Budapest #1

We’ve been here in Budapest a couple of days and so far we’ve been delighted by things small and not small. The perfect spring weather helps. 

Today, we started with hotel breakfast, where they did not manage to burn the bacon to my liking but it was still delicious. After that, we went for a walk in search of maybe a hat or sunglasses but found ourselves walking one of those streets that shows up in the guidebook as “where you should go shopping” but we would only describe it as “where you should never go under any circumstances unless maybe you wanted to make video footage of terrible restaurant barkers.” Bleh. Tourist traps! But then, we wandered over to the Central Market Hall where they sell, you know, like, real traditional Hungarian cured meats, and the spices, and wines, and all the fruits and the vegetables, like Budapest’s version of the Pike Place Market. It was gorgeous and full of Hungarians. 

Központi Vásárcsarnok

After that, we crossed one of the many scenic and lovely bridges over the Danube to the Buda side of the city, and on an impulse headed up the hill to the citadel. This park is full of crumbling steps and dilapidated railings and increasingly stunning views and an uneven path up to the fortress at the top and I would recommend the climb to anyone just coming to the city and seeking a way to see it all, because you get to see it from above. After that we walked down the other side to Bartók street and chose a random café for lunch and it was great and then, after admiringly watching those yellow streetcar/tram things going by we took one back over to the Pest side where our hotel was and could not figure out how to actually pay for the trip.


After that, we needed a rest but then after that we went and had high tea and then we got dressed because we had bought opera tickets.

It was the Janáček opera Jenůfa and if you don’t want spoilers about the plot of this opera skip the next paragraph.
If you don’t mind spoilers, I will start off by telling you that I always Google the plot of operas before I see them so I know what I’m getting myself into. I am a good audience member in that I laugh at the funny parts and cry at the sad parts and mostly I need to know in advance when I need to be prepared to be sad or happy or whatever. So let me just say (here come the spoilers) that this is an opera about a dead baby. And it did make me cry, twice, but briefly. I am also a bad audience member in that I get bored easily at the opera, and I’m not what I would consider an actually educated opera fan but I have gone to a bunch of them over the years and I usually enjoy them if they are not too long. I don’t mind extremely sad operas or even the ones where people take a long time dying on stage and singing their guts out at each other (looking at you Tristan and Isolde). 

Anyway, the old opera house in Budapest is glorious and seems gently well-preserved in a not-kept-wrapped-in-plastic-to-preserve-the-freshness kind of way. It’s extravagantly gorgeous, with painted ceilings and a lot of marble and gold leaf, but not gargantuan like the Met in New York. And our tickets were the nicest seats in the house, in a little box on the dress circle, and were about $50 each, which doesn’t even buy cheap seats in New York.
Most of the guidebooks to Budapest will recommend seeing the opera house, because it is very beautiful and special, and, yes, it is those things, but it is also an opera house and you are supposed to see an opera there.


So if you go to Budapest, you should not go to the opera house and take a freaking guided tour. You should put on your dress or a tie or both and go to the freaking opera. The tickets will be much less than New York, the opera will be good, you can read the supertitles in English, the sparking wine at intermission will be more than adequate, and then, at the very end, when you are clapping and watching the many singers and principals and the orchestra and the conductor and all the many members of the audience sharing this experience, you can reflect, as I did, upon the many, many hours of musical education and practice that went into this one night happening. And you, like me, might be really grateful that there were people ready to teach all those musicians to sing and/or play, way back like 30-40 years ago.

