FLORENCE: BALLOONS, WINE, FOOD, (MORE WINE), AND FUN UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN

On the FlorenceTown Vespa Tour in Florence, Tuscany.

It’s hard to do anything in Florence without feeling like you landed a walk-on role in a romantic comedy. From sunrise to sundown, it makes for a dreamy backdrop.

Here’s a list of the most enjoyable, unforgettable experiences in Tuscany’s capital city, Florence. They were so jaw-dropping, I had to pinch my wife, Rachael, to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.

That’s how it works, right?

Rise and fly: Sunrise Balloon Ride in Florence.

“Rise above it” is a cliched piece of advice in conflict resolution. But, if you have a hot air balloon, it’s actually a pretty solid plan.

What better way to spend a dawning day than soaring over Tuscany’s countryside?

You can even get picked up from your hotel and driven to the launch site, just about the time the sun is thinking about getting up for work. While you take pictures, a jump-suited troop inflate multicolored balloons with hot air.

And then it’s up, up, and away!

Rising in tandem with the sun, we floated at the front of a four balloon cavalcade for 45 minutes. Rachael and I spun continuously in the balloon’s wicker basket so we didn’t miss a second of the gorgeous panorama.

And, sure, we ended up accidentally landing in the field of a local farmer, but that only added to the experience. Anyway, I expected a slightly inaccurate landing after watching The Wizard of Oz documentary.

After getting back on solid ground, they had a tasty spread laid out for us: Local cheeses, meats, and bread, not to mention the earliest ever glass of Prosecco I’ve ever had.

A stunning way to start your day. And resolve a conflict.

This morning I taught Rach how to drive a manual hot air balloon. She grew up driving an automatic one. 🎈

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The greatest gifts come in small packages.

In Florence, and Italy in general: Breakfast is different. There isn’t an egg or piece of bacon in sight. You’ll see some restaurants offering ‘English breakfast’, but you didn’t come to Florence for the same ol’ same old, right?

No, a typical Italian breakfast is small and sweet. Not unlike Betty White. So- in the name of cultural sensitivity- you must eat pastries for breakfast. How much of a free pass is that?

Pair the pastry (or pastries) with an espresso, and there you go! You’re now basically from Florence.

Tourists and Florence locals alike adore the ‘Starbene’ bakery. Incidentally, it’s gluten-free, although this has zero impact on the scrumptiousness. For the non-scientists among you: Gluten-free pastries actually cancel out, like, 93% of calories.

Don’t fact-check that.

Beep-beep, vroom, vroom…

You’ve started your day like a dyed-in-the-wool Tuscan. Don’t stop now! And what could be more Italian than riding Vespas together?

I’d recommend this activity year-round, but fall is a particularly heart-swelling time of year to zip through the dancing leaves, vineyards, and idyllic Italian towns.

Giuseppe from FlorenceTown Tours expertly guided us through the amber countryside. We set off from the center of Florence, then stopped off at the local market in Greve and finished at a scenic winery.

PSA: Abstain from tasting wine until you’ve parked your Vespa for the day.

If an Irishman says that, you know it’s serious.

After a day on Vespas, you’ll experience Vespa-envy each time you see suave Florentians zig-zagging between traffic. The bugs in my teeth were testament to a day spent smiling maniacally on a Vespa.

 

Just the one 😉🍷 🔸 @florencetown

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It’s always 6:30 somewhere…

We’ve all heard “It’s always 5 o’clock somewhere”. In Florence, you want that clock’s hands to align at 6:30: Aperitivo time.

And although Italian Aperitivo is ‘like’ American Happy Hour, there are some key differences. In fact, it even differs from spot to spot.

Buying a drink usually grants you access to unlimited food ranging from bread, cheese, meat, and chips, to much more fancy. My favorite Aperitivo spot is actually one of the city’s simplest ones: Gosh*. (That asterisk is part of the bar’s branding, this article has no footnotes).

Entering Gosh* is like stepping into the 1920’s. Kind of like Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris, but with Flamingo wallpaper.

Florence, Tuscany's Gosh bar for aperitivo

You’ve got to experience this place to believe it. The owner is also an interior designer and it shows.

Aside from the Flamingo wallpaper, there is romantic lighting and slick copper tones. Most importantly (let’s be real), they have incredible cocktails. Aperitivo drinks traditionally consist of classics like the Aperol Spritz or Negroni, but feel free to experiment. Gosh* has an extensive cocktail list.

If it’s busy, prepare to wait a little longer than you’re used to for your drink to arrive. But this is Tuscany: People do things slower, and it’s always worth the wait.

Now that you’ve eaten, it’s time to eat.

Oh, is it already time to eat again? You’ve really twisted my arm, Florence.

At 8pm, local favorite, Fiaschetteria Nuvoli opens its doors. Blink and you would miss the entrance, except that here will be a humongous crowd outside the door in advance of opening. You’ll get in either way, but a reservation will save you 10-15 minutes standing on line.

The building itself harks back to a simpler time: Grey stone walls, long tables, and little caves throughout.

The food is mouth-watering. Whatever you’re in the mood for, you’ll find it here. Although they literally have pieces of meat hanging from the ceilings, the vegetarian among us adored his meal, too. That vegetarian was me.

Our friend had rabbit ragu with gnocchi, a Tuscan specialty, and still talks about it. They even make their own wine! There’s a beautiful, communal, familial ambience here.

