Matt Hollingsworth's Blog

This is the blog for Matt Hollingsworth. I'm from Ojai, California. I've worked in comics for 22 years as a color artist.

This blog will largely be used to show my daily life as I live in Samobor, Croatia and as I travel around the region. Lots and lots of photos! Leave me a comment, will you?

All content on this blog is copyright 2013 Matthew Dale Hollingsworth and cannot be copied or used for any purpose without my consent.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Blizzard in Hungary

Two news stories about the blizzard we were stuck in in Hungary last Thursday night:


BBC News

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Zagreb to Budpest, the blizzard of 2013.

 The entire harrowing story of our attempt to attend a homebrew competition in Budapest in March of 2013.

Spring is coming! Spring is coming!

Or so we thought a week or so ago. Warm weather had finally arrived. The snow which had been persistently hanging around had finally melted. But then, a few days before we were to set out for a homebrew competition in Budapest, I checked the weather. “Heavy snow” it said. It seems in retrospect that both words were accurate.

We had been invited some time ago to attend a homebrew competition in Budapest. My friend Andrej and I are the organizers for our homebrew competition in Croatia, so we wanted to attend. And we gathered some entries from our local comrades as well so we would enter some beers and see how they organized their show, also helping them judge. We would learn from their show and see what works well and what doesn't work quite as well.

The competition was to be on March 15th, a Friday. This is a bank holiday in Hungary, but the competition calls itself an international competition, so we gave them some shit for choosing a date when most of us foreigners would have to work. That said, we managed to get some time off of work and left around 4PM on Wednesday. There was some snow falling in Croatia. We figured we'd add 30 to 45 minutes to our trip, that we'd simply have to drive slower. Surely their highway would be clear.

This is the route that we would normally drive.

Zagreb to Budapest

And here's something close to what we actually ended up doing before we turned around and headed home after 18 hours of attempting to get to Budapest.

Our drive.

Initially, our spirits were high. In addition to myself and Andrej, our friend Miro joined us. I picked him up first, then Andrej. We were happy to be going to this show. Figured we'd sample some tasty beers and sort of grow our network of central European homebrewers. We booked an apartment in Budapest with space for four. We would deliver our beers to the competition first, then check into the hotel, then go meet those guys for dinner and some beers at a Czech restaurant. We set out around 4PM from Zagreb.

There was some snow, but the highway was pretty good. We managed a decent pace. Arriving at the border, the license plate and headlights were coated with ice, which I was instructed to clean off. The customs people looked in the back of the car and saw our containers with maybe 55 or so beers, which is well over the amount allowed. We explained we were going to a competition and they were fine with it and just waved us through. Great! I had worried about that and had armed myself ahead of time with an invitation letter in Hungarian from the show's organizer. Figured if they were trouble, I'd whip that out and try to talk my way through. But it was okay, we got through.

When you're driving in Croatia headed to Hungary, you reach an area where the land starts to look more like Hungary. More flat, less hilly. Once we had reached that area, the wind started picking up. Once inside Hungary, it picked up a bit more. But the roads weren't really bad. The highway seemed okay, not so crazy. We drove a lot slower, around 80 to 100 kmph or something, where the speed limit is 130. I told the guys I would only drive as fast as it was safe to drive and they were cool with it.

Shortly after we crossed the border, on the side of the highway on a road that was leading onto the highway, we saw a huge line of trucks, all stopped. As we drove past it, we saw the line extended onto the highway. The trucks were only in the right lane, though, so we kept driving, slower now. We wondered what was going on and talked amongst ourselves. We figured they must not be allowed to travel in such weather and would have to wait it out. We drove a bit further and then saw that, uh oh, the traffic was stopped. There was a massive line of cars and trucks as far as the eye could see. We saw cars turning around and driving the wrong way on the highway to escape the mess. We pulled over and waited for ten or fifteen minutes and talked about what we should do. Must be an accident, we thought. We saw a truck driver outside and Andrej jumped out to talk to him to see what was up. He told us there was a bad accident ahead and that it would be a minimum of 3 to 4 hours before the mess was cleaned up.

