More Travels & House of Cards

Sorry folks, I’m off travelling again, this time to Nantes for a few days. Friday is Bastille Day and a public holiday in France, so I’m turning it into a 4-day weekend.

To keep you entertained, I’ll leave you with a post from last July on what I thought of seasons 1-4 of House of Cards. It may explain why I’ve not bothered watching Season 5 (spoilers follow).

I recently finished the fourth and most recent season of the American TV series House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey and nobody else who can act.  Several people had recommended it to me, with one or two saying it was “amazing”.  Perhaps I should have been forewarned by the fact that two of these people were women of a feminist persuasion.

Seasons 1 and 2 weren’t bad, and depicted an utterly unscrupulous and ruthless Kevin Spacey manipulating situations and people as he wormed his way from Democratic party whip to Vice President and finally to President of the United States.  What I found most interesting about the first two seasons was that it showed what I suspect is the true nature of politics, i.e. politicians making decisions which affect millions of people purely to further their own personal ambitions.  The series lays bare the corrupt and unprincipled nature of politicians and politics for all to see, yet the show is loved by people who favour big government and believe politicians should have ever-more involvement in people’s lives.  I know at least one fan who decries the antics of Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood yet intends to vote for Hillary Clinton in November.  Go figure.

But somewhere between Seasons 2 and 3 the feminists got hold of the script and effectively made the show all about Frank Underwood’s wife, played by Robin Wright.  She played a reasonable supporting role in the first two seasons, ably assisting her husband in his rise to the top (but also betraying him in more ways than one), but during Season 3 she revealed her own political ambitions and contrived to land herself the position of US ambassador to the UN.  During the nomination process her opponents pointed to her utter lack of experience yet she obtains the position anyway thanks to her husband’s prerogative to just appoint somebody of his choosing – whereupon she promptly makes a complete idiot of herself and the United States by being played like a fiddle by the Russians.  I thought at this point she’d be relegated to a supporting role again, her character having been shown to lack experience or competence in a political role –  as her opponents were saying (and any reasonably viewer thinking) all along.

But no.  The feminists who had hijacked the script were having none of it.  Season 4 saw Frank Underwood lying in a coma having been shot in an assassination attempt, a weak VP in temporary charge, and First Lady Claire Underwood running about doing what she likes as though she had some constitutional authority to do so.  A strong, experienced, and somewhat ruthless female secretary of state allows herself to be bullied by Claire into submission, to the ridiculous extent that it is Claire who is sent into a room alone with the Russian president to negotiate a solution to some strategic issue of vital importance.  And of course, Claire gets the notoriously stubborn Putin-a-like to capitulate by browbeating him in a manner in which I suspect feminists think women should speak to their husbands.  As the season advances, Claire finds herself able to order members of the presidential staff around on whim, involving herself in matters of national security even to the point of being in the situation room, and not a single person in the administration raises a squeak in protest.

This wouldn’t be so irritating were it not for the fact that each scene of Claire’s brilliance takes on exactly the same form.  She wears the same arse-hugging style of dress or skirt in every shot, she manages a single facial expression throughout the entire series, and for each pivotal scene the only thing that changes are the words being spoken.  It quickly becomes repetitive, and not a little tedious.  But not content with that, the feminists have to ramp it up by making Claire the object of seemingly every key man’s sexual desire as well.  In Seasons 1 and 2 she is shagging a rather hip British photographer who is world famous, the type that would in real life be hanging around models from Eastern Europe.  But in House of Cards he’s pining after the ageing wife of a US senator.  She finds herself fending off the advances of the (divorced) Russian president, who tells Frank that she is truly beautiful, or something like that.  Because prominent Russians are well known for flattering American women and have difficulty picking up stunners back home.  Uh-huh.  In Season 4 Claire is shagging a famous author, a younger man hired by Frank to write their speeches or biographies, or something.  When Frank finds out he doesn’t mind, and this ruthless motherfucker who committed two murders in his ascendancy to the White House doesn’t just accept it, but gives the couple his blessing.  Again, the idea that a famous author would fall in love with the older wife of the US president instead of having a beautiful, loving partner of his own doesn’t even get questioned.  Despite various betrayals on her part of her husband’s political maneuverings plus the aforementioned infidelities, Frank wakes from his coma praising her to the heavens, forgiving her in full, and stating in unequivocal terms that she is the most important person in the entire series.  Even the wife of the Republican presidential nominee is forced by the scriptwriters to shower her with gushing praise during a visit to the White House.  Season 4 ends with her being nominated as the VP on her husband’s ticket, having seen off seasoned and ruthless female opponents by making hackneyed speeches in a figure-hugging dress.

The audience, by having it rammed down their throats every episode, is expected to unconditionally accept that Claire Underwood is a brilliant politician, responsible for every success her husband has achieved, desired sexually by every man who meets her, and is easily capable as a president herself (there is a Season 5 on the way).  By contrast, despite a brief affair with a young journalist in Season 1, her husband Frank is a greying, cuckolded, semi-invalid who owes her everything.  It is the definition of tedious, and I almost didn’t make it to the end of the series.  Watching this rubbish during the current buildup to the US presidential election, I got the feeling that the scriptwriters were fantasizing about what Michelle Obama could do in her position as First Lady.  Now I see the progressive media praising her speech at the Democratic National Convention for all its worth, I am wondering if a section of the American liberal left haven’t confused real-life politics for a TV show.