Sourdough Waffles

While I’m on the subject of breakfast, I’m going to encourage you to make waffles. Yes, you are gonna need a waffle iron. Yes, people have to eat them when they’re ready because that’s when they’re best. Yes, if you do the cooking you may have to eat the last one.
I have friends I made through social media, in particular on Twitter. Many people in my family hate Twitter, like my kids, or my brother. My rule of thumb on Twitter for keeping the haters away is Block Early, BlockOften. Mostly I have a good time there, except once, and I’ll write about that another day. My husband refers to my Twitter friends as “strangers.” He has a point.
One of my strangers/friends is a hard-core foodie, and devotes many hours on the weekend to cooking. He makes his own saag paneer, for fuck’s sake. Anyway, he also makes sourdough waffles and who doesn’t want sourdough waffles?
When I embarked on the adventure of growing my own sourdough from scratch, I did so knowing very little about it. A wild yeast you capture from the air seemed like an easy thing to me, like tripping on hotel wall-to-wall carpeting, or drinking from a faucet when you’re thirsty and have no cup: easier to do than not to do. But also, maybe, something not to think about too hard, because the idea of wild invisible yeasts flying around is unsettling. I followed the directions I found here. It took a few days. I moved the thing to the basement, where the temperature seemed to be easily maintaining around 69F. I fed it, and waited. And then, like magic: bubbles.
If I had known that keeping a sourdough is like having plants, I would not have attempted it; I am a known plant-killer.
The sourdough you need for waffles can come from the leftover sourdough you discard at regular feedings.
We got our waffle iron in the mid-80s, when I was still young and I still loved to cook. By the early 90s, we had hungry toddlers, so we had to abandon the tedious process of one-waffle-at-a-time, taking 13 minutes per waffle. We bought a flat top griddle and switched to making Sunday pancakes. I always found that pancakes and waffles didn’t keep, with ordinary batter turning black and separating overnight in the fridge. In my experience, with sourdough waffle batter you can keep the raw batter covered in the fridge for several days without it becoming yucky.
My oldest child takes home a jar of sourdough when he visits, because he hasn’t found a better waffle batter recipe.
Sourdough waffles

The night before you want waffles, you make a “sponge;” to 2 cup buttermilk , stir in 1 cup cold (or room-temperature) unfed sourdough starter; add and mix 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, 2 T sugar. Cover, and leave on counter overnight.
In the morning, beat 2 large eggs. Add 1/4 cup melted (and cooled) butter (I have also used bacon fat and I have used goose fat, both with good results); beat in 3/4 t. salt and 1 t. baking soda. Add this egg mixture to the sponge, and mix.
The slimy, living sponge might resist the addition of these ingredients. Be gentle and patient, and try not to overmix.
Cook on a preheated, well-greased waffle iron; mine takes 7 minutes on the first side and 6 on the second. This recipe makes about 4 waffles in my waffle iron.
Serve waffles immediately, to ensure crispness. You can try to hold them in a warm oven; or, do what my youngest does, and put what you don’t finish in the fridge and warm it up in the toaster.

I Love Breakfast

One of my favorite things about traveling is hotel breakfast. I want two poached eggs, with buttered rye toast, some almost-burnt bacon and fruit salad. I can usually get it, though I’ve only had one place in Miami actually get that bacon to the mahogany and black goodness I enjoy when my husband makes it at home. Once, I asked for extra crispy bacon and got extra bacon. It is a struggle.
The Bacon Provider is not a breakfast lover. He wakes up with his hair swirling around his head like he’s floating underwater, his face newly sprouted with beardlyness, and requires about 40 minutes of bathroom-monopolizing to become his tucked-in and tidy self. I wake up looking like a mess, too, but I always look like a mess, so I can roll out of bed and put on pants and a bra and look about as good as I do after a shower and blow-drying. When it’s cold I like to think about wearing my bra over my shirt so I don’t have to take it off; I can’t be the only woman who wants to do this. Sometimes I have to put a little hotel hand-lotion in my hair; travel means a hotel gym, and the gym means too many showers, and too many showers means big hair problems. But even that takes only seconds. The Bacon Provider sits politely in the hotel restaurant, orders toast or sometimes oatmeal.

When the food comes, it is always offered in reverse. There has yet to be a waiter who thinks the eggs and undercooked bacon is for me, the plain toast for him.

Our breakfasts

Dear Dogs, or, Why I Forgot to Feed You This Morning,

I got up and got going, you know, feeling ready to tackle the problem that had emerged last night, but when I let you out and found the driveway impassably icy, I got sidetracked. I know I don’t need to tell you how I felt about it because you know everything about how everyone feels, including the cat, even though you might never have the first clue about why anyone feels the way they do. You knew I was worried, and my concern was about getting down the driveway today, given the ice and the scary trip I had doing it yesterday. I got on the phone and spoke to three or four people, trying to figure out what was the best way to proceed, given the sanding that was already done yesterday.
So, then, I got busy figuring out if a dinner could be made with the ingredients in the house. We have had leftovers at least three of the last four nights and though you eat the same thing at every meal, you know I can’t do that. I unearthed a forgotten bag of stew meet in the freezer and just enough carrots in the fridge, and embarked upon the making of beef stew for beef pot pie. I fed the sourdough and stole some to start the sourdough biscuit and also started a bit of fresh soup stock from the bones I also found in the deep freeze. You know how I like to cook when I’m worried! 

