Starbucks and Matt Lucas in Budapest

 (Nov 2011) …Third day in Budapest and yes I’m in Starbucks for the third day running. I can’t help feeling at home here with the soft plush seats your ass just sinks into, the soft classical music in the background that somehow soothes you deeper into the sofas – and of course the coffee. Plus they have free wifi here, it was a luxury to be able to access Facebook the internet! An updated status of me sitting in a Starbucks in Budapest was indeed a must.

To be fair though, it was boast worthy because even though the staff here didn’t speak a lot of English – they definitely made me feel comfortable – comfortable enough to attempt reading out a drink from the Hungarian menu – and not laughing at me.  That, I did admire because I couldn’t even keep a straight face. I’d walked the streets of Budapest, in and out of shops struggling to understand the conversion rates of their currency compared to ours, and resorted to wearing a fixed face of confusion and frustration – until I saw the light…well, the sign of Starbucks inviting me in, embracing me with its Christmas coloured safety and coffee flavoured warmth.

After oo’ing and aah’ing I finally made up my mind to have the Afonyas feher mocha which has now proved to be my “usual” according to the lovely Nicolas and Johan working there. It was only after having the drink 2 days in a row that I realised what it was that I was drinking, I could detect berries, cream and coffee.  My new friends Nicolas (or “Nic” as he let me call him) and Johan later informed me the drink was a Cranberry Christmas Mocha – and boy was it yummy!

I handed over a 1000huf note for the drink as the price was 990huf, and pondered over the conversion rate yet again. Apparently 500huf = £1.47. Meaning a grande mocha in this country cost around £2.50 – BARGAIN. I started to actually like their confusing currency! This lasted for about a second as I realised how little I’d tipped a waiter the night before. Mother and I thought the 180huf we got from the change at the end of our meal seemed a lot, so thinking we were being generous, we left it on the receipt and walked out of the restaurant comfortably stuffed with a good feeling we’d left the waiter happy with his tip. Looking back, I can only hope he’s forgiven us for being foreign as it turned out to be something like 50p for a tip! Not only that though – Mum tried to be cheeky and pay with Monopoly money!!!

 Even though I’ve come from a half-Irish and half-Cypriot family, I’ve grown up in the UK and often forget to appreciate the British culture (like tipping?! Ha!). You do actually miss Britain when you’re out of the country believe it or not. It’s funny to think that the first thing my Cypriot mother asked for when we arrived at the hotel was for a cup of tea.  The décor in the bedroom may have been beautiful, there may have been a mini-bar, plasma tv screen and perfectly folded towels in the pristine bathroom – but shock and horror could not describe the look on her face when she discovered there was no tea or coffee making facilities in the hotel room! Once we were comfy and had ordered a cuppa, we had to do the obvious thing before we unpacked – collapsed onto the beds and switched the tv on! Yay to the millions of channels but Nay to having only one English speaking channel – of course the BBC news. We did however, find a channel showing Wolverine that first night – I hadn’t actually seen it before so I don’t know whether or not it was a shame it was dubbed in Italian.

The hotel had a couple of drivers chauffeuring us from the airport to the hotel, and even trips into town (driving on the wrong side of the road, silly right-siders). One of the drivers proved to be the highlight of my week in Budapest, I hadn’t even seen the River Danube yet and already I was happy enough when he picked us up from the airport. He didn’t resemble the likes of Brad Pitt or any A-lister celeb, he was so much better. He was the spitting image of Matt Lucas! You could just see all the Little Britain characters coming out through his voice and mannerisms. He had a strong Hungarian accent but had the British humour down to a T. It was his sarcasm that made it all. When we asked where the best places to eat were, he said “well obviously McDonald’s or my favourite TGI Fridays, and yes I know my body looks like I eat all the time but I only eat one time a day”… “one time a day = all day”.  What a hoot!

