Friday, 11 December 2015

Meeting People & Expat Resources

Moving to a city where we didn't know anyone was a little daunting, especially when our immediate family was about 30 hours away, so I was pretty eager to meet other English speakers (especially mums) when we arrived. These are the groups I found to be the most helpful:

Budapest Momswebsite / Google groupFacebook
Probably the most well established English speaking mothers' group in Budapest. There's monthly coffee meetings, weekly playgroups, second hand sales, etc. The most up to date info is usually posted to the Google group.

Somewhat linked to Budapest Moms and another great one to follow, there are frequent updates about family-friendly events, info about sale days at shopping malls, etc. Very handy!

A very active group in terms of regularity of posts and responses by the members. Unlike some of the more general expat groups, it's quite focused on kid-related issues and relatively free from spam posts.

British Women's Association - website / Facebook
To join, you have to be a British or Commonwealth citizen (or married/a civil partner to one), and pay an annual membership fee. The monthly meetings in the Intercontinental make it totally worthwhile though, since you can leave your child happily playing in the kids' corner with tons of toys and a babysitter while you enjoy a coffee, pastries and some much-needed adult conversation. There are also social events like outings to museums and evening drinks.

I've only met two other New Zealand mums in the seven months we've been here, but was intrigued to discover this 'NOZZIES' Facebook group for Kiwis & Aussies living in Budapest. Admittedly I didn't meet the mums through the NOZZIES group anyway but homesick antipodeans may find this useful.

If you're keen on cricket you might be shocked to discover that there's actually a Hungarian Cricket Association - James has even joined a team, the Baggy Blues, though he only managed to play in two matches for the season. In the same vein, there's even a Budapest Rugby Watching & Beer Drinking Fans Facebook group.

Other expat/English Budapest Facebook groups:
Expat Info - Budapest (~6,000 members)
Budapest English Friends (~3,700 members)
English Friendly Budapest (~1,500 members)
Budapest Apartment Rentals (~9,000 members)
Apartments/Roommates in Budapest (~7,000 members)

When it comes to the latest news about where to go in Budapest for food, drink, festivals, events and everything else, my favourite site by far is We Love Budapest. Here are some good links to start with if you're an expat or thinking of moving here:
Other useful sites:
Budapest By Locals
XpatLoop
VisitBudapest.travel
Budapest Agent
InterNations
Everything Budapest
Funzine

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Living in Budapest

Budapest, including the Banks of the Danube, the Buda Castle Quarter and Andr├íssy Avenue. This site has the remains of monuments such as the Roman city of Aquincum and the Gothic castle of Buda, which have had a considerable influence on the architecture of various periods. It is one of the world's outstanding urban landscapes and illustrates the great periods in the history of the Hungarian capital http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/400/
Well, I guess it was kind of inevitable - we moved to Budapest at the end of April 2015 and are now technically living within a UNESCO site:
Since my last post well over a year ago, we've managed to have a baby and haul our new family across the globe for James' work. We actually had a choice of living in either Boston or Budapest, but picked the Hungarian capital in the end - there was the prospect of easy travel around Europe, the lower cost of living, and of course the UNESCO factor.

In the months that we've been living here as expats, we've learned a lot (even a little Hungarian), plenty of which I wish I'd known earlier. In fact, more recently relocated expats who've since been on the receiving end of my tips suggested I should blog about it or something - so, here we go. I'll create separate posts for each topic and try to keep them updated going forward, but hopefully cover all the usual basics like where to live, how to buy things, how to meet people, where to get a good flat white, etc.

There are of course many existing sites and blog posts with expat tips for Budapest, which I'll link to, but I guess it doesn't hurt to throw my two cents (or eight forints, if I'm using the New Zealand dollar exchange rate) in there!

Side note: there are actually ten unfinished drafts for posts about the places in France, Germany and Spain that we visited after Paris in 2014, but I can't let that stop me from writing new posts, otherwise it's just never going to happen...

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Paris

From the Louvre to the Eiffel Tower, from the Place de la Concorde to the Grand and Petit Palais, the evolution of Paris and its history can be seen from the River Seine. The Cathedral of Notre-Dame and the Sainte Chapelle are architectural masterpieces while Haussmann's wide squares and boulevards influenced late 19th- and 20th-century town planning the world over http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/600
The Seine at sunset
Romance is probably the first word that pops to mind when you hear 'Paris', but did you know it's also a UNESCO site? Of course, that was only part of the reason why we decided to visit - it also happened to have a convenient airport to fly into from Auckland via Air NZ, given James had to get to Karlsruhe, Germany for work.