Next, I went to moan over the problem that emerged last night: my sewing machine. It had stopped working so suddenly, causing all that evening’s woe and heartache and anger. I retraced my mental checklist of threading and settings and power-cord possibilities and found this morning that, lo, and behold! I had overlooked something when the machine stopped sewing last night, and it was a simple cord, unplugged, dangling impishly near but not in the socket where it should have been plugged. And, so, after returning the phone calls and texts about the driveway and the continuing some steps of the cooking process and eating my breakfast, of course, and then being able to finish not only the sewing project I had been working on when I was interrupted yesterday but also to get that much closer to finishing the audiobook I’m close to the end of, I got distracted.
Dogs on snow

The walk was pretty good, wasn’t it? With the property quiet and no one else around, we made the perimeter in record time, counter-clockwise, which is my favorite way to go, and yours. When I sat down at the end to look at the fuzzy buds on the tree and generally take in a mild moment of winter, it wasn’t because I was upset or even pensive, it was an impulse, it is ten degrees warmer today than it’s been in a while, but I guess I don’t have to tell you that either.
Anyway, when I got back in and took off my mittens and your jackets and my hat and scarf and boots and jacket and hung up your leashes and put the mittens and scarf and hat back in the basket and changed out of my long underwear and waterproof pants and put on my corduroys and realized your kennels were still standing open with your food bowls on top, it was then that I realized you hadn’t gotten any breakfast at all, even though it was already three o’clock.
So, I would like to apologize for being distracted and pre-occupied, about the kind of  stupid people-problems that go way beyond icy driveways and ,“do we have a dinner plan?” and into, “what are we doing with our life?” and, “how the Sam Hell did we end up here?!” and, “what are we going to do about that?!”
I love you, dogs. You are good dogs, and mostly obedient, and you’ve done nothing to deserve having to wait so many hours for your breakfast. Dinner will be soon, and you may not even want it, now that your tummies are full.
You could come and whine at me, next time, if I forget. That would be ok.
P.S. I finished the book and it was very good in the end, even if it had that sort of modern dissipating-smoke ending rather than an aha!-ending. It was a fine book.

P.P.S. Would you look at that? Here comes the sun.