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A Trip to Baden-Baden

Last week I spent a few days in Baden-Baden, a German town so bath-like they say so twice. The springs there have been known since Roman times and nowadays one can visit the Friedrichsbad bathhouse, which is a classic 19th century building containing pools of various temperatures which I assume are similar to the Széchenyi baths I went to in Budapest.  Alternatively, you could do what I did and go to the much more modern Caracalla Therme complex, which is fantastic.

I’d not been to one quite like it before. What made this one different is it had dozens of jets, waterfalls, currents, bubbles, and baths which all did different things. There was a row of seats which blasted bubbles around your lower back; there were powerful underwater jets which could massage your legs, glutes, and back; there were fixed hoses which would massage your neck, shoulders and upper back, and waterfalls which would do the same thing. Somebody had obviously spent a lot of time thinking about how much water to send where and at what pressure, or how much to fall from which height, to allow you to get a proper massage without it stripping skin or killing you. There were also several jacuzzis of various temperatures, and each was set on a time-cycle: half were switched off for ten-minute intervals while the other half worked, then they swapped over. This was to stop people hogging the things all day. All you had to do was sit in something that wasn’t working and wait for it to start. There were also steam rooms, saunas, solariums, and a half-decent cafe (although the whole place was alcohol-free).

One amusing point is the upper floor is a compulsory nudist area, i.e. no bathing suits are allowed. For anyone rushing to book tickets with hopes of sharing a hot tub with a naked Maria Sharapova and two of her closest friends, I must warn that you’re more likely to be rubbing up against fat Germans the wrong side of sixty who don’t know their way around a Bic razor. I didn’t hang about in there long, but I spent three hours in the main complex one day and five the next: it was good for my bad back.

Something else I found interesting was the designers’ estimations of their clients’ intelligence. They had arranged three identical water fountains in the foyer as per the photo below:

The little sign on the nozzle on the two end fountains was like this:

But the sign on the one in the middle was like this:

Only in Germany would somebody install three identical fountains, make Nos. 1 and 3 dispense drinking water and the one in the middle non-drinkable, and rely on people reading signs to differentiate between them. Anywhere else in the world and they’d have to put the fountains on different floors. Inevitably, somebody told me that non-Germans (meaning, Russians) often end up drinking from the middle fountain. Nevertheless, the baths are well worth a visit: clean, accessible, and very well organised.

Germany is still an odd place, though. One evening I went with my friends to buy copious quantities of alcohol from a supermarket to drink in the apartment we’d rented. We arrived at about 9:45pm and the place closed at 10pm. For some reason I faffed about and by the time I got to the checkout it was 9:55pm and there was a large queue in front of me. For reasons known only to the people running the place, there was only one checkout working and three supermarket staff watching. As I moved along, the Germans in front of me started pointing to the bottle I’d placed on the conveyor belt and saying things like “Nein! Nein!” I couldn’t work it out until I saw the woman on the till frantically shoving the bottles of the customers in front over the scanner. Apparently once the clock on the till passes 10pm it’s not possible to buy alcohol. By the time my turn came it was about 10:02 and the bottle wouldn’t scan. The woman harangued me in German for a full minute, which I utterly ignored as if she were talking to somebody else about her dog: there was no point in arguing and I wasn’t interested in her explanations. I got the last laugh though: my bill came to €10.01 and I handed her a €20 note. She asked me if I had a cent and I said no, even though I did. Flexibility works both ways: you help me, and I’ll help you. After some huffing and puffing she gave me a €10 note in change. I left hoping she’ll be shot in the morning for that missing pfennig.

I wasn’t bothered about not being able to buy the booze, I had plenty of it already and my friends had gotten through ze German till with ein minute to spare. But it did highlight the difference between France and Germany. In France they’d have found a way to get around this restriction, one way or another. Either they’d have fiddled with the till or they’d have got a supervisor to override the block, or something. But they’d not tell a customer they couldn’t buy drink because the till said it was too late.

There were other reminders that I was in Germany, too. Last time I went was in 2012 and I thought the food was good but then I was living in Nigeria. Alas, this time around I found the food bloody awful: grey sausage on a bed of sauerkraut sitting in watery gravy. That’s what three years in France does to a person, it renders them unable to eat practically anywhere else. In one place I ordered a dish which came with two very small pork chops, which I found hiding under some cabbage. Halfway through the meal the waitress came over with a small bowl, like the kind you put sugar in, containing another two pork pieces. She said “These are for your meal,” and walked off. I dumped them on my plate and carried on eating. I was sat with a Frenchman at the time and I asked him if he could imagine this happening in a French restaurant, a chef forgetting to add half the meat and sending it out in a bowl later. He couldn’t, and neither could I.

The beer was good though, and cheap. Some things never change.

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Holidays and Sport

Tomorrow I’m off to visit some friends in Baden-Baden until Friday, so no blogging next week I’m afraid.

