Commandeering French Credit Cards and Discovering Hungarian Horseback Archery

Wow, what a morning! But before we get to all that frenetic excitement, spare me just a moment of your time to tell you about last night’s dumb and dumber couple. After returning to Hotel des Boulevards, I immediately began work uploading all of the day’s pictures (more than 600!) and videos, since I knew that it would take a while and I wanted to be in bed a little early to catch the early flight on Saturday morning. I got back to the hotel at around 9.

I sit down, plug in my computer, and hear a few people coming up the steps. The hotel was not very soundproof, so I thought nothing of it. Until, of course, I found out that those people I heard were the people who were checking into the room next to me. And that they were really, really loud. That too.

I’m not just talking your run-of-the-mill loud talking, laughing, or whatever. No, these people made it sound like the building was falling down; actually, it sounded quite similar to moving every piece of furniture in a furniture shop from one end of the building to another. Picture what that sounds like? All night. All night. Until 5AM, when I got up.

Oh, and in addition to those people (or maybe it was those people) was a group singing some kind of ritual chant, also until the wee hours of the morning. Just not my night, I guess.

*****

So, that was Saturday morning. I was packed and ready to go at 6AM, so I went down to tell the owner that I was checking out. With a flight departing at 9, I was certainly ready to get going and make sure that I actually knew how to get back to Charles De Gaulle airport. The hotel owner was nowhere to be found. I hovered around for a bit, hoping that he’d just gone to the restroom or something. After a few minutes in the dark, quiet room, I was losing hope that he’d come out. Suddenly, wouldn’t you know it, that fantastic furniture-moving-loud couple came down the steps and stood next to me. I gave them a death glare and then walked further into the entryway.

They tried the door out, but it was locked from the inside, so we were locked into the hotel. With no bell or noisemaker of any kind to signal for the owner, we all stood there and waited some more. Finally, the guy standing next to me went behind the desk and found the buzzer that the owner uses to let us in. He hit it, expecting the door to open, but it was still locked. After a few more tries, though, the annoying buzzing got the attention of the owner. He had been asleep, and I can’t blame him – it was 6 in the morning and the only time you’re not allowed to check in or out of that hotel is between 11 and noon. When is he actually supposed to sleep?

He let us out, disgruntled at being woken up, and I walked speedily toward the Strasbourg-Saint-Denis metro to make up for the lost time waiting for him. I took a quick look at the maps inside to make sure I was heading the right direction, doubted myself, went back and looked again, saw I was right, and then got on for Gare du Nord. It was only when I actually arrived at du Nord that the problems really started.

I got off of the metro and was immediately swarmed (again), since Gare du Nord is such a big station. I followed the signs for RER B, and all was well. Only after I passed a closed information counter did it sink in fully – a ticket. I need a RER ticket.

Certainly I hadn’t forgotten that I needed one. However, I needed one from the information booths, as ticket machines in France don’t accept American cards since they don’t have magnetic chips. I had, obviously wrongly, assumed that the ticket booths would be open as soon as the metro itself opened. I need to stop making assumptions like that.

I didn’t panic, but I didn’t really know what to do either, so I went and tried a few ticket machines with predictable results. Nothing. I looked into a few ticket booths before giving in to the fact that they were probably all closed. Then I ran into a little newspaper shop and explained that I needed a RER ticket. The lady told me to use a machine and didn’t understand why it wasn’t working, so I went to a different newspaper stand and explained again. She told me there was a ticket booth to the left and up the stairs. Let’s just say that she was quite wrong – it was closed, like all the others – and I had to use a metro ticket to get out of the station toward it. If you know anything about the Parisian metro, once you’re out, you have to use a new ticket to get back in. What would happen if I ran out of metro tickets trying to buy more metro tickets and could only use machines that don’t work for Americans? Plain and simple – I’d be screwed.

At this point, I had been walking around for more than half an hour. It was 6:45, and I was stuck in the station with a flight whose gate closes at 8:30, and I’m looking at the prospect of around a 40 minute RER ride, security at the airport, and walking through the very large Charles De Gaulle airport to Terminal B, which is one of the furthest ones from the RER line. Everything I needed on a time constraint.

Finally, I went to another ticket machine and thought, “Okay, so it won’t take my card, so I’ll pay in cash.” Lo and behold, I turn on the machine and it says, in French, “This machine does not accept cash payment at this time.”

Of course.

Oh, and did I mention the construction work? No, we’ll get to that in a moment. It was obviously not my day.

