Guest Post: Frank’s Coffee and Freedom

Frank, AKA Brut Bunny is a buddy of mine from Max’s forum. He recently went to Budapest and I asked him to do a guest post. Two things he didn’t mention and you may know this, Budapest is actually two cities, Buda and Pest (pronounced “Pesh”). Here’s Franks’s tale of two cities:

I decided to give you Budapest as I experienced it, and not as a Taggart travel guide.

Budapest was never in my cross-hairs. For weeks after I learned that I was headed there I was saying Bucharest, Belfast, anything but Budapest.

My total knowledge of Hungary was something like Bela Lugosi, Liszt, goulash, and Rubik’s Cube. I also knew they had had a “revolution” sometime in the fifties against their Russian occupiers that the U.N. (my favorite organization… NOT) refused, as usual, to get involved with. And, just one other thing. I’ve always had a secret crush on a Hungarian woman. Karoly Lotz’s “Bathing Woman.” Check her out, but just remember she is one hundred and six years old. She is beautiful, but then brunettes do that to me.

I should also explain that this trip was a birthday gift. It was planned that I was getting a fancy schmancy coffee machine. But, my family decided it would be too much to lug back home from Paris; so they decided to give me four days in Budapest instead.

It was less than a two hour flight from Paris on Malev airlines.
The limousine ride from the airport to the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace in Pest confirmed my perverted uninformed opinion…that Budapest would be a dreary, dangerous, depressing former communist city.

It was a dreary overcast day. The homes and buildings along the way to the hotel were run down, iron bars and roll down shutters on the windows, lots of graffiti. A half hour ride and we arrived at the hotel, which is rated one of the finest in the world. Six staff members greeted us as our limo pulled up as if we were returning royalty. The sun literally came out.

We were escorted to our room, which turned out to be the Presidential Suite. Four bedrooms. Four or five spa size bathrooms with whirlpools. A living room bigger than my house with a huge marble fireplace at one end and a monstrous wall mounted flat screen TV at the other.

A large dining room capable of formally sitting twelve for dinner (the table was set with platters of fresh fruit and cheese and a magnum of champagne chilling in a bucket.) A full size kitchen with all appliances and servants entrances. Ornate gilt ed fifteen foot ceilings. Dozens of fresh flowers, roses, calla lilies and tulips every day in every room

The French patio doors in the living room opened onto a small balcony directly overlooking the Chain Bridge, the Danube, the Royal Palace, the National Gallery and the coronation church of the Hungarian kings, Matyas church. A view to die for day and night.

Sound like I’m gloating? After seeing the rate for the suite at the front desk, four thousand three hundred Euros a night, you can be damn sure I am.

Four Seasons Hotel Budapest

This hotel is smack dab in the middle of everything.

Exiting the hotel you have the Parliament buildings off to the right and Vaci Utca on the left. Vaci Utca is an open mall that runs along the Pest side of the Danube… known as a commercial trade center for business, swindlers, prostitutes and
Tourists; packed streets, hostelries and shops.

I should say here that my wife and I walked everywhere. Day and late at night. I have never felt safer in any city in the world.

IMO, Hungarians are a proud, very literate, friendly people who remember their past and look forward to their future.
Some info: the average age is around forty, the average non professional worker “nets” about four hundred and thirty five dollars a month, the literacy rate is around 99.7%, and Hungarian’s love their cafes, coffee shops, and cigarettes.

Operahouse

The 1956 revolution is fresh in their minds and although they were decimated while the world stood buy and watched…
I think they are truly proud to have stood up to oppression. But, more on that to come.

The money was a surprise to us. We travel in Europe a lot and think in U.S., Canadian and Euros. Hungary, being part of the European Union I just assumed they are on the Euro. They are not. The currency is the Forint. The exchange rate for a Forint is around .0052 U.S. or .52 cents for 100 Forints. Hungary may not be able to adopt the Euro before 2013; if then. Why? The government is bankrupt.

Roaming around the city one day I came across the smallest store I’ve ever seen. Maybe three or four feet wide. Not much longer either. They were selling interesting souvenirs. Kalashnikov’s. AK-47 assault rifles. I made sure I was wearing gloves when I handled them. Most were used… and who knew where. Only $75 U.S. I would have bought one except worse then getting through Customs I had my wife to contend with.

A great treat for me was meeting Andrew Princz. Andrew is the author of “Bridging the Divide: Canadian & Hungarian Stories of the 1956 Revolution.” He is a producer, art historian, journalist, author of culture and a genuinely nice guy. His web site is www.ontheglobe.com.

