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Café Kuglóf: the Newest Budapest Gem

Café Kuglóf: the Newest Budapest Gem

IMG_9133It’s not every day I feel compelled to write a travel review, but once in a while I have an experience at a place so rewarding that I feel I owe it to the establishment to get its name out there. The fact that Kuglóf Kávézó, tucked into the passageway at Pesti Barnabás utca number 1, is less than 3 weeks old, makes me even more adamant that it still be there when I go back.

Kuglóf is small as coffee shops go, with a naturally lit interior, high wooden tables and chairs, and an intimate seating area with a sunny view of the arched passageway it calls home. Outdoor seating is also available, with a view of gorgeous Elizabeth Bridge and the Danube.

Reminiscent of a hipster Brooklyn café, Kuglóf has immediate charm. The staff is friendly and–thankfully for me–English proficient. The croissant and pastry selection is superb; all seem to be freshly baked each morning. Adding to the homely appeal of the place, the croissants are self serve. My favorites are the mini croissants which are perfectly sized for dipping. Unlike most Budapest cafés, it is open until well into the evening with a full selection, so it’s perfect for a late Sunday croissant or for getting homework done on a Monday night.

All your typical coffee shop fare is served, including an array of cool drinks (iced coffees, smoothies, etc). Their cappuccino cups are of a tapered design I’ve never seen anywhere, and even their gorgeous construction does not do justice to the coffee inside. The coffee is frothy and smooth, professionally and (I believe) hand ground.

IMG_9111I highly recommend the hot chocolate, made in the classic Euro-cocoa style. Available in milk and dark, the cocoa is a melted delight, served with a touch of added chocolate shavings for that chocolate-induced heart attack you always dreamed of.

It’s not often that a café gets everything right. The staff, the decor, the selection, the quality, and the view make this all a place worth visiting. It also stands in stark contrast to the opportunistically placed Café Molnár next door. Even so, I hope Molnár continues to draw tourists like flies to honey, so real gems like Kuglóf are left to the insiders. It’s worth it.

April 11, 2013Comments are DisabledRead More
The Problem with Free Water Bottles

The Problem with Free Water Bottles

I was at Budapest-Keleti this morning for one of my weekend trips out of town, and I had a couple minutes to kill before boarding so I pulled out my current book, Catch-22 (I know, I haven’t read it yet).  Reading about Yossarian and his zany flight squadron while waiting for a train, I had the occasion to look up from the book and idly glance around the station, and lo and behold, someone was setting up a FREE WATER BOTTLES table. I snapped a picture, which you can see here.

Now, I don’t know for sure if this was a government operation or not. I assume it was because one of the guys giving out bottles was wearing the reflective vest that civil employees wear here. The table and its environs had over 30 cases of water bottles. People going to and from their trains were snatching them up like hotcakes. After all, the temperature today was 34˚ C–real sweaty balls weather.

But this simple vignette represents everything that’s wrong with government spending, and it does it so perfectly I’m surprised there wasn’t a Fox News crew there to document it.

What’s wrong here? Well, first of all, these are clearly not free water bottles. Someone had to pay for them, and in this case, that someone would be the taxpayer. The people receiving the water bottles, however, aren’t paying for them–or, if they are taxpayers, they are paying far less than the cost of the water bottle for their contribution. So these people are getting water bottles at the expense of people who are not getting water bottles, which doesn’t seem very fair to me at all.

What about the service being provided? There’s no question that the consumers get a great deal. It’s a hot day, and there’s the city right there to relieve their discomfort, and possibly even save them from real dangers like dehydration and heat stroke. But what about all those people who aren’t passing through the train station today? What about everyone else in the city living through the same hot weather who pays a portion of their income to subsidize these water bottles? They are paying for someone else’s protection from these same dangers, which gives them less money to protect themselves by buying their own water. While this service may be good for some, it takes away those same benefits from others.

And speaking of buying their own water, why can’t these commuters buy their own water? After all, water is one of the cheapest commodities there is, and most of these people are either getting onto, or getting off of, a train whose ticket costs 30-100 times the price of a bottle. Are these people so poor and helpless that they can’t, if required, buy water for themselves? Is the government really needed to provide this “free” relief?

Now, I can hear some of you say, what if there is a market failure that prevents them from getting water they desperately need? Well, it just so happens that there are 5-8 vendors in the station who sell water bottles. They sell water bottles all day, every day, winter or summer, rain or shine. If the government continues to provide “free” water bottles right next to their stalls, can these businesses really compete? Of course not. They will go out of business. Plus, to add insult to injury, the vendors have the privilege of paying taxes being spent to undercut their own business. Handing out free bottles and driving vendors out of business is a sure way to cause market failure, not solve it.

I have no doubts of the sincerity of the intentions of the city planners or government officials (or perhaps private donors) who came up with this scheme to hand out free water. There is no question that some nameless individual wanted to help people, wanted to provide a good service for citizens, and maybe even help protect against dangerously hot weather. But even this simple act of goodwill can have profound economic consequences and real victims.

