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Sunday, March 7, 1999

JAPAN LITE

Nothing like goulash when you're feeling Hungary


This week I write you from Budapest, where I sit immersed in Hungarian goulash. There is more Hungarian goulash per square kilometer in Budapest than there are McDonald's hamburgers per square kilometer in the United States. You'll see restaurants full of tourists, all of them eating Hungarian goulash. I soon learned why goulash is so popular among tourists -- it's the only word on the menu we can pronounce. Reading Hungarian makes reading kanji seem easy.

Curious? OK, here's your first lesson in Hungarian. Repeat after me: "Jo napot kivanok." Congratulations! You just said Hello in Hungarian. And your pronunciation wasn't so bad either. Next, let's say goodbye, "Viszontlatasra." Hmm, you need a little practice. Repeat, "Viszontlatasra." Say it again, but this time imagine important-looking diacritical marks on the tops of the letters that surely mean something even though you have no idea what. Ready? "Viszontlatasra." I can't hear you. I still can't hear you. Hey, come back here!

Don't despair, your Hungarian is still better than mine. After five days in Budapest, this is the extent of my Hungarian language acquisition:

Waiter: "Jo napot kivanok."

Me: "Goulash."

Waiter: "May I take your order?"

Me: "Goulash."

Waiter: "I'm sorry, we're out of goulash. Would you like to order something else?"

Me: "Goulash."

When I wasn't in a restaurant practicing my Hungarian, I was out seeing the city. Budapest has it all: Buda and Pest. Formerly two cities separated by the Danube river, they merged in 1873 and became Budapest. Besides the romantic Danube with six beautiful bridges connecting Buda and Pest, there are other sites such as the neo-Gothic Parliament building, the Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque Vajdahunyad Castle, the Fisherman's Bastion, and several museums to see.

Budapest has over 100 public baths. Being a fan of Japanese baths, I decided to see what it was like to go to a public bath in Hungary. Whereas in Japan you can enter an all-female bath naked, in Budapest, I was given a white piece of cloth to wear. The cloth looks just like a cooking apron with a tie around the neck and a tie around the waist. The back is completely open.

Once in my apron, I was given soap and told to shower before getting in the bath. Leaving the shower room and entering the bath area was like entering a steamy kitchen with a lot of naked cooks. People sauntered around looking very relaxed while circulating between the baths and a sauna. Others wore swimming caps and goggles and were swimming in the bath! I never considered a bathtub to be a place for exercise, but these women were very good at swimming slowly enough that they were actually swimming in place. It must be very relaxing, as long as you don't sink.

After my bath I was asked if I would like to try a "medical massage." In the massage room I made the transformation from naked cook to "Eve" with only a swath of cloth between me and the masseuse. After an hour, I had finally relaxed enough to actually enjoy the last couple of minutes.

Completely satisfied with my Budapest bath experience, I went outside to wait for my husband to come out of the men's bath. He had been waiting for me for quite a while and was finishing a beer. I said, "Wasn't that relaxing?" He was silent. He said it wasn't what he had expected. "Did you get a massage?" I asked. He said no. Finally he asked, "Didn't you feel that people were staring at you?" I said no. Later that evening I was reading about the baths in a guidebook and found out what the problem was. He had gone to the bath on "gay men's night."

E-mail your comments and questions to: amychavez@mailexcite.com



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