After over 30 hours of flying and being in transit, we were both ready to pass out from exhaustion. Unfortunately (?), we had arrived on the day of my 30th birthday, and I had already booked a celebration dinner at a restaurant with a great view of the Eiffel Tower. To be honest, going out was the last thing we felt like doing, but we soldiered on and were rewarded with this:
The food was okay but not mindblowing, however I doubt it would have mattered anyway as we were both struggling not to doze off during the entire thing. We did mention it was my birthday in the booking though so they delivered a candle with dessert, which was a nice touch.
I would never have thought of putting a candle in sorbet!
Afterwards we stumbled back to our hotel for some much needed rest. The next day, we headed out to tick off the main sights, starting with Notre Dame.
If you've ever read photography advice articles, particularly for travel, you'll know that great shots are easiest during the 'golden hour', i.e. just before sunset, as opposed to, say, noon, when the sun casts harsh shadows and colours tend to be more washed out. Turns out it also pays to take note of what direction the thing you're trying to shoot is facing, too. Because in the morning, Notre Dame turned out to be fairly backlit by the rising sun.
The amazingly detailed carvings on the facade
It still made for some interesting shots, but not ideal for capturing the detail of the impressive facade. We vowed to return closer to sunset, but in the meantime wandered in to check out the interior.
By now, the queues for climbing the tower were substantially long enough to put us off, so we decided to leave that for our return trip to the famous cathedral. Next up, three other Paris must-visits - the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower.
Given I'd already been both inside the Louvre and up the Eiffel tower on my previous visit to Paris about 14 years ago, James was happy to avoid the discouragingly long queues for entering both, opting to do more external sightseeing instead. Once at the far end of the park next to the tower, we were excited to check out UNESCO's actual global headquarters, which was only a block away. Disappointingly, they were closed and there were no UNESCO logos visible whatsoever, so we had to make do with this fairly sorry looking sign.
Soon it was time to head back to the Notre Dame for some better-lit photos of its front, and we were duly rewarded with these shots, showing the building bathed in the golden glow of sunset.
However, this turned out to be far from our last trip to the cathedral, as we ended up back here after dinner for yet more different shots, and managed to catch the awesome ending of a fire dancing busker's performance.
I love subway/metro systems for their speed, convenience and relative economy, so I always relish using them when travelling overseas, given how deprived we are of such reliable public transport back in Auckland. I understand that my hometown's relative newness and lack of density makes it a bit unfair to directly compare it to a city like Paris, but it's still annoying to think that Auckland's Western Line (my local) is still encumbered with slow, loud, diesel-powered trains, while Paris managed to get their first metro line running all the way back in 1900.
One thing the Paris metro could really do with though is a liberal application of air freshener. Almost every time we descended to or ascended from any station, we would catch the awful and unmistakable reek of urine. In fact, I don't remember being in any other city where I'd caught whiffs of horrible odours on such a regular basis - not even in Italy or Spain. It certainly detracts from the romantic image, but you could also argue that it's part of the city's more 'gritty' charm?

The next morning, we started the day by grabbing a typical Parisian breakfast of a croissant and coffee from a nearby boulangerie for only a couple of Euros - definitely recommended over the much more expensive hotel alternative.
Then, it was off to the Sacre Coeur - when we spotted the funicular, of course we couldn't resist taking a ride!
When we got to the top, we were immediately hit with two things - the beautiful sight of the Catholic basilica in the morning light, and the most horrific odour we'd encountered so far in the French capital.
It was as if a horde of hobos had had a party there a few weeks ago, and all the decomposing remnants had slowly ripened like some sort of super-strong brie. Looking around, it soon became clear that there had been some kind of party at the site not long ago, and now rubbish trucks and cleaners were doing their best to clear the mess.
Despite the smell, the Sacre Coeur turned out to be one of our favourite sites, mainly due to the fact we hardly saw any other tourists there - a vast contrast to the day before. Plus, the hill provided a great view of the city.
After that, it was back to the Notre Dame (again) to finally make the climb up the tower, given it was too late to do so when capturing our sunset photos the previous day. On the way, we stopped off at the gothic chapel of Sainte-Chapelle to check out its impressive stained glass windows.
Despite the fact that we arrived at the entry to the Notre Dame bell tower climb about half an hour before it opened, there was already a sizeable queue and we had to wait a while to get into the tower itself. Still, a lot more appealing than waiting the two to three hours to get into the Louvre or Eiffel Tower!
After this, we couldn't resist swinging by Paris' version of the Pantheon, given the original was one of James' favourite buildings ever. Unfortunately this one required paid admittance and was also not nearly as impressive as the Roman one, but we still got some cool pics.
Nearby were the beautifully kept Luxembourg Gardens, which was full of families and tourists enjoying the outdoors. The sun was blisteringly hot though, and we soon had to seek respite under some shade ourselves.
Originally a palace created by Marie de Medici in 1612, the little sailboats floating around the pool in front of the grand building made it all very picturesque indeed.
While some may scoff at the way the French like to cling to tradition, it's been nothing but positive in terms of maintaining the historic integrity of Paris' architecture - one of the things we appreciated most about the city.
Our last dinner in the city was spent at a fairly touristy spot, Trocadero - despite the fact that 90% of the diners were other tourists, it was still an enjoyable dinner, and was a handy walk across the road to watch the Eiffel Tower at sunset and dusk. The firedancer buskers we encountered at Notre Dame the previous evening were even on hand to once again ply their (no doubt lucrative) trade, and we captured some great shots of them in front of Paris' most famous symbol.
[Flickr set here]

