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Eastern Europe Tour

Day 9 Monday May 28, 2007
Eger, Recsk

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I awoke at 3:30 a.m. I must have been concerned about my electrical fiasco. I was beginning to suspect that my whole approach to this vacation, which had worked so well on the two trips to Italy, did not work at all. This has in many ways been more stressful than staying home. However, at this point the only thing to do was to try to make the most of it.

I dragged the small chair into the bathroom, turned on the light, and worked on my journal. It was actually a pretty comfortable arrangement.

One piece of good news was the fact that the computer batteries fully recharged overnight.

I went back to bed at 4:30 and woke up at 7:15. Sue slept in.

Breakfast offerings at the Hotel Minaret.

The coffee and juice bar.

The breakfast room at this hotel was a little difficult to locate. It seemed to be located in between floors in a Twilight Zone area. I took a few wrong turns. The food itself was the standard breakfast fare. There were no scrambled eggs left when I came down, but the hotel staff remedied that situation before I left.

Doubly bad news was disclosed at breakfast. The day after Pentecost, Whit Monday, was a national holiday in Hungary. Neither the stores nor the schools would be open. The shopping spree that I had planned would be difficult if not impossible. It also meant that we might not get to meet the school children at lunch. Many of the people who had taken this tour had reported that the lunch with the children was the most interesting part of the trip. Oh, well.

I deemed that acquiring batteries was more important than buying a pair scissors. I went out on the town desperately seeking some AA batteries or, if possible, a charger. My first stop had to be at the bankomat. I wandered around for a bit until I found the one that Tom and the other tour members had used the previous evening. I got mixed up and got way too much in forints. There was no way of alt-backspacing what I did, and almost nothing was even open in Eger. I would have to try to exchange some of it on Tuesday in Budapest. Even that might be difficult. What a helpless idiot I had become!

I walked all around the town. Hardly any place of business was open. The store with scissors in the window was closed. One Hungarian word became indelibly etched in my memory: “Zárda,” which means closed.

After an extended period of fruitless meandering I encountered the Millers coming out of a camera store on Dobó square. Two miracles then occurred. 1) The store actually sold AA chargers. 2) I managed to get the clerk to understand what I wanted. A charger with a European connection only set me back about $15, and it came with four batteries. I triumphantly returned to the room and plugged it in.

My computer was a model of decorum. I turned it on three times with no trouble at all.

Sue was happy to tell the Millers all about her adventure in Slovakia.

After I got all my electrical stuff in order, Sue and I walked over to the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul. Unfortunately, the organ concert that we had hoped to attend had been cancelled. We walked around the inside of the church for a while. Even though this church is definitely quite active, they allow tourists to walk around and take pictures, even flash pictures, at will. I tried not to use my flash, but most of my pictures did not come out very well because I could not hold the camera steady enough. The highlights for me were the frescoes on the ceiling. I noticed that the ones closest to the main altar were much more faded than the ones nearest the entrance.

Susana had informed us that all churches in this part of the world are aligned along the same axis. The main entrance of the church is always in the west, and the apse is always in the east. If a church were built in a baseball stadium, the entrance would be at home plate, and the apse would be in center field. This may be true in all (or at least most) European churches, and it is a handy fact to know, but it is certainly not true in American churches.

The Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul has an organ concert (almost) every day at 11:30,

but not on Whit Monday.

Pope John XXIII was commemorated in one of the panels on the church’s door.


One of the frescoes on the ceiling.

A shrine to St. Rita.

If this bird is looking for nesting material, he won't find any on St. Paul’s head.


Out of the shadows the lanky Yankee makes his way into the square.

Sue poses by the monument.

A new way for a child to terrorize pigeons.



The other monument and the castle.

The tour group assembled at 12:45 for the trip to the school for lunch. Bojan drove us to the nearby town of Recsk (pronounced Reshk). On the way Susana disclosed several interesting facts:

Joanne and Janet discuss who they think will ask them to the prom.

We arrived at Recsk. Bojan parked his bus across the street from the Általános school, which appeared completely deserted. As we walked to the school, I was not careful about where I was going, and I whacked my left thigh on a green railing in the middle of the sidewalk. It hurt a lot for a few minutes, but then it settled into a dull pain that would probably just nag at me for a few days.