We walked across the Chain Bridge and climbed half way to heaven on the Buda side of the river where we met Andrew in a coffee house. After coffee he took us on a walking tour of Buda.
Of course it started at the National Art Gallery. Buda reminded me of Greenwich Village when I was a kid.

After the Gallery we started toward the Royal Palace and I found myself staring at a concrete block house. Windows and doors covered with steel plates and thick iron bars. Andrew explained that it was the Nazi headquarters back in the 1940’s and has been boarded up since. Half the people want to tear it down, half want to turn it into a museum. That’s when I asked for a history lesson.

Hungary was occupied by Germany from 1930-1945. Then the Russians occupied it from 1945 until 1990 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Sixty years. Can you begin to imagine what that was like? They held their first free election in 1990. Joined the E.U. in 2004.

According to Andrew, the revolution of 1956 started as a University assignment. A professor had his students write about the freedoms and liberties they would want to have if the occupation ever were to end.

The project became so serious that the professor was asked to run for President, but he was forced by authorities to place the list of freedoms in a vault not to be discussed. This angered the students and they revolted. Russian officials and sympathizers were kidnapped, some were killed. It got to the point that the Russians retreated, pulled up and left.

Budapest celebrated, but prematurely. The Russians returned and surrounded the city with three thousand tanks. The Hungarians fought the tanks with their hands, small arms and molotov cocktails; knowing help was surely on the way… the United States, the U.N., someone in the world would help them. But, the help never came.

Time for a Unicum, a local drink made entirely from herbs. Forty proof. It looks like bug juice, tastes like a remedy for iron deficiency and will put hair on your chest, if that’s what you want a hairy chest. Incidentally, the food there was excellent. We ate at the hotel, in a couple of fancy restaurants, but mostly at the cafes where the locals go. Good food, rich deserts mit schlag – dollops and dollops.

I really enjoyed the city. It has the infrastructure, architecture, and history to become a major tourist destination. Would I live there? No. Would I invest there? Absolutely, I know people who already have major investments.

The day we were leaving I was reading a local English newspaper. An interesting article. The night before someone with a Kalashnikov Ak-47 assault rifle had shot out all the windows in the police stations. The story was written not in the sense of reporting a crime, but almost with a sense of pride. The journalist concluded “… no one was targeted. Police officers were in no danger. We did it because we can.”

Coffee and Freedom. What more could you want?

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Back to Blak

I’m still looking all over the place for Blak, that new fusion crazy soda drink. This chick, a real clown, Bozoette tried it after reading about it here and she posted a hilarious review of her first Blak experience in this post.

It was this chick, though who left a comment on my “Where’s The New Blak” post with her bright idea to just make it at home. Well I am a DIY type, had thought of it before, but there’s just something about being egged on that made me actually try it.

Should be easy enough, get some Coke, a shot of espresso with a pinch of artificial sweetner, and a glass:

Pour in a decent amount of Coke:

Now a little espresso:

A violent reaction, like those volcano science projects we all do for school. Quick, run, get some towels!

Oh, would I drink this botched experimental liquid? You bet. It was the nastiest thing I have ever tasted and I’m pretty sure it is what made me turn into a little green monster. True, I’m tap dancing out this post with my tiny little feet.

And little green monsters can make a mean creme brulee:

That’s it for today’s kitchen experiments. Tomorrow I will tell you all about our wicked bookcase/DVD shelf in that room upstairs.

Espresso Nirvana

I had my first cup years ago somewhere in Europe. I fell in love with it even though at the time I was not a coffee drinker and had never been to Starbucks.

After getting back, I tried Starbucks but the quality just wasn’t there. So I did a little research and bought this Italian machine, a Pavoni.

It’s not a machine for beginners. It took about six months before I could pull a perfect shot.

There are so many factors in making it just right. The bean, some people roast their own. Illy is just perfect although I often make do with Starbuck’s Italian roast beans. A lot of people swear by Lavazza, but I don’t like it.

The grind must be of the texture between sugar and flour. I’ve bought a ton of grinders and never was satisfied with any until I splurged on a Mazzer grinder.

The amout of coffee grinds has to be perfect. Some people weigh it in grams; I can tell the right amount by eye. The Mazzer has a doser, but it has to be set. The grind and the amount. Next, the tamp has to be done at about 30 pounds of pressure.