Big plates, big gestures, big personalities. We laughed with our server from start to finish.

Truly, Tuscany takes some beating.

My wife and I travel full-time, and Florence grasped a special part of our hearts. And, yes, it also added some ‘special’ inches to my waistline, but I wasn’t coming to Florence to each lettuce.

From the elation of sunrise balloon rides together, to the thrill of seeing each other in the rear-view mirror of a Vespa, or even simple things like seeing candlelight flicker in each others’ eyes in the quiet corner of a Florence restaurant, there’s something here for everybody.

Long after our Tuscan balloon ride, our feet still haven’t touched the ground.

Vienna’s Wachau Valley. And the struggles of being named Keith.

The Wachau Valley is a wine region west of Vienna. Apart from the vineyards, it’s an all-around paradise of rolling hills, shimmering water, and heart-exploding views. This week my wife and I used a company called Vienna Explorer (no affiliation) to cycle around the Wachau Valley (pronounced ‘Vack-Ow’) and drain a few wine bottles along the way. It costs €64 p/p and lasts about 10 hours in total. It was the coolest thing we did during our month in Vienna. Try to get Stelios as your guide if possible. Enjoy the blog!

IT WOULD BE EASY TO presume I’m knowledgeable about wine because:

1. I consume a lot of it.

2. I’m Irish.

3. If you agree with #2, you just committed a hate crime my friend.

4. I worked in bars for five years in NYC, London, and Ireland.

Truth be told, I’m not at all. I spoke before about the all-consuming fear felt by Irish people: Being accused by fellow Irish of having ‘notions’ about themselves.

Considering this, what could be a riskier pursuit than wine tasting?

RISKY BUSINESS & KANYE WEST

Picture the scene: You’re holding a glistening wine glass by the stem, which you swirl elaborately so its contents ‘breathe’. You then stick your snout into the glass and inhale.

You trade vague adjectives with your drinking buddy like ‘buttery’, ‘minerally’, or ‘chewy’. Once you are both content with your adjectives, you take a slurp and swish the wine around your mouth like Listerine.

After swallowing, if you don’t use spit-buckets- which don’t exist in Ireland- you discuss the finish. Is the finish ‘rich’ and ‘complex’? What are we talking about here: Wine or KanYe West?

No, as an Irish person, I’m genetically allergic to such pursuits.

That said, I have a great deal of respect for those who possess this elite knowledge, palate, and balls.

AVOIDING 7 YEARS BAD SEX

Experts talk of a wine opening up, but I love wine for another reason: It opens people up.

It’s not as basic as just getting drunk with people. Sharing a bottle of wine is the perfect ice-breaker. There’s a kind of ‘breaking bread’ feeling as you share a bottle around a table. Since there are four solid glasses per bottle, it creates a more intimate group.

It’s not like buying 15 shots of Jaeger.

Pouring the glass, saying ‘Cheers!’ (never without eye-contact*), topping up people’s glasses, going around the table… The laughs and the conversation always flow easily. And after a glass or two, you’re all mates for life. Or, at the very least, for the duration of the bottle.

*Cheers’ing without eye-contact gives you seven years of bad sex. #science

Because of this, wine tours are a perfect way to meet like-minded, fun people while traveling. Everyone is interested in another culture and open to new experiences. And, worse case scenario: Wine.

While spending a month in Vienna, we went on a wine tour- on bikes- through the Wachau Valley.

Our Uber pulled up to the Vienna Explorer office at 9AM. Here we met our guide, Stelios, and 15 fellow weekend wine enthusiasts. We also signed waiver forms; probably clever when you’re putting strangers on bikes after a bottle of wine or two. Or three.

At 9:30, we walked to the train station together. Once we knew we were in time for our train- which takes an hour and change from the city center- we gathered in a circle and began to introduce ourselves.

DEFINE YOURSELF IN 4 SENTENCES

This is something I struggle with: How do you give an accurate representation of yourself in four sentences.

“Hi, I’m Keith…”

After your name, what truly describes you above everything else? Your nationality? If you’re British or American in 2017, you have to deal with people’s personal impressions or opinions on your country- regardless of how you think or vote.

It’s usually a pretty safe bet being Irish though. What are they going to say to me?

“You guys like to drink!” or “I heard your country is a well-known tax haven for U.S. corporations’ European headquarters”.

“And I’m Irish…”

I hate “So what do you do?” questions as much as I hate people telling me what they do before I ask. Surely, how you pay your bills shouldn’t be in the first 4 things about you as a person?

“And I’m a travel writer.”

 

Okay, okay… I was on the spot and didn’t have a time to think.

“My wife and I work and travel around Europe full-time.”

Then I stopped talking and looked at my aforementioned wife. It was the easiest way to switch the focus onto Rachael. She has a BFA in Musical Theater and is in her element in the spotlight.

Soon the introductions were done and our Wachua Valley-bound train pulled out of the station.

It was a rare day in Vienna. The view from the train got more stunning the further we ventured from the city. Large ornate buildings were replaced by small cottages, exotic looking trees, and green fields. Our group consisting of Irish, American, Hong Kongese, Greek, Canadian, and Finnish people hurtled onwards.

