Tuesday, October 20, 2015

World Piece: Budapest (And a few other thoughts)


It is ironic that I was traveling around the world with the goal of spreading peace, love, comfort and community building through pie, yet in my wake so many troubling events unfolded.

 A month after I was in Bangkok, Thailand, a bomb exploded at the Erawan Shrine, killing 20 people and injuring 125. It detonated at exactly the spot and time I walked past each evening after making pies at the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel.

 Then, in Lebanon, I watched as the little cabana that held the neighborhood’s handful of garbage cans filled. It filled some more, and then more, and as the days ticked by the garbage eventually began spilling out in a heap onto the street. And that was just the garbage for one building. Beirut was facing a new war—a battle with garbage and where to put it as the old landfill had reached capacity and was closed before a new one was designated. It didn't take long for this to turn into a crisis. The garbage piled up so high around the city center that restaurants closed. The country has been without a president for over a year and the parliament members couldn’t—or wouldn’t—make a decision to create a solution. So citizens took to Beirut’s stench-filled streets protesting the situation. Several months on, the temporary solution was to reopen the old overflowing landfill.

I was in Athens, Greece during the height of their financial crisis. The fear-mongering media reported that tourists shouldn’t go there or they might get robbed, that cash-needy Greeks might see tourists as their personal bank tellers and mug them. (I went anyway. I did not get mugged. And I found the people—cash-needy Greeks and all—to be some of the nicest of my entire trip.)

And then, Hungary. I spent four days in Budapest—eating, making and sharing pie—and just two days after I left they closed the train stations, halting transportation to Germany so as to keep the migrants from, well, migrating. Luckily I had booked a flight instead of the train. After I left, the news was—and still is—dominated with the growing refugee crisis and Hungary’s refusal to let them pass or even enter the country.

So much for pie and world peace. Sigh.

Ah, but this post is supposed to be about Budapest and my time there. And the point—not just of my blog but of life—is to focus on the positive, to be the change you want to see in the world, even in the face of disappointments and discouraging events.

Keep calm and bake on, I say!

Budapest was a good surprise. It is an impressive city with its old architecture, grand and stoic buildings. Although Hungary is a landscape of rolling green beauty, Budapest isn’t known for ample parks or green space. The apartments and hotels are towering blocks, creating a claustrophobic dark alley feeling, made darker still when you see how much of the still city bears the pockmarks of war and the neglect of its communist years. But to walk along the banks of the Danube River is to find relief, open space along with Old World European postcard views.

With Ryan (L) and Ron (R) enjoying
some breathing space along the Danube
My hosts were Ron and Ryan. Ron is an old family friend from Southeast Iowa. Ron used to be a priest. He left the priesthood to get married. To a woman. He eventually left that marriage and got remarried. To a man.

When Ron learned I was setting off on this round-the-world trip he extended an invitation to Budapest where he and his husband run a bed and breakfast, called Budabab, out of their charming apartment. I could stay there, he said, and teach a pie class in their kitchen.

I had never been to Hungary and I admit it wasn’t high on my priority list of places I wanted to go, but I had said from the beginning: World Piece is about the people, not the places. I liked that Ron and Ryan’s story fit with my cultural tolerance mission, particularly as in late June the US Supreme Court had just approved gay marriage as a civil right. I also liked the thread of Ron being connected to Iowa, to my family and to my childhood, as this rooting into my past seemed to emerge as a secondary theme to my journey. That Budapest was an effing cool place was a bonus.

The days there were a blur—we packed in sight seeing, always taking public transportation around the thousand-year-old city. I loved hearing the female voice over the intercom as she announced each tram stop, coating the hard Hungarian words with flannel sheets and making the “sh” endings sound softer and more slurred than what one hears on the streets.

I arrived when the country was celebrating its biggest, most important holiday: Saint Stephen’s Day. There were festivals taking place all over the city, including a food festival where we grazed on local fare like potato pancakes fried in a pool of oil then covered in sour cream. Take note, health-conscious travelers: Hungary is not good for your cholesterol!
A pig roast! Just like Iowa. Only this is on the banks of the Danube in Budapest.
Potato pancakes. With a little grease on the side.
We walked across the Chain Bridge, a Budapest landmark connecting the towns of Buda and Pest. It was the first permanent bridge across the Danube, opened in 1849. The bridge is flanked by lions, two on each end. Every sign and symbol of courage I could get was appreciated. And anyway, I was glad I was seeing lions instead of my previous animal token of snakes—live ones, as some of you will recall from my days in the American Gothic House.

We popped into the Four Seasons Hotel, the old Gresham Palace of Art Nouveau design. Ron insisted we walk through the lobby and I was so glad we did. It is restored to perfection, with polished marble floors, wrought iron gates, velvet sofas, and as a somewhat incongruous touchstone to Seattle, a Dale Chihuly glass chandelier, which is one of his most beautiful works I’ve seen. I stayed at the Four Seasons in Mumbai, getting a room in exchange for teaching pie classes. Had I known about the elegance of the Four Seasons Budapest, I would have volunteered to teach classes there. Ah, next time!
The Four Seasons lobby with the Chihuly chandelier. A dreamy place.
Ron took me to the healing waters of the Szechenyi Thermal Baths, another must-see landmark in Budapest. We spent several hours soaking in the outdoor pool and, wow, talk about a veritable melting pot. I floated around trying to count how many different languages I heard spoken and came up with more than 10—French, German, English, Hungarian, Hebrew, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, and a few I couldn’t identify.

World peace in a pool—it seems warm medicinal water is the answer to cultural tolerance!