Friday, 7 March 2014

Travel apps

How many times have you installed an app on your smartphone, particularly for travel, only to uninstall it just as quickly after finding it disappointingly unresponsive and totally unable to accomplish what you'd hoped it could? On the other and, it's a great feeling when you do manage to find a good one.

We increasingly rely on our mobile devices when we're travelling these days - and why shouldn't we, when it makes our lives so much easier? I've certainly had enough of puzzling over paper maps and struggling to ask locals for directions in an unknown language to last me a lifetime.

Two travel apps I'd been keen to try since reading fairly positive things about them on tech and travel sites were Uber and Hotel Tonight, and they've both passed my do-I-want-to-uninstall-this test with flying colours. Here are my thoughts on both, and why they may be useful on your next trip.

Uber is essentially a taxi replacement service - you can call a private driver (or in some cases, an actual taxi) to your location from your phone, to get to wherever you need to go. There are numerous advantages to using this over a regular taxi or other 'town car' service:

  • For most major cities there are heaps of Uber drivers and they usually arrive within minutes - you can even track their progress via the app, which also sends you an SMS with the ETA.
  • You can get a fare quote before you request the ride, which is usually fairly accurate
  • The cheapest 'UBERx' service is usually comparable to or slightly cheaper than a regular taxi, however if you want to splash out you can also order a 'black car', which is more like a limo
  • All the payment is done through the app and you don't have to tip, so no worries if you don't have cash on you
Of course if you've just landed in a foreign country and don't have a local simcard, it can be a wee bit annoying having to either find wifi or buy a data package, and also use SMS in order to confirm your mobile number with your account. However, it's still a lot less of a gamble than hopping into any random taxi and not knowing how much you might end up paying - why I usually stick to public transport if possible. 
We used Uber multiple times in LA and also once in Boston, and it's been pretty good. Once you request a ride, Uber shows you a photo of your driver so you can recognise them when they pull up. However, it really is a super odd feeling getting out at your destination without forking over any cash - almost as if you didn't pay at all, except that your credit card has been charged automatically. 
Another thing I like about the app is being able to see all the little Uber drivers moving around on the map when you're thinking about requesting a ride - it's so cute! 

Overall, I'd recommend Uber to anyone who likes to know how much a taxi ride might cost before taking one, and doesn't enjoy waiting around on the street to flag one down. We sure could've used Uber that time we were stranded in London after the last tube had gone and we ended up on a rather unpleasant night bus ride!


Hotel Tonight lets you access last minute discount pricing for same day hotel bookings, but that's where the similarities to sites like Wotif and other existing services ends. What I really like about it:
  • It's beautifully designed and super responsive
  • It's intuitive, you can have your first booking done within minutes of installing the app
  • The limited choices actually makes it easy to navigate - instead of having way too many choices like on Expedia, Booking.com, Orbitz, Hotels.com, etc, there are a limited number of properties in each town, and you can only book from the same day onward, so it's impossible to spend ages agonising over the choices
  • It gives you all the key information you want to know about the facilities without overloading you with random facts you don't really care about (i.e. like whether it has a hairdryer or not - what hotel room doesn't?)
  • I really like the way the content is written - see below
There are a million hotel booking sites out there, but Hotel Tonight has won out by concentrating on doing one thing very, very well. Of course, if you don't have the flexibility to be booking somewhere on the day you need to stay there, it's not going to work. But otherwise? It's perfect. We used it in New York and got a fantastic rate for a very nice hotel in Brooklyn that I'm sure we would otherwise have paid a lot more for. Definitely recommended, especially if your travel plans are flexible.


One last travel tip - if you haven't discovered Google Hotel Finder and Google Flights, give it a go - it's a lot faster and less cluttered than most travel booking sites, and lets you sort by all sorts of criteria that's unavailable on most sites. I'm not sure if it's completely exhaustive, but it at least gives you a pretty good gauge of what''s available at what prices.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

New York 2.0

When I last visited New York nearly five years ago, we bought a New York Pass and did our best to knock off as many tourist to-dos as possible - Times Square, Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, Rockefeller Centre, MoMA, The Met, Guggenheim, etc. It was exhausting, but we managed to get through most of it.