I liked the Finnish guy, Milos. We started talking to him by chance at a cafe around the corner from the tour office before we all realized we were going to the same place. He worked some big job in Helsinki, although he had spent a lot of time living abroad in places like Hong Kong. His wife was back in Helsinki, and about to give birth to their daughter.

We sat together on the train along with Lydia, a lovely student botanist from Hong Kong and a quiet American guy from my almost alma mater, UC Berkeley.

We had a good group.

TOUCHDOWN IN VIENNA’S WACHAU VALLEY

The train screeched to a stop. We walked to a nearby garage to pick up our bikes. After I carefully applied my factor 275 sunscreen, we began to pedal towards our first winery of the day in the Wachau Valley.

Vienna is bike-friendly from start to finish: The land is flat and bike lanes are plentiful. The views in Wachau are otherworldly. In hindsight, I would have paid for this tour for the cycling scenery alone.

There’s the sparkling water of the Danube to your left and vine-covered mountains to your right. Myself and another tour member, also named Keith, guarded the back of our wine-seeking cavalcade. Keith, a 60 year-old TV producer for PBS in Vermont, was fascinating to chat to.

Just like with fellow left-handed people, I feel an inexplicable affinity for other people named Keith. Except for Keith Urban.

Keiths have gone through a lifetime of people misspelling their name ‘Kieth’. And when a Keith will politely say “It’s actually spelled K.E.I.T.H,” they will often be told: ‘It’s I before E, except after C.” This is where the misspeller will ‘C’ a look of disgust spread over Keith’s face.

Also, Keiths can rarely, if ever, find any stock mugs or fridge magnets with their name printed on it in gift shops. Granted this affected me more as a 9-year old on school tours, but still: Screw you Johns and Annas.

I’m just putting the pieces together that I married a left-handed women named Rachael with two A’s. Coincidence?

Needless to say, Keith and I got along swimmingly while we cycled to the first winery. Our Greek guide Stelios was the man. He made Austria’s 4,000 year wine history fascinating.

Although Austria’s on the same line of latitude as parts of France, it has its own microclimate in wine terms. This means that, from year to year, Austrian wine differs wildly. Lack of consistency isn’t necessarily a good thing or a bad thing- after all, who wants a completely predictable life?- but it does add an element of chaos each year that most other wine producers don’t face.

And then, Stelios told us Austrian Wine’s dirty secret.

4,000 YEARS OF WINE INDUSTRY OBLITERATED

In what was otherwise a great year for humanity, 1985- the year I was born- is the most scandalous year in the history of Austrian wine.

A small number of wine producers, perhaps frustrated with those damned unpredictable grapes decided to take matters into their own hands. If you wanted to improve your family’s wine, what would you do?

That’s right! They added diethylene glycol, an ingredient found in anti-freeze. Suddenly, their wines tasted sweeter and more full-bodied. Everybody wins, right?

When the anti-frozen cat got out of the bag, it crippled the entire Austrian wine industry. 4,000 years of stellar wine production evaporated in the blink of an eye. In fact, it even damaged the Australian wine industry. Less worldly wine drinkers weren’t sure of the difference between the two countries and didn’t want to take the risk.

Whenever you feel like you’re mixing up Austria and Australia, remind yourself:

There are no kangaroos in Austria.

After the First World War, they had been the world’s third largest wine producer. Now, Austria was forced to start afresh from ground zero, even those who had no part to play in the scandal.

And start afresh they did. They rolled their sleeves up and began a new era of wine production. Slowly, Austria’s wineries began to find their feet.

Today, close to 80% of Austrian wine is consumed within Austria. 83% since I arrived. About 70% of this is white. I rarely drink white wine but, hey, when in Vienna…

We made our way around the Wachau Valley, stopping at three wineries and a restaurant.

I’m a big fan of being outdoors. Anything that keeps me away from a laptop or phone screen all day is good with me. Well, apart from when I update my Instagram story; I’m not an animal.

We all exist within hunter gather bodies (fist-bump to evolution), so being out-and-about for large chunks of the day is our natural state. It makes us feel happy. So, too, does copious amounts of wine, but I don’t think that’s down to evolution.

When we finished up at the final winery, we didn’t want the day to end. After a brief meeting of the minds at our table, a bunch of us decided to buy a few bottles for the journey home.

THE NEVER-ENDING BOTTLE

Heading home from the Wachau Valley to Vienna’s city center, we enjoyed a delicate blend called ‘Train Wine’. Unsurprisingly, the ride home was a blast for everyone. We arrived back into Vienna at 7PM, to coincide with the sun set.

The Danube Canal was lined with tourists and locals alike, reveling in this sun-kissed Saturday. Half of the group waited around and enjoyed the final bottles of Train Wine along the canal. We were surrounded by people determined not to let this rare day in early April slip out of their hands before their respective weeks began.

There we all sat, legs dangling over the river Danube, laughing and chatting about everything and nothing: the sun, the moon, and the stars. I felt on a high from my day in Vienna’s Wachau Valley. And copious amounts of exceptional wine.

Everyone contributed their bottles to the cause and the hours from 7PM to 10 melted away. The moon switched shifts with the sun. It seemed like one everlasting bottle went around our circle.

We drank straight from the bottle. No swirling, sniffing or describing anything but the day we had all spent together, and where we would all go from here.

Just my style.

 

 

Jogging While You Travel and Illegal Trespassing

Jogging while you travel is the fastest, handiest way to get to know the area you’ve just moved to. It might also stop you dying so soon. If you’ve got other good ways to get to know a new place, I’d love to hear them! Enjoy.