Oh fuck. We talked about it a bit and decided to try to take the old road, which runs alongside the highway. Driving would be a bit slower but certainly nothing that would add 3 or 4 hours to our trip. So, we turned the car around and drove the wrong direction on the highway as we had seen the other people doing. We drove off to the side, with blinkers on and I flashed my high beams. There weren't many cars and it wasn't as dangerous as it may sound as everyone was driving very slow by this point. We drove all the way back to an exit, maybe 5 minutes driving, then exited the highway and found our way to the old road. We drove a bit slower than on the highway, but we were on our way and we'd get there. Or so we thought.

After maybe 10 km, we saw that we were headed to a large hill. This in a country not known for its hills. There was a cop at the bottom, stopping people, and flashing lights on the hill. And here's where the language barrier first became annoying. Hungarian people often don't know English. And on this trip I think we encountered only one who knew English. The best that we could understand from the cop was that the road was closed, well that much was clear, and that we could turn left, north, to take a detour that would eventually take us to another highway. Okay, we did that. Other cars were doing that, so we simply followed them.

That road became the bane of our existence. That little road we turned off on was the only non numbered road we drove on during this trip and it was a mess. Snow was building up. And the wind was howling and blowing like crazy. We made slow progress, but we kept at it. We were now headed north, but needed to go east. We had GPS and looked at that and could see that we could go north a little bit, then take a right and head east on a road numbered 75, which would lead us back to the highway. We figured we could get past the accident on the highway, then get back on the highway. But we had to make it to 75 first. And the further we got on that little road, the worse it was. The worst of it was the wind. It was snowing, but the vast majority of the snow assailing us was coming from the wind blowing it around, blowing it off of trees and the ground and onto our car and into our path. This is like driving in fog. You can't see. High beams make it worse as the light just reflects off of the snow. We often couldn't see AT ALL and had to stop the car entirely and wait a few seconds or a few minutes, then proceed on at a snail's pace. Just gotta get to 75, just gotta get to 75.

The pace was excruciatingly slow. We were crawling. Finally, we reached 75. And it was closed. There was a sign blocking it. Okay, now what? We talked about it. Did we want to turn back? No. We didn't. We figured it would just take us much, much longer to get there, but we didn't want to give up. All three of us were determined. We called the organizer and told him what was up and he said we should stay in touch. Worse case scenario, they could accept our beers up until 8AM the next day.

Looking at the GPS, we decided to go further north and try to reach the next numbered road, 76, which also ran to the east and could get us back to the highway, likely past the accident. When we finally reached it, 76 was also closed. We were now on a little larger road, numbered 74, headed north. In this little town where it crossed 76 was a gas station, so we stopped, as did many of the other cars that were traveling a similar path. In the gas station, we spent some time trying to communicate with the people who worked there, asking for travel advice. So did a lot of other people. The place was a little packed as we tried to figure out what to do. The locals were instructing us to go back the way we came and go back to the highway and all of us were telling them the highway was closed, but they weren't understanding us. They were just saying to head back to the highway.

By this time, it was getting a bit late. I can't recall the time, but let's say it was 9:00PM or something. So, what I've written thus far had taken 5 hours already. We were getting very hungry, but they had no sandwiches, only packets of snacks. We bought some of those and continued on. I ate pretzels and stayed hydrated. We had plenty of water in the car.

Looking at the GPS in the car and also on Andrej's smartphone, we decided to head even further north. There was another numbered road, 8, that went all the way to Budapest. We would try that and if it was closed, we would likely finally give up and head home. It took quite some time to get to 8, which wasn't very far. We just had to drive so slow that everything was taking forever. We were usually driving 20 to 40 kmph. Slow going. And this entire time that we spent heading north, which was hours, we weren't actually getting closer to Budapest. It's to the east.