I was going to write a post on the Lions v New Zealand, but what’s there to say? The Lions played well but didn’t take two golden chances when they ran right up to the line, which you can’t afford to do against the All Blacks. The pack played well but so did that of the Kiwis, cancelling each other out. There was little penetration by the Lions for whole periods of the game, but the breaks by Liam Williams and Jonathan Davies were very good indeed and justified their selection. Nobody played badly for the Lions, in fact everyone played well, only the Kiwis played better.

It’s hard to know what to do for the second test. Perhaps play Itoje instead of Kruis? As I said, nobody played badly. The worrying thing is the All Blacks generally put in their weakest performance in the first test and get progressively stronger thereafter. Gulp.

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Beating Up Passengers Because We Can

Oh well done, United Airlines:

Videos showing a man being violently removed from a United Airlines flight have provoked an outcry on social media.

The footage taken inside the airliner shows a man being violently pulled out of his seat and dragged down the aisle as passengers prepared to take off from Chicago to Louisville on Sunday evening.

Little wonder the US government has to invent “security concerns” in order to force passengers to fly their substandard airlines instead of the vastly superior foreign ones.

As I have commented elsewhere, this is merely a natural extension of the police-state tactics that were introduced to the airline industry following 9/11: simply cite “security” and the door is open for police brutality of the type normally seen on the streets of Africa or South America. The fact they were prepared to do this in full view of the public shows how blasé the authorities have become about this sort of thing.

I am heartened by the response of the public, who were appalled and objected loudly. I am also glad that somebody videoed it and made sure everyone was aware that this is how business and the government combine to treat airline passengers these days. Although it wouldn’t surprise me if legislation is rapidly introduced to ban the taking of videos in aircraft – citing “security concern” of course.

There are some people on the internet pointing out that the customer was in breach of the law and by refusing to leave the plane was committing a criminal offence and therefore the police had every right to arrest him and remove him by force. This might be strictly true, but I don’t find the argument holds much water. You might as well say that Rosa Parks ought to have been arrested because she was actually committing a criminal offence by being black and sitting in that particular spot.

I hope this incident costs United Airlines dearly, but I suspect their lobbyists and bought-and-paid-for politicians will ensure it doesn’t.

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Hotel Internet and Uber

Via Samizdata (and others), it appears Italy has banned Uber:

An Italian court banned the Uber app across the country on Friday ruling that it contributed unfair competition to traditional taxis. In a court ruling, a Rome judge upheld a complaint filed by Italy’s major traditional taxi associations, preventing Uber from using its Black, Lux, Suv, XL, Select and Van services from operating within the country.

In my recent post on Budapest I said:

I think in a few years we’ll be at a stage where a city not having Uber will start to cost it dearly in terms of visitor numbers.

I remember back in 2004-2006 when I did lots of business travel one would have to check in advance whether a hotel would have internet in the rooms. In those days this meant an ADSL connection in the wall and (sometimes) a cable, and not all hotels had them. In December 2005 I went to Korea and found the (wonderful) hotel had a 100mbs ADSL connection in the room that required no login or faffing about whatsoever, and they didn’t even bother to advertise it. When I went back to Seoul a couple of years later I said:

When I booked the hotel, I couldn’t see whether it had internet connections in the rooms or not.  It mentioned kettles, ironing boards, and hairdryers, but no internet connection.  So I called them up, and I was told they had one in every room.  I seem to remember when I last stayed in Seoul they didn’t advertise the internet connections in the rooms, and this place seems to be no different.  Clearly internet connections in Korean hotel rooms are as standard as doors, windows, and beds.  Sure enough, this place, like my last hotel, has a 100Mbps connection which costs absolutely nothing and works as soon as you hook the cable up to your computer.  No ringing the front desk for usernames, no messing about with passwords, simply plug in and off you go.

I cite this passage because it shows how unusual it was back then to find a functional internet connection in a hotel room even as late as 2007. Within a few years an internet connection became standard everywhere, and shortly afterwards this transformed into a WiFi option which eventually became standard. It may be the case that some hotels still charge for it, some require fiddly logon procedures, and the quality can vary but it is almost unheard of nowadays to find a hotel without WiFi, and it is usually free and often good. I suspect in the age of iPads and WhatsApp, any hotel that didn’t offer WiFi both in the rooms and common areas would quickly go out of business: people simply don’t use the telephone or even wired internet these days.

I reckon in a few years we’ll be seeing the same thing with Uber, or at least a very similar service that works in much the same way. If Uber can survive a little longer, we will soon have a demographic that has only used Uber and is completely unfamiliar with the archaic practices and unwanted delights of a traditional taxi service, and will not contemplate using the latter any more than they would accept having no internet in a hotel room and instead have to use the single desktop in the hotel “business centre” with a broken mouse and an AZERTY keyboard left in Cantonese mode by the last user.

I give it five years, ten at the most, before cities where Uber is banned and no similar alternative exists start to see a serious reduction in visitor numbers. Like having a decent internet connection, being able to use an Uber-like service will soon become a key requirement of a holiday.