KICKING THE BUCKET LIST

We ran over the finish line of the 7K Race in Vienna with smiles on our red faces. It had been my wife and I’s dream to complete this Herculean task for well over 25 minutes. Here’s how it all came about, one stormy Viennese Sunday.

The morning yawned to a start in the typical sluggish Sunday way. You know the ones: When the light peeping through the shade leaves you wondering whether it’s 6am or 10. My wife, Rachael, was sleeping soundly- borderline comatose- beside me. Rach is a much better sleeper than me but I’m not jealous. She seemed so peaceful that it would have been a crime to wake her up.

After waking Rachael up, I convinced her to join me on a jog around our new Austrian neighborhood. We’d been living in Vienna’s Jewish District for almost a week but had yet to explore.

We both have our own one-person businesses- Rach is a boutique vacation planner, I’m a freelance writer- and this week had been busy. Today was our chance to put it right. We could simultaneously stretch our legs and our knowledge or the area around us.

It was grim. ‘It’ meaning both the weather outside and Rachael’s per-jog mood inside. We wrapped up and prepared to hit the mean streets of one of Europe’s safest cities.

JOGGING OUR MEMORIES

Although our apartment is beautiful and modern, the apartment building is pre-World War II. The gold plaque outside the building remind you of the horror that took place here all those years ago when people used to be irrationally afraid of immigrants… … … … …

We’ve all heard of railroad apartments, but ours is a railWAY apartment:. There is an actual train-track going through the building. Because of this, I’ve never gotten lost even once exiting the building.

We followed the train-track until the building’s door slammed shut behind us. Our feet began to slap the rain-glistened sidewalks. Apart from the rain spitting half-heartedly at us, it was good jogging weather.

Much like in Paris, Vienna grinds to a near standstill on Sundays. I could count on one hand the shops, bars and restaurants that were open as we zig-zagged though the winding streets.

Our new Austrian friend, Julia, told us that most of these businesses close on Sundays by law. I thought that this was a lovely, family-friendly idea for almost 3 hours until we needed to buy food later that day.

We jogged on for 15 minutes before arriving at Prater Park, known locally as The Wiener Prater (‘Wien’ is German for Vienna). We’d been here once before to spend a sunny afternoon.

Asleep at the wheel 🎡

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But today, something was different. The whole of Vienna- or so it seemed- had converged on the Park to jog. Hundreds of people, young and old, nimble and glacial, circled The Prater in an Austrian assembly line.

BORN-AGAIN JOGGER

I’m an avid, if unremarkable, jogger. It only became important to me as I began to travel more extensively. The fact that jogging decreases your likelihood of death and strengthens your body never really mattered to me. Much like spinach. I love to jog because it blows away the mental cobwebs.

My love for jogging while traveling began when I was living with seven of my Irish mates in a studio apartment in Berkeley. This is a long story that begins with my friend and I pretending that we were UC Berkeley students to the realtor, and also that only two of us would be living in the apartment. As I would crawl unceremoniously over a floor of squeaky air mattresses, the thought of having a whole new city to jog was cathartic.

Jogging gives you time to clear your head. Or to process your first months in a new country without your friends fighting over whose bottle of Coca-Cola had just exploded all over the freezer. Each footfall reenergizes your patience like the power bar on a charging phone. I took this Born-Again Jogging While You Travel mentality with me from then on wherever I lived: From SF to NYC to London to Paris. Prague, Budapest, and now, Vienna.

The other reason jogging and traveling go together like Garth Brooks and plaid shirts is that it’s the perfect way to figure out the lay of the land.

When you’re jogging, you don’t look like a tourist: There’s no language barrier, no accent, no cultural faux pas… no seeds, no stems, no selfie sticks. And for those of us with a poor sense of direction that you will later deny if your wife asks you, getting lost actually works in your favor.

Your jogged steps feel more like they are playing to the rhythm of the city, even if your verbal interactions mostly involve you smiling dumbly at waiters.

I’d never heard of the Austrian people’s love of jogging though. But then, I hadn’t known about Hungarian people’s infatuation with sour cream, either. We moved forward to investigate.

Like most jogging scenes there was plenty of spandex, lots of luminous, and tons of sweat. But these people all had one other very noticeable thing that we didn’t:

Large rectangle stickers with their race numbers. We’d happened upon a sign-up only 7K race.

After sneaking in, we did our best to look inconspicuous. If you know my wife, she has her own unique version of inconspicuous. It involves recording Instagram stories, staring around her wide-eyed, and laughing.

We worried that a fellow jogger would peak at our stickerless tee-shirts and halt the whole race. Or pictured one of the stewards rugby-tackling us out of nowhere. But, as 1 kilometer turned into another, we realized something we both already knew but forget all-too-often:

No one gives a shit about you.

Now, this lack of interest is not malicious in any way. People just have much better things to worry about. In fact, they could be jogging to try to forget about them. At first glance, people betray little of what’s bouncing around their minds. It could be an overdue bill, a twinge in their knee, their ex’s last Facebook photo, their kids sudden aloofness, that pimple on their cheek.

We all have to remind ourselves that we’re not the center of the universe. This is especially difficult if you were raised by an Irish Mother feat. Doting Aunts and Grandparents. I mean, they can’t ALL be wrong about me. Onwards we ran.