No cliques allowed in Hungary.

Despite appearances Edit was there to meet us and ready to escort us to the cafeteria. We all sat at one long table. There wasn't even a separate table for the cool kids. The lunch was outstanding. It started with a very hearty soup, which, as Joanne said, was like minestrone, but with meat. I downed three bowls. The main course consisted of mixed vegetables (carrots, corns, and green beans), meat (pork?), and sauerkraut that had egg or something in it. It was all on a leaf of lettuce. I ate everything except the lettuce. No one else cleaned his/her plate, not even Tom. Afterwards, they brought strong coffee in little demitasse cups. There were also sweets for dessert, but I did not partake because I did not want anyone to think that I was some kind of pig.

Elegant coffee and tempting desserts.

Andy reminded everyone that today was Memorial Day in America. I had forgotten about this entirely. It suddenly occurred to me that that meant that no one would be in the office until Tuesday. Given the time difference, there was no reason to worry about e-mail until Wednesday.

At our table was a postcard from one of the students. Joanne and I got cards from the same student, Bettina Suha (or in Hungary Suha Bettina.) The card said "Welcome to Recsk. I hope you'll enjoy your lunch. Have a nice journey and remember our school. - with love - Bettina Suha." It appeared that all of the cards had the same message. We were charged with writing a postcard back to the kids from the states as soon as we got a chance. The challenge would be not losing the postcard [a challenge that I met and conquered! I mailed Bettina a card with a picture of the Mark Twain house in Hartford] .

Edit addresses her class.

We then repaired upstairs to the language lab. Edit gave a little talk about what it was like to teach in the twenty-first century Hungarian school system. Many of the tour members were teachers, so they were especially interested in what she had to say. I sat next to Anne, and she came prepared with a pocket-sized notebook full of questions for Edit.

Edit said that the Hungarian school year lasted from the first of September to the middle of June. They were allowed a week off for Christmas and a week for Easter. They attended classes from 8 a.m. until 4:30. Music classes were held in the evening. Four hundred students took their lunch in the cafeteria. She mentioned that there were ten types of high schools, and that students could be bussed (she called the vehicles "coaches") up to twenty kilometers. I did not understand this; I should have asked about it, but my brain was worthless on this day. There were twelve lessons a day with nineteen to twenty-eight students per teacher. Every student was required to learn English or German. About 60 percent chose English.

Joan asked about how they enforced discipline. Edit responded that unruly children were required to work in the garden or clean instead of participating in sports. There was no corporal punishment.

80 percent of the high school students go to college, but few would be able to find jobs in Hungary when they graduated. Maybe that was the motive for the requirement of proficiency in two foreign languages to obtain a degree. The teachers were overworked and underpaid. The union was not very powerful. There were not enough teachers, and there was an exodus from the small towns by the best students.

40 percent of the students in Recsk are Gypsies. They usually have five or six children per couple. The young people must attend school until they are eighteen, but, according to Edit, they mostly just went through the motions. Many were good at music. Others were interested in sports. Most of their parents were unemployed. None of the teachers in Edit’s schools were Gypsies. In fact, Edit seemed surprised that we would ask such a question.

Ákos did a pretty good job of feigning interest in Sue’s questions.

Only four students showed up on their day off to talk with the American tourists. Since it was a holiday, perhaps it would be better to say that a surprisingly large group of four students were there to greet us Yankees in person. They were Magyt Rácz, Zsófi Slezáka, Kristóf Kovács, and Ákos, who was Magyt’s brother. We were supposed to talk with the person who sent us the postcard, but neither Bettina nor Sue’s pen pal were there, so we descended on Ákos. He told us that his favorite soccer team was (I think) Ajax, which is in Amsterdam, but that was about all that we got out of him. I tried to talk with him about the recently concluded European championship game between Liverpool and Milan, but he did not seem to understand what I was talking about. I think that he would have much preferred to be playing football himself that afternoon. When I was his age, I would never have sacrificed one of my holidays to go talk with a bunch of foreigners even if they were Martians.

