Another week has gone by and slowly Budapest seems to be coming a little more familiar. This has been helped by things starting to fall more into place, such as by Helen coming out for the weekend and my finally managing to get a decent Internet connection so that I can contact people more reliably.
The Internet connection has been a frustrating story. My neighbour said that she could use her wireless network, but I found that I was just too far away to get a reliable connection, so sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. The best option was therefore to get a USB mobile broadband stick, but when I went to the local T-Mobile shop I was told that I could not get such a device unless I had a Hungarian identity card. I tried this twice, each time with no luck, so asked one of my HR administration people if I could have some sort of official letter that would impress them. So this evening I went back, queued again for 30 minutes and, crossing my fingers, went to see the sales assistant when my number was called. As usual, his English was limited, but I showed him my official letter (in Hungarian and English) and waited while he emotionlessly read it. Eventually he turned to me and said, "Life of Brian. Vurry fanny film. You?" Of course, I had to say yes, grinning foolishly. So, possibly thanks to Monty Python I managed to get my USB broadband stick and reliable contact with the outside world.
As I said, Helen came for the weekend and was able to take a look at my apartment and current lifestyle. Both seemed to pass. Although our current intensely cold weather continued the sun shone everyday and we had a great time exploring the city. Helen dressed up like an enigmatic east European film star, we walked up and down the river bank and sat in coffee houses trying to have radical thoughts, just as people have traditionally done in the city for centuries. We probably failed on that.
I did however bring up a subject that has intrigued me since I arrived which is about the prevalence of coat stands. I've noticed that whenever you go to a bar or a restaurant in the city there are coat stands or hooks on a wall, which people actually use. So you might walk into a bar, hang your coat up and go off and find somewhere to sit down. On the train out to the airport all of the hooks beside the seats had coats hanging on them. My recollection is that when we Brits go to a bar we put our coats on the seat beside us or stuff them into the luggage rack. So what's that all about? Do we assume that if we put coats on a coat stand that someone will steal them? Are coats on seats a useful way of making sure that no strangers will come and sit anywhere near us? Before coming out I had wondered what it might be like living in a country that regularly had really cold weather and how it might change lifestyles, but I had never thought about coat stands.
Anyway, apart from thinking radically about coat stands we did some interesting things. Like going to the Hungarian State Opera. This is in a most beautiful building, and is one of the institutions that people here are most proud of. Ticket prices are obviously subsidised, as they are a fraction of the price of going to somewhere like Covent Garden and it does mean that you get a wide range of people going. On the night we went they were showing Don Carlos. Now, I have never really listened much to classical music and opera is an art form whose attraction has escaped me, so I thought that Don Carlos was a Jamaican reggae singer who played with Black Uhuru, but it turns out that he was the son of a Spanish king way back in the 16th century. We only discovered this when buying a programme (£1.50 unbelievably) at the end of Act 4, having spent the three hours up until that time being completely baffled by hundreds of people in fantastic costumes on amazing sets moving backwards and forwards, singing in Italian and having their words translated into Hungarian in the surtitles. What also threw us was that after every solo or a scene change the main cast members came to the front of the stage, took a bow and the audience clapped enthusiastically, first randomly but then slipping into synchronised clapping. They clapped so loudly at the end of Act 3 that we, being completely baffled by what was going on, thought that it had all ended and tried to get our coats back from the cloakroom. Fortunately, they stopped us and sent us back in so that we could enjoy the the inevitable classical opera denouement of the doomed lovers going off to meet their respective fates.
On Monday afternoon, before Helen flew home, we paid a visit to the Szechenyi Baths. Budapest is famous for its thermal waters, and all over the city are public baths and summing pools supplied with geothermally heated water. The attraction of Szechenyi are large outdoor pools with water at up to 38°. That sounds fantastic but the air between the changing rooms and the water is -3°. So once you have changed and gone through the doors you have to somehow elegantly skip across to the hot water, which lies under a blanket of steam. Of course, once in it is absolutely wonderful, lying in the hot water, with the late afternoon winter sun playing on the beautiful architecture, the old chaps playing chess in the middle of the pool and people's heads drifting in and out of the clouds of steam. There are also a number of different types of indoor pool, most of which have a slightly unpleasant sulphurous smell but which is apparently very good for most bodily problems. I must admit that I felt wonderfully relaxed for the rest of the day, and think that the thermal baths are a definite plus for the city.
Week 4 of work has started. Helen gave me little sympathy when I explained how difficult I find it to work in a 9-to-5 job. For 12 years I have been used to starting when I wanted, finishing when I wanted and going out to do my shopping when I wanted. All of a sudden I have to be in one place during certain hours and running the rest of my life is something that has to be squeezed in in outside hours. This does not feel very organic. I guess that as the months go by I may become more domesticated, but in the meantime I do feel that I am doing a lot of scrabbling around just trying to get essentials organised. We shall see if things improve...