Monday, December 30, 2013

Return to Bolgoslavia

8 years ago I went to Budapest. It was a holiday after a fairly exciting/gruelling few months of work. I had an interesting time - especially waking up one morning to discover I'd been copied in to an email from the person I'd left in charge of my project: "So everyone, this has happened. I'm ccing James who'll deal with it asap."

I was in the curious and delightful position of having to apologise for something that had happened while I was on holiday. And sort it out. Asap. From a hotel lobby using very slow internet. Ah well.

Eight years later, and I really was there on holiday, and it was actually lovely fun. There are two kinds of places that you visit on holiday. Firstly, the places where you immediately imagine living there. Secondly, the places that you go "oh, yes, this is fun, but that's fine."

Budapest is a probably a very exciting place to work. But, a bit like Amsterdam, a tourist can have a great weekend there and not feel they need to go back in a hurry.

I did find myself in an Aldi. People who mutter that Aldi is like a third world supermarket haven't lived till they've visited one in Budapest. There wasn't quite a turnip on a plinth saying "this week's star prize", but my god it was dreary.

I came away with a delightful looking salami with sliced mushrooms in it, but my friend Tim refused to let me open it till he'd waved google translate on it. Turned out it was pressed pig brain, and the mushrooms were the spirally bits of... bits of... *retches*. If it had turned up in a posh London restaurant we'd all have applauded. As it was, we left it at the back of the fridge for the cleaner.

One delightful Communist hangover was the service in the delightfully named "Marquis du Salade". Your waiter would take your order. A few minutes later, the owner would appear. "I see you have ordered Number 13. A wonderful choice. Very wise. However, I would recommend Number 15."

"I'd really like Number 13."

"Number 15 is much the better option. I'll bring you that."

Number 15 was, of course, marvellous. And I suspect what anyone walking through the door would have got.

Slightly decrepit elegance clings to Budapest like the mist from the rivers (and yes, that is the river that the Viking River Cruises Sponsors Mystery Drama On ITV floats along). We were staying in a flat that was like a small stately home, with a vast chandelier in every room. Even the bathroom. We made it to the outdoor baths, where, after a barefoot run on subzero marble past ancient statues, you got to plunge into water warmer than a washing machine tackling tough stains. Carved fish blew steam at you. Men with the bodies of trained killers frolicked. Yes, it was marvellous.

Also notable was the RyanAir "departure lounge":

Yes, that really is a shed. With grills, no frills. Your plane awaits you, cattle.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

It's dead gym

My gym just died. It's been a slow and lingering thing. The death of a thousand towels.

When I joined in 2007, it was a fun little gym in the hotel around the corner. It bustled, but with the cosy bustle of a popular newsagent.

A couple of years ago they changed their direct debits. My accountant pointed this out. "What's this?" he asked. "Who are Debt Finance Ltd? Is this a loan?". That was a worrying sign. The recession was partly to blame - they had nearly a 1,000 members, but only about 200 ever came in. This was, it turned out, not an unusual statistic. People happily pay for gym membership because it makes them feel better about themselves. At some point during the recession, suddenly that £30 a month seemed like a luxury.

I offered to put leaflets through the doors on my block, but the gym owner gave me a look. "We don't really want that sort... you know..." as though I lived on an estate full of poor white trash just dying to combine their crack habit with cardio.

Last year, the gym had about 100 members. Which seemed enough to keep things ticking over. But you'd notice a few things. First equipment broke down. Then it started to disappear. Then the soap dispensers went. And finally the sauna became a chilly wooden box (a particular shame, as I was once delightfully molested in there).

A week after the water cooler stopped working, men turned up with tape measures. I've worked in enough doomed offices to know what that means. A week later the personal trainers vanished like memories. First went Costas (huge arms, smelly protein shake poos). Then the nameless hulk with the tattoo of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer on his shoulder (sadly, a naked Buffy). And finally lovely Manel and Daria. And then a notice appeared "We are closing forever at the end of the week".

In some ways this is a sad thing. But change is good. Turns out there's another gym down the road. It's a fiver more, but it's huge and has lots of equipment. And all of it works. Even the sauna (crosses fingers and waits for a prince).