The thermal baths of Budapest. Healing the world one dip at a time.
Because I was teaching a pie class at Budabab, Ron took me to the Great Market Hall to shop for ingredients. This is the place to come for souvenirs, especially if paprika is on your wish list.
We bought apples, peaches, and a few slices of strudel—called rétes in Hungarian and pronounced “ray-tesh.” It was “WTC,” as my friend Jane would say. Worth the calories.



Hungary isn’t just known for its strudel (er, rétes). The streets of Budapest are lined with pastry shops, the fancy, cream-filled kind of cakes. We sampled some on a Saturday afternoon, sharing bites of Dobos, Eszterhazy, and some other delicious poppy seed, almond-paste filled things, while sipping coffee at an elegant outdoor cafe. Talk about the quintessential European experience.
European grandeur. Felt like a step back in time.

Too many good choices.

Yes, there was pie! A fancy kind.

Come on, you know you want some....

Another outing took us through the streets of the Jewish quarter, taking in memorial sites and artistically rendered reminders of the atrocities of WWII. “People used to live here,” a plaque on a building declares in a tone just short of shouting a reprimand. Plaques embedded in the sidewalks spell it out more specifically with the names of individuals killed by Nazis. These are for people who had no relatives to keep their memories alive, but were later immortalized by the donations of these name tags.



Behind the peepholes in this wall are old photos of people who used to live here.
There is a heaviness about this city. And if the Jewish district memorials are not enough to make your your chest seize up with a chokehold on your heart, just go down to the river to see “The Shoes of the Danube,” a “sculpture” of cast iron shoes—60 pair of them in styles of the war period—lined up on the bank depicting where Jews were shot and pushed into the river. H-e-a-r-t-b-r-e-a-k-i-n-g. I only got a glimpse of this from the window of the tram as we passed by and I was fighting back tears for the rest of the day. I still cannot think of it without a lump growing in my throat.

We explored the Jewish district further and dipped in and out of some hipster cafes called “ruins bars.” As the name suggests, these are bars built out of ruins.

We strolled through Szimpla Kert, the first ruin bar in Budapest (where ruin bars have become a big trend), and my mood was buoyed by the eclectic and whimsical art. The mosaic mermaid on the bathroom door. The shell of an old car outfitted with seats and a table. The gnome statues and colorful flags hanging overhead.


One piece in Szimpla Kert that caught my eye was a potted plant—a skinny young tree with little white paper tags tied to its delicate branches. At the base of the tree was a sign that read “Wish Tree for Peace.” Given I was on my World Piece (yes, peace) journey, I stopped for a closer look.

It was an idea that came from Yoko Ono, to “create a peace trail to explore various aspects of peace.” You make a wish, tie it to the branch, tell your friends to make a wish too, and keep on wishing. The hope is for the collective consciousness to work its magic. Put the positive energy out there and you will manifest it. If only everyone would wish for the same thing—say, no more war, no more killing, let’s all just get along—wouldn’t that be a grand thing?

Budapest may have exceeded my expectations but my round-the-world trip did not. My goals were too grandiose. Any happiness and hope I may have spread—in Bangkok, in Beirut, in Budapest—felt diminished, swept away in the flash flood of negative news on CNN. My ambition to save the world was way out of line. On top of that, I was still affected, subdued, from visiting Gandhi’s house in Mumbai in July, seeing the photos of him dead, assassinated, dark blood seeping out from his bullet wounds. If Gandhi couldn’t save the world, who the fuck was I to think that I could?

Not long after I posted a photo of that Budapest Wish Tree on Instagram, I got a message from an acquaintance in Wisconsin: Deb Nies of Waunakee. She had seen my photo and asked me for more information. It had sparked an idea for her, she said. There was a damaged pear tree in her yard that had been struck by lightning. She was considering cutting it down, but instead she found a new purpose for it: as a wishing tree.

She put up a sign and set out a bucket of tags and markers for passers by, and the next thing you know the tree was not only filling up with wishes—meaningful ones, like “I wish for my mom to get cured of cancer” and “I wish for my husband to come home safe from the Middle East” and “I wish to never get bullied again”—it was quickly becoming a beckon of hope for Deb’s small town. The tree (and Deb’s effort) has grown so beloved it has been featured in the news and now even has its own Facebook page.

Deb has been sending me updates about the tree and the wishes on it ever since. And every time I see one of those wishes, especially those heartfelt ones, I am reminded that my trip was not in vain, that there is still so much goodness in this world, and that in my own small way I helped add to that goodness.

It makes me think about that poem by Bessie Stanley which defines success, or some modified version:
To give of one’s self; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition—or a Wish Tree!—to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived—this is to have succeeded. 
My wish is for world peace. And in spite of being inundated with troubling news, I will keep wishing for it. I hope you will too.

Pie class in Budapest, the last one of my World Piece journey.
Leaving the world a better place, one pie and one smile--and one messy oven--at a time.

5 comments:

Bill Jabas said...

Thank you for sharing your mission. I've greatly enjoyed following you. And I have to say that knowing you are in Iowa and you think you can improve the world by baking pie is very reassuring to me. Keep in mind that the reward for effort is sometimes not realized until long after the work is done. Like a farmer you've sown a seed and somewhere it's growing.

Beth M Howard said...

Thank you for this sweet and supportive wisdom, Bill Jabas. I hope you don't mind but I'm going to use your quote/comment in another essay I'm working on. Many many thanks! -- Beth

Alex Tudor said...

Fantastic place, thanks for sharing.

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Shelterd Life said...

I love this place in particular, it always has the best and impressive events every year. This venues in NYC have the perfect location if you are looking to host the event of a lifetime. The main-level features a large comfortable space.

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