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A Trip to Budapest

It was a lovely day as the nosewheel of my EasyJet plane touched the tarmac of the runway at Budapest’s airport, with the sun shining and the sky blue. In fact, things were looking pretty idyllic right up until the pilot gunned the engines and shot us back up into the sky at a thirty degree angle. If the steward sat opposite me thought we were all about to die he hid it well, and instead got on the intercom and said that this was “perfectly normal”. For some reason it didn’t bother me in the least, and it gave me time to finish what I was watching on my iPad: Air Crash Investigation – Runway Inferno. I’m kidding, it was something else. Anyway, we did a fifteen minute circle and the second time we had a go there were no fuckups, and we landed safely.

Having gotten my bag off the carousel I immediately fired up Uber only to discover it didn’t work. I didn’t get a message saying “Uber doesn’t work” it just said it was unable to find a car, and did so repeatedly. On further investigation I found the Hungarian government effectively banned them last year. I thought about this for a moment. Had I known that in advance, I might have hesitated before deciding to come to Budapest. Okay, I would probably still have come and as things turned out the city’s public transport is cheap and good, but having found Uber to be invaluable in Lisbon I would have had to think about it. Had it been a more marginal choice, i.e. somewhere I was only mildly interested in visiting, I might have chosen elsewhere. I think in a few years we’ll be at a stage where a city not having Uber will start to cost it dearly in terms of visitor numbers. Anyway, there wasn’t much to be done so I booked a shuttle in the form of a minibus which took me to my hotel.

Only halfway there I realised I didn’t have my iPad on me. I’d decided to hand carry it this time, due to my bringing a small camera bag as hand luggage. Normally I’d put the iPad in a bigger backpack, but not this time. I was vaguely aware that I needed to be careful not to leave it anywhere only I didn’t listen to myself and I did just that. But I had no idea where. I asked the shuttle driver to call the people manning the counter where I’d booked the shuttle and he did, but no joy. I reached the hotel and checked in and told the receptionist what had happened. She very helpfully called the airport and got through to the outfit managing EasyJet who said they’d call if they found it on the plane. I was convinced I’d left it on the seat beside me, but couldn’t understand why the guy sat beside me didn’t notice and alert me. Then again, he might have been a Scouser (sorry Thud).

I didn’t want to hang around waiting for news so I jumped in a taxi and went back to the airport. I looked around for some sort of information desk but all I saw was a row of phones. I got the number of the EasyJet management office and asked them if they’d found an iPad, and they said “Oh, your hotel called earlier and we just called back to say…no, we haven’t.” I asked them who I would call if I left it somewhere in the airport, and they said “security”. I called the security number realising things were looking pretty hopeless at this point, and explained to somebody that I’d lost an iPad. He checked with his mates and came back and said “Nope, sorry”. To be fair, everyone was as helpful as could be and plenty sympathetic. I bet they’d not be either in Manchester airport, you’d be barked at by some nasty little fascist in a hi-viz vest who would issue stern warnings about how you’d breached some law on terrorism written to neutralise hardened jihadists fighting in Afghanistan but now applied to schoolkids going through British airports.

Where was I? That’s right, my iPad. Anyway, I pretty much gave up. I hung around the ATM machine wondering if I’d left it there, then decided to write it off and go back to the hotel. On a whim I decided to ask in the Vodafone shop if anyone had handed it in, and the bloke working in there said no, but perhaps I should try left luggage just down the corridor. So I did and this fat chap behind a desk said “Yes, indeed we do have an iPad.” He reached in the drawer and pulled out what was definitely my iPad. I proved it by unlocking it, and he made me sign a scrap of paper and we were reunited once more. Apparently a policeman had handed it in, but obviously hadn’t told the guys from “security” that I’d called five minutes earlier. Anyway, I was relieved: it had been backed up that morning, but shelling out for a new iPad wouldn’t have been the ideal start to what was supposed to be a quick and cheap trip to Budapest.

The hotel wasn’t great, but its location was: right in the centre of all the bars and restaurants, on Rumbach street. When they said my room had a “city view” they were not wrong, only the part of the city I could view was a residential building across the street, the shop on the ground floor, and that was it. The quality of a hotel can be ascertained by the towels alone, and the ones in this joint put it somewhere between backpacker hostel and Travelodge. Nice hotels don’t supply shower gel using a dispenser screwed to the wall with the contents diluted with water; this one did. But for all that, it was clean, the staff friendly, and the breakfast adequate. For what I paid, I couldn’t complain much and I didn’t.

Hungary isn’t in the Eurozone, something I discovered sometime between booking my flight and taking off. They use forints, which sounds very medieval to me. I’d not be surprised to hear Salisbury cathedral was built for a total cost of twelve thousand forints, for example. This didn’t make Budapest incredibly cheap, but it wasn’t expensive either. I went for a wander down to the river just to catch the sunset, passing lots of bars on the way. A lot of locals were sat outside in the warm evening drinking beer out of enormous glass tankards. Budapest looked like a good place to go on the piss. Most of the buildings were nice if rather unkempt, but you could tell that people from the Soviet school of architecture had been given the run of the place for a while. Below is a photo of the Marriott hotel built on a prime spot on the banks of the Danube:

Thank God us Brits would never construct an eyesore hotel like that right beside one of our main tourist attractions.

