12 days 5 countries 34 people and a European heatwave Third stop: Vienna Part 2

On the morning of the 27th of June 2019 I woke up in the ibis hotel in Vienna, Austria after an incredible night’s sleep. I was very much under the impression that the sunburn blisters on my face looked better and thus proceeded to send my mom a selfie via our WhatsApp group. It was not even a minute later and she was knocking on our door. Upon opening we found her tearful and apologetic for my sunburn situation. She went on to say that no one would blame me for staying in the hotel for the day. Trust a mom to be honest. In her defence, I knew it came from a place of love wanting to protect me from further sun damage. I need to provide some context (because I would never share any photos), it was not that bad, but it felt awful and awkward.

I must admit I considered it for a moment, staying in the hotel for the day, but I was determined to explore and experience the rest of Vienna regardless of what I may have looked or felt like. So I owned it. I got ready for the day and headed downstairs for breakfast, which was a feast fit for royalty. The buffet had everything including a waffle station, a variety of freshly baked bread, and an array of cheese and cold meats.

Each new destination presented me with the opportunity to learn new sayings to use when engaging locals. In Austria I was the most self-assured as I had been exposed to the German language during the years we lived in Windhoek, Namibia. One of the girls celebrated her 17th birthday so I went straight over to wish her. Everyone I came across at breakfast (those part of the tour and complete strangers) received an overcompensated and highly energetic ‘Guten Morgen’ (meaning Good Morning). We were fortunate to have someone in our group who was able to speak fluent German (although the German dialect differs slightly from place to place); he tried to teach us several words and phrases, and engaged comfortably with the locals.

A walking tour was on the itinerary for the morning where we were to discover why Vienna was voted the most liveable city in the world. The bus dropped us off near the city centre and we walked through the picturesque Maria-Theresien-Platz, a large public square. Soon thereafter we met our tour guide, Gabi, who would spend the morning taking us around the very heart of the city to appreciate the exteriors and surrounds of impressive structures. The first stop was the Hofburg Imperial Palace, which served as the winter residence for the imperial family, while Schönbrunn Palace was their summer residence. Today the president of Austria occupies these premises. We were just in time to witness the army doing their marching rounds while branded memorabilia was available to take at no cost promoting the military. Following, Gabi took us to see the Kaiserappartements, the imperial apartments, once occupied by Empress Elisabeth and Franz Joseph. During the imperial dynasty each member of the family had their own suite in one of the many palace wings.

Maria-Theresien-Platz
Hofburg Imperial Palace
Kaiserappartements

We walked along the Graben, one of the most well-known streets in Vienna’s first district. Vienna was bustling.

Vienna – Der Graben
Vienna – Der Graben

Around 11:30 our tour concluded and we were given free time. Some of us dashed over to an elegant coffee house, Sluka, where we indulged in traditional Austrian sweet treats and coffee beverages. We asked an elderly gentleman sitting with female companions to take a photo for us, which proved to be a difficult task for him. He struggled greatly with the cell phone and when we looked at the photos they were terrible. We enjoyed a good laugh.

Sluka
Sluka

Once the sweet tooth was satisfied we visited the Gustav Klimt exhibition where various copies of the Austrian born artists’ famous works were on display. We carefully selected beautiful magnets of our favourite works, one of which the well-known ‘The Kiss’.

Gustav Klimpt Exhibition

We went into a souvenir shop, World of Souvenirs, where I purchased more magnets and other items for my husband and daughters; it was my way of making them a part of this unforgettable experience. One of the funniest things I came across in the shop was a slogan which read ‘no kangaroos in Austria’. I chuckled at the fact that perhaps there are tourists who confuse Austria with Australia necessitating the need for the amusing catchphrase. The souvenir shop had a window on the second floor which they marked as the best view of the Stephansdom cathedral, I couldn’t resist snapping a shot.

Stephansdom view from the second floor of the shop

My mom insisted that we go inside the cathedral feeling that it would be a sin to miss out on such an experience when in Europe. I am so glad we listened to her (one should always listen to one’s mother). We made our way across to the Stephansdom as it’s known in German (the English name being St. Stephen’s Cathedral) where entrance was free. The exquisite architecture of this Roman Catholic Church is celestial. As I looked up my attention was captured by the intricate finishes on the high ceilings from which grand chandeliers hung. Rays of sunshine glistened through the spectacular colourful glass windows. The walls are works of art with decorative designs and sculptures bringing them to life. It was somewhat crowded inside (but not as jam-packed as outside the cathedral). It was definitely worth the visit.

Stephansdom
High ceilings with chandeliers
Colourful glass windows
Notice all the details
The details are exquisite
The designs and sculptures make the walls come alive

After meeting up with the rest of our party we made our way back to the bus. At this point we were fairly tired (due to the early wake up coupled with the morning’s walking tour, not to mention the heat). Each person looked out for the red backpack in front of them. We walked through the Burggarten garden and as we crossed traffic lights a small group of us suddenly realised that we were no longer with the rest of the company. The person in front had thought they were following the tour director when in fact it was not him and all the rest had just followed that one backpack in front of them. Although there was a moment that panic could take over I suggested we stop to regroup. After a few minutes we decided to walk back looking out for familiar sights. We walked through the Maria-Theresien-Platz and quickly found the rest of the group and hopped onto the bus, crises averted.

Burggarten (notice the red backpacks)
Maria-Theresien-Platz

It was after 14:00 and the excitement filled the bus as we were on our way to Wiener Prater, the oldest amusement park in the world. It is situated in Leopoldstadt, Vienna’s second district. Interestingly entrance is free while payment is due per ride, as the rides are privately owned. We arrived around 15:00 and the adrenalin junkies and thrill-seekers dashed off to experience the adventure of the scariest and highest rides in the park. A few of us made our first stop a restaurant for refreshments. I ordered Austrian Goulash served with a bread roll (it may seem absurd that I had a meal served warm on a hot summer’s day, but I wanted to soak up all the tradition). I enjoyed an ice cold G&T to accompany it.