“ICH LIEBE DICH!”

Rachael and I chatted as we rounded the corner for the final straight. Although we had joined the race about 3K in, it was technically our final straight too. I had long-since stopped secretly resenting the fact I couldn’t listen to Garth Brooks on my earphones while I ran. I loved being part of this diverse crowd. Some older men ran past cheering family members. One man, a serious jogger-type, zoomed past the girl beside us with a quick “Ich liebe dich!” (I love you).

Nearing the finish line, Rachael asked:

“Is that the sound of a marching band?”

“Ha!” I scoffed, “Be more American, Rach”

We spotted the source of the noise: an old man rolling a giant suitcase on the cement pavement. One minute later, we encountered a marching band.

They cheered us on, unaware/ indifferent to the fact that we were trespassing on the race. The drumbeat energized us, and we bounded forward until we reached the the finish line. Panting, flushed, heartbeats reverberating through our bodies, we high-fived, delighted with ourselves.

We peered around at the scores of beaming runners celebrating what they had achieved.

Call it an accident, call it fate, call it lack of research. It was such a memorable experience spending a random, rainy Sunday in Vienna surrounded by a bunch of people that didn’t give a shit about us.

HUNGARIAN THERMAL BATHS AS SEEN THROUGH SQUINTY EYES.

The Hungarian Thermal baths are a must-do in Budapest. I checked the Széchenyi Thermal Baths out and sampled the private beer baths where you drink unlimited, well, beer. This was all in the name of research and you’re welcome. If you’re thinking of going- and you really should- there’s a checklist of everything you need to bring to a thermal bath at the bottom.

Széchenyi Thermal Bath full on a nice day.

Széchenyi Thermal Baths, Budapest. I’m the guy with six-pack.

At 7AM my feet hit the floor of our apartment in the heart of Budapest’s Jewish District. Shit was going down today. We were going to the Thermal Baths.

HUNGARY’S THERMAL BATHS.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know Hungary had thermal baths until a week before I moved there from Prague. But I now have an eternal respect for the Hungarian people.

Sure they showed strength and dignity in surviving Nazi and Communist regimes. But mostly it’s because they managed to make what is essentially drinking in a giant jacuzzi all day a cornerstone of their culture. I’ll drink to that. Actually, put that in past tense.

We arrived at the baths at 9AM. I dunked myself into the steamy cyan-blue water, and showed off to my wife with extremely basic handstands. She wasn’t impressed for some reason; probably because she’s made of stone.

Tuesday Blues 🌊💦

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^^Don’t act like you’re not impressed ^^

After I quit the tomfoolery, we waded to the edge. The low morning sun was glaring down, and the whole bath was lucky enough to experience my world-famous squinty face.

Turning away from the sun, I cursed the fact that I’d left my shades at home.

“If only I had sunglasses,” I thought.

I then rejected the ones Rachael offered me because I am too cool. She insisted, I presume because she wanted to enjoy her day without my squinty face. I stood firm because men are awesome. If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.

Image of me taking a jog before going to the baths.

“No, I’m totally fine.”

THERMAL WATER AND NARCISSISM.

Three guys in overalls marched from the main building. They all shared the weight of what I presume was a pre-Communism era wooden ladder before stopping at the edge of the bath I was in. Jerking the ladder open, they placed it precariously under a pool-side lamppost.

It was odd seeing these men in overalls while the rest of us basked in next to nothing. When I’m on holiday I kind of presume the rest of the universe is too. While they screwed in new bulbs, I thought back to when I bartended a block off Times Square in 2011.

During my first week, I sauntered down 44th street in all it’s gaudy fluorescence thinking: “I’ve made it.” I may have been walking to a job that only ‘paid’ me in the tips I earned, and sometimes no one came in, but it felt like I’d reached some watershed moment in my life.

Fast-forward one week, though, and I was rushing, tutting, and evil-eyeing all the happy tourists blocking 44th Street. Walking through the iconic Times Square had now become mundane and annoying to me. It was my commute.

Every paradise is probably someone else’s 9-5. Just let that sink in for 8 minutes.

WHY I’M READY TO RETIRE (AGAIN).

I looked forward to retirement a long time before ever getting my first job. Even at 15, packing bags in a toy store and washing dishes in a restaurant, I dreamed of the day when I wouldn’t need to work for ‘the man’ anymore. The man was called Richard, actually.

Anyways, I changed my tune in my mid-twenties for 2 reasons:

  1. My dad, who’s by no means a workaholic, doesn’t love retirement nearly as much as he expected to.
  2. I’m annoying to be around when I don’t have something to keep me busy. Wait a minute… THAT’S why people asked me to start writing a blog!

But there was a group of older Hungarian gents at the Thermal Baths that made me change my mind. Again.

I spied them playing chess and drinking beers in the corner when I was able to open my eyes wide enough to look around.

Although, there was a strict No Alcohol in the Bath policy (3 guesses how I found that one out), the lifeguards weren’t pestering them. They were regulars here, just like the men you see playing chess in Stuyvesant Town or Washington Square Park. This was their day-to-day.

An American college student waded over and waited for them to acknowledge him and ask him if he wanted to play. They didn’t.

There was an almost familial ease about the group, both in conversation and in silence. These guys must have known each other forever. They’d probably lived through Communism together.