Ahem. Anyway, by the time I’d got to the river I’d missed the sunset. I noticed a lot of Thai massage places dotted about and wondered if they had genuine Thais working in them and whether you could get a genuine massage. The attractiveness of the women would answer this latter question in a heartbeat, but they were all tucked away inside and out of sight. In Thailand they’d have been sat outside flapping price lists in your face and bawling at you.

For dinner I chose a Jewish restaurant near my hotel, simply because it looked more like a proper restaurant than a bar which happens to serve some food. I sat on a small table opposite a young American couple made up of a distractingly attractive long-haired woman in tight trousers and a ginger man with a beard who looked as though he was an engineer. For a starter I ordered Jókai, which is a bean soup, and it was excellent. For the main course I had little choice on my first night in Budapest other than to order goulash, and that was good too if a little salty. It was all helped down with a large glass of Dreher beer which seemed to be pretty good, although I’m as much a beer connoisseur as I am an acrobat. During the meal an old man in his seventies played an upright piano that was placed right in the middle of the restaurant. His appearance matched damned near every stereotype of an old Eastern European piano-playing Jewish guy you’ve ever seen portrayed, but he wasn’t half good.

The next morning I set out with my camera and followed a main road in an arc down to the Liberty Bridge. On the way I passed several bookshops, one of which had in the window a single English-language volume: Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now, which is a collection of short stories. I’m a fan of du Maurier and this collection didn’t used to be on Kindle (it is now) and it caught my attention. I went in and asked to see it: it was a hardback in good condition. I asked how much it was and he said 2,000 florins which is about 6-7 euros. That was cheap enough for me and so I bought it, although more damage was done to its jacket in a day in my backpack than had been wrought in the thirty or forty years its previous owners had had it. I crossed the Liberty Bridge and walked up the hill to the citadel and victory monument, which offered superb views of the city.

There were a fair few tourists about, but it wasn’t packed. I passed groups of Russians who looked as though they hailed from the provinces more than Moscow or Saint Petersburg, and I heard plenty of French being spoken by other groups as well. I walked alongside the citadel and just as I started to descend I came across a street hustler trying to get tourists to play the ball-and-cup game. When I arrived he was in a full-on argument with a German woman in her sixties who, from what I could tell, was outraged that he had played a sleight-of-hand trick on her. What she expected was anyone’s guess, I always thought you paid these guys in appreciation of their skill. I only hope she never went to a magic show later on.

I followed a lightly wooded pathway down to the riverbank and followed it northwards for about a mile, staying on the Buda side. I walked about halfway between the Széchenyi Chain bridge and Margaret Island, far enough to take a decent photo of the Hungarian Parliament Building partly bathed in sunlight.

By this point my back was hurting me (I’ve got a long-standing issue with it which won’t go away) and so I walked back to the Széchenyi Chain bridge, crossed over, and walked back to my hotel. One thing I noticed as I wandered through Budapest is how meaningless the signage was to me. Being able to speak English, French, and Russian I am pretty well able to work out what most signs on buildings refer to, but with Hungarian being utterly unrelated to any of those (and seemingly everything else except Finnish, although debates rage about this) I had absolutely no idea what any of the buildings were. I’d not been in this situation since I was in the Baltic states, completely unable to interpret any of the writing and signage. At first glance it looked similar to written Turkish, at least to me. When I heard Hungarian spoken it sounded like nothing I’d heard before. But for all that, nearly everybody spoke English well enough for me to get by, even if the older people were struggling. The younger ones, as you’d expect, spoke it well albeit with strange, heavy accents which told me their native tongue was not Slavic.

Some of my readers had advised me to go to a spa, in particular the Széchenyi thermal baths. Given the state of my back I thought it would be a good idea, but this would involve taking the metro. I walked to the nearest station and followed the steps down and was surprised to find there were no barriers. There was a ticket booth, which was closed, and some small machines into which you put your ticket each time you travel. An honesty system, in other words. This would work in Britain for about twenty seconds before it would become a free-for-all. With the ticket booth being closed I couldn’t work out where to buy a ticket and I thought about just jumping on and dodging the fare, but I didn’t want to end up in a Hungarian prison or, worse, in a pot of goulash. So I walked to the next station and crossed to the other side of the tracks where I found one that was open, only later spotting the ticket machines that are sprinkled around all over Budapest. It seems all the transport systems – metro, trams, buses – work off the same ticket, and you can use the same ticket on different systems in a single journey, which comes at a standard price of 350 forint: about 1.10 euro. A similar journey in Paris is 1.45 euro. In London it’s 5.70 euros if you don’t use an Oyster card, 3.40 euros if you do. That says it all, doesn’t it?

The line that took me to the baths (Line 1, yellow) was basically an underground tram. Small carriages rattled me along through stations that looked a bit like those of the New York subway with their vertical steel stanchions festooned with rivets and coated with paint half an inch thick. At the first station a gigantic man got on wearing the armband of a ticket inspector, and he asked everyone in the carriage to show their tickets. I was glad at that point that I hadn’t tried dodging the fare otherwise this post might have been rather different (albeit possibly a lot more interesting).