Despite this, we simply couldn't pass up the opportunity to pop down to the Big Apple the first chance we could. Why? Well, it's New York, and it was only a 3.5 hour drive away from Boston. I mean, that's like driving from Auckland to Turangi. Don't get me wrong, Turangi has awesome pies and the best mini golf course in the country, but we don't exactly get the chance to drive to cities like NYC for the weekend back home.

So what do you do in New York if you've already seen the main sights? While I would have loved to have gone up the Top of the Rock again, we decided to save the $27 per person and spend it on something else. Discount theatre tickets, perhaps! Unfortunately that idea went out the window as soon as we got to the TKTS booth at Times Square and saw the length of the queue. Of course, we still climbed the famous red steps to take a few pics
Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to be Justin Bieber or One Direction? Perhaps a little bit like this? We got a taste when we were standing on those very steps and a group of teen girls were let loose in Times Square. They spotted the top of the steps, and simultaneously decided they all had to get there as quickly as possible while screaming at the top of their lungs. It's probably always terrifying to have a horde of people run at you, but the fact that they were teenaged girls made it that much scarier.

After that, we decided to decamp to less touristy locations and visit the High Line park, another place we missed last time. On the way, we went past Madison Square Garden. For some reason, we both had a mental image of it looking like this:
So imagine our immense disappointment when we got there and saw this instead:
Now, I'm sure you think it's absolutely ridiculous that we thought a real life building would look the same as how it's portrayed in a cartoon set 1000 years in the future, but we seriously did look for a cube shaped building for several minutes before we realised our mistake. Oops. I just hope that in 3014, they really do have a Madison Cube Garden, because it would look a heck of a lot more impressive than the current structure!

In some ways, the High Line was also slightly less impressive than I'd imagined it, probably because it was winter and all the plants were dead. Still, it was an interesting walk above the street level, and yielded some awesome views down the various streets and avenues criss-crossing Manhattan.
With plenty of seating and things like an outdoor projector, I could also see how it would be an amazing space for the community in summer - when it wasn't covered in snow, of course.
At the southern end of the High Line stands the imposing Standard Hotel, with floor to ceiling views of the city, and cultural events like art exhibitions featuring abstract sausage sculptures and talks from guests like Benedict freaking Cumberbatch. Needless to say I would've loved to have stayed here, but unfortunately it was a bit out of our budget. At least I got a photo.
There's been talk of converting the disused Nelson Street motorway offramp in Auckland into a similar park, which would be brilliant. As long as they also include some crazy art, like this.
Wut.
Later, we ventured to Central Park, where the plants were also mostly dead, but the frozen ponds gave it a winter wonderlandish air.
One thing we'd done before but certainly didn't mind doing again was walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, especially as our hotel was actually in Brooklyn anyway. It was bitterly cold, but worth it to get some amazing views of the skyline at night.
The next morning, we actually did it again to get into town for the 9/11 memorial, since we had the time to spare anyway.
One major change since our last visit was that the 9/11 Memorial was now open, so it was a definite must-visit on this trip. Unfortunately, they don't exactly make it easy for everyone. I suppose it's all for security reasons, but it all seemed a bit over the top, really. First, you have to pre-book tickets online (or queue for hours to get one on site). Upon arrival, it takes a good five minutes to even find and get to the actual point of entry. It doesn't end there, though - everyone is corralled into a twisty maze of crowd control barriers, and eventually get to the security screening. Apart from having to remove your shoes it's pretty much the same as US airport security, all coats and bags go through an x-ray while you walk through a metal detector. After another long walk around the block, you finally get to the memorial itself.

The first thing that hits you is the sheer scale of the memorial pools - which makes sense, as each one is the actual footprint of the original World Trade Centre towers.
The people on the other side look tiny, which gives you a sense of scale
Catching a reflection in the pool
The largest man made waterfall in the US, apparently
The names of the nearly 3,000 victims, including those on the flights and at the Pentagon, are inscribed around the pools. It's very sobering to realise that, on that fateful day, they were all just going about their daily lives. They had no clue as to what was about to unfold, and that one day their names would be carved into stone at a memorial.

It's a shame that the Freedom Tower is not yet open for visitors, as it would've given an amazing new vantage point for the city.
After the visit, we headed to Rockefeller Plaza to find some lunch and check out the famous ice skating rink.
One thing which was either a new addition to the area or merely something we overlooked last time was the Lego store. I absolutely loved this amazing recreation of the surrounding area - just look at all the detail!
By now we were winding down and preparing to head back to Boston, but not before also swinging by the extremely impressive NY Public Library (again, missed it last time).
And because I couldn't think of anywhere else to put them, here are some random pics of steam stacks creating a bit of atmosphere.
Even after this, there still plenty of new things to do in the city, so I'm sure we'll be back again in the not too distant future!

[Flickr set here]