 Even though the majority of people I’ve met here have been pleasant enough – I guess you can’t expect everyone to treat foreigners the same, especially when they don’t speak your language. I admit I came here blinded by ignorance assuming that most people would speak or understand a little of the English language – but I was wrong. I’d gone to the shop to get Mum some bottles of water (because one does not drink from the tap!), and was faced with one of the toughest choices that week as there were 5 different types of bottled water?!!! I was too shy to ask for help so picked up the plain looking bottle with the blue lid hoping it was the right choice. Turned out to be sparkling water – ha! Mum wasn’t happy with sparkling water so sent me a’running back to the shop and actually ask for help. Trying to explain what “still” water is in English to someone who doesn’t speak English is rather tricky to say the least. I had actions smoothing out air for “stillness” and god knows why I had whooshing noises but finally something (somehow) made sense to the guy as he shouted out in relief “no gas?”. Yes water with no gas = still water! Don’t think I’ve been more relieved, or exhausted after spending what felt like an eternity to describe water, but thankfully he showed me the right bottle of water out of the many types.

 That was hungry work, so I stopped off at a little patisserie stall just next to the tram lines. Between the dribbling and mental image of me devouring the entire stall, I used my initiative this time and actually asked if the guy spoke English before I wasted time looking like an eejit attempting to read Hungarian. His English was pretty good until he started to describe the last pastry to me – “this one has everything, but not in the inside, everything is everywhere”. How could I not want this edible piece of puzzle? “I’ll have 2 please”. Now with my mind focused mainly on food, I asked his opinion of where the best places to eat traditional Hungarian food were, emphasising the “traditional” as we had to try goulash at least once during our week here.  He started to describe a village close to the area we were in, but that I had to get a train and then a tram etc but he could clearly recognise the confusion on my face. It was almost as if he was trying to describe still water to me, but in Hungarian. So, he drew me a map. He drew the train line and how many stops to the next village, the river, the houses of Parliament, his house, the recommended restaurant, good shops – woah backtrack…his house? I politely ignored that bit on the map and thanked him for his help and food.

Walking back to the hotel, I actually took the time to look at all of the ordinary things we take for granted in normal life and never really notice. It only becomes noticeable when you have something to compare these things too. Doorways to shops and restaurants looked more like small entrances into incredible lairs or underground caves.

And the amount of cosmetic surgery adverts was incredible. I can understand now that it’s more innocent as opposed to strange when tourists take photos of everything when they come to the UK – because it’s so different to what they’re used to. With that justification in mind, I literally began to take photos of everything, from the graffiti on walls, to old fashioned cars, trees, trams, windows and  wall hangings made out of bottle caps and cassettes! I found these things fascinating because they’re so different to what I’m used to. But, it didn’t take long til I stumbled across some very familiar sights…

Burger King, McDonald’s, IKEA, M&S and of course Starbucks came to light. Demoralising as it may seem, I felt safe seeing recognisable logos. Mum Some might say that you go abroad to get away from all of the westernised culture of media, logos, brands and commercialism, which I originally agreed with but I couldn’t escape the feeling of relief from logos and brands I was used to.  Hence, the feeling of home sitting here comfortably writing in Starbucks. One thing that confused my feeling of comfort was that the toilets here in Starbucks had pin code locks on them! You had to ask a member of staff for the code to use the toilet, I don’t know whether I felt safe by this or that it was obvious each toilet was literally seen as a depository bank! 

It is a shame that I didn’t see a lot of the city’s historical sights but next time I’m here with Mum for her cosmetics business trip, we’ll venture out more.  We saw the River Danube and the impressive Houses of Parliament, and visited some of the old beautiful churches in the city – but most of them were closed, so we just hung about outside. As much as I do like history, I’m more a fan of discovering and exploring cultures, so I didn’t mind not seeing all the sights. I’m happy walking round the streets of Budapest and taking everything in – the people, the smell, the sounds and of course the food! That’s my idea of travelling.

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