Austrian Goulash

Going to the bathroom in the park was eventful as entry cost a Euro or two. We went in a group and everyone scratched around in purses to ensure we had enough. Two ladies in the group went to the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum; they were ecstatic. I almost joined them, but as I had been to the one in England in December of 2009 I decided instead to try a new experience. My mom, aunt, sister and I opted to go on Vienna’s Giant Ferris wheel, the Wiener Riesenrad, one of the oldest operating Ferris wheels in the world. The highest point being 64.75 meters above the ground. We paid the 12 Euros each and walked through a room to get to the ride. It was full of carts, resembling those of the Ferris wheel, each depicting a time in Vienna; the story of its history was fascinating. It is slow but once at the top the view is extraordinary. Although by no means an adrenaline ride, it was well worth it. It exited into a souvenir shop (my weakness) where many things were bought including branded golf balls, Mozart bouncy balls, a cap and bracelets. I lost many Euros to this shop!

Wiener Riesenrad – Wiener Prater
View from the cart as we were ascending
The view of the park

Stunning view

 

Beautiful view

As soon as everyone was done enjoying the excitement of the park we met at the front gate, around 17:41, and once again took a ‘boomerang’ with the Ferris wheel as the setting. We headed back to the hotel for leisure time and most of us returned to the Wien Hauptbahnhof (the railway station) for dinner and shopping. My sister and I headed into the famous Manner store as they were having a sale. An entire shop in all its peach-coloured glory just for Manner wafer cookies, amazing! There is a touching story behind this brand, in 1898 the creator wanted to ensure that all Austrians could afford to buy a sweet confection (as at the time most could not afford a chocolate). A delightful hazelnut cocoa cream is spread over a crispy waver, layer-by-layer it is the perfect spoil. These were a hit as souvenir gifts for my family. I gobbled several down myself before we even got back home to South Africa. After all the shopping we headed back to the hotel where everyone met in the foyer to celebrate the birthday girl with song and cake.

On the 28th of June we were up early to depart for our next destination. I was delayed and after gulping down breakfast my sister and I ran to the bus, where most were already waiting. My mother was nowhere to be seen. When she finally arrived she seemed some-what traumatised and out of breath. She explained that she had decided to take the stairs instead of the lift and after having gone all the way down to the reception floor could not gain access with her room key and so she had to go all the way back up the stairs only to find she also could not gain access to the breakfast floor. After being stuck for a while someone eventually came to her rescue.

We were ready to depart but encountered a minor bumper bash. A very rude taxi driver shouted at Milan (our Hungarian bus driver) who found himself somewhat flustered, as anyone would be under the circumstances. The tour director remained calm and assisted Milan. We were soon on our way, bidding Vienna farewell. It was an incredible visit to the most liveable city in the world.

12 days 5 countries 34 people and a European heatwave Third stop: Vienna Part 1

The bus rides between destinations were a welcomed break to rest, reflect, and reconnect. It was our air-conditioned haven and in immaculate condition. Many stories were shared, jokes told, and countless photos taken of the scenery. The trip from Slovakia to Austria was no exception. It was more or less around this time that everyone (almost simultaneously) seemed to notice that our bus driver was… unexpected. He seemed quite young (possibly late 20’s), a real gentleman (he always exited first in order to assist the ladies off the bus), and dressed professionally in suit-and-tie (almost like he walked straight out of a magazine). Milan, our Hungarian bus driver, would soon make his way into our hearts and become member 35 of our group.

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A photo I took from the bus as we passed through Kittsee.

We arrived at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria, around 15:30 on the 26th of June 2019. The bus doors opened and as we exited we were hit by the intensity of the heat. I borrowed a cap as any further sun exposure to my face was not even an option. There were busloads of tourists, so we knew the palace would be busy.

As I stood at the entrance gates my first impression was that the grounds looked very dry, perhaps accentuated by the temperature, while the structure itself was magnificent in its yellow, almost golden, grandeur. We entered around 16:00 and there was little relief from the heat. The bottled water was tremendously overpriced and worse, sold at room temperature. I was disappointed to learn that taking photos inside the palace is strictly prohibited; how I wish I could have captured some of the intricacies in the rooms we visited. Each of us were handed a headset and a handheld device to equip us for the audio tour, this allowed us to do the tour at our own pace. Each room had an allocated number and when selected on the handheld specific music and/or information played. It was as if I was transported back in time.

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The Schönbrunn palace was the summer residence for the imperial family and has 1441 rooms; its name means beautiful spring. I don’t think we even saw a fraction of the palace, but what we did see was glorious. Getting a glimpse into how the Habsburg dynasty lived in those times was enlightening. The narrative of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (also known as Sisi) and her husband, Franz Joseph I of Austria, is quite an intriguing one. Based on what I interpreted during the tour of Schönbrunn Palace, I sensed a deep hurt within her which she deflected through focusing on her outward appearance. The palace holds a room which was dedicated entirely just for her grooming, much of which was spent on her extremely long hair. I learnt that she would often miss family meals, partly due to fasting to maintain her figure. I also sensed a hollowing loneliness within her husband, Franz Joseph. I believe that their lives were destined for adversity with the interference of his mother and the young age of 16 at which he wed Elisabeth (not to mention that she was his cousin). Their full story is gripping and dramatic.

When we reached the great hall where the abundant banquets of their time were held the crowds of tourists became some-what suffocating. We fled to the gardens around 17:00. The juxtaposition of natural beauty against architectural beauty was captivating. Around us were tired tourists who found opportunities for naps in shady areas. After we explored the grounds we headed back to the bus, but not before we took photos and ‘boomerangs’ with the grand fortress as our backdrop. I became well known amongst the group for finding every opportunity to take ‘boomerangs’ and as such have an impressive collection of these fun mini videos at unforgettable attractions during our tour. Any and all photos I was in at this point were of the side of my face (as to hide the evidence of the sun burn aftermath).

Blog 5Blog 7Blog 6Blog 8Blog 9Blog 10Vienna 1 (50)Blog 14Blog 12Blog 15Once back on the bus we were headed to our hotel. We stayed at the ibis Hotel Wien Hauptbahnhof, a 3-star hotel. We were very impressed with the contemporary interior design (as with our ibis hotel in Budapest, it exceeded our expectations). We were welcomed by free Wi-Fi and air-conditioned rooms looking out at the urban landscape which surrounded us. Our hotel was across from the Wien Hauptbahnhof which is the main railway station in Vienna, located in the Favoriten district.

