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Budapest, communism and airline crew hotels

There’s something I’ve learnt about the children of pilots (and I’m talking about youngsters here – please tell me teenagers are different?). A pilot’s offspring might fly before they take their first teetering steps; their school friends might hail from all over the world; and the class photo might resemble a Benetton advert. But when it comes to the countries they’re lucky enough to visit, the hotel we stay in seems to shape their opinion of the entire nation.

Son2’s favourite place is Birmingham. Why? Something he really liked about the hotel when we stayed there a couple of Christmasses ago (he’ll say it was the carpet, but I’m sure there must have been more to it than that). Italy. The best bit, according to Son2: the airport Sheraton hotel in Milan (which, incidentally, was designed to be a car park). South Africa. The crew hotel, the name of which I can’t remember but Son2 liked the sweets at reception.

So this year, we spent Christmas in Budapest.  

It’s the most amazing city, blessed with beautiful architecture on every corner, romantic bridges, good food and an abundance of hot springs. In December, the city’s golden, twinkly lights take on an extra-special meaning against a (freezing cold) seasonal backdrop of brightly lit Christmas markets selling steaming mulled wine, ice skating at Vajdahunyad Castle, and festive decorations all over the city.

Fabulously festive
Fabulously festive but the hotel held all the appeal

At the market, I didn’t for one minute expect my sons to be into the craft stalls offering artisanal items, but I thought the food might interest them. And it did momentarily (while they were hungry). The goulash served in a huge, hollowed-out bread roll, the potato dumplings, the sausages and the fresh flat bread covered with grated cheese – it was all heartening fare on a night so cold your breath came out like a dragon’s puff. The best bit, for Son2, was the bubblegum marzipan. But once their appetites were sated, the calls began: “CAN WE GO BACK TO THE HOTEL NOW?”

On a visit to Buda Castle for a crisp winter walk with views of the city: “Can we go home?”

“Home?” I asked. “Really?”

“I mean the hotel,” replied Son2.

“We haven’t brought you to Hungary just to sit in the hotel room all day, you know … No really, we haven’t.”

At church on Christmas morning (okay so it was all in Hungarian, a beautiful but impenetrable language): “After this, are we going back to the hotel?”

At Heroes’ Square: “I WANT TO GO BACK TO THE HOTEL!” At this point, Son2 bunched his expression up into a question mark and clasped his hands together under his chin. “I want to play with my presents from Santa,” he pleaded. (Santa brought small stockings – because wherever you are, he’ll find you. PHEW!)

The bullet holes and shrapnel pockmarks on the Citadel fortress atop Gellért Hill took their mind off the hotel for a bit (their attention was actually fully engaged), and as we walked on in the footsteps of communism and the cold war and gazed up at the stark Statue of Liberty, the boys were still with us, absorbing DH’s history lesson about the Soviet “liberation” of Hungary during WW2. But it wasn’t long before we heard: “Let’s go back to the hotel! [Imagine a chant, like a woodpecker in your brain.]

“And can we get room service?” At which I rolled my eyes, not just out of their sockets but out of my actual head.

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Read me (if you dare)

There is a time of the year (it used to be a night, now it’s nearly all month) when expat communities in Dubai become satellite suburbs of the good ole’ US of A.

It starts with a few Halloween decorations here and there, a bush covered in cobwebs, creepy spiders on the wall, and by October 31st morphs into a full-blown horror scene with grave stones and skeletons, strung-up ghosts and ghouls, along roads normally festooned with bougainvillea and desert roses.

Doesn't DH make the prettiest girl? (bottom left)
Doesn’t DH make the prettiest girl? (bottom left)

Last night, as the sun slipped from view behind the white picket fences of our new compound and the pumpkins began to glow orange, the children took to the streets en masse, in fancy dress. They were trailed by their parents, many of whom had made a valiant effort and donned costumes too.