At last, I found a lady at a ticket machine and asked if she spoke English. When I heard that she did, I begged her to help me buy a ticket, since she was using the machine just fine. At this point, I was willing to give her a 20 euro for a ticket that cost 10 euro and get no change rather than miss my flight and pay for a new flight. Thankfully, she had change and gave it back to me after she bought me a ticket. I couldn’t thank her enough, and with the ticket in my hand I dashed back to the RER stops. In the Paris metro, just because you’re getting on RER B in the correct direction doesn’t mean you’ll end up at the location that you want. So I had to run past a whole bunch of RER Bs before I found 43, the one to Charles de Gaulle. I get down there, and a beautiful marquee is running across the bottom of the screen which shows the stops.

“On October 6th and 7th, due to heavy construction, from 4AM parts of the RER B line will not be operating.” Then, in caps, “THERE IS NO AIRPORT TRAIN.”

Ah, just what I needed right at this moment.

Thankfully, the French are smart enough to help the people they strand. I rode the RER to its final operational stop and connected with a bus to the airport. The negative? The RER B that I rode from the airport upon my arrival was express (did not stop at every station) and took about 40 minutes. Due to the construction, this RER was no longer express. And it was 7AM. And my boarding gate closes at 8:30. And I still had to take a bus.

The RER ride was enjoyable and a good time to chill a bit, since I enjoy riding trains. The bus transfer also went off without a hitch, as airport and metro staff were standing in a line directing people right to the buses, of which there were plenty and no waiting was necessary. The bright side of being forced to ride the slower bus? A glimpse of the cheery pink Parisian sunrise.

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Once at the airport, I felt okay about the time situation, as it was a bit earlier than I had anticipated being there. I stopped at a boulangerie situated a few steps inside the entrance, saw that the prices were quite fair (not the slightest overcharged despite being in an airport), and quickly ordered a chausson aux pommes, or what we Americans would call an apple turnover. It was also on my list of things to eat in France, and it was cheap and quite delicious. Light, flaky, and filled with delicious apple that didn’t have gigantic, annoying whole chunks of apple.

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I ate it as I walked toward Terminal 2, which required a short ride on the airport train. Then, it was off to Terminal B, which was as far away from where I was as humanly possible. Literally.

I started the long walk, but as I got closer I saw an EasyJet representative and stopped him to show him my ticket. I wanted to make sure that, since I only had hand baggage, I didn’t have to check in. I was right, and I continued toward B21 and to security, which was a cinch since I never carry liquids or wear anything that I have to take off. So it was jacket, bag, and laptop in the bins and straight through. After that, I was at B21 with no problems and I sat down to catch my breath. Not a few moments after I sat down, boarding began.

Well that was a close one.

*****

Arrival in Budapest after that was a cinch. I worked on the blog while on the plane (much of Je Suis en Paris Part 2 was written then), and then it was the typical bus-metro-tram switchoff back to the dorm. I didn’t have much time to rest, though – Kelly and I had planned to meet up with Adri and visit her at her house outside Budapest just a short while after I got back. I unpacked a bit, rested for a while, and then we were off to catch the bus at Kosztolányi Dezső tér.

Once we got to the final stop for bus 272, we waited for Adri’s mom to come pick us up. Her house is somewhat of a drive from the bus stop, as I mentioned the last time that I went there and blogged about it. As soon as we got into the car, Adri turned around and, with a grin, told us that we’d better have brought our appetites because she and her family made a ton of traditional Hungarian dishes for us.

She wasn’t joking. There was a ton.

We chit-chatted for a while, and Kelly was introduced to Adri’s sister, Kinga, and her boyfriend. Both were home visiting from their university. I also had the chance to meet Adri’s and Kinga’s father this time, so now I know the whole family! We spent some time fiddling around with music CDs in the computer before dinner was ready, but boy did we eat like royalty! It was amazing.

The first thing to make its way to the table was the traditional Hungarian way of welcoming guests into the home – alcohol. For those of you who know me, you know that I never drink. It’s nothing against people who enjoy a glass of wine now and then, it’s just that I personally don’t like the taste of alcohol and don’t care for alcoholic drinks, no matter whether it’s beer, wine, or whatever. But the last thing I wanted to do was turn down the welcoming gesture of a wonderful Hungarian family, so I clinked my shot glass (egészségedre! [Cheers!]) with everyone else’s and took a gulp of the plum and apricot pálinka before me.

