — just a parabola, going straight from climb out into descent. Not that really noticed. After one more beer in Vienna airport, Andrew and I were asleep before the plane left the ground. Yet another pleasant Vienna Air flight attendant graciously placed bottles of water for us in the seat back pocket in front of us. We found them when the plane touched down in Budapest.
  • We’d been to Budapest many times before, but this one would be different. Many of my wife’s aunts and uncles has passed away in the 12 years since our last visit, so there weren’t many family obligations — just a long Saturday lunch the day before we left. Instead, this was probably the first time we saw Hungary as tourists.
  • Before we visited, we checked with friends who had recently visited. What had they seen, enjoyed? Everyone loved Budapest. Scouting out places to stay, we abandoned what had been our usual Budapest Marriott perch on the Danube for so many years and instead headed east to District VII — Erzsébetváros, the old Jewish Quarter. During our last visit in 2005, no one would’ve thought to go out here. But now, it’s full of restaurants, craft beer bars, a few Starbucks, and ruin pubs.
  • We followed TravelCommons’ listener Arnoud Heijnis’ recommendation to check out what is the classic — and perhaps the first — ruin bar in Budapest — Szimpla Kert. Arnoud’s description of it having a “pop-uppy kinda feel” was right on-point. You walk through a dingy, half-lit hallway, with a couple of bars on each side, into an open two-story courtyard ringed by, I dunno, another half-dozen bars across the two floors. There were at least a couple of English stag parties going on when we walked in — one with whom I assumed was the groom-to-be dressed in a white ballerina tutu; the other group was wearing matching t-shirts fronted with a goofy picture of their groom-to-be.
  • I saw a lot of those while we were in Budapest — party groups wearing matching t-shirts; not so much the ballerina tutus. Budapest — at least the redeveloped district we were in — seems to have become a fly-in party town. Maybe the bankruptcy of the old state-run airline Malev left a vacuum for budget carriers to fill — including WizzAir with a Budapest hub. And then Hungary hasn’t yet joined the euro, so it can devalue its currency, the forint, and look cheap to the rest of Europe. And it had lots of buildings available to repurpose — starting with squatters setting up bars and dance clubs in abandoned buildings, then large sports bars, and then what seemed to me an amazing number of burger places. And they were all filled starting Thursday night, mostly with English speaking parties. A huge change from my first visit in 1989 when seemingly no one but my wife spoke English, and we’d walk into empty restaurants looking for lunch.
  • Spending money in some of those bars, you’d think that Hungary is moving toward a parallel currency economy — the forint and euro being used interchangeably — similar to what I saw in Vietnam where I’d pay, say, a single taxi fare, in a combination of dong and dollar bills. In Budapest, you’ll get a bar tab in forint with a euro number printed below it. You can pay in euro, but you’ll probably get change back in forint. If it’s not too late in the evening, say your first or second bar, and so you haven’t yet lost your capability to do arithmetic, you’ll notice that the euro exchange rate isn’t quite in your favor. I started doing the math at each bar — which, by the way, seemed to make a couple of bartenders nervous. The range of exchange rates on bar tabs was between 250 and 275 forint to the euro. The market rate was about 300 forint to the euro. In effect, the bars were charging an 8-16% convenience fee for letting you skip the ATM down the street.
  • District VII is not the only part of Budapest that’s upgraded. Downtown Pest, along the Danube, looks spiffier. The Parliament building — always an incredibly ornate building that dares you not to take multiple pictures of it as you walk past — looked like it has been freshly steam cleaned. In ‘89, a soldier shooed my wife and I off the steps; this time we walked down into a nice visitors center, bought some tour tickets and were escorted up the Golden Staircase, under the huge dome, and past the crown jewels. And further south along the river, new developments, plazas, bars, bike paths have all sprung up — again, in places we wouldn’t have thought of going 12 years ago. I understood why friends who had visited over the past year had enjoyed it.
  • As much as I liked knocking around Budapest — and running through most of District VII’s craft beer bars where, according to Untappd, Andrew and I tasted 43 Hungarian beers — my favorite bit of the trip was the day we spent visiting wineries in the Tokaj wine region — about 2½ hrs northeast of Budapest near the border with Slovakia. We hired the guy (Gergely Somogyi) who runs the Tokaj Today web site as our guide. He came to our hotel, gave us a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation (plugged right into the hotel’s flat screen TV in the breakfast room) on Tokaj’s history, geography, geology, grape and wine types. And with this Intro to Tokaj information still looking for neurons to hang out in, we were off to visit four winemakers. And say that rather than wineries because we sat down with each of the winemakers — the two more established —Zoltán Demeter and Judit Bodo — in their tasting rooms, the two garagistas — Mathilde Hulot and Róbert Péter — their kitchens and patios — for an hour or more each, talking about their wine, about Hungary, and about what they’re trying to do. Only one of the four — Demeter — is from Tokaj. The rest moved there to make wine — Bodo from the Hungarian-speaking part of Slovakia, Peter from Budapest, and Hulot from France — because of its history and its potential to make great wine.
  • Each told a version of the same story — of Tokaj’s history, wine knowledge, and wine quality being broken during the 40-some years of Communism — abandoning the high-quality vineyards on the hills for lower-quality fields on the plains that could be harvested with big Russian tractors, 5-year government planning that pushed quantity over quality. And of how each of them came to Tokaj to flip that equation back to quality over quantity — even the Tokaj local had to leave to jobs in California and France to learn quality winemaking before he came back. But they all feel challenged to get the entire community, the “locals,” on board. Maybe it’s some of the residue of Communism — it’s easier to crank out industrial plonk than good wine. Maybe it’s because many of them can’t afford these new wines and so don’t appreciate them. Bodo said she specifically priced one wine so that local young people who now drink beer could afford to drink good local wine. To appreciate what they have here, she said, everyone has to be able to enjoy good wine — not just the winemakers.
  • I hate to truck in the wine industry cliche that these winemakers have a “passion” for what they’re doing, but my thesaurus fails me, I can’t find a better word. They all appreciated that we’d taken the time to drive out from Budapest to visit (if maybe a bit puzzled by doing everything in a day), and were very generous with their time and their wine. It was tough to limit ourselves to buying just one bottle per stop. I had to keep reminding myself that I’d only brought my small rollerboard with me.
  • On our last night, we’re back in Budapest, knocking around District VII, looking for our last dinner. We’d had some great food — a couple of Michelin one-stars, some food trucks near a ruin bar — but it was tough to find some of the homey Hungarian food — call it “peasant food” — that we’d had in the past. And then we found it — a bit cafeteria style — I’ll take that sausage, the hurka with the pork liver and rice — oh, and that one too, the regular kolbasz with pork, paprika and garlic — some pickled salad, a bowl of gulyas soup, and, OK, just one last beer.

Closing

  • Closing music — iTunes link to Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #130
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
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