It’s not just Hungary. In the United States, there are countless examples of these so-called “free” programs that undercut the hard work of entrepreneurs and result in money being directed from people who don’t benefit to people who do. New York City has regularly scheduled helmet fittings where bicycle helmets are provided for “free” to people in the name of bike safety. Now, bike safety? Great! And if New York wants to spend taxpayer money to tell people to buy helmets, that might be considered a good use of public funds. But to actually spend taxpayer money to give helmets to some people at the expense of others, while simultaneously competing with local businesses at an impossible-to-beat price? Not cool.

To be fair, this problem is not just reserved for government spenders. Private capital mobilized for “good” can do quite the opposite. For example, the National Fitness Campaign built a free workout gym in the Marina in San Francisco, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country. I don’t think that the NFC is publicly financed, but either way, I have no doubt that these people want to encourage fitness and weight loss in one of the fattest countries in the world. But providing fitness equipment free of charge in the same neighborhood as half a dozen gyms, to be used mostly by people who could more than afford to pay for the service, seems to do the exact opposite of what was intended. If enough people use “free” gyms instead of private ones, gym services will decline and overall gym access will go down.

The most tragic example of this phenomenon for both private and public spending is foreign aid. I don’t want to get into the particulars of foreign aid right now, since that’s a whole other thing, but suffice it to say that there are serious problems with giving foreign “aid” to poor countries, even that aid which circumvents corrupt governments. Foreign aid in the form of food, clothes, medicine, or anything else has a deleterious effect on foreign economies, where local entrepreneurs can’t compete with handouts. This study says that between 1981 and 2000, employment in the African textiles industry decreased by 50% due to the influx of donated clothing from well-intentioned Americans. Dambisa Moyo has an excellent book on the subject. There’s a reason why poverty in the third world has only gotten worse the more people try to “help.”

Despite the fact that the same phenomenon can occur from private or public spending, I would reiterate the problem with public spending in particular. Because while private philanthropists have to convince donors to voluntarily give money to provide a potentially destructive “free” service, a government can compel taxpayers to provide the same service, and only requires a simple majority, or in many cases, a very vocal minority, to do so. There is a larger post, perhaps essay, to be written about the downstream effects of the “water bottle problem,” as it represents a massive failure of well intended people to do good using other peoples’ money. Water bottles are only a small piece of the pie. Large-scale programs like Social Security can probably be tackled on the same principles.

Until then, I have something to say to the City of Budapest: STOP GIVING OUT FREE WATER.

July 1, 20125 commentsRead More
Rain and a Busker

Rain and a Busker

When the rain starts falling in Budapest it doesn’t come with a warning.  The drops fall heavy and splatter on the cracked sidewalks and the citizens run for cover.  Men in suits dash single file alongside the granite buildings.  The windows of the tenements on higher floors that were open for the heat start shuttering one by one.  Occasionally you spot an old woman looking out of her window mournfully at the rain.  In the summer, the booksellers in the stalls on Vörösmarty tér must close up shop, which for them means hinging shut their wood book huts.  You can smell wet lumber from the new ones, and sometimes, the smell of books caught unfortunately in the rain.

Today I found myself walking a lot through the rain, as it happened to be one of those days I had several errands to take care of in the city.  The humidity was bad throughout and the heat never subsided, so jackets were optional.  I found myself soaked by warm summer rain between my first stop at Deák Ferenc Tèr and the repair shop I needed to drop off my iPhone.  I skirted between cars splashing their wheels on the road and the restauranteurs desperate to clear their sidewalk tables, taking care not to step on too many puddles or cracks or bumps in the road.

The iPhone repair shop is a business built into a residential building, which makes it hard to find at first.  The nondescript building is old–perhaps 20’s–and has a gaping hole in the front door and the inside “lobby,” if you can call it that, smells like the basement of a castle.  When I got inside, the rain came in with me, not only on my clothes but in the air where it contaminates the room with that mildew smell.  My feet squeaked on the wood floors.  There were 3 employees working behind the counter with a pile of every kind of Apple device: iMacs, Macbook Pros, even an old iBook.  There was a bit of a line, but I got my iPhone dropped off to have the back replaced.  An hour and a half later, it was fixed, for the grand price of $15.  There’s the market at work.

Now, I found myself with a recently upgraded camera lens and, thanks to my intermediary trip to the “Media Mart,” Budapest’s Best Buy, I had a new cell phone as well (later, I would find out that the cell phone didn’t come with a battery).  I also had a renewed opportunity to walk back to the metro in the rain, back through the book stalls and the empty cafes, back under the dripping awnings and yawning shutters, back up into the belly of the city and back home.

On the way, I saw something that struck me for its peculiarity.  I saw an old man, no younger than eighty, standing and wearing a grey vest, white button down shirt, and plain dark pants.  He had a folded and worn beige hat that concealed his almost bald head.  And he was holding a violin.  Poised, standing there, underneath an overhang to protect himself from the rain, what made this scene peculiar was not that he was holding a violin, but that he wasn’t playing it.  His violin case was open before him with no coins.  He was staring straight ahead into the misty air.  And he wasn’t playing the violin–he was just holding it like a violinist does, by the neck, with the bow hanging from his index finger.