The burn of really strong alcohol slithered down my throat and fizzled into my head almost instantly, which didn’t surprise me. I coughed a couple times, but aside from the taste of alcohol, the drink itself was quite good. The flavor was very sweet and distinctive, especially since this particular pálinka was homemade – remember that Adri’s family has fruit trees?

So anyway, the alcohol itself was quite good (compliments to the Oravecz family there), but I chose not to do any more than that small sip, as I could still feel the crackling in my head. It went away after a few minutes anyway. After that, Adri and Kinga offered Kelly and I a non-alcoholic drink called traubi szóda, a carbonated beverage made from a special type of Hungarian grape called saszla grapes. It wasn’t sweet like American grape juice, but it certainly wasn’t bitter either. The small amount of carbonation (less than a soda) made it quite a nice drink.

The first dish we were served was pörkölt, a stew with boneless meat, paprika, and seasonings, but this has no potato (unlike goulash). Together with goulash and paprikás, these three soups are considered to be the national dishes of Hungary. The flavor was very delightful – not too much paprika, just enough to announce itself, and the meat was tender and juicy. The dumplings in the broth were small and tasted great, which is a nice contrast to bigger dumplings that can be bland and fill you up quickly. There was a bay leaf sitting merrily atop my hill of dumplings and meat, and as I spooned sour cream into the soup I left it there. Adri’s family looked at me, and Adri modestly reached over and picked it out of my soup for me.

Suddenly, the whole room burst into outrageous laughter led by Adri’s father, who was by far laughing the loudest. They weren’t really laughing at me for not taking out the bay leaf (I assumed it was a garnish and was going to eat around it); they were laughing because Adri stuck her fingers in my soup to pick it out. 🙂

We laughed for a couple minutes about that before I had the chance to finish the rest of the soup, which was delicious from first bite to last. Then, Kinga brought out a tray of túrógombóc, which are sweet balls of sugary cottage cheese and semolina or, as we might be prone to call them in America, sweet cottage cheese dumplings. They were also very good, and I tried them both by themselves and with plum jam and found that I particularly like them with jam. In fact, I just finished eating the leftovers that Adri sent home with us with some of my jam from the fridge!

By now, we were getting full, but dinner was just beginning in the Oravecz home! Kinga’s specialty, lángos, was up next on the menu. I’ve had one lángos before, but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t excited about having one that was truly homemade. Lángos, for those of you wondering, is a type of friend dough that Americans might liken to an elephant ear at the fair, although this one is not coated in sugar (although it can be). Friend in lard, the light and fluffy dough was coated with sour cream and salt that we passed from person to person in a small mug. Kinga taught us the techniques necessary for eating a lángos like a real Hungarian – take a clove of garlic and rub it vigorously over the surface of the dough before you put your toppings onto it. Then, just eat it with your hands!

I managed two greasy (but oh so delicious) lángos before I decided that it may be a mistake to try for another one. Then, we took a break from the food to go out and talk with Kinga about her archery skills. She snatched her bow and quiver from her room and dashed outside to show us what she was made of.

She’s made of pretty intense stuff, in all honesty.

Apparently, she used to do horseback archery. Her bow is a lovely wooden one with a silk string, not a compound bow like we’d use hunting back in the States. No sight, no wall, no arrow rest, no pre-strung anything. In other words, a real bow.

The results of her training came across pretty much instantly, when she was able to go from a resting position to having fired three arrows in a row, lined up side by side in the target, in (literally) between five and six seconds. It takes me that long to notch an arrow back home, let alone fire three of them that accurately. She was also able to fire behind herself, which is a skill that comes directly from her ability to fire from horseback. She said that that technique was one commonly used by Magyar warriors.

After I’d shot a few arrows myself and it got a little too dark for archery, we headed back inside and took a sampling of the ishler that Adri and Kinga had prepared for us. Ishler are a type of cookie with jam inside – the cookie part is quite buttery and rich, the jam is scarce and doesn’t overpower the flavor while lending the sugar that the cookie doesn’t have a lot of, and a dollop of hardened chocolate cream on top adds the finishing touch. We had three or four of those before Adri’s mom packed some up for us to take back with us. I just finished those, too….

So all in all, we were quite pampered when we went to the Oravecz household. It was tons of fun, and I really enjoyed getting to spend some time with the whole family. I am so appreciative of all the fantastic food! I can honestly say that my meals back in the dorm today were boring and sad compared to what I was treated to last night!

For once, I do believe that that’s all I have to say. There will be a couple easy days in the coming week, but stay tuned for Thursday, when I’ll cross the Hungarian border yet again for another new adventure!

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