We decided to head to the station for dinner as they have several take-away eateries and a number of shops. I opted for a traditional Beer Shandy (known as a Radler), frankfurter and potato salad (not much like the South African potato salad). The Gen Z members of the group had a go-to throughout the trip. They found comfort and pleasure in Mac Donalds and Burger King. It was their preferred choice and conveniently for them the franchises were found practically everywhere. I had a good giggle at times (we were after all in Europe) but came to love that about them. It was a taste from home, they knew exactly what to expect. I remember on really hot days they would find solace in grabbing those large white cups with machine-filled cold drink for refreshment. The evening at the station was no different. We ceased the opportunity to pop into a few shops, several were having sales, and purchased a multitude of things ranging from clothes to snacks. Although we have malls back home, most of us could not let the chance to purchase discounted apparel go by and one particular shop drew us in like moths to a flame, The New Yorker.

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Enjoying a traditional meal.

At 21:00 it was still very light outside and my sister and I decided to make our way back to our hotel to unwind for the day, a few steps and we were there. We caught up with loved ones back home, freshened up, and snuggled in our incredibly comfortable beds. After looking in the mirror I realized that my blisters were fully developed. My mom came by our room to check up on me and I could see the look of concern on her face. She rubbed after-sun on the areas and suggested I take allergex (literally her go-to medicine for anything) and wished us goodnight.

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The ibis hotel at 21:05.

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The view from our hotel room at 22:44.

After 23:00 we were fast asleep, tired and enriched by the amazing experiences of the day; we had after all been in 3 countries in a single day (woke up in Budapest – Hungary, spent half the day in Bratislava – Slovakia, and subsequently arrived in Vienna – Austria).

12 days 5 countries 34 people and a European heatwave Second stop: Bratislava

We arrived at our destination, Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, around 11:00 am where a walking tour awaited us. It was scorching (and yes, I realise that I am going to run out of ways to describe how hot it was). We were introduced to our tour guide, Daniella. This quaint town sees many tourist groups; everywhere I looked were groups of tourists flocking around their guides. Tour guides carried flags (for easy identification in crowds) and used headset microphones (for vocal projection).

Bratislava lies about 60 km east of Vienna (our next stop) and 300 km north of Budapest. It is set along the Danube River by the border with Austria and Hungary and became rather special with it being in 3 of the countries we visited.

The first thing that I noticed was the UFO Bridge, which appeared very interesting in design. Daniella explained that it has won several awards and a restaurant is located at the very top. However, once she started delving into the history I realised that the bridge is not fondly regarded by locals. It came at a very high price; it resulted in the demolishment of meaningful historical establishments. One such building was a Synagogue, the only remains of this is an image on a wall – a memory of what was once a special place for the Jewish community.

As the walk progressed the sun pounded down on us and we fought for any and every little bit of shade we could find to take refuge. Daniella soon realised that her stops needed to be centered around any shade if she had any hope of our group truly listening to her. At the first sight of a water fountain we ran to fill our bottles. The cold water was so refreshing as we gulped it down as quickly as we filled our bottles. Some of us splashed water on ourselves for a cooling moment, although short lived.

During the tour we came across various hotels which Daniella pronounced as ‘hot-hells’ in her Slovakian accent. I stood at the back and used each and every opportunity to emphasize to those nearby that it truly was a hot hell! I found the irony most appropriate and hilarious.

While touring the market we were told that Slovakia is well known for its award-winning wines, and interestingly they do not export their locally produced wines but instead keep them for their own enjoyment. She told us how magical the market is at Christmas time and that one of their traditional beverages are served warm during that time. My aunt took the opportunity to purchase a local bottle of honey wine for a dear friend back home, but unfortunately that bottle never made it back to SA (a sad but funny story for another day). There are a lot of beautiful buildings and statues in Bratislava with fascinating stories.

A common trait throughout the European countries we visited during this tour is the superstitious legends around rubbing bronze statues for good luck. Bratislava was no exception with their ‘man at work’ figure; visitors rub his nose and head for good luck. The discolouration is visible on the photo. Daniella said that there is no historic explanation for the sculpture, just something quirky.

At the end of the tour we were given free time in which to do shopping and grab a bite to eat. Daniella gave us some tips on what to try and where to find it; ultimately, we really wanted to taste the local cuisine. She told us that some of their specialties include dumplings in sheep cheese, cabbage soup, and Goulash soup (apparently very different to the Hungarian Goulash). I asked Daniella to pronounce certain words for me so that I could use them in my engagements with the locals, which I prided myself in doing throughout the trip (my success can be debated). She explained that hello is Dobrý deň (pronounced Doh-bree-den) and thank you is Ďakujem (pronounced Jah-koo-yehm). In Hungary we were told that Hungarian is a very difficult language and again in Slovakia we were told about the difficulty of Slovak, it is a Slavic language much like Russian and Polish.

My aunt had a very specific agenda during her free time… shopping. It was very important to her to carefully select gifts for loved ones back home. She would often grab a coffee and skip lunch entirely in order to look for gifts; the visit to Bratsilava was no exception. We looked around and purchased some magnets and left her shopping so that we could look for a restaurant. Weapon of choice in Bratislava, the Euro. It was a big adjustment to go from the Hungarian Forint to the Euro.

We collapsed into the seats of the first restaurant we spotted. The wait felt long and when the gentleman finally came over with menus, he came across impatient and irritated. It made it that much more awkward when we realized that their specialty was not traditional Slovakian food which we had our hearts set on. We spotted an authentic Slovakian restaurant close by and quickly made our way to it. Unfortunately, we were not to taste the traditional cuisine as after waiting an eternity (probably more like 10 minutes) no one had even acknowledged our existence. We spotted a market stretched out under the trees in the centre of town and decided to leave; our time was running out and we knew that we needed to make decisions quickly (no decision more important than food).