I arrived at the baths, which were in a complex of classical design and would not have been out of place in Saint Petersburg or Paris. Certainly the system of paying, entering, and renting a towel would not have been out of place in Soviet-era Leningrad. The price list had been printed on a sign in font size 8 and had so many combinations and exceptions that I gave up and just asked for 1 adult and paid whatever was asked. Next I went downstairs into a corridor full of people walking around in swimming costumes, some of them wrapped in towels but often not. I got a bit lost but eventually found where one rents a towel and saw a piece of A4 paper on the counter telling everyone that the kiosk is closed for 15 minutes because of a shift change. So a lengthy queue formed while two women went through a laborious process of counting cash out of a metal container, putting elastic bands around bundles of notes and putting them into a bag, and signing endless pieces of paper. I am sure this was set up with the best of intentions to prevent theft and one person being blamed for another’s light-fingeredness, but I can’t see this Swiss or Americans doing it quite like this. Had I not spent years in Russia where inefficencies and the resulting queues are perfectly normal I may have gotten a little frustrated (as some Germans behind me were), but as it was I found it rather amusing and a wave of nostalgia swept over me as I watched these two functionaries filling out paperwork related to towel rentals oblivious to the queue of customers that was growing steadily beside them. Whoever set this system up must have spent years in the Soviet Union perfecting their knowledge before returning to Hungary to put into practice what they’d learned.

I eventually managed to obtain a towel for 1,000 forints and another 2,000 as a deposit and I went to the lockers to get changed. Fortunately Hungarian spas are not like French public swimming pools where budgie-smugglers are compulsory and I could happily wander around in normal swimming shorts. The place was busy, and every single body type was on display from lithe teenage girls to enormously fat old people. It is times like this when I am glad that I at least attend the gym regularly, although holding the gut in for minutes at a time is tiring work. There were two huge outdoor pools, one for swimming laps and the other for lolling around in. I jumped in the latter and lolled around, and wondered if this was all there was to the place. It wasn’t far off the sort of pool you see in large hotels in Thailand. I noticed people going into the building on the opposite side so I decided to follow them, and discovered a huge indoor complex of dozens of different pools all linked together by a maze of corridors. Giant spa baths surrounded by ornate marble columns looked like the sort of places Roman orgies would have taken place in, and (staying on stereotypes) the steam rooms I imagined to be full of KGB spies meeting double agents, one of whom would later be found on the floor with his throat cut. Each pool was of a different temperature ranging from 15-40 degrees Celsius, and there were loads of them. I tried one and then the other and then all the rest, revisiting some in no particular order but avoiding the cold ones. I went in saunas that were like the inside of a lime kiln and steam rooms full of old men with large bellies. Some of the pools smelled of minerals, and if I were lazy I’d tell you it was sulphur but it wasn’t, it was something else. Limestone, maybe? I don’t know, but the water had a whiff about it and I didn’t drink any. The baths didn’t do my back any good, but it was an interesting experience. I didn’t stay more than a couple of hours, and took the metro back into town.

As I got near my hotel I passed one of the Thai massage places and, given the state of my back, I popped in. The women seated inside looked as though they knew what they were doing and for a very reasonable 4,000 forints I paid the (Hungarian) receptionist and was led downstairs past a slate water feature to a basement kitted out with massage cubicles made from bamboo. Whoever decorated and dished out the uniforms certainly knew what Thai massage places are supposed to look like. It was pretty gloomy inside and I didn’t see much of the girl who came in to work on me once I’d put on the giant pajama bottoms that Thai massages require. I told her my lower back hurt and she went to work expertly, using fingers, elbows, knees, and feet to get all the right spots. She kept at it for twenty or thirty minutes and then asked me to roll onto my back, where she patted my knob through my pajamas and asked “Does he hurt? I can massage him if you like?” I laughed at that, and declined (yes, really). She then carried on massaging my back for another five minutes and that was that. It was a good massage, but it did nothing for my back unfortunately. I think I need a new one.

That evening I went back to the Jewish restaurant and ordered the Jókai again, followed by some roast goose breast. Goose appeared all over this menu, it appears the Hungarians like to eat it. It wasn’t bad, but I think I preferred the goulash. Once again they had a piano player who was different from the one the night before but of the same age and no less stereotypical. Once I was fed I went into a place right next door, which I’d seen the night before. It was a small metal door opening onto a set of concrete steps leading downwards into a cellar-bar, with a sign posted upon it saying “live music”. I am incapable of walking past a place like this: I love underground dive bars which play live music, and most of the other places I’d seen were full of young folk in designer shirts served by barmaids with tattoos while the DJ played shite like Beyoncé at high-volume.

I went in and ordered a Jack Daniels which was less than 5 euros and went into the small area where a small, three-piece band had set up some equipment. There was a piano on the left, a microphone in the centre with a chair in front of it, and drumset in the back right-hand corner. The ceiling was low, the walls and columns made from rough brick, and it stank to high-heaven. Manky old sofas had been placed around the walls of the room and most of them were occupied, and the area in the middle filled with old chairs most of which were falling apart and no two were alike. The tables weren’t much better. The people ranged from old men with beards to middle-aged women in knee-boots, and from clean-cut men to hipsters, Goths, and artsy types of both sexes. Nobody had come here to look cool or to be seen. Half of them were tourists. I picked an empty chair which almost collapsed underneath me, and swapped it for one more sturdy. I wasn’t expecting much: there was no guitar on the stage and the whole setup looked as though they’d be playing jazz, which to me sounds like a petshop caught fire beside a saucepan factory.