Still, even with all this prep, I could only pull a perfect shot 25% of the time. The bars of pressure has to be just right, and even with the guage, it doesn’t always come out right. The water tank needs to be 3/4 full. The time of the pull and the amount of pressure on the pull handle, that has to be the same every time. So after years of this, I moved up to the next level.

I got this semi-automatic Expobar Athena (in copper, the silver thing is the Mazzer grinder).

Expobar and grinder

The machine is made in Spain, much of it hammered by hand. I’ve had to take it apart to work on it (it weighs 70 lbs, forget shipping it off and who the hell around here works on these things, anyway?)
Parts of the inside were made of old metal signs. I like that.

I still have to grind, dose and tamp the coffee, and that is good, it allows more control over the process than the fully automatic machines. It pulls a pretty good shot consistently, but never the sort of best shot as with the Pavoni. I don’t use the auto frother for the milk, I do that by hand with the wand attached to the machine. Again, more control.

So here is what a good cup of espresso looks like coming out, see that crema?

crema

Why go through all this trouble for a cup of coffee? It’s a picky methodical process with too many extraneous factors. Keeping things simple is my usual motto. But this is how I start my day.

Smile coffee

It’s a reminder that some things, special things, they do not happen easily. Human touch and even the stars have to line up just right for it all to work. Like making movies. It’s amazing that they happen, but they do. I hope to be a part of that magical process with my writing. Someday.

Ear it is, Paris

I love the short flights from London to Paris. People are always in such a good mood, the pilots talkative…This time I took an Air France flight and the pilot didn’t speak English too well. He’d crack everyone up with things like, “Put your seat belt up.”
And boy do you need that belt on that ride. The descent is quick, almost like a baby roller coaster. My belt held me down for a good while, I was floating, my butt did not touch the seat. And the turns, I’ve never felt turns like that on a plane.
This is the fourth time I cross the channel this way and I’m just catching on now that they do it like that on purpose. That’s why everyone is giggly. They even thank the pilot for it when they’re getting off the plane.

First thing I did was get my souvenir. Got my cartilage pierced in Paris. Hurts like hell, especially when I sleep, but it’s worth it. At least it is not a corset piercing.

Just the left ear. The guy who did it hated, hated wasting that other earring. The French hate waste. If you ever get invited to dine with them, don’t ever leave a morsel on your plate or a sip left in your glass. Never ever drink soda with your meal. It makes them ill to see us do it, really, they dine with wine.

I never thought I’d see a Starbuck’s in Paris. First one I saw was in an underground shopping mall. Thought it was a fluke, but when we got out of the Louvre, there it was on the street. And that is a real shame because Starbuck’s is inferior to the espresso in the cafes there. It may be better than much of what you can get here in the States, but damn, it is a really big mistake to go for that stuff when the authentic stuff, the espresso Starbucks tries to copy is right there.

Every once in a while in the subway stations the police are checking tickets, to make sure you have one and that it was validated. So we make it through the police checkpoint and while waiting for a train, a man pops up out of nowhere, flashes a badge briefly and asks to see my ticket. I thought it was a crook trying to steal our tickets because of the swarm of cops up ahead, so I tell him, “No.” He flashes his badge again so I hand them to him and he drops one but catches it just before it hit the ground. “Wow” just pops out of my mouth and this man smiles for a fraction of a second and then puts back on his “serious” face. When he handed back the tickets, I checked them over really well to make sure he didn’t hand me some expired tickets. They were legit. He was legit. I think he was having a good time playing Inspector Clouseau or something.

Okay, do not touch the electric wires around here, or else.

The highlight of the Paris trip was seeing my Parisian friend Helene, the one with that second home near Paris. She took us to her sister’s apartment late on the last night we were there. We’d been driving for quite a while in Paris when I realized she was lost. It didn’t bother me one bit. We drove around for about an hour or two and I sure did enjoy the view.
Not as much as the one at the sister’s place though. She lives on the 17th floor and from her balcony is the most beautiful sight, The city of Paris spread out perfectly like I’d never seen. And this was at night. I didn’t have my camera.
We didn’t get back to the hotel until about 3 AM and the flight back to England was later that day, so, technically I got to see my British friend and my French friend in the same day. I never thought that would happen.

This is how Parisians move into an upper floor.

See that thin metal ladder going into the window? There is a sort of elevator thingy that carries everything up that ladder. It sounds like a garbage truck. It was right next to our window and it took about two full days to get all the stuff moved.
But hey, now I know how they do it. One day, you see, I’ll get my turn to move into a Parisian apartment.