We took a stroll through the market and were overjoyed to discover it was an Italian market selling every type of Italian specialty. Incredibly delicious aromas filled the air and we soon came across a stall selling cannolis, pizza, and arancini. The Italian gentlemen on the other side of the stall greeted us with warmth and kindness and proceeded to ask where we were from, once they heard our accents. We indicated South Africa and they were excited as they had been to Cape Town. They told us they were from Sicily. I walked away with a piece of heaven in the form of a slice of pizza, a coke, and a cannoli. We spotted an empty bench under the trees, a perfect spot to enjoy our treats. With each bite of my mouth-watering indulgence the crispy pastry of the cannoli crunched and the sweet, creamy filling oozed. We chuckled as we said “when in Bratislava Slovakia, eat Italian”. In fact, Italian was the go-to staple food throughout our trip.

We needed to use the bathroom to relieve our bladders and finding one proved to be very difficult. Unless an actual patron, restaurants did not want us to use their facilities. We eventually found one willing to let us use their ‘water closest’ as it is referred to. The deeper we went into the restaurant the more we felt like we were in a dungeon and the damp odor filled our lungs. It was almost unbearable but we were pressed, our bladders and for time!

Shortly thereafter we joined the group at our curfew to make our way back to the bus. We were 34 people and in order to ensure that no one in the group was ever left behind each of us were allocated a number (this was done on day one in Budapest already). We established that we were all accounted for and quickly hopped back onto our air-conditioned sanctuary; we were headed to Austria.

Although the visit to Bratislava was brief, it was a charming experience and worth the stop.

I must mention that at this point those sun blisters (from the sunburn during the bicycle tour) took on a life of their own. Tiny blisters covered my whole forehead while the ones on my cheek were few but much larger. Little did I know it was going to get worse, much worse. The bruises on my legs (again, from the bicycle tour) darkened in its shades of blue and purple. However, nothing was going to get in my way of enjoying every moment of this trip and they were all proof of my incredible experience.

12 days 5 countries 34 people and a European heatwave First stop: Budapest

We landed at the Budapest airport (two flights, thirteen hours, and five on-flight movies later) around 6:30 a.m. on the 24th of June; despite feeling tired we were extremely excited. We ceased the opportunity to freshen up as much as possible in the tiny airport bathroom. We were astounded to find a Super Spar on the other side of the world. Humoured by all the sleeping tourists and delighted that we could access the free WIFI, some of us rushed to upload stories about the flight on Instagram, others sent WhatsApp messages home to confirm safe arrivals, and the rest ran into the Super Spar to see what the European version had on offer. I decided to do a public face-time with my family, much to my sister’s amusement. We proceeded to google the pronunciation of ‘thank you’ in Hungarian, Köszönöm pronounced koe-ssoe-noem, and confidently pronounced by me as curse-e-nim during all my encounters with Hungarians (face palm). We were introduced to our tour guide, Kinga, who would spend the next 3 hours telling us all about the wonder of Budapest by coach before we headed to our hotel where we could finally freshen up. Her bright red hair, infectious smile, and sparkling personality won us over as she passionately told us about the city she loves.

Budapest, the capital of Hungary, is pronounced Budapesht by the locals, due to their ’s’ sound being more of a ’sh’ sound. Kinga taught us the Hungarian greeting, Szia, pronounced See-ya. We learnt that the name Budapest was in fact derived by the joining of two city names, Buda and Pest. It became a single city in 1873 with the union of Buda and Óbuda on the west bank of the river, and Pest on the east bank. The Danube River is international, flowing through ten countries (Hungary being one of them).

Our first stop was Heroes Square (Hősök tere). We were thrilled at the sight of this remarkable structure, a real glimpse that we were truly in Europe. The monument’s dedication “To the memory of the heroes who gave their lives for the freedom of our people and our national independence.” The back of the monument consists of two matched colonnades, each with seven sculptures representing remarkable figures of Hungarian history. The column is topped by a statue of the archangel Gabriel, said to be watching over them.

Our next stop was the Széchenyi thermal bath and swimming pool (Budapest’s largest thermal bath complex) for a look around. Kinga informed us it is the most beautiful of all their baths, but according to her not the most enjoyable due to overcrowding. The group would later be taken to her favourite spot to enjoy swimming. Kinga was extremely proud of the fact that Budapest is known for its thermal baths, which are naturally fed by 120 hot springs, known for its medicinal properties.

Up next was a walk around the City Park (Városliget). The first thing that caught my attention were incredible abstract-like mermaid sculptures (Mermaids fountain by Jenő Kerényi and István Szabó). As I took my shot, the light hit one of the mermaid’s so majestically.

What happened next was to define my very existence for the rest of the trip (I’m not exaggerating). We entered a novelty shop and there I discovered, and unleashed, my love for souvenirs. While others may see ridiculous tourist-targeted mementos, I see special keepsakes that truly capture the essence of the places I travelled to.

With a little bit of difficulty the younger members of the group taught me the formula for converting the Hungarian forint into South African Rand. Ultimately the method that stuck was to remove the last zero from the amount and divide the remaining number by half (example 2000 forint would be 100 rand). I walked out with a dope Budapest T-shirt for my husband, empowered with the knowledge to do conversions, and was on my way to explore further.

Kinga recommended that we head to Jubileumi-park for a magnificent view-point before we headed to our hotel. The view did not disappoint; it was truly spectacular. Kinga warned us of ‘con artists’ who attempt to trick tourists into gambling on a trick the equivalent of the shell game, which we did come across. I smirked noticing the attempt to persuade participation from near-by tourists.

We arrived at the Ibis Styles 3 star hotel around 12:44, hopeful that some rooms would be ready. We were in luck and quickly dashed off to our rooms to freshen up, unpack, and perhaps fit in a nap. It is a modern looking hotel themed around bicycles, and was amazing. At 15:00 the rest of the group were on their way to the local thermal baths when I threw somewhat of a tantrum, I believe I used the words “If I don’t get fed now I am not taking another step”. My mom, sister, and I decided to go for a walk and found a local place to grab a bite to eat. It was a quaint little restaurant and we soon realised that the language barrier would make ordering our pizza very interesting. The staff hardly spoke or understood English, but we thoroughly enjoyed eating somewhere not swarming with tourists. Right next door to the restaurant was a car/bike repair shop and the local men flocked to this spot; we even had one of them ‘peacock’ around shirtless until he finally sped off on a scooter. After lunch we came across an ice-cream shop and treated ourselves (which would become our special tradition throughout the trip) and walked around further before heading back to the hotel.