It struck me what else was out of place in this scene:  there were no people.  Other than myself, no one was venturing anywhere near this square on this particular day.  It was devoid of listeners, willing or unwilling, which makes for a poor choice for a street performer.  But the fact that he wasn’t even performing for an audience that wasn’t there made me very confused but a little sad.  I wondered what he was thinking about, standing alone and abandoned on a rainy day when only he had the fortitude to make it to his spot and no one else.  I wondered if he felt his time slipping away.  The image that popped into my head was a freshly shorn lamb in the rain.  I hesitate to use the word pathetic, but in the strictest sense of the Greek root pathos there is no doubt that his presence caused me–his only witness–to pause and emote powerfully.  I could not imagine what it would be like to be him, only that I would find myself in a position of great sadness.  And perhaps, this is why the violin was there.  If he was playing at all that day, it would not have been for money, or for entertainment.  Playing the violin would have given him the comfort of a steadfast and lifelong friend.

Other vignettes from the rain:  a couple kissing under an umbrella on the sidewalk.  A man fixing his awning on a ladder, straddling the ladder with both feet and walking it laterally like makeshift stilts.  A bicycle fallen into a puddle.  A wet dog.

June 12, 2012Comments are DisabledRead More
Michael Jackson in Budapest

Michael Jackson in Budapest

I recently met up with an old friend in Budapest and as we were walking near the city center, he asked me, quite randomly, “have you seen the Michael Jackson shrine?”  I was intrigued, and it just so happened that it was less than a block away, so we went there, and sure enough, we found a Michael Jackson shrine.  In Budapest.  See, it’s right there on the right.

Now, first I have to describe this shrine, because it’s no ordinary shrine.  It’s at the corner of a delightful little tér across the street from what I later find out is a hotel.  And of course, this is not a shrine at all, it’s a tree, an ordinary tree about a hug’s wide, with an assortment of Michael Jackson’s pictures, tributes, handwritten notes and poetry affixed to the trunk, and candles and flowers placed by the base.

Of course, when one finds a Michael Jackson shrine in Budapest, it’s hard not to ask some fairly basic questions.  What’s up with Michael Jackson in Hungary?  Why is there a shrine to him.  Why is there a shrine to him here?  And why is the shrine to him seemingly spontaneous, and off of pretty much every single map and not found in any book.  In fact, it took me quite a bit of hunting in Google to find out what the deal is here.

You see, the building I later found out was a hotel is the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus, which has an interesting tidbit about this tree on their Facebook page.

Hundreds of celebrities stayed at the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus Budapest in the past 19 years.

Among them the late Michael Jackson. The hotel hosted the king of pop three times, in the same presidential suite each time. In 1994, on his first visit, he was shooting a short feature on Heroes’ Square. In 1996, he visited twice: after a brief stay to examine the premises of his upcoming concert here, he gave a spectacular performance in the People’s Stadium on September 11. That was the second stop of his History World Tour, in Budapest.

Mr. Jackson appreciated being loved. He would often stand by his window, looking out, waiving at and sending messages to his fans. They camped outside the Kempinski Corvinus day and night, chanting his name.

Following his death, his fans named the tree, where they spent so much time trying to catch a glimpse of their idol, Michael Jackson Memorial Tree.

Ah!  So there we have it.  A sweet story about this little shrine.  Apparently Michael Jackson is huge in Hungary, with a yearly flash mob dedicated just to him.

But in the 3 hours between discovering the tree and looking up more about it, I was very intrigued about the possibilities here.  I imagined perhaps, in the 80’s when Jackson was getting huge, that his music and stage presence and celebrity were well known in Hungary, still under oppression behind the Iron Curtain.  I imagined that people must have listened and watched Michael Jackson in secret, blown away by his artistry and command of dance, watching the crowds cheering him on in distant lands with technologies and civilization that people in Hungary must have found a wonder to behold.  I imagined that Michael Jackson, someone who expressed freedom and happiness in his music, resonated deeply in the Hungarian spirit, in the spirit of a people who themselves tried to throw off the shackles of communism in 1956 only to have their rebellion ruthlessly crushed.  I imagined that in the 90’s, when people were free, and Michael Jackson came to Hungary for the first time, people waited on line for days to get a chance to see a glimpse of their idol.  People idled for hours outside his hotel waiting for him to come out.  People paid money they didn’t have to go to his concerts.  And of course, I imagined how sad the people of Budapest were for their idol when he died, and how someone maybe saw a tree in his favorite park and put his Michael Jackson portrait there as a tribute.  And more and more people joined in, expressing their love for this legend who made them dream of freedom in darker days.

It was a nice thought…and the truth was less cathartic.  But I think maybe even a little of what I thought might have been true, and that gave me hope.

June 9, 2012Comments are DisabledRead More