Monday, November 03, 2008

Daily Budapest Droppings

By Pauly
Budapest, Hungary

Although I had a five day assignment, this one worked out more smoothly than previous overseas gigs. Multi-day poker tournaments are usually played with a dinner break and in Europe sometimes those can last two hours. Lucky for us, the EPT Hungarian Open did not include a dinner break which meant shorter days at the casino (ten or so hours a day instead of 12+). The downside was that we had weird eating schedules.

The other good part of this assignment was that I lived in a rented apartment instead of staying in a hotel. Schecky pointed out a couple of options. I got in contact with the owner who was from Germany. He had a two bedroom flat within walking distance to the casino for an amazing price. They arranged a car service to pick me up at the airport and he even called the day that I arrived to make sure everything was fine. Staying in an apartment gave a sense of normalcy in my abnormal life.

I usually rose around 9am or to write or catch up on other work in our massive living room that had 16 high ceilings and parquet floors. I woke up Dana around 11am or so to get ready. We were caught in a dreadful cycle of crashing around 6am every night hanging out and listening to music and talking and drinking and partying which meant we were dragging ass all morning.

Our flat was located on Vamhaz street near the Great Market Hall in District V. It was under heavy construction which included the entire Szabadsag bridge and the majority of my street leading up to Kavin Ter. Half the street was covered in dirt as construction crews replaced massive pipes below. We'd have to navigate our way towards one of the streets that ran parallel to the Danube, which was about a block or so from the apartment.

The walk to the Las Vegas Casino was around twenty minutes down a winding shopping street that catered to tourists. Plenty of crappy Hungarian folk art souvenir shops were sprinkled in the collection of old buildings, department stores, tourist trap restaurants, and dozens and dozens of money exchange booths.

The casino was two bridges away. That's how I explained people the location of my flat. The casino was just off the Chain Bridge neat Roosevelt Ter. The Danube can be crossed by a series of bridges which separate the Buda and Pest sides of the river. In fact, Budapest is actually two cities divided by the Danube. I lived and worked in Pest while I could see the rolling hills of Buda across the river.

A tram that ran along the street near the Danube, but we walked to the casino in order to grab some food and drinks for breakfast along the way. Almost every morning we popped into Subway. I picked up a six inch and gobbled it down before I got the casino. One night we got off work early and Dana went to the grocery store. She bought Hungarian wax peppers, pasta, sauce, and bacon. She whipped up a batch of pasta with a spicy bacon marinara sauce. I ate that one morning for breakfast which hit the spot.

Aside from one morning of shitty weather (where the skies opened up and pissed down hard on us), the weather was unseasonable warm for this time of year. We had a few sunny days which mattered since we got to experience a bit of that warmth before the work days in the basement of the Sofitel/Las Vegas casino complex where the poker tournament was held. Europe has already initiated day light savings time (a week earlier than North America) so it would be dark by 5pm. Any daylight is welcomed.

We got plenty of free drinks in the media room including ginger ale which helped on the first day when I was wicked hung over. For the first time ever at the EPT, we were given assigned seating in the media room. Lucky for me, the guys next to us (Matt and Rod from Pokerlistings) were friends. It was sort of planned out that the English speaking media reps were in my row (in a five row conference room) made up of the Irish, Scots, Canadians, Brits, and me being the lone American in our row and the entire room. The Italians were huddled together and the Hungarians were right behind us with a couple of solo journalists from Portugal and Poland. Benjo sat in the back with the French and the Germans. My photographer was Hungarian and spoke great English. He usually photographed fencing so this was a change of pace. He did a stellar job considering it was his first time shooting poker. The sister site (Hungarian Poker News) had a couple of reporters working the event. They assisted me on getting to know the local Hungarian players which helped me out immensely.

Around 4pm or so, I'd get a craving for food. Hungry in Hungary. The casino/hotel served super pricey food. A cheeseburger and fries cost something like $17. We'd end up rushing to the local Burger King on one of the short breaks in the Vorosmarty Ter nearby. Rod went almost everyday and I tagged along with Matt and they'd bring back food for Dana. I managed to rack up a not-so-impressive Whopper count. They call them Dupla Whoppers in Budapest. They also charge 80 Fornits for a single package of ketchup or mayo. I could get a value meal for around 1,300 Fornits or $6.50. The main reason I don't eat fast food in the States (with the exception of runs to In & Out Burger) is that sometimes I'm forced to eat fast food on the road out of necessity, price, and convenience. That was the case in Hungary.

I craved a proper American breakfast (bacon and eggs and toast and bagels) and would be void of one the entire trip. Since we finished work no earlier than 10pm every night, food choices were limited. There was a sushi joint located near the Four Seasons. It was open to Midnight and we ate there twice including once on Benjo's birthday. The gang at PokerStars bought Benjo a cake for his birthday. We all sang Happy Birthday in the media room which made his face flush beet red.