At 19:00 we left for a boat cruise on the Danube River. This was, and will forever remain, one of my favourite experiences. At around 20:20 we passed the Parliament building and the orange glow of the sun fell onto the building and river in such a mesmerizing way. The sun only set at 20:30 which was spectacular. Complete darkness only occurred around 22:00 (which felt strange coming from South African winter). We had classic music in the background and were treated to a three course Hungarian meal, which included Hungarian Goulash. On our way back we were spoilt with a fireworks display in the distance and the glistening lights of Budapest by night.

After our cruise we went back to Jubileumi-park for the night version of the view-point. It was once again worth the stop. At this point there were bus-loads of tourists and an Italian couple had been left behind by their tour bus. Kinga offered them a lift back to a central point in the city. One of them were celebrating their birthday and our group broke out in song singing happy birthday to her. The Italians and our group of South Africans barely understood each other but shared many laughs.

On our way back to the hotel we passed the Elisabeth Bridge and Kinga told us about Empress Sisi, who the bridge was named after. She explained that we would learn more about her in Austria and emphasised that Hungarians were extremely fond of her. Elisabeth of Bavaria was Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary by marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph I. She was known to have had hair up to her ankles, exquisite in beauty, and defiant to the rigid imperial rules.

At about 23:00 we bid Kinga farewell and thanked her for sharing the rich history of her beautiful city with us. It was an amazing first day and needless to say we dove into bed.

The next morning we woke up with much anticipation as a 3-hour bicycle tour awaited us. We got ready for the day and headed down for breakfast, a mouth-watering buffet with options ranging from waffles, freshly baked breads, to an array of cheeses and cold meats.

 

Little did I know that the amount of sun block I applied that morning would not be enough, not nearly enough!

Around 10:00 we met at the bicycle tour offices to grab our bikes, split into teams, and meet our tour guides. We had an absolutely amazing guide, Uri. It had been years since I was last on a bicycle but as the old saying goes ‘it’s like riding a bike’ so it came back to me quickly. We stopped at incredible sites along the way with Uri explaining the history and the meaning behind each place. We had the opportunity to get closer to the Parliament building, which we had seen in all its glory the night before.

We soon found that keeping up with the pack was key, which became increasingly difficult when the robots changed over. The down hills in the shade were heavenly, while the up hills in the blistering heat tested us at our very core. There was a point that I felt I might not make it, but kept pushing myself, determined to continue. At one point I looked back I saw my mother resorted to pushing her bike up the hill.

We cycled to Margaret Island, known to the locals as Margiysziget. In the Danube River, between Buda and Pest is this little gem of an island with a stunning musical water fountain and plenty more to keep the whole family entertained.

One thing about Uri that stood out as much as with Kinga was his passion for the place he calls home, Hungary. As 13:00 approached I could feel the scorching sun beating down on my face and asked my sister for her straw hat. I should have been wearing it from the start as I had packed the wrong cap on the trip. We kept hydrated throughout the tour as much as possible. The bicycle tour ended around 13:30 by which point we were exhausted and famished.We quickly found our way into an air-conditioned restaurant where I enjoyed a freshly squeezed fruit smoothie and a Panini, but not before we sank our teeth into their local chimney cakes with ice cream.After lunch we headed to the Great Market Hall, the largest and oldest indoor market in Budapest. Despite being beat we were excited to be able to experience and purchase authentic Hungarian products. I bought some magnets, T-shirts, babushkas and pencils. We got onto the tram and headed back to our hotel. Just across the street from our hotel was a Spar and we took the opportunity to purchase some snacks and drinks to recuperate. By 17:30 we were back at our hotel and my legs were covered in bruises from the pedals smacking against them. Those that still had energy decided to get ready to explore Budapest for our last night and we were out of our hotel by 19:00.

Perched atop Castle Hill is Buda Castle and the view was absolutely worth the climb up. It was breath-taking. At around 20:15 the sun began to set over the Danube River. We made our way back down and by the time we reached the iconic Chain Bridge we could not believe that it was already 21:00 (yet it was still light out). Our tour coordinator from the travel agency said he would go out to look for a restaurant and somehow communication between the group and him went array and we walked for almost an hour until we found the little strip of restaurants where he had been waiting. We picked an Italian restaurant and by 22:00 I was presented with a prawn and mussel gnocchi dish. When we were done we got onto the tram and headed back to our hotel.

I crawled into bed, feeling quite sun burnt, and slept like a baby. When I woke up the next morning I had tiny sun blisters all over my forehead and some on my cheeks (the horror). I got ready for the day feeling both excited to explore the next two countries on the itinerary for the day and sad to leave Budapest. I headed down for breakfast after which we checked out and got on the bus.

Overall I found Budapest to be a captivating city with a lot to offer and great value for money.

I hope to visit again!

Oumie, Maria Magdalena (Marietjie) Buitendag

 

Her warm smile, sincere presence, and the taste of her incredible cooking are things we will have to wait for heaven to experience again. Her knitted treasures (little teddy bears, jerseys, and scarves) are all around the house to remind us of her talents and how special she was.

To keep her memory alive we still talk of her often and she is fondly remembered as Ouma Rietjie by her great grandchildren. Even though you know that everyone has to pass on eventually and that no one can live forever, it does not make the goodbye any easier when the time comes. I started writing this post in November 2016 and am still trying to finish it almost a year later. I guess because the saying goodbye part is so difficult.

Growing up, my ouma was very much like a friend, and not just a grandmother. We could talk to her about almost anything and I fondly remember the times we would joke around and sit up late at night telling stories, while she helped my sister sew matric farewell dresses. We were always able to be ourselves around her, and she accepted and loved us regardless. I can still picture her pretending to be a horse so that Liya could ride on her back as they played in our backyard. I recall her love for my husband as their relationship grew over 7 years during which he fetched her and took her home after visits (his work was situated near her house). I can still smell and taste the ginger biscuits she baked every December and I can hear her comments about the cricket matches, which she loved watching.

I remember at my baby shower June 2016, I could sense she was not quite her usual self. It was in July that my mother said we should visit her and after arriving, quickly realized she was not well. She had fainted prior to the visit and the fall had caused a bruised face, and her hands were shaking terribly, coupled with a bad cough. I was highly pregnant and loved asking her about her own pregnancy stories. She told me all about her experiences after my probing as I started to prepare for my delivery approaching. My grandmother only had her three children when she was older and the doctor told her that her age might have played a role in her difficult deliveries. She could not have natural birth as she could not dilate enough. I remember that on that day she had a warm, loving expression on her face; it was shortly after that visit that she had to be hospitalized, which ended up being for 5 weeks.