I could see them all in their 30s and 40s, after another brutal work week, talking about when they would be able to play games of chess waist-deep in thermal water. And here they were.

The OGs of the Hungarian Thermal Baths

The OGs of the Hungarian Thermal Baths

So, yeah. I’m ready to retire. In Hungary. That American kid will probably still be there, waiting for a game.

UNSPOKEN AGREEMENTS IN THE HUNGARIAN THERMAL BATHS.

I’m a big fan of unspoken agreements. But when you move to a new place, these invisible understandings can take a while to get used to.

For instance, in New York it’s a given that one of you will be 20 minutes late for brunch. In Paris, if you ask for ‘un café’, it’s understood you want an espresso. In Ireland, “I’ll come for one pint. And, I mean one,” means anywhere between 8-15.

I came across another interesting unspoken agreement at the Thermal Baths.

Many bathers rent towels and put down a deposit before spending their days marinating. Every towel is identical. If someone realizes their towel is missing, they steal the next one they see rather than lose their deposit. It’s the circle of life.

When my wife realized her towel was nicked during her first trip to the Hungarian Thermal Baths, she told the life guard.

“Okay,” he said, “just steal someone else’s.”

Thankfully, our Airbnb host left us towels adorned with gigantic tigers. Try stealing that.

I’LL GO TO THE BEER BATH FOR ONE. AND I MEAN ONE.

Beer baths are exactly what they sound like but better. They add dashes of wheat, and barley, and a bunch of other crap that exists in beer to the bath. So, in that sense, it’s a literal beer bath.

But, going back to unspoken agreements, 2 things are understood by you and the person tossing barley into the bath:

  1. Hot bubbling water, yeast, and wheat probably won’t make you healthier.
  2. You’re here for the unlimited beer that you self-serve from the tap beside your bath.

The beer baths cost about $20 each for 45 minutes. As I paid, the stingy Irish man in me calculated how many beers I would need to drink to get my money’s worth.

“Challenge accepted,” I thought, and did a loud evil laugh as the nice guy working there handed me my receipt.

In the baths, my wife and I practiced balance and efficiency. As the sweltering bath water, dehydrated us, we rehydrated ourselves with beer. That’s balance. A couple of times we cut out the middle man (the glass) and poured the beer straight into our mouths. Efficiency.

It’s also safe to say I got my $20 worth.

UNTIL NEXT TIME…

There are some experiences in life where afterwards you feel like “Shit. That was unique.” The Széchenyi Thermal Baths are undoubtedly one.

Relaxing, refreshing, and affordable. I can’t recommend them enough.

We waddled towards home with our tiger towels in our pruney hands and began to discuss retirement.

YOUR SZECHENYI THERMAL BATHS CHECK-LIST.

  • Book online ahead of time here and screenshot the confirmation email.
  • Leave all expensive jewelry, golden knuckle-dusters, and tiaras at home.
  • Hungary’s Old School. Some days are men only, others women only. Check ahead.
  • Bring a bag along with you for towels, wallet, flip-flops, sunglasses.
  • Bring your own towel. The weirder, more distinctive it is, the better.
  • For couples, one locker will suffice. Wait, you haven’t seen each other naked yet?
  • They take credit card everywhere inside so bringing cash along isn’t necessary.
  • If you’re going in the morning, when the sun is low, sunglasses are a good idea.
  • There’s food there, but no a huge selection. I’d eat a solid breakfast beforehand.
  • Your entrance allows you to stay at the baths from 6AM to 10PM.
  • It costs 5400 Hungarian Forints on weekdays, which is $19 or €18.
  • Weekends cost 5600, which is a negligible difference.

Take it all in!

WHAT DOES ‘HOME’ MEAN TO YOU?

Paddy’s Day is upon us. It got me thinking about what ‘home’ means to us as individuals. Is it something physical, like a brick and mortar house? Or is it something you take with you everywhere you go, like herpes? Here’s what being an immigrant feels like in 2017 and what ‘home’ means to me.

Image of the M.A. in Irish Studies Class.

Me, in 2008. Before being an immigrant and discovering how red my beard was.

Britney Spears had a very public meltdown in 2008. Almost simultaneously, as if connected to Ms. Spears by fate (or maybe my hyper-macho iPod playlists) I was in the throes of a much less public and much less interesting meltdown of my own:

I had to come up with a subject to write my Masters thesis about.

This wide-ranging MA was in Irish Studies. It covered Ireland’s language, literature, and history. There was a lot of pressure on picking the perfect title because it made up 40% of the final grade.

This pressure was cranked up even further because of my abysmal attendance and last-minute assignment submissions during the year. My classmates would make bets over whether I would attend lectures. Had it not been for the almost familial level of patience and guidance given to me by the program’s staff, my idiotic 23 year-old self would have dropped out to save everyone the hassle.

This MA thesis was my final chance to ensure I hadn’t wasted an opportunity only 14 people had been given. At last, I was taking it as seriously as I should have from Day One.

I DON’T BELIEVE IN FATE. BUT…

I’ve no idea how I landed on the eventual title. I wasn’t very philosophical at the time: quite literally, in fact, since I skipped all my undergrad Philosophy lectures. And although I would come to adore ‘Famous Seamus’ while researching him and his untouchable body of work during the thesis, I had no stronger affinity towards him at that time than the average Irish person raised on Mid-Term Break.