If you saw a blondish mother in a floor-length, gold, Cleopatra outfit with jewels dripping from my forehead, limping along (my shoes hurt), wiping the sweat from my brow (it’s still humid to be walking around clad head-to-toe in cheap polyester material) and completely lost from my kids, then that was me.

When I finally caught up with my 8yo, who waits for this night all year and gets beyond excited about dressing up and getting a massive stash of candy, it occurred to me that I should ask him what he was saying to the people answering the constant stream of door knocks.

“Are you saying thank you?” I asked.

He gave a firm nod.

“And saying trick or treat nicely?” I enquired.

“I tell them, “Give me all your sweets or you’ll die,” he replied, totally deadpan.

“You’re what?” I gasped. “ YOU CAN’T SAY THAT!!!” I felt my heart skip a beat at the mere thought of how this was going down with all our new neighbours.

Stash of sweets: The face says it all really
Stash of sweets: The gleeful face says it all really

A little chat followed that he wasn’t a prankster-gangster, he was a grim reaper and had to be polite – or I’d confiscate all his sweets – and he nodded again before running off into the darkness with his friend-in-crime.

Then there was just the small matter of getting back to our house, in my flowing robes and heels, along a road that felt twice as long as it normally does so I could cool down. “You look like Cleopatra the morning after,” quipped DH, who’d taken his shock of white hair off a long time before and was enjoying a bevvie indoors with his mother (dressed as a 1920s’ Flapper).

All in all, it was wonderful night, full of frights and sights – not least of them DH and myself!

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Moving to Meydan: The new house rollercoaster

“So what do you think?” I asked, gazing at the lounge walls in our empty new villa. The smell of fresh paint tickled my nostrils as I waited for DH’s response.

I’d gone for three different colours (green, charcoal and beige; it’s a large room!) – a sort of tricolour effect, and he was either going to love it or hate it.

“Very nice.” DH’s eyes flickered from wall to wall. “Three colours … I see.”

So I gave him the spiel I always give him in these situations, which I’d learnt from my mother-in-law: “If you have a creative wife, you just have to say THANK GOD and let her get on with it!” I smiled and hustled him upstairs to see his office, where we’d settled on just two ‘manly’ colours.

Not an accurate depiction of the blogger (I paid a nice man to paint)
Not an accurate depiction of the blogger (I paid a nice man to paint)

I walked back into the spacious living room with its views of the park area outside, and felt far more positive about moving than I did when we got the eviction email four months ago. Something about the blank canvas around me made me feel calmer and more in control of my life than I’d felt in weeks. Left alone in our quiet, cloud-like space, I soaked up the peacefulness.

We moved in over the next two hot and sweaty days. Once all the bulky items had bumped their way into position, a procession of smaller boxes marched in, until finally the packers left and we closed the door. As the last truck rolled away, I stood in the living room and surveyed the now cluttered space. I’d started feeling a little deflated. The dusty scent of cardboard had replaced the smell of fresh paint. There were piles of boxes stacked against the walls, and instead of straight, linear lines and open space, there was mess and bubble wrap strewn around (the boys wanted to keep it to pop).

The day was fading to dusk and I flicked the light switches by the door. So many light switches. It would take days to learn what they all did. I padded around – my flip-flops slapping against the floor – and did some more unpacking, sorting, moving things around, trying to bring some order to the chaos.

The next day I loved the house again, then the day after I fell out with it again. A strange smell was emanating from the bathrooms, and aware of stories from fellow residents about pipes not being connected, things falling off walls, water leaks and even electrical fires, I made our first call (of many) to maintenance.

Let’s just say I’ve got to know maintenance pretty well since then. Fair’s fair, they’re fixing things fast, although the blank stare you get when you’re trying to make yourself understood – followed by the nod which confirms you’re talking at cross purposes – just kills me!

Once our taps, which are currently like mini dancing Dubai fountains with varying water pressures, surges and stoppages, are fixed, I think we’re nearly there …

My verdict: I love the house!

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