On the 20th of August, she even spent her 89th birthday in hospital having dialysis. We all took treats, and balloons to the hospital and tried to enjoy them in the waiting room as everyone had their turn to go sit with her. The great grandchildren were too young to go inside and we made a video of them singing happy birthday to play for her. I had secretly hoped that Mila-Rose would be born on her birthday, but my grandmother still joked to say that my baby wanted her own special birth date. That day my mother asked the nurses to sing ‘Tula’ for my grandmother, as apparently it had been one of her favourites. She hated being in hospital and she hated dialysis even more. When she was discharged we all thought that she would be fine and get better, and even started discussing Christmas plans. Unfortunately, that was not to be. We lost her on the 4th of October 2016.

My grandmother was an incredibly strong woman. She lost her husband when he was just in his 50’s and had to raise their young son alone as a result. My mother and aunt had already left the house at the time as they were quite older than him. In the process her and my uncle formed a bond that was unbreakable, it was just the two of them. My grandmother would never look for love again, she had lost her one true love, and she mourned his death for years to come.

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It was the 27th of December 2007 when my uncle passed away, very unexpectedly. It was a traumatic night for all who were there, and we went down to Durban as soon as we received the news.  My nieces were very young at the time and it was a complete shock to the family. My grandmother lost her only son, and it was a loss she would grieve until the end of her days. When we went through her things after her passing we found diaries that she had written, it was evident that she loved to write. She would write about her feelings, life events, her faith, and her loved ones. She had written in one of the diaries that every month on the 27th she would ache at the loss of her son, wishing she had been taken instead of him. She mentioned that without my uncle she would not have been able to cope with her husband’s passing which was one of the worst experiences in her life. She wrote of how she drew closer to God through that difficult time. Today I know that she is reunited with both her husband and son in heaven, where there is no pain or suffering but endless joy.

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After her discharge from hospital she stayed with my aunt with the idea that it would be until she was strong and healthy enough to go back home. She was very independent, had many friends and was involved in many charity initiatives back in Germiston, where she lived. She was always eager to go back home. I will never forget that Sunday morning being told by my mom to come see her at my aunt’s house before my mom would take her back home. They knew that she was too sick to make it and she wanted to be at peace in her own house. We all went to my aunt’s house to see her for the last time and say our goodbyes.

When I arrived there she said “hello sussie” and kissed me. At one point I recall Liya walking past and she just smiled at her with so much love and warmth. But by that time she could no longer speak, stand or walk properly and she was in a wheelchair. We took some photos of her with her grandchildren and great grandchildren so that we could have those memories forever of our final goodbye. I asked her if she wanted to be in the sun, to which she nodded, she always loved to sit in the warmth of the sun. Just before they put her in my mom’s car I gave her one more hug, a tight, long hug. I knew that would be the very last hug. For the rest of the day I could not stop crying and grieving in expectation of her loss. I started feeling anxious already anticipating receipt of the news that she had passed on. The Monday I cried for most of the day uncontrollably as updates from my mom indicated rapid deterioration in her blood pressure and pulse. I kept thinking about all the wonderful memories I had of her and the amazing woman that she was. It was early Tuesday morning that we received word that she had passed on, my mom had been with her at the time.

I remember a few years ago when my mom first told me that my grandmother’s one kidney was not functioning optimally, I immediately thought that I should give her one of mine. She had drastically reduced the amount of liquids that she took in since then, as not to overwork her kidney. My grandmother had undergone a procedure where they removed one kidney at age 80; 9 years later the remaining kidney would give in. From the time she fell ill it was exactly 3 months until her passing. Up until that point she was full of energy, vivacious, and constantly busy doing something.

Her story is quite a remarkable one. Her own birth mother passed away from complications of childbirth when she was only 12 days old, and she could fit in a shoebox. Her grandmother did not think that she would make it. Her aunt, being her mother’s sister, stepped in to marry my grandmother’s father to raise the three children like they were her own. They later had two of their own children, which made a total of five children to raise.

I so enjoyed reading her diary, to feel close to her again. In this particular journal she recalls hiding without telling anyone where she was and while they would be looking for her, she would go sit in the pig pen with the piglets on her lap. She also recalls going with her older sister, Johanna, and her friends to go swim, but the older girls would hold the little ones heads under the water when they wanted to learn to swim and this traumatized her. She tells of looking for little pieces of porcelain and old glass bottles at her grandmother’s house. How she was very close to her brother, Koos, who would carry her on his back for miles when he would go gather the cows.

She had fond memories of her own grandmother who was soft natured and she recalls having never heard her raise her voice. Her mother bought her a bible as soon as she could read and she grew up in a Christian home where she was raised to pray. They prayed at the dinner table as a family, and would sing a hymn after dinner, and before bedtime they would pray again. In her page she wrote that she felt that she had failed to do that with her own children. My mom, after the passing of my granny, wrote on that same page that it wasn’t true, they had a great example and she still remembers how she saw her kneel in front of her bed to pray.

She recalls on her first day of school in grade 1 she introduced herself as Marietjie van der Merwe, because half of the kids in the class were van der Merwe (and at her young age probably assumed that was the right surname to use in her introduction). She used to love her mother’s melkkos, an Afrikaans dish that she taught me how to make and I grew up with my mother making it. It is a dish with milk and cinnamon enjoyed as the main meal especially on cold days. My husband cannot understand how a main meal can be sweet, which we always joke about.

My grandmother stayed on their farm for a while after finishing school and then worked at a post office. Later she worked for the OK doing bookkeeping and moved to Edgars head office thereafter. She worked until she had my mother. After the passing of my grandfather she worked for many, many years. I have had strong women as role models and am very proud of that.

She recalls a day in August 1963 when her father and mother were visiting them and all of a sudden he could not walk, they took him to the nearest hospital (Rose Acres) where they referred him to HF Verwoerd in Pretoria and thereafter to a hospital in Klerksdorp, where he passed away 3 months later. I found it curious that my own grandmother’s story has the exact same timeline, 3 months from falling ill to passing on.