The title of my thesis was this:

Homecoming: The evolving concept of ‘Home’ in the poetry of Seamus Heaney.

What does home mean?

Famous Seamus Heaney

HOME IS WHERE YOUR ARSE IS.

As I wrote this thesis through the night in my bedroom in 2008, I had a concrete idea of what ‘home’ meant .

Technically, home was my family’s house in the village of Moycullen, Co. Galway.

Day-to-day, home was things like hearing my Dad clear his throat when he had something good to say. It was hearing my Mum answer the phone: “Hello?” (One second pause) “Ah, how arrrrya?!” Or the dull thump of the bass when my brother’s car whipped into the driveway a little too quickly before it was silenced by the sound of the handbrake lifting.

Home was the hustle and bustle of Galway City: The giddy feeling me and my mates felt at the start of another night out. Or the buzz on Shop Street when it was warm enough to wear a tee-shirt.

And home became watching your older friends emigrating and then scrolling through their exotic Facebook pictures enviously. On a desktop, or course, not a smartphone: did you forget this was 2008?

FROM IRISH TO IMMIGRANT, IN ONE JOURNEY.

But then, on October 5th 2010, it was me who was leaving it all.

Myself and 7 other mates got a morning dew-covered bus from Galway to Dublin airport. There was no overriding reason. Part curiosity, part discontent, but mostly a search for some Transatlantic craic in San Diego, CA.

And anyways, it was only for a year.

“Craic” (/kræk/ KRAK) or “crack” is a term for news, gossip, fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation, particularly prominent in Ireland. It is often used with the definite article – the craic – as in the expression “What’s the craic?” (meaning “How are you?” or “What’s happening?”).

Four of our group returned to Ireland after 3 months. One returned after 2 years. Two of us never did.

(We set up our lives in America; we didn’t die).

Me, being an immigrant in San Diego.

Gang signs were cooler in 2010.

HOME AWAY FROM HOME

My years in America were typically Irish. Bar-tending this, furniture-removing that.

But in between schlepping pianos in San Francisco, or answering “So what brought you here?” while working in Midtown Manhattan Irish bars, I started to think back to that damned thesis.

What happens when your life is uprooted to a different country? What do you do when you exist away from home or, at least, what you had always thought it to be?

Being an immigrant, what do you use to succeed when you can’t fall back on the old go tos? What do you use to get you through rough nights?

Home, actually. Now, though, ‘home’ has a new meaning.

You find it in the values you brought with you, along with all those needless pairs of shorts you packed for October in San Francisco.

You find it in smiles, relationships, and infinite other places during the next year, two years, five years that pass.

You feel it in your new day-to-day, in your writing, in your friends, in your American wife.

LOSING TOUCH OR CHANGING FOCUS?

At the start, I felt paranoid that I was losing touch with Ireland.

You still know all your country’s headlines but don’t have access to the small print: Those stories-behind-the-stories that I heard whispered conspiratorially from my Granny, or from fellow Galwegians who came through my check-out when I worked at Tesco. Sometimes these stories were slurred down my ear by a drunk in our local pub.

They weren’t necessarily always true, but they were home.

KEEP THE CHANGE

I changed during my time in the United States. Although change is never the goal, it happens anyway. How can it not? It’s impossible to remain the same when nothing else around you is.

Whether by necessity or by osmosis, certain unmistakably IRISH edges get sanded down like a stone dancing around in the tide.

You start doing things like drinking iced coffee or pronouncing the ‘TH’ in words to avoid all-knowing American people’s sniggers. You even start to pronounce the ‘TH’ in your own name.

You say shit like ‘vacation’ and ‘elevator’ now so people understand you.

You use dollars as your go-to currency, sometimes accidentally when talking to your Irish mates. And instead of the ‘ARE YOU ALIVE?’ texts your parents sent you in college, it’s you that’s hounding them down for a Skype. You and your mates used to say ‘Right?!’ at the end of sentences taking the piss out of Americans, but now the joke’s on you.

But you make peace with it all gradually. You begin to feel at home within yourself. You have to.

BETTER TO BE LUCKY THAN TO BE GOOD

Sign saying 'No Irish, no blacks, no dogs.'

From one scapegoat to another…

There’s a certain purgatory when you emigrate. You neither completely fit into the place you left nor the place you left it for. You’re an exile in ways, albeit self-imposed. You don’t cast off your old self but you know you’ll never fully reclaim it again.

I’m lucky to be born 50 years later. I’ll never see a ‘No Irish, No Blacks, No dogs’ sign.

Irish immigrants live a charmed existence in 2017, relatively speaking. But it’s never hard to find a new precarious nation to scapegoat for people’s discontent. There will always be another race or religion to dehumanize and pinpoint as the reason you’re three rungs further down the ladder than you hoped to be by now.

Or you can save the specifics and just demonize ‘immigrants’ in general.

BEING AN IMMIGRANT IN 2017

This catch-all term ‘immigrants’ confuses me. Every man, woman, and child who emigrates has a unique story, and it’s usually a boring one. They moved for their career or they left home to see about a girl. Some traveled for an adventure, some escaped with just the clothes on their backs to keep their families alive.

There’s no typical immigrant just like there’s no typical commuter.

To me, an immigrant is just someone who used to live on one huge rock in the sea before moving over to another one. It’s an oversimplification but, then, you’re reading a travel blog.