Finally, we reached 8 and it wasn't closed, so we decided to try it. It wasn't so clear, but we gave it a go. There was a gas station there where we found some sandwiches, so we finally had some dinner. Still very slow driving on 8, though. Less cars now. We weren't seeing many cars anymore. This was worrisome. But we kept on and slowly progressed, finally moving towards Budapest. We were traveling at a snail's pace, but at this point, we started to just figure we might have to drive all night and take the beers to the organizer in the morning without sleeping.

The wind was crazy. Constant and strong, blowing snow into our vision and into the road. We were having to stop entirely when we couldn't see. I could see that the road was straight on the GPS, but I wasn't risking anything. No driving when we couldn't see. We'd stop. Then go very slowly as visibility increased. Finally, we came upon a car that had driven off the road. He wasn't entirely sideways, the car hadn't turn over, but he was off the bank at an angle and wasn't going anywhere. Not that we could do anything useful except maybe take him with us, but we stopped and Andrej and Miro jumped out to check on him. They tried to communicate with him, but he just laughed at them, obviously driven mad by the snow. We passed more cars that had driven off the road at various points in our trip. We saw jack knifed trucks. We saw trucks crashed off the road, turned on their sides with the cabin gone, presumably having been rescued. We saw cars driven into ditches. Many people crashed their cars that night. Hopefully none of them were hurt.

We passed many sections of the road that had more snow in them, from the wind. These were usually just a little stretch that you could push through with a clearing just after, just a little section where a strip of wind had pushed some snow into the road. The road was already covered with snow, but these sections were covered with larger amounts of snow. We pushed through them, and kept going until finally, around 11:30PM, we got stuck in one. This is after 7.5 hours of driving. We were really stuck. The wheels spun. The car would NOT move. We tried digging around the car with our feet. Andrej and Miro tried pushing while I tried to get the car moving. We tried forward, then backward, feathering the clutch. No go. The tires simply could not get traction. We had winter tires, but it was no good. We needed chains. We had no shovel. Miro had no hat and long hair. As soon as you stepped out of the car, the wind would plaster you with snow and make you wet. His hair got wet and he had areas of his hair that froze solid, little crunchy strands.

Some locals in a van came up behind us and tried to help. There was a small line of cars behind us. They had a shovel and helped dig a bit. No luck. Finally, they hooked a tether onto our car and got the car free. We got to the side of the road and out of the way, in an area where we weren't stuck, and watched. These guys had two vans, one larger than the other. The littler one continued on and tried to break through on the road, to no avail. We watched for maybe a half hour as they tried, failed and turned back. We talked to them and it seemed that all of the cars were stuck. There were these two vans and maybe another half dozen cars stuck further back. Nobody was moving.

We decided to sleep. We were helpless at this point. There were no houses around, nobody to ask for help. And these guys were locals, so if there was anybody to be called, they'd do it. And we figured there were enough cars stuck, that eventually a snow plow would come. So, we slept on and off. I couldn't really sleep at all. I would let the engine rest for 15 minutes or so, then start it back up when the car got too cold inside. We'd heat the car for 30 minutes or something, then repeat. Andrej and Miro slept. Miro snored. Andrej grunted in his sleep, almost sleep talking. But they certainly didn't get any real sleep that night either. A hundred times worse than sleeping on an airplane. We were all wet from the snow and would get cold when I rested the engine, so it mostly had to be on for the heat. The wind howled constantly, rocking the car and making enough noise that we wouldn't have been able to hear a car or truck approaching. We were there another 2 hours before the plow came. We were stuck there for 4 hours total. The plow cleared the snow around us and we drove on, along with the other cars.

We were elated. We drove at a very slow pace again. The wind was still blowing like crazy but we managed to slightly increase our speed. We were talking about making it to the show when suddenly I went into another little section of snow. This one was much smaller than the last one, but we got stuck again. I hadn't seen it in time to miss it and we became stuck. My second driving fuck up of the night. The car was relatively clear on all sides, but we were sitting on a little snow bank. I thought we would be able to clear it this time, but it was not to be. We put in a lot of work clearing all of the snow we could, but to no avail. We cleared the snow all around the wheels, but the bottom of the car was literally sitting on top of this snow like it was a table holding the car. The wheels would just spin no matter what we did.