Although there are so many pages from her journal left to read, which I will have the privilege to read to my daughters as they grow up, these are just snippets of the memories. But these little trinkets of stories bring me closer to her. All I can say is that I am fortunate enough to have had her in my life and to have her strength and spirit running through my veins.IMG_2276Oumie, ons is nog so vreeslik lief vir ouma. Ek kan nie wag om vir ouma weer eendag in die hemel te sien nie, dan gaan ek vir ouma die grootste druk gee.

 

 

And then there were four

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Let me give you a picture of my life right now… toys scattered on the couch, blocks lying on the floor, milk bottles standing on the counters, fights over the television remote, pots and pans on the stove, uneaten food in lunch boxes, need I go on? Despite all of that, there is nothing more beautiful than when the four of us are together. For instance when my husband and my eldest daughter sing to the baby to make her laugh, while I’m desperately trying to capture it on camera.

 

My husband, Delin, wanted a second child for some time. With Liya approaching four, he really wanted her to have a sibling. He has two siblings and I have three, and we always wanted that friendship for Liya. I just did not feel ready; Liya was independent and we had a good thing going. However, I was soon to be convinced when Liya started telling teachers at school that I was having a baby and she was going to have a baby brother. Being asked by teachers whether I was pregnant made me realize that Liya wanted a sibling. (As if it wasn’t sign enough when she followed other families with children around the beach on a holiday in Balito.) In addition, the contraceptive that I was taking began having negative side effects and by September 2015 I told my husband that I was ready to try for another child. Little did we know that just two months later I would be pregnant. I found out after I consulted a doctor due to having fallen ill early December. I announced the news to Delin in a little gift parcel that I made and asked Liya to give to him, but at that stage we did not yet tell Liya.

 

The pregnancy was as easy as my first. The morning sickness was completely bearable and it was over before I even knew it. With each stage of the pregnancy I was reminded of the miracle growing inside of me. I was blessed to be experiencing all the little signs because it meant that my little baby was budding. Once we told Liya the news, she was beyond excited and could not stop asking us when we were going to fetch her baby sister from the hospital; try explaining to a four year old that it takes 9 months.

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At about 36 weeks into my pregnancy I decided to try for a VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarean). I did not want to choose her birthdate, I wanted her to arrive when she was ready. I started going for maternity reflexology in preparation after discussing the new birth plan with my midwife. Even though my first daughter was delivered by caesarean section, my membrane had ruptured at just after 38 weeks, I assumed the timing would be more or less the same… but no! I was over 40 weeks pregnant and still wondering when my little angel would make her grand appearance. I spent a lot of time with my youngest brother while my husband was at work during the last few weeks leading up to my delivery with the plan that he would rush me to the hospital when my water broker.

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It was approaching 41 weeks of pregnancy and Monday night, the 22nd of August 2016, I had menstruation like cramps every 10 minutes that lasted a few seconds at a time. In the middle of the night I asked my husband to take me to the hospital as I thought I was in labour. After being examined and monitored I was told that it was false labour and could go back home. The following day, being the Tuesday, I went to see my midwife and she told me that I was not in active labour and that everything was looking good. The Wednesday morning I contacted her about the continued cramps and she said she would swing past the house to examine me. She came by but said that I was not in active labour. That night the cramps became intense and I started monitoring them; with every cramp I jumped out of bed and leaned against my bedroom wall for some relief, but it brought none. By early hours of Thursday morning they were unbearable (little did I know it was going to get a lot worse) and I woke my husband up to take me back to the hospital. I told him that I would contact the midwife and tell her that if this was still not active labour I wanted a cesarean. Once again we were told I was not yet in active labour, argh! I was exhausted by this time, after having had very little sleep over the past few nights. They contacted the midwife and she instructed them to admit me for monitoring, if nothing happened by that afternoon I would be scheduled for a caesarean section that same day.

 

My mom joined us at the hospital and I spent most of the day walking around the hospital and bouncing on a Pilate’s ball (which I never want to see again). By late afternoon the midwife said that she spoke to the gynecologist and they wanted to give me a fair chance for a successful VBAC so they would continue monitoring me throughout the night and someone would make the call Friday morning. That evening my mom left and the midwife spent the night at the hospital to monitor me; she was truly amazing. The contractions got awfully intense, completely excruciating actually, and I honestly felt like I could have died from the pain. At the peak of the contraction it would shoot through my entire body, it was piercing. My husband slept on a chair, I could hardly sleep at all. By morning I was 5 or 6 cm dilated and the midwife made the call, it would have to be caesarean section for me. She explained that it could take another day and the risk of a rupture was getting too high, due to my previous cesarean. I was hugely disappointed but also utterly exhausted. I wanted to collapse into my husband’s arms and cry, but I was honestly too tired to even do that. The thought of having to endure the agony of contractions any further just to have a cesarean section anyway was devastating.

 

After taking a warm bath, they prepared me for theatre and I tried to remain as calm as possible. There was a gentleman next to me waiting to go in for a procedure and he looked at me and said to his wife “is that what pregnant women look like before going into theatre?” I giggled to myself, I did feel a bit silly smiling when I was all by myself, but smiling was a coping mechanism. We went into theatre and my contractions continued, I even had one right before the epidural. It was at the point when the anesthetist said I needed to kick the light above me, as a test that the epidural worked successfully, that I started to freak out. I couldn’t move my legs and it made me feel uncomfortable (I didn’t feel that way with my first caesarean). I calmly told the doctors around me that I was getting anxious (fearing a panic attack). My husband held my hand tight and kissed me. The anesthetist starting asking me questions and talking to me and before I knew it I was fine and had been well distracted.

 

The gently lifted my head so that I could see the gynecologist take my daughter out. My first thought was that she looked just like her sister. My husband said she looked just like me. There she was, Mila-Rose, the one I had been excited and eager to meet. They placed her on my chest for skin-to-skin and she stopped crying, the same beautiful experience I had had with my first daughter. That instant bond. I noticed that the doctors took longer to close me up this time and heard the gynecologist say “this uterus is exhausted”. Later the midwife told me that the 4 days of contractions leading up to the birth really drained my body. The nurses went crazy for my little princess, wanting to hold her and saying she was the most beautiful baby. My husband kissed my forehead and told me that he was proud of me. In recovery I began to shake rather uncontrollably, but they assured me that it was normal following the epidural and tried to keep me was warm as possible. The shakes soon went away, and the drugs kicked in.