On Breakfast, Humoring Your Mother, and Remembering Your Friends

I woke up the other day feeling like a big farm breakfast. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, I had slept well and things felt right with the world. I found four pieces of bacon in a bag in the freezer, sliced off some mighty fine bread from our favorite bakeryin TriBeCa for toast, and scrambled two of those farm-fresh local eggs—the ones that are in the carton all brown and greenish blue, and every size from wee to woah. I made two different pots of tea (gen mai cha and rooibos) and a glass of juice and sat down for a rare breakfast feast.
Farm-fresh local
free range organic eggs
My mobile phone rang.
I wasn’t planning to answer it. I had breakfast to eat. I looked at it, though. The number was not one I recognized, not one my phone recognized, and a suburban St. Louis, Missouri number. I expected it was a call from my high school, maybe, asking for money. Something like that. I looked up my St. Louis aunt’s number—it was not a match. I ate my breakfast. When I saw there was a message I hesitated to listen, but curiosity got the better of me.
The first time through I fumbled the pressing of the speakerphone button so I didn’t hear the name. I had to hear it twice. It was my brother’s good friend, saying I should call back, that he had important news that I would want to know about a friend. He was cheerful and pleasant in his message, and seemed a little flustered.
I finished my breakfast. My delicious toast lost its buttery wonder. The finishing of what was supposed to be a special, feel-happy meal becoming mechanical.
I called back, struggling to identify myself. I forgot my own last name.
My brother’s friend got around to telling me that he heard through the grapevine that my childhood best friend, B., who he knew from those ski trips and because their kids went to school together in St. Louis, had died.
I’m not sure when B. and I spoke last. Maybe the summer after my mother died.
When my mother was dying, in her last weeks, one of the last conversations I had with her was about the light fixtures in her house and how she and I should go over to B.’s house, to see how B. had the exact same light fixtures in her house. When a person who is dying of a brain tumor tells you this—that you should go someplace together—flat on her back from her hospital bed that is set up in the dining room so she can die at home, you agree. It sounds like a great idea. Let’s go over to B.’s house to see her light fixtures. You humor your dying mother’s nonsensical suggestions. Your mother isn’t going anywhere, will soon forget what she just told you, might even tell you again, a couple of times.
When you are a kid, your best friend is the most important person in the whole wide world. It matters whether she does Girl Scouts; even if you don’t want to sell cookies, you will do Girl Scouts if your best friend does Girl Scouts. It matters which class she is in, because if you have the scary teacher, at least you have the scary teacher together. It matters that she goes to the same day-camp in the summer, and it matters that you can walk to her house. If she gets new Jack Purcell sneakers, you get them, too.
I think B. and I became friends after my 4th grade best friend T. moved away. In the 5thgrade, B. was already tall. I was still the smallest in the class. B. was a foot and a half taller than me and had the most beautiful strawberry blond hair and bright blue eyes. I had dark brown hair that I never brushed. B. showed up every day with a huge pink lipstick print on her forehead, deposited there by her mother as she left to make the short walk to school. My mother would lock the door after I left for school, so I didn’t try to sneak back in the house.
Her dog was a white German shepherd named “Princess,” a fat panting thing with a violent grudge against certain strangers. Sometimes, B. sleep-walked. B. taught me how to be preppy in junior high school, when preppy was about to be a thing. B. was popular in Junior High School when I wasn’t, but then I changed to private school in 9th grade, and left her behind. Yet, we stayed friends. She invited me to her school’s 9th grade dances; we invited her skiing on our family vacations.
My brother’s friend says B. was very private and no one knew she was ill.
Once, B. and I went to Christine’s house, where her dad was sitting in his upstairs study. Christine’s dad saw B. and got a sly grin and held out his index finger, “Pull my finger, B.,” he said.
Now, I grew up with brothers and uncles and cousins and second cousins and great uncles and grandparents and all the rest and if there was one thing I knew, it was that you did not pull the finger of anyone, avuncular or otherwise. B., being from a protected and tidy little suburban household. B. was not so prissy as to be a push-over, but still was rather reserved.  To me, B.’s mother was a throw-back, with her hair teased up and Aquanetted, her crisp housedress covered in an apron, her lips slathered in fuschia lipstick before she ever left the house. My mother wore her hair long and straight and parted in the middle, and had butterflies embroidered on her bellbottom jeans. B.’s stockbroker dad sang 50s ballads when he puttered in the basement. My dad had huge sideburns and played rec league ice hockey. B. had had none of the random forces of avuncular jocularity to contend with, and had as yet not encountered the offered finger to be pulled. 
Hence the suggested pulling was dutifully performed by B., and Christine’s dad tipped theatrically onto one butt-cheek like a pouring tea-kettle in his comfy smoking-and-paper-reading armchair, letting rip from the sitting part of his esteemed personage with a ripe and thoroughly air-tearing, wet, percussive and voluble fart, rending B. colorless and limp, nearly lifeless and faint, well before I could intercede, grab her by the arm, stop or steer her away.
We were different, B. and I, with complementary areas of expertise.
B. grew up, got married, became an architect, had three kids. She stayed in St. Louis. I grew up, got married, became a math teacher, had three kids. I stayed away. We exchanged holiday cards some years, but I’ve fallen out of the habit of holiday cards, haven’t I? I blog.
Death isn’t in and of itself evil, it’s just what happens at the end of life. It has to happen. Being dead at 51, though, with children still in school?   Sometimes I think some force of evil is erasing my childhood. Ok, maybe not evil, it’s just the way things go. Just life and death, and loss. Everything we ever have that is wonderful or good or special will go or end or shrivel or die or break or run away or collapse or have to be put down, put out of its own misery. Our job is to make the most of what we get, I guess.
Until B.’s obituary ran, a few days later, all I could find out about her online was her nominal LinkedIn presence. I saw her brother there, and her husband and oldest daughter. I have many mixed feelings about LinkedIn, but one thing I am absolutely sure of is that it is not a place to send a condolence email. I was utterly distracted by not knowing what to do, how to reach out, whom to contact, and also by what happened. It makes it hard to focus on even the littlest thing.
I have written and re-written this post, trying to come up with something to say about how the death of my childhood friend fits into my life.  I can’t. It doesn’t. I live in New York; I don’t go to St. Louis anymore. I guess I do regret not being at her funeral in St. Louis to tell that one story, preferably to the whole assembled and somber mass of grieving friends and colleagues. What would the people who posted comments in her online guest book saying they know she’s already an angel in heaven think of me? I’d like to tell them to pull my finger.