While we were trying to clear the car, we watched as all of the other cars continued on. We got stuck in that second snow bank about a half hour after having been freed from the last one, so around 4AM. By that time we had been in the car for 12 hours.

We were all angry. This trip was filled with emotions. We would feel scared and sort of hopeless and worried when we were driving through the heavy winds and having to stop entirely over and over and over because we could not see past the nose of the car. We would feel relief, happiness and release when we were freed from being stuck in the snow. And at the moment, we felt angry and bitter for having gotten stuck a second time just after having felt so happy that we might actually make it to the show.

We worked on trying to clear the car for maybe an hour, fueled by the dark side of the force and anger before we just gave up. We had some help from a guy with a shovel for a period, but they also gave up eventually. We decided to sleep a bit. It was around 5AM and we thought that morning would come soon and with it, light. People would slowly start waking up and we'd ask for help. We were near houses now and would bother the locals. So, we slept on and off. Same as before, I was not actually asleep this entire time. I dipped into near sleep but never got into any real sleep. I think it was the same for the others.

Morning arrived, and with it, light. Cars started to drive past a little more frequently. Nobody stopped to help us, but then they didn't have a real reason to. Some people were stopped by the side of the road just to sleep or wait out the storm and we could have just been one of those. We were too tired and cold to feel like getting out every time someone passed to ask for help. We knew they likely couldn't do anything. They wouldn't have a shovel in their car. And even if they did, it wouldn't help. We couldn't clear the snow from directly under the car very easily. We couldn't stay outside in the snow for more than 5 minutes before we had to get back into the car to warm up. We would get covered with snow quickly from the wind and were constantly wet on various parts of our bodies. My feet and legs were always wet and cold. My torso, head and arms were fine. Around 6:30 or so, a car tried to pass just next to us and also became stuck. We tried to push him out while he drove, but his wheels spun, much like us. He was blocking the road, though, so as other cars approached, they tried to help him, even if it was only because he was in their way. Some people from the local houses started milling about. A nice girl from one of the nearby houses brought us some hot tea. We couldn't communicate with them, but tried. I finally had an idea. Miro and Andrej both had smartphones. I asked Miro to use Google translate to translate something into Hungarian to ask for help. He wrote a small bit asking if they could call a tractor to help pull us free. We were in a village area and figured there must be tractors around.

This worked, the girl who had given us tea understood as she read his phone's screen. She roughly communicated that they had already called one.

Finally, around 8AM, a tractor arrived and pulled both of us free. This was a massive tractor with some real torque. It pulled our car like it was a doll, easily freeing us from the snow. We had again been stuck for 4 hours. So, we'd been stuck twice for a total of 8 hours. We were now 16 hours into our trip to Budapest and we were still 175 km from Budapest. The beers had to be delivered by 8AM, so we simply didn't make it. We didn't give up until it was past the deadline. The trip was obsessed with numbers. Times and distances and temperatures. All of them frozen.

One of the local ladies indicated to us to follow her to a parking area. As our line of cars was doing this, Andrej saw a Croatian license plate and talked to those guys in that car. They said they had spent the night in a shelter nearby and that we should follow them back there, only 100m or so. We turned and followed them back the way we had come, but quickly arrived at a snow bank which the guy strangely accelerated into. This didn't even slightly resemble a snow bank you could drive through, so we were sort of baffled. He was stuck.

We turned around and headed back to the lady who had been showing us where to park and parked the car there. She talked to us totally in Hungarian with 1 or 2 Croatian and German words thrown in once in a while just to confuse things further. She pointed to a hotel that was there that we had been eying. She seemed to communicate that they had 3 rooms. Great! We began happily talking about getting a room, some sleep and a hot shower. We figured we might be stuck there for the day, but we'd have a little beer festival of our own with those beers we had with us and make the most of it and just enjoy not being in the car. Miro went and told the tractor driver about the other Croats getting stuck again so he could help, but he seemed annoyed and reluctant. Must suck to rescue people only to have them repeat the same shit that got them stuck in the first place. By this point is wasn't snowing anymore but it was still very windy and cold.