One evening, Dana and I ate Italian food. The lasagna was tasty and cheap. I swear that our Hungarian waitress was hitting on Dana. She gave the old line, "Have I seen you before? Did I serve you?" Dana had never been to Budapest before and it was the first time was walked into that eatery. Dana has one distinct feature... the tips of her hair are dyed red. I guess that turned our waitress on.

Another evening, Dana cooked up bacon back at the apartment and we feasted on that delicious late night snack. It was super salty but much better than the stuff I ate in Australia or other parts of Europe that pass off ham as bacon. It wouldn't be until Saturday night before we had a traditional Hungarian meal. The chicken paprika was delicious... a a great cut of chicken which added to the flavor of the dish that was served with homemade gnocchi.

I was jonesin for herbal supplements. No vitamins. Boooo. I didn't think it was going to happen but a Phishy friend of the Tao found me a local contact and I got sorted out on Friday morning before work. That might have saved me because otherwise, I would have drunk myself silly. Vitamins means my insomnia is manageable and I also write better. It gets me into the right frame of mind.

We'd get back to the flat around Midnight most evenings. We tried to be good and not go out drinking to the wee hours every night during the work week. The bars were a bit pricey around the casino. Instead we'd buy a few bottles of Wernesgruner from the 24 hour store around the corner for a less expensive option. Dana picked a bottle of Jack Daniels at the Duty Free shop at the airport and polished that off. I'd chat with Nicky on Skype and tell her about my day. My new British laptop has a web camera so we were able to see each other via Skype.

Dana was a work colleague from London and the girlfriend of Snoopy, another well-respected member of the international press and one of my favorite British writers. Although Dana had been doing various freelance writing work over the last year, she was a musician and had been for many years. One of her last previous steady gigs was busking in the London tube. She had all these odd influences for a Londoner such as bluegrass and she never heard of a slew of American bluegrass/twangy bands such as Yonder Mountain String Band. We'd smoke cigarettes and talk about music. I'd play different tunes for her and she played some of her material that included solo work and a back up band. Check out Dana and the Greeks. Some good shit there including Motherfucking Whore.

Without my vitamins, it was hard to fall asleep. I tried every night and ended up lying in bed listening to my iPod. Dana is a night owl and she eventually fell out just before sun up.

On Friday night, we ate sushi with Benjo for his birthday. It was Halloween but you wouldn't know it in Budapest since they don't celebrate it. A group of us ended up back at our flat. We bought cheap Hungarian beer at the corner store and partied it up until sunrise.

On Saturday afternoon, the final table went relatively quick. One of the fastest that I ever covered on the EPT. A British player named Will Fry from Nottingham took it down. He intended on donating a percentage of his winnings (close to €600,000) to charity. He intended on helping raise the awareness of poverty in the third work.

Saturday night. Done with work. We got lucky and had a chance to enjoy a Saturday night in Pest. Dana and I raced home and dropped off our laptops and gear. We grabbed dinner at a local Hungarian joint. She ate goulash. I crushed a plate of chicken paprika. It's cooked in cream sauce with tons of paprika. They top it with a bit of sour cream which I particularity didn't like. The gnocchi was perfect to gop up all the extra sauce.

Dana and I sat at an outdoor cafe for beer and cake. We waited for the rest of our friends to finish off their recap articles and dinner plans. We all met up at a bar around the corner from the casino where we caught another break. A couple of players were at the bar and joined our group including one young pro from Norway who made the final table. He bought us a couple of rounds. The media on the European events are close-knit. Although they all come from different countries, most of the time everyone is far away from home, sometimes in a strange land. So it's natural that you stick together with your work colleagues on the road after hours.

The bar closed up shop early and we got kicked out. Although it was Saturday, it was also a national holiday. November 1 is All Saints Day and it's recognized in Hungary. People head to cemeteries en masse to light candles at the headstones of their loved ones and hang out there until sunrise. We had limited options and I offered to host everyone back at the flat for the after party. The apartment was clutch. No way we could have done that in one hotel room.

I lost €100 in various prop bets including trying to throw apple cords out my window at a bum/drunk passed out across the street. I also lost money on betting that Matt could not eat three Hungarian apples in ten minutes. That was an offshoot about the monster bet that Rod said he wanted to do... fifty apples in ninety minutes. We shot some videos. Stay tuned for those. Benjo and I also recorded four new episodes of Tao of Pokerati. And yes, stay tuned for those.

Even the guy who won the poker tournament stopped by the party. We raged until 5:30am. That's when Dana and Rod had to leave for the airport. As soon as everyone cleared out, I cleaned up all the empty beer and liquor bottles and all the wacky tabacky and tobacco lying all over the coffee table.

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