I was wrong. Three guys came out and immediately launched into Chicago blues: the pianist was superb, playing rock and roll and boogie-woogie and the singer not only had a superb, deep voice perfect for blues but was also a whizz on the harmonica. That cheered me up no-end and before long I was rushing back to the bar to get myself another drink, and then another (and then another). They played for about forty minutes then took a break during which I shook hands with the singer and had a conversation with the pianist. He told me he was in his forties and had been playing the piano since he was seven, and it showed. He’d been classically trained, and Hungarians know a thing or two about pianos, but now all he played was blues and rock and roll in several bands, playing in this particular bar once per month just for fun. A little later on I spoke to a small, thick-haired chap sat just behind me and he told me he was a schoolfriend of the pianist and he always comes to watch him play. He said they were actually from Romania, only a part of it which is ethnically Hungarian (Transylvania, normally associated to Romania, straddles both countries on some definitions). He told me he’d grown up speaking both Romanian and Hungarian, and had moved to Budapest decades ago, as had the pianist. He had in front of him a shot glass containing a dark liquid and I asked him what it was. He told me it was called Unicum, a popular Hungarian liqueur which probably faces marketing difficulties in English-speaking countries. I’d certainly never heard of it. He offered it to me and, hoping it was cheap as buttons and not the equivalent of some 80-year old single malt whisky, I necked it in one. It was pretty foul, a lot like Jägermeister only without the Red Bull. I pulled a funny face, and thanked him. The band did another maginificent set of 40 minutes, wrapped up, came back for an encore, and then left for good. It was way past midnight at this point, so I shook the hand of the man who’d given me the drink, said goodbye, and made the short walk back to my hotel.

The next morning I decided to go to Memento Park, which is where the Budapest authorities stuck some of the old Soviet statues from the Communist times. Mel had mentioned it in the comments and it sounded interesting, but for some reason I thought it was this place which is actually in Tallinn. Anyone sensible would have researched this but readers of this blog ought by now to know that sense isn’t something I possess in abundance, and so I discovered my error only once I arrived there. The journey took about an hour and was in three parts (all on the same ticket): first a tram, then Line No. 4 of the metro, and then a bus. This part of the metro had clearly been either built recently or very much refurbished because the stations were spacious and ultra-modern and the carriages more of the type you see in the West. The bus was very modern as well, and had digital displays telling you where you were and which stop was next, and the main bus station had a digital display saying when each bus was leaving next. The bus route took us through what amounted to suburban villages, small roads lined with independent houses which didn’t look much different from the modern dachas you see built on the outskirts of Russian towns. Memento Park was probably worth the visit because I got to see some stuff outside of Budapest, but very similar statues I’d seen littering Russia in a hundred towns already.

When I got back into town I went to the Franz Listz museum which, as Squawkbox had told me in the comments, consisted of four rooms where the maestro used to live and work. I saw old pianos, some personal effects and, erm, that was about it. They weren’t playing any of his music, but my merely visiting this place lifted my knuckles off the ground for a few minutes, or so I shall claim. Next I went to the New York cafe where you can sit under chandeliers and drink coffee in a palatial setting. Well, you can if the maitre d’ doesn’t whip a Tensabarrier across the front of you and tells you to “wait there” as if you’re trying to get into a fucking nightclub in Salford. My eye was drawn to a poster advertising a coffee and biscuit for 17 euros and so turned on my heel and left. I made my way up the street to a Tex-Mex place I’d passed earlier: not very Hungarian I know, but Budapest has a pretty international range of eateries and drinkeries. I passed quite a few bars with outdoor seating areas, several of which accommodated groups of young British men obviously on stag parties. I saw parties of Norwegians and Germans as well, who also looked to be in town for the purpose of getting smashed. I went into the Tex-Mex place and the waiter was an old man whose idea of answering questions about items on the menu (such as “How do you cook the beef strips? Rare?”) was to read out what the item was (“Beef!”). I ordered some burritos which, when they came, were very average.

That evening I went to a Spanish bar which I’d spotted earlier and looked quite lively. I think it was called Bareclona. I walked into a place that was almost entirely empty and a young, tattooed waitress immediately asked if I had a reservation. I said I didn’t and just wanted a drink, so I was invited to sit at the bar. I quickly realised I was in one of those bars that is run by a bunch of young staff for themselves and their mates; nevertheless they did a good bourbon cocktail of which I drank two. I then went to eat in a restaurant that was far more touristy than the one I’d eaten at the two nights previously and I ordered what turned out to be a giant schnitzel served on a bed of very bland and greasy potato crisps (described as chips in the menu). Like the burritos I’d had for lunch, it was very average. Like most places, food in Budapest is highly dependent on where you go. Afterwards I went back to the underground dive bar, choosing to avoid mainstream places full of posers and hipsters. This time the band was again three-piece but made up of a man on guitar, another on drums, and a woman playing bass. All of them were in their fifties, playing stuff like Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana. Not really my cup of tea but I got a drink and sat on another rickety old chair and listened anyway.