We then thanked everyone and hit the rest rooms. I was shocked to discover that the division between the male restroom and the female one did not go up to the ceiling. We could overhear what the ladies were saying! I could not imagine such a thing at a school. It seemed like an invitation to mischief. We then went back to the bus. As I sat down, however, I realized with alarm that I had left my black backpack in the school. I immediately notified Susana. The two of us jogged back to the school. I tried to go the wrong way on the street, but she straightened me out. We found the door to the school open, but the door to the classroom was locked. No one at all was around Susana sent me outside to flag down Edit if she drove her car out of the school parking lot.

I did as Susana asked. The only car in the parking lot was the old Opel that had pulled in as we were assembling outside the school. After a few minutes Susana came out with my backpack. She did not say how she obtained it, but I had to suspect that the tour guides had all been supplied with a secret Rick Steves back-door lock-picking kit and exclusive training as second-story men for just this sort of emergency.

The reconstructed barracks.

Susana assured me that it was not a big deal because the group did not have a tight schedule on that day. Nevertheless, I felt like an incompetent fool. It really upset me that everyone had to wait for me. It occurred to me that most people would probably be having a much better time if I could just disappear.

To pick up my spirits we then drove to an old gulag that the Communists had operated from 1950 through 1953. No one inside or outside of Hungary had mentioned the existence of the camp until the late 1980’s. The workers detained there were only given about six hundred calories of food per day, and they were forced to work in a quarry all day long. 1,500 people were interned at the Recsk camp. Only one person successfully escaped. In all of Hungary 200,000 people were held in such camps.

The exhibit contained a reconstructed barracks, a watchtower, and a monument. It was a fairly peaceful place, but there was really not much to see, and it certainly did nothing to improve my mood.

The Communists thoughtfully provided for both #1 ...

... and #2.

The guardpost only failed once.



We all boarded the bus for the wine-tasting. On the way we passed an ostrich farm. It reminded me that I had seen two ostrich farms in Italy. Susana said that ostrich meat was yummy. I also saw a scarecrow standing in a field. There were probably more ostriches than scarecrows in the U.S., but I could not remember the last time that I had seen either of them. Scarecrows have become obsolete in the land of the free; we just put poison on our food crops so that the birds won't eat them.

You see this guy ...

... even before you know where you are.

We arrived at Kohári Pince, the vineyardds of István and Ibolya Kohári. Although it contains a total of only thirty acres, it produces approximately 100,000 bottles of wine per year. The farm belonged to István’s father. He was too old to work the land after the Communists left, so István, who had been working for another winery, took over, and he has been very successful. We started with a toast of some sort of brandy. We were supposed to down it in one gulp, but I needed a second swallow to get it down. It had no tasted to speak of, but it warmed you from your mouth down. We learned to call out “Egéscégedre” (EH geh sheh dreh) for each toast.

The two stars of the show were Orsi (OR shee), a student who was still working on her English, and Toni the Gypsy violinist. Someone else stayed in the background. My impression was that she was Orsi’s teacher. Orsi wore a shawl, and Toni wore a red vest even though it was not a bit cool.

István made sure that everyone got a shot of brandy.

Ibolya explains to Orsi that part of her duties will entail sitting on the laps of all of the American men. I never noticed that guy in the back at the time.

You would not think it to watch Toni, but plucking a violin is difficult.


Toni played one of the Hungarian Dances, "If I were a rich man," "Somewhere over the rainbow," "I could have danced all night," and a few songs that I did not recognize. A couple of times Toni, who seemed to play incredibly skillfully with no effort whatever, punched Tom with his bow. It did not appear that Tom was dozing off or calling the office on his blackberry. Evidently he did not look attentive enough for Toni.

Audrey and Barbara obviously enjoyed the music.

Nedra, Joanne, Lee, and Angela before the wine started flowing.

I don't know what they mean, but the winery has certainlywon a lot of certificates.


We sampled five wines: Olasz rizling, an Italian Riesling blanco (bianco?), Chardonnay, Blue Frankish Rose, Zweigelt, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The first two were whites, the third was a rosé, and the last two were reds. I liked the last one best. Of course, by the time that we got to it we had already had four glasses of wine and a shot of brandy. I probably would have liked turpentine. The rosé was my least favorite.