When we went to the hotel they said they didn't have any rooms. Furthermore, the electricity was out and the guy there was very unfriendly and simply wanted us to leave. We didn't want to leave. We wanted to sit and relax a bit outside of the car. The roads were not good and we didn't want to get stuck again. And we had been defeated and had given up. We just needed to sit and relax a bit. We didn't see any other options. What could we do? Drive again and get stuck yet again? We were in the middle of nowhere. This was a hotel. There wasn't anything else around unless we just started knocking on doors and begging for mercy. And the shelter the Croat told us about sounded worse and worse as it was discussed. Sounded like an unheated little room with nothing to do, no food, nothing.

The wife of the man at the hotel took pity on us and let us sit at a table there. She brought us some snack foods, but because they had no electricity, we couldn't buy a proper meal from them. The guy sold us some drinks and tolerated us being there. We were crushed. Defeated. They told us the road towards Budapest was blocked by a stuck bus and truck. Impassable. All other roads were similarly blocked except the road back the way we came. Our plan was to just sit there for a while. If we saw a plow pass going the right direction, we would follow it. But mostly we sat there and delayed having to make a decision on how to proceed. We were delirious.

We looked at some large maps on the wall. On the left was Italy. In the middle was Hungary. On the right was Romania. Strangely, Hungary connected directly with the sea and Italy. When I looked closer on the Hungary map, I could see in the lower left section “Jugoslavija”. It'd been cut out of the map. I think people in the Balkans are used to their maps being cut up by Hungarians and Austrians and everyone else.

After about an hour, we started to see plows going back and forth. But these were local plows on tractors. And they seemed to be only going back and forth in the immediate vicinity. So, we waited. We didn't want to get stuck again. We thought that perhaps a 1km stretch of road was cleared. We could drive 1 km, then reach another area that wasn't well cleared and get into trouble again.

Finally, around 10AM, we saw two plows pass going the correct direction to head back to Zagreb, back home. We had given up and decided to head home. We needed sleep and to be home, not to be at a beer festival, especially after my wife sent me a weather update saying more snow was expected. And the roads going anywhere except back to Zagreb were blocked or closed.

Those two plows went past. And after them, we saw a bus and bunch of cars and a truck. Presumably, these were the guys who had been stuck and they were following the plows. We decided to risk it and follow them.

The road in the immediate area was moderately well cleared. It had a layer of snow on it, but it was compacted snow and wasn't dangerous. We drove along at a decent clip, heading back the way we had come. As we got further from where we had been stuck, the roads became clearer and clearer. We were driving on roads where we could drive 80 or even 90 kmph, the fastest pace we had driven thus far on this trip.

When we got back to 74 to head north, we stopped at the gas station again to clean the car a bit. The car was filthy. The exterior surface was more than 50% covered with mud and dirt and ice. Every time we had opened the door, snow had blown in the car, along with the dirt in that snow. We had to roll the windows down to break off the ice and some ice chips with mud in them had fallen into the car. The inside was dirty, but we needed to be able to see better, so cleaning the windows a bit and chipping off ice was necessary. We saw a cop there, so asked him if the road we intended to take, the 74, was clear all the way to the highway. He said it was open, so that was enough for us and we continued on.

The wind kept up its constant dance, but it wasn't so bad now. It wasn't snowing and the snow that was on the ground was surprisingly sparse. Where had all the snow gone? Weird. There weren't piles on the sides of the roads from the plows. No hills of snow there. Never seen that before. Maybe the wind carried it all away. The fields had only a thin covering of snow. The trees were entirely clear, having had all of the snow blown off of them. The wind had been steadily coming from the north so maybe the snow was in Slavonia, the eastern part of Croatia. The arrival of light in the morning had revealed that maybe 30% of the snow consisted of dirt. As we drove along, I watched the snow on the sides of the road, sandblasted into everything. Dirt was everywhere mixed in with the snow. It looked like it was airbrushed onto the snow. In areas, there was enough dirt covering the snow that it started to look like sand and reminded me of sand dunes. These were sporadic snow dunes, though. Most of the landscape didn't have a helluva lot of snow. I joked that the wind had blown all of it off of the surrounding farmland and into the road the previous night.

