In October, my current job comes to a close and I will begin a post-doc in a brand-new research group in Budapest, Hungary. I had the opportunity to visit Budapest while in Europe for a conference at the beginning of June, and got to visit the so-new-there’s-no-equipment-yet lab. I also got a chance to form some first impressions of the city.
It would be kind of an overstatement to say I fell in love with Budapest, but I did become very fond of it and am really looking forward to moving. For starters, my first day there was very rainy and unpleasant (extremely unusual in June, everyone assured me), and the following days, which were sunnier, I was too busy with giving a talk and meeting with people to spend much time exploring. So my first impressions of the city were really formed by the terrifying breakneck cab rides to and from the airport, and from a few hours spent walking around without a guidebook. My first night there I stayed with two of the current post-docs, who live in the XIIIth kerület (district), and before the rain got really bad, we walked down past Parliament to Vörösmarty Ter (square) for a book fair, then across the Lánchíd (Chain Bridge) to the Buda Castle in order to take a look at the lab, which is down the hill from the Castle District. The second night I stayed in the Castle District, so I spent a great deal of time walking up and down hills. Buda is quite hilly, completely different from the flatness of Chicago, where I currently live, or even the flatness of Pest, and the Castle District is very picturesque, again completely different in character from much of the rest of the city. It feels very much, as my hosts pointed out, like a city within a city, and as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and probably the most touristy part of Budapest, it has very little in common with the way people actually live there. I think I probably preferred the experiences that gave me a better idea of what my life will soon be like, like walking around their neighborhood and visiting a local restaurant. Budapest is very unlike any of the major cities I’ve spent any significant amount time in – Chicago, Taipei, Boston, Montreal, London, New York and Philadelphia – probably by virtue of its being in a post-Communist country and newly part of the EU. While there are a great number of beautiful fin de siecle buildings in Budapest, there are just as many, if not more, depressing concrete blocks, and my future supervisors took great delight in pointing out to me all the bullet holes riddling the sides of the older houses. My general impression was of a country that’s sinking into disrepair, with few to no resources to throw at niceties like fixing damage caused by pollution or rebuilding broken-down edifices. The current financial situation in the country seems to have brought the general mood down (and resulted in a few riots, though I hope those are in the past), and from what I’ve read it seems that it’s a long shot to hope that Hungary’s economy will be Euro-worthy by 2010. On the plus side, my salary will be pegged to the Euro, and it seems like living, even with inflation, is still ridiculously inexpensive compared to London, New York, and even Chicago (especially for rents!) and my long-standing fondness for Hungarian food (developed when I dated a Hungarian about a decade ago) will finally be sated on a regular, inexpensive basis. and of course, the drinking. I’m looking forward to a good group of social people, which I think the new lab will be.
and if I may be permitted a little bit of gushing about my new lab – I can hardly believe my good fortune at landing this job. Aside from the obvious coolness of getting to spend a year (maybe more, if there’s funding) doing research abroad, I can’t get over how unbelievably smart and cool all the people I will be working for are. I felt outclassed just over casual dinner conversation when everyone started talking about their Science and Nature publications (which are especially difficult to get in my field, which is still trying to distinguish itself from the “soft sciences”). I’m hoping that this experience will help me jump-start up my own research program, which has been somewhat languishing during my current post-doc, and in a worst case scenario, I’ll get to spend a year unproductively working with some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. The new lab, when it’s finally put together, will be state of the art – there will be lots of fancy equipment to learn how to use, and we will have access to many different populations, including, if we get the new faculty member we are shooting for, zoo animals. Because of the obvious language barrier, I’m likely to be limited as to the kinds of studies I can do, but I hope this limitation will make me more creative, and in any case the lab has several full-time staff members who will be able to help me with basic things like speaking to subjects. Oh, and the lab space is in one of the craziest-looking buildings I’ve ever seen. I imagine that if I keep this up, this will also be a photo blog of sorts, so perhaps there will be pictures eventually. The picture in the header is one I took on top of the Castle hill, of the Chain Bridge and St Istvan’s Basilica.