They love laughing, hate hangovers, and feared they wouldn’t be able to kiss properly their first time. Chances are they listen to guilty pleasures when they have their earphones in (…just me?), and it goes without saying that they would never put their child into a makeshift dinghy unless the water was a hell of a lot safer than the land they were living on.

HOMEWARD BOUND

Immigrant, local, business owner, train driver… Whoever we are, we all keep going. Sometimes the chips are stacked against us because of the system we’re born into but rarely because of people moving to our lump of rock.

Each of us searches for our own version of home, whether that’s safety or simply trying to feel ‘at home’ within ourselves. We head towards home knowing that the definition will have changed long before the time we even get close to it.

It’s eerie to me that a topic I came up with in a blind panic as a 22 year old would become something I would spend the next decade living, exploring, and trying in vain to figure out.

Now THAT’S what I call scholarly commitment!

HOW TO SPEAK HUNGARIAN IN 5 MINUTES.

‘How to speak Hungarian in five minutes’ is a free crash course created by an Irish man (me) who doesn’t actually speak Hungarian but spent a month in Budapest. That’s how you know it’s good.

If you’d like to get up to speed with the Hungarian currency, check this out.

So, without further ado: banán motorkerékpár!*

*(that actually means ‘banana motorbike’ so please disregard)

Unfortunately, both these people are now dead.

HOW’S YOUR HUNGARIAN?

No one has time to ACTUALLY learn a new language for the sake of a weekend or 10-day trip. Right?

I’m being facetious for comedic effect. Being a polyglot is the most badass thing ever. But you weren’t planning to write a PhD during your time in Budapest. You were planning on being a considerate and respectful person, though.

All you need to accomplish this is the bare necessities. Just enough to express yourself and nothing more. Get in, get out. Don’t be a hero.

Being restricted to a handful of words could actually be a good thing for some people. We all talk too much these days without saying anything anyways…

GIF of Mowgli dancing

Hungarian necessities.

APOLOGIES IN ADVANCE…

For me, mnemonics are the best method of getting something to stick in your brainbox. I love them. If a mnemonic is good (or terrible) enough, you won’t be able to forget it. Even if you really, really want to. The dumber it is, the easier to remember. Strap in.

YOU SAY “GOODBYE”, I SAY “HELLO” (IN HUNGARIAN).

This one’s kind of a buy one, get one free. Hungarians use the same word for ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’. Better still, you already know this phrase. You’ve actually used it a thousand times, albeit in a different context:

It’s “See Ya!” (spelled Szia).

Use it with confidence and a big ol’ smile when you walk into a building, coffee shop or restaurant. It will trick the person you’re speaking to into thinking you’re a bonafide Hungarian.

Sure, they may have to go back to get the English menu after initially bringing the Hungarian one over to your table. But the sense of accomplishment you’ll feel is worth the 20 extra steps. Well, worth it for you.

And when you leave, say it again. If there’s more than one person Szia becomes Sziasztok pronounced ‘See-Ass-Tock’.

See whose ass tock?

CHEERS, BIG EARS.

Ready for another freebie? In Hungary, like in Ireland, the expressions ‘Cheers’ and ‘Thanks’ are used interchangeably.

The Hungarian phrase for ‘Cheers’ is a little longer but super memorable with this mnemonic:

“I guess she could drive’.

But say it as if you lost interest midway through the word ‘drive’ and pronounce it ‘druh’.

It’s spelled Egészségedre.

To recap: with 2 phrases you can say the 4 most common expressions. I’ve even seen Egészségedre used for “You’re welcome”, too. Did somebody say #languagehack? No? Okay…

If I was you, I’d take a sec to learn this bad boy immediately, and then use it within an inch of its life. Kind of like that Simpson’s episode where Marge gets the pink Chanel suit. Use it all day, everywhere you can.

The only proviso is that it needs to be abot food or drinks.

Hungarian for cheers.

I guess she could drive.

PLEASE, PLEASE LET ME GET WHAT I WANT.

What happens when you want to eat? Or, more importantly, order a drink?

How do you say “I would like…”?

Szeretnék.

Phonetically, it sounds like ‘Sir-Red-Neck.’ Just like if a hillbilly got knighted.

This Prince speaks Hungarian.

“I would like…”

THANKS. NOM-NOM-NOM.

Ah, food. You’ve got to be thankful for it.

Hungarian food is the bomb. I’ve developed a crazy affinity towards paprika these past 4 weeks. It works with EVERYTHING.

So, to reiterate: why are we thankful? Because of food. Or, to put it more weirdly: ‘Cuza nom. How do you say thanks in Hungarian?

Köszönöm.

Get your grub, say thanks and nom-nom-nom.

YOU’RE NOW FLUENT IN HUNGARIAN.

These 4 easy phrases will give you a solid foundation for your time in Budapest. All jokes aside, you’ll use them in 95% of interactions and your servers will appreciate the effort. After they get over the fact you made them walk back to get the English menus. If you’re popping over the Prague afterwards, this guide should see you through.

Don’t be afraid to learn a few more Hungarian phrases, too. Maybe some deep philosophical questions like:

“Do we actually have free will?”

or

“Can you truly experience anything objectively?”

Also, if you find out the answers to these questions, email me. In English, please. Enjoy, and szia on the other side!