The road got slightly worse as we neared the highway, but nothing even approaching how bad the road had been the night before. These little rough patches were better than the best road we'd had the night before. So, we made it to the highway and headed towards Zagreb. The highway was pretty well cleared, with some snowy patches that I would slow down for. We passed another jack knifed truck. On the opposite side of the highway, the traffic was stopped. We wondered if the highway going towards Budapest was worse and still not cleared. Likely. The Gods had not intended us to get to Budapest.

This entire time, I had been the one driving. Miro and Andrej were persistent in offering to drive, but I wanted to drive. I can get car sick when other people drive, depending on their driving. So, I had kept driving. For a long, long time. Finally, I asked Andrej if he could take over once I got us to Croatia and he agreed.

We reached the border. The Hungarian border guard came and asked for our passports and asked me, in Croatian, where we were coming from. I was relieved to hear Croatian and I quickly painted a rough picture of what had happened to us in just a few sentences in Croatian. He nodded and checked our passports and waved us on. When we got to the Croatian side of the border, we had sort of the same experience. Then Croatian customs talked to us. Normally, they ask you if you have anything to declare. And with a car with 3 guys and no girls and it being what we would call a station wagon in America, they would normally ask to see in the back of the car. The customs guy saw our car, completely covered in mud, dirt and ice and was sort of sadly amused. He asked how the car got that way and all three of us told him just a small portion of the hell that we had been through. He didn't bother asking us if we had anything to declare. He didn't open the back. He just waved us through.

We were back in our own country and we were relieved. We were jubilant. I pulled over once we got to the toll booth and let Andrej take over driving. And I bloody well slept for 45 minutes or so.

By the time we reached Zagreb, it was about 1:30PM. We had spent about 21 and a half hours on this trip. We had been in the car for the better part of 19 and a half of those hours and I had been driving or attempting to drive for all of that except this last hour or so at the end, the times when we were stuck and the time in the hotel.

So, what did I learn from this whole experience? Well, when they say it's going to snow in Hungary, don't treat it the same as snow in Croatia. Those flat lands generate heavy winds that should not be taken lightly. When the weather report says “heavy snow”, don't doubt it even if it is only 7 days until spring officially springs. The Hungarian people, as with most cultures around the world, can be a warm and welcoming people. They rescued us more than once. They brought us hot tea to our car. They were friendly. But I couldn't understand a damned word they said. Well, that's not true. I understood when they told me the road was kaput. I learned that Andrej and Miro are very strong; especially Andrej. He would stay out in the snow and cold trying to clear the car for much longer periods than we could. Andrej strong like bull! And Miro also worked crazy hard at trying to clear the car of snow and allow us to travel. They're both good guys. I know Andrej pretty well already and he's one of my closest friends in Croatia. And I knew his character already. But I hadn't seen that strength from him before we were so severely tested. And I didn't know Miro as well as I now do. And so I will take these as a good thing from this experience. We're closer than we were before the trip, and that's something at least.

And finally, don't hold a beer festival or competition of any kind in March.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Been a while! But here's the latest video of Liam. He's growing up fast. Learning English and Croatian, and evidently entirely making up his own language.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The latest videos of Baby Liam:

Monday, November 28, 2011

Recorded some new videos today. Liam's vocalizing a lot these days and we managed to capture some of that in these videos. He does certain things like this for a short period sometimes, so we have to make an effort to capture it on video before he stops doing it.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The latest series of pictures of baby Liam is now online, in the album linked below. Some good ones too! Enjoy!

October 15, 2011