István made the ridiculous claim that Hungary was on the same latitude as the Napa Valley of California. If he is going to say something like that, he should not use a map. It clearly showed that Hungary was much farther north. Maybe Orsi misinterpreted him, or maybe I misinterpreted her. [I looked this up. Eger’s latitude is 48.6° north. Napa Valley is 38.55°.]

Toni and Ibolya.

Harlyn, and Audrey were into the music by the time that we got to the rosé.

Susan seemed to be enjoying herself.


Pam and Andy compare the Hungarian vintage with the raisin wine of Fresno.

Uh, oh. Nedra knows the words.

Joan and Ray attempt to get their tongues around the words in one of Orsi’s Hungarian songs.


Is Tom singing?

Janet must have gotten a good photo.

Ibolya makes certain that Tony’s and Liane’s glasses never empty.


The highlight of the visit was the dance called the Csárdás (CHAR dahsh) that Ibolya did with Tom. It is. I took quite a few pretty good still shots, both of the terpsichorean exhibition and of the crowd’s reaction.

I tried to get everyone’s picture at the wine-tasting. I could probably make pretty good money bribing people not to publish some of them.

Csárdás!

Csárdás!

Csárdás!


Sue bought some wine and a CD from Toni. He needed a lesson in capitalism. He ran out of CD’s! Americans with forints burning a hole in their pockets were gathered around him, and he had no inventory!

Angela gave them only a 7. She liked the energy, but the technique needed a little work.

Steve, Ray, and Joan have loosened up.

Lyle found a Kodak moment.


Lauren taking a photo of me photographing her, etc.

Paul and Anne select CD’s.

Orsi was probably glad that she survived the invasion of the Americans.


It was sunny and pleasant during our visit to the farm. As we were about to boarded the bus, it turned threatening. At one point there was a double rainbow. It was easy to see but difficult to photograph.

Sun on the benches, but clouds on the horizon.

There was actually a double rainbow.

Blue sky donut hole.


It rained for nearly the entire return bus trip. When we got back to Eger, it cleared up again. It occurred to most of us that this would be a nice way for the weather to behave throughout the rest of the trip. Bojan might not agree.

Elefanto Pizza.

Waiting for service.

After resting a little the four New Englanders decided to try the pizza place named Elefanto, which Susana had recommended, for supper. Already there were the Sharps, the Brimmers, the Andersons, Nedra, Barbara, and Lauren. Susana was absent. She must have diverted us so that she could go to her real favorite restaurant in peace. I would not blame her.

Patti was always happy when she got her caffé latte.

I thought that the pizza was unexceptional, and the Karlsburg beer was by far the worst of the trip. Sue and Patti opted for caffé latte. I had the "Hungarian" pizza with tomatoes and (not that) hot sausage. Patti had the "Marghareta" pizza with just cheese. Tom had a pizza with all kinds of stuff on it. Sue had venison soup, which she swore had a hunk of beef in it. If Margherita had not been so badly misspelled, I would have suspected that it was a chain. Maybe I should not exclude that possibility. The Friendly restaurants misspelled Neapolitan on their menus.

There actually is a place in Eger from which you can see the minaret.

Lauren told us that the Internet café was closed today. We were almost completely cut off from civilization.

There must be some explanation for this car’s presence in Eger.

After supper Sue and I dodged Gypsy beggars during a short stroll through the square and beyond. Almost nothing was open. Only a few people sat outside of a very few cafes that were doing business. I supposed that one problem with back-door travel is that the back door is more often locked than the front door.

Tom had told us that the castle was worth seeing up close, but neither Sue nor I ever made it up there.

If you want the maid to make the bed, don't leave a pile of junk on it.

When we reached our hotel room, we discovered that the maid had made my bed but not Sue’s. Hers was piled high with junk.

Any ideas what this display could signify?

I spent some time applying Gonzo to a grease stain that I had acquired at the restaurant. Then I took a shower. I went to bed feeling somewhat better. I did not feel even slightly inebriated. I was pretty far behind in the journal, however.

Sue made a new folder on my laptop for her movies. She downloaded them, but for some reason they were not in the new folder. I advised her to be careful with the settings and download them again. When I fell asleep she was downloading them the way with which she was familiar.