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Interview with Etelka Parine Berecz

Etelka is a vivacious teacher from Hungary who leads many of Rick Steves' Best of Eastern Europe tours and St. Petersburg, Tallinn & Helsinki tours. Back when our Eastern European tour program was just beginning, our groups visited a Hungarian winery where no English was spoken. The vintner recruited Etelka, the local language teacher, to translate for our tour groups. Her enthusiasm and skill as a teacher made an immediate impression on us, and she quickly became part of our guide team.

You live in the small town of Tarnamera, an hour northeast of Budapest. Tell us a little about your life there.

I've been teaching for 30 years, and I now teach English and Russian to our local high-school students. I also organize after-school activities and special study tours (today I'm organizing a student trip to England). I visit my mum every week, and try to spend weekends with my children. I love to swim in the summer, and in winter go soaking in some of the hundreds of outdoor thermal baths we have around here.

I often invite friends to my home for a coffee or a lángos (fried dough) party. This weekend my Canadian friends are coming for a visit. They worked in our school two years ago as native English teachers and I'm going to cook Rob's favorite meal: chicken paprika with noodles.

What was daily life like in Hungary under communism? What changes have been the most significant?

I couldn't get married in the church because I was a teacher. I had to do it in secret. In fact, if I just wanted to attend a church service, I had to go to a town where nobody knew me.

Traveling was always a great excitement. We could always travel east, but passport control at the borders was a nightmare. A customs officer would make us wait for hours, for no apparent reason. Bribery was part of the system. I remember coming home from a ski trip in Slovakia, carrying about 10 pounds of trout. To bring any of it across the border, we had to give half to the officer as a "present."

To travel to the West was very difficult. Communist propaganda was designed to scare us off, telling us that terrible things could happen in the capitalist West — like we could be shot while just walking down the street.

To buy a new car, we had to apply for one and then wait for three years (and hope we would get a colorful one, not just white).

Nowadays, if you have money in Hungary, you can get whatever you want. But there is a negative side to becoming a consumptive society. People who can get everything in a short time forget about how it feels to be longing for it. Everybody has a second job, so families have less time for each other. I do miss those evenings from my childhood when we had time to sing together and do things with our neighbors.

You currently guide two different eastern-European itineraries for Rick Steves. Can you tell us how these tours are different?

The St. Petersburg, Tallinn & Helsinki tours focus on three wonderful cities that have been overlooked for decades. We use the ferry and train to go from one country to another, which is a great experience.

On the Best of Eastern Europe tours, we have our own bus for the entire time. We visit great cities, but we also have plenty of occasions to mix with people from rural areas. In the Betskidy Mountains of the Czech Republic, we dance with the locals. In Hungary, we share a toast with a wine maker who learned all about his craft from his grandfather. Because of my work, I especially enjoy taking our groups to a village school to talk with the kids and their teacher.

Rick Steves' newest tour in the region is Prague & Budapest. What makes this pairing work for travelers?

They both straddle great rivers — Prague on the Vltava and Budapest on the Danube — but that is where the similarities end.

Prague is a charming, historical city. You can't help but fall in love with it at first sight. The best sights are all within walking distance, which makes Prague an especially enjoyable place. Each time I leave, I can't wait to go back again.

Budapest — my beloved capital — is a truly cosmopolitan major city. Most of our tour members don't expect that. Because it is so large and has so much to discover, the more often people return to Budapest, the more they enjoy it.

Because these cities are so very different, Rick's Prague & Budapest tour offers a lot more variety than a week spent in a single city.

Hungary is one of the few countries that has its own well-known wines and cuisine. What makes it special?

One of the things that sets our cooking apart is how we use plenty of spices and paprika. We also don't cook in a hurry. The best gulyásleves (goulash soup) cannot be rushed. Tradition is a big part of Hungarian meals, too. Because of the importance of our poppy-seed strudel, Hungary is the only country in the EU where growing poppy seeds is allowed. Every family has a homemade poppy-seed roll on the table at Christmas time.

Wine is also a dinner tradition. We like to share a drink with friends while the food cooks and again with the meal itself. We have 22 wine regions in Hungary, producing wonderful white and red wines. The climate, the soil, and the winemakers' love and knowledge gets passed on from generation to generation. We like to say, "Life is too short to drink bad wine."

Here's what Etelka won't tell you…but her tour members will:

"I have been lucky in my past tours with Rick Steves to have exceptional guides, and Etelka continued that with this tour. She made it clear from the start that she wanted us to have the best time ever and she did everything in her power to make that happen. You could just casually mention something that you were interested in and by the time you needed it, she would have all the information about where it was and how to get there. She allowed us to tag along with her on extra walks, places to eat, the baths in Budapest, shared her family and family stories with us, introduced us to friends and new foods — and never once looked like she wasn't having as much fun as we were. I hope someday to be able to do the St. Petersburg tour with her."

Leslie in Colville, WA

"Etelka was fantastic. She went above and beyond the call of duty time and time again. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and her personal stories added another dimension to the tour. A good guide, like a good teacher, is worth their weight in gold. Etelka is a 24-karat teacher and guide. We were lucky to have her. (And so are you.)"

— Michael in Rutland, VT