Is this where the Phantom of the Opera happened?

Err…no. But we’ll get to that in a bit.

After a quick stop for a latte and almond cake at Eco Cafe (along with taking nearly all their change because I have no small bills), I continued along the elegant avenue toward the Octagon, a large intersection of Budapest’s main roads. It’s all globalization here, with fast food restaurants and people selling touristy-goodies.

I was about to continue on, but a dark, very dark sky was approaching up the avenue. I walked faster, contemplating taking the Metro to cover, but just as I passed the Octagon station, all heck broke loose. The rain came in a sheet, hard and unrelenting. I paused under an awning, hoping for relief, but the rain was practically sideways.

I looked into the window of the cafe and spotted a welcoming tray of spinning desserts. It was perfect to hide out in for now.

Dripped wet and looking something like a drowned rat, I hunkered down in Musezv (sp? I’ll have to check later), a cafe dating back to 1898. It’s right across from the massive Opera house, and in the window, I watched people scuttle by under umbrellas and newspapers, as unprepared for the onslaught as I had been.

I didn’t have one of their desserts (tempting as Hungarian dessert trays are), but I settled for a pot of warming Earl Grey tea and a sandwich. I could sit in there and marvel at the high ceilings, dark wood, and chandeliers for some time, as cafes are seldom so old and so grand in the US.

As the rain let up, the sun broke the clouds and acted as if it hadn’t been missing for nearly four hours. I wandered down the alleys to the New Theatre and all its very interesting decorations and then to the Opera house itself. It was outside the grand place when I heard one tourist ask another, “Is this where the Phantom of the Opera happened?”

The other person looked at them oddly and said, “errrr, no. That was the Opera Populaire in Paris. You’ve seen it like, a million times, right?”

While I was tired and in need of rest, I did not take the Opera tour (though I’ve heard it’s highly recommended, 3 PM and 4 PM daily). I caught the Metro at the Opera station and went to my hotel, deciding on a relatively early evening in. I wanted to make some trips into the countryside, so I had to do some online searching for trains and times anyway.

However, I ended up making a beeline for a local bakery and cafe (I always learn the words, “hello,” “thank you,” “good bye,” and “coffee” when traveling abroad) to get some sustenance for dinner. The yeasty bread smell was practically dancing on the damp, slightly humid, air as I walked by. A thin, salty pretzel and a sandwich were on order, but I also wanted a coffee to help pep up my failing energy. I ordered coffee, and got the world’s smallest takeaway mug (ie, an espresso). It was so dainty and so cute (see below).

You’d never find such a cup in America – but then again, you’d never see a trenta (31 oz) cup here either. We go big or go home; Europe goes petite and peppy.

But first – a detour to the Aldi grocery next to my hotel. I was shocked to discover an Aldi there, as I had taught in Batavia, Illinois, a massive distribution center for the Aldi brand in the States. I had grown up with Aldi and remembered shopping there since a child. It was my cheap, go-to grocery store while teaching, when anything like Jewel or Dominick’s would have sent me packing with less money in my pocket and very little food for that money.

The Aldi concept, it turns out, is German, which shouldn’t surprise me with its German efficiency. You pay with cash or debt card, and you BYOB (bring your own bag, not beer), or you buy bags there. Also, you bag your own groceries, which is almost unheard of in the US, and you also have to put a quarter into the locked carts just for the privilege of using one. This is all decided anti-American in its design, but the low prices and good quality of food items can’t be beat. I’ve not heard many complaints – it’s just a different way of getting groceries.

Aldi in Budapest is much the same, but with obvious Hungarian touches. Fresh breakfast goods are available, as are a lot of salami and cheese types, plenty of root veg, and interesting snack foods. The structure of check outs is similar, and it’s an interesting sneak peek into what people just pop into stores for.

For those interesting in “weird” history, read this article about Aldi that just recently came out from Slate: “Trader Joe has a brother. He’s Even Better.”

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