 

During the hospital stay I was treated like royalty and it felt like I was in a 5 star hotel. I was adamant that I wanted Mila to stay in the room with me at all times and that I was going to breast feed exclusively. It was the most beautiful three days together. I did not realize that my milk supply would only come in after three days of birth and had her drinking on me for over an hour that first night; I was extremely proud of myself and wanted to brag to the nurses the next day. However, I woke up in pain and needed lazar on my nipples, which was the start of my fascinating breastfeeding journey. The mornings with her were my favourite, I would play classical music on my phone and held her tight in my arms; completely in love.

 

I found it ironic that I went into hospital with labour pains and left with cesarean pains, but it was all worth it. All the people from the hospital were delightful and made the experience so wonderful. Reality was soon to hit, as once I got home I was all on my own, and since we already had a 4 year old in the house, it was sure to be interesting. I was still in a lot of pain and my movement was restricted, I couldn’t do things as fast as I wanted to. After a few days I felt disheartened about my body post pregnancy, the healing process of my cesarean section, and had ‘cabin fever’. Those feelings did subside and it is important to realize that they are normal, it is okay to feel like that sometimes. I needed to pick myself up. In the beginning Mila had two wake ups which were around 22:00 and 2:00, which quickly turned into only one wake up that is between 3:00 and 5:00; so I am truly blessed.

 

Although it is very difficult with two children, we try our best (remembering that there are no perfect parents). At times Liya feels left out so it is important for us to give her enough attention, we make an effort to have dates with her where we take her for a movie or to a fun child friendly restaurant. The funniest thing was discovering that Mila has a special cry just for her big sister, which is when Liya is too rough with her. In all fairness Liya is very good with her most of the time, but can act out when she feels that we are not giving her enough attention. We give her little tasks to help with which we call “Big Sister jobs” to make her feel needed and part of the process. I know there are mothers who stress about their capability of loving more than one child, but I can honestly say that your heart is big enough for two. I am so crazy about my girls.

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There are hard days and easy days, ugly days and beautiful days but it’s all part of the wonderful journey of parenthood. I have tried to remain in the moment as much as possible, to enjoy everything. It truly goes by so quickly and I don’t want to miss anything. I have realized that as mothers, we each have our own journey and we try to do our very best, it is important to be accepting of that.

Mom, you are enough!

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“92% of moms agree that there is no tougher job than being a mom. The other 8% are rocket scientists and coal miners.”

Sometimes it feels like I love Liya so much that it cannot be contained and I could literally explode. I regularly give her big kisses and tight hugs to show my affection; I love to breath her in. I pray for her safety and well-being every single day when I drop her off at school and every single evening when I kiss her good night. I want to keep her protected and want her spared from any pain. Don’t get me wrong, as adorable as she is (and she is truly the cutest), she has mastered the art of tantrums and manipulation to get her way, just like most toddlers. And I, in no way, claim to have it all together.

There are hard days where one or both of us end up in tears or screaming at the other over what she is going to wear for the day, her not wanting me to brush her hair, or her not getting the toy or sweet she wants when we are in a shop. There have been mornings where I was so hard on her that I spent the entire trip to work wishing I could go back to fetch her from school to make up for it, or just redo the morning all together (if time travel were possible). But being a mother is not about being perfect, because there is no such thing as a perfect mother.

So we have now learnt that Liya needs to be put to bed by 19:30 latest 20:00 in order for her not to be tired and grumpy the next morning; clothes need to be chosen (in consultation with her) the night before to avoid fights in the morning; and I need to wake up earlier as to give Liya more of my time to get her ready. However, even this strategy is not always fireproof.

I have come to realise that I need to be truly in the moment and enjoy the little moments with her. Reminding myself that my phone, social media, and work can wait and should not take away my focus from her, and this is harder said than done at times. For me it is about baking cupcakes together, dancing and singing along to her favourite songs, watching the same Disney movies over and over and over, having her help out in the kitchen, making a big deal about her artwork, and seeing her ride her bicycle in the yard.

The media portrays images and perceptions of the perfect mother and everyone wants you to have it all together all of the time. You should be the perfect baker, cook healthy meals every night, your house should be spotless, your children well behaved at all times, you may never have any me-time away from your children, and blah blah blah. Guess what? If you love your child whole heartedly and do your very best, then that is enough.

I am no less of a mother because I work full time, sometimes get take away food instead of cooking after a long hard day at work, sometimes find (and then leave) my entire living room floor covered in puzzles and Barbie’s, or I take me-time every now and then to recharge. The truth is that sometimes it’s so hard to juggle all of your roles, and you really are merely surviving the day. But that’s ok, you are enough.

I am a working mom, my family is very important to me but I have the added pressures and stresses of my job requirements. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job. I was raised by a strong female figure, a mother who worked and was very independent; I want my daughter to be raised with the same principles. I pack lunches every night, get her clothes out the night before, in the morning I get her ready for school and then drop her off, pick her up from school in the afternoon and then help her with things like show-and-tell while cooking dinner for the family. I have a strong partner who helps with things like bathing her at night and getting her into pj’s (among many other things) and we take turns reading to her for bedtime. There are some nights, not often, that I’m up until 23:00 or 00:00 in front of my laptop trying to finish important work so that it does not take any family time, just time from sleeping; and I am enough.

The best thing you can do is to be real, and honest. If you need help then you need to be able to tell your sister, mother, best friends, or partner. Putting up a facade that all is well when it’s not, will be to your detriment. You need to take care of yourself in order for you to take care of your children. We need to start lifting each other up and helping one another, no judgements.

So remember to put that phone down the next time they want to show you something silly, your status update can wait; enjoy all of the little things; be truly in the moment; and don’t be too hard on yourself or compare yourself to the image of a perfect mother that the world wants you to conform to. Your children do not want you to be perfect, they just want you to love them and give them your full attention.

Mom, you are enough!

“There is no way to be a perfect mother, but a million ways to be a good one.”

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