After a while I started talking to the chap next to me, a Spaniard in his early or mid thirties. He had been living in Budapest about a year, working as an engineer on railways and trams. That’s the beauty of engineering, you can take it pretty much anywhere, it’s all the same. He was in the company of a dark-haired girl who, when he introduced me, I asked if she was Hungarian. She laughed and said no. I asked if she was Spanish, and she laughed again. She asked me to guess where she was from, and I said I had no idea. She insisted I try, and I clarified that she wasn’t Spanish-but-not-exactly, like Colombian or something. She said she wasn’t. I picked up something in her accent and took a guess.

“Turkey,” I said.

“Right!” she said.

She was from Istanbul, and the two had met when he’d been working there before he moved to Hungary. I sat with them for a while, chatting and watching the band. When the music had wrapped up David, as the Spaniard was called, and his Turkish girlfriend invited me to join them in the next place they were going: the Barcelona bar! So off we went and by that time it was packed, and people were dancing anywhere they could and crowding the bar. We got some drinks in and chatted as best as we could above the din of the music. David said the place had opened only in the past year, and when he heard about it he, being Spanish, decided to check it out (despite being from Madrid he didn’t mention wanting to firebomb it. But then he also said he didn’t like football). As he put it:

“When I first came I saw that it looked quite Spanish. But then they asked if I had a reservation! Nobody makes a reservation for a restaurant in Spain!”

I laughed at that. A little later on, when David was at the bar and I was stood next to his girlfriend, out of nowhere she turned to me and said:

“I don’t know what is going to happen in Turkey.”

I found this telling: Recep Erdoğan is hoping to drum up enough support to win a referendum this April which will change Turkey from a Parliamentary Republic into a Presidential Republic, thus putting him firmly in charge. This young lady was not the first Turk I’ve met who showed signs of being deeply concerned about the future of Turkey under Erdoğan, so much so that they feel compelled to share it with complete strangers. There was very little I could say in response to that. We didn’t stay out much longer, and we all had a photo together (which David emailed me over the weekend) before calling it a night and going to our respective homes.

I didn’t have time for much the next morning other than going to the airport and returning to Paris. I liked Budapest: it looks like a great place to go on the piss, as bars are plentiful, they are quite cheap, and drinking beer appears to be a national pastime. The atmosphere was pleasant, the people friendly, and the city welcoming. I don’t know if I’ll go back but I’m glad I’ve been once, and I recommend everyone else does too.

(The full collection of photos taken on my trip to Budapest can be seen here.)

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Security or Protectionism?

New flying rules are afoot:

The US has announced a ban on large electronic devices from cabin baggage on passenger flights from eight Muslim-majority countries.

Bombs could be hidden in laptops, tablets, cameras, DVD players and electronic games, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said.

Well yes, they could be. Which is generally why everyone has to go through that pantomime of taking out all electronic items and scanning them separately. Or doesn’t this actually work?

The nine airlines affected are Royal Jordanian, Egypt Air, Turkish Airlines, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Kuwait Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad Airways.

The cynic in me thinks this is less about security and more about hobbling Middle East airlines which are cheaper, cleaner, better, and have nicer staff than airlines operating out of the US.

The UK is due to announce shortly a similar ban on certain flights.

Which is good news for British Airways, no doubt.

[A]viation security experts were alarmed by an incident in Somalia last year when the insurgent group al-Shabaab smuggled an explosive-filled laptop on a flight out of Mogadishu, blowing a hole in the side of the plane.

Somalia. On Daallo Airlines, whoever the hell they are. But this might be a concern:

A suspected suicide bomber on a Daallo Airlines flight was originally meant to be aboard a Turkish Airlines plane, Reuters cited Daallo’s CEO Mohamed Yassin as saying. A separate report claimed the blast had come from explosives hidden inside a laptop.
The majority of the passengers on the bombed Airbus A321 flight were scheduled to fly with Turkish Airlines, but were redirected after the Turkish carrier cancelled the flight due to bad weather.

I’m a bit concerned about Turkish Airlines. They have done an impressive job of becoming a very good, high-profile airline offering flights practically everywhere through an airport which I’ve been told is excellent…but at the same time, as I wrote here, Turkey’s state security services might have been severely compromised. If so, their national airline makes for a ripe target indeed. I sincerely hope this is not the case because, regardless of what I think about Turkish politics right now, plane bombings is something we really need to see eradicated.

The problem is, aircraft security has been so badly handled what with so many senseless, arbitrary rules applied inconsistently across airports and jurisdictions and the ubiquitous security theatre seemingly designed to make passengers docile and compliant rather than safe, trust in the authorities is pretty low these days.

Jamil al-Qsous, a former Jordanian aviation security official, told the Associated Press news agency that the ban meant “one less headache” for security agencies.

And for the passengers? Who cares about them? Presumably they will be invited to fly with a different airline, an American one, onto which they can bring their electronic devices. Yeah, it’s all about security.

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