Budapest’s Ruin Bars and Nightlife

It all began with Szimpla.  It is quiet by the day but as night falls and gets deeper into the midnight hour, this place is all jam packed.  Long lines and security marshals shepherd the scores of people who want get a taste of the Pest night scene.  Szimpla was the first of the ruin bars in the Jewish Quarter.  The Jewish quarter, I was told, went through a renewal over the last few years.  What was once the center of Jewish life in Budapest until World War II, faded away like many things in the 20th century.  Despite the fact that the Jewish community was restricted and confined outside the old city wall, here in Budapest, compared to other places in Europe, the Hungarian Jews were much more integrated into the Hungarian society.  The architecture of the old Synagogue that stands nearby combined several elements from other cultures.  After the WW2 the quarter was decimated and ended up in ruins.  Yes, literally.  Some of the old houses still stand with Jewish symbols, but they clearly speak of an era that has seen better days.  Needless to say the Jewish history of this place is quite complicated.  The German Nazis were never here, so the atrocities and evacuation came mainly from Hungarian anti-Semites.  The history was no less brutal and the mass exterminations were quick and extensive.

Enough of this morbid backdrop.  Fast forward to Szimpla.  It started a new concept of converting the ruined buildings into bars. The bar itself has got thousands of antiques and artifacts from broken TVs, cars, mirrors – you name it. All blended to exude beauty, art, and expression of revival; of making something nice out of a dilapidated and derelict past. My guide and friend Zsuzsa walked me through Szimpla’s journey in brief while I kept sipping Fröccs, a spitzer made from wine and soda, that Zsuzsa treated me to.  She said, “Szimpla started as an underground experiment but then it caught on and others followed.”  Now ruin bars are set feature in the Jewish Quarter –  the area bordering Erzsébet krt. to Kazinczy utca.  As this area revived and gentrified again in the 21st century, sure enough we witness an influx of the Jewish community as well – mostly centered around the two prominent synagogues.  I had lunch at the Spinoza Cafe during my stay.  The cafe manager was an emigre from Israel and the owner from Holland.  What brought them back is a question I did not ask, but it was clear that they brought some character.  They had interest in classical music and the walls are all decorated with interesting art and memorabilia.  It was interesting to learn that the ruin bars are now under spotlight with the new right wing in power in Hungary.  Revelry and partying is not everyone’s cup of tea, but in Budapest this right-wing opposition is viewed more as a nuisance than meaningful position.  The underground movement has become mainstream.  But the cat and mouse with the authority is on.

What is behind the success of the ruin bars or the nightlife in general here in Budapest?  And nightlife is serious.  It goes on till sunrise on Saturday and Sunday mornings.  The biggest factor I noticed was that this bar/night scene is scripted not just with party-going tourists. In fact these places come to life with the locals.  The vibe, the color, the conversations are as local as much as they were touristy. But always more local than touristy, I would say. This is where the people hang out – local artists, young professionals, and even some middle aged people. During my stay if there is one place where I came again and again, in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening, as well as late night, it was this little strip within the quarter.  Each bar one is so different and the level of thought that has gone into converting junk into art is indeed remarkable.  One such place was the large building, Doboz, opposite Barack & Szilva with a huge courtyard with a large tree jutting out in the middle.  It is as if the tree is growing out of the building.  The facade outside the building is still dilapidated but has vibrant lighting that electrifies the street.  There was another with a giant screen displaying silent movie footages of 1950s/60s Paris (or maybe Budapest) and other cities to eclectic music.  Reminded me of the visual media exhibits from MOMA in New York.  Another bar was built on the grounds of the old electrical engineering museum.  I am not kidding. Indeed an Electrical Engineering Museum. Old circuit breakers, transformers and motors are all over and tons of Neon lights that are lighted once or twice a year. Sadly, it was not one of those lucky days for me. I was told they can’t afford the electricity bill to keep it lighted everyday. 

The concept of using junk and antiques to decorate is not just limited to the ruin bars. There were a couple of cafes that were all decked up with antiques – from communist era artifacts to defunct vacuum tube TVs, radios, and old phones.  In a way it made me feel an antique myself – as I saw my past unfold before me.  I would recall our first TV in the 70s and then the graduation to color TVs in the late 80s, VCRs and my grandfather’s tube radio that took an entire table.  These were gadgets that I grew up with and now they are all displayed as antiques.  I was introduced to an antique camera store near the synagogue.  The store was filled with Soviet era cameras – Zenit and FED and the East German Praktika.  I was tempted to build a collection – but then I don’t collect when I won’t use much. So it was better to get a glance and let it be. 

As I picked up the pieces through my past and present, I felt there was an overarching theme that consumed me in Budapest.  From my conversations, I learned there is a growing recognition of what sustainable growth is. The de-growth conference, which was under preparation during my visit was meant to question the very premise of growth – and the cost thereof.  As I write, the conference is over – and I wonder how that was. Did we question how much materials and resources we truly need? Do we view growth through very narrow limits and myopic vision? If we expand then are we bound to get a different if not opposite answer?

The concept of converting ruins or even old building into hip fun places is not new.  It has caught on and people told me Berlin would be another place to check out.  Over the years – I remember Tate Modern and the local Baltimore restaurant built on old power plants site. There are places that are stripped down and other built on top of the past.  In their own ways, people conduct renewal in their own ways. In Budapest – while renewal is at a grand scale and ruin bars are a unique expression.  Whenever my next visit – I will be curious what I see they become. Will they be in ruins? Or will they be also going through their cycle of wash-rinse-repeat.

 

The Home Look – DC

I have said this many times to many people.  I often struggle photographing in the Washington DC area.  I don find it to have the same vibrancy as New York or London, the color of India or Istanbul, or the character of Mexico city. Indeed, there are cities and places in the world that exposes itself as instant photography  As Woody Allen overused saying – one has to just show up and that will take care of 80% of success. DC not so! Not inspiring.  After all how many pictures of monuments can one take. Museum goers are interesting but to stalk them painstakingly for that one awesome picture is not easy either. It is not uncommon to draw people’s eyes and ire. And then there is the common issue, it is hard to detach from my place of work and family obligations to get into a certain way of seeing things around.  It is so much in the mind, and the mind is always occupied with something else.  So after overwhelming myself with all sorts of reasons and resignations, I let my cameras gather dust.  They are still gathering dust – but once in a while I force myself to go for a round. Every good photographer will advise to do a little bit every day – after all, we are using a tool that needs some motor skills. It is also getting the mind and the eye see things in a certain way which (trust me) is a lot harder to get into after a complete break. Yet I did not follow any of that.  But in those rapid bursts of forcing myself to go out there – I get something – not extremely thrilled but not garbage either, although most of the shots are garbage. It is all digital – so who cares.

 

Mexico

My trip to Mexico city was long overdue. There are many reasons to visit Mexico apart from the obvious reason of being so close to the US. The food, the culture, the history are all major draws. But for some reason that did not happen until last December. Finally, it was in the last two years when I began to explore color photography that I got interested in Mexico. More specifically after talking to Alex Webb who mentioned that there is something about the color of light in those places that hits the stomach, I had my eyes and my planner set on Mexico.  Finally, muting all the voices that come up around security and other concerns – I made the trip.  Not knowing the language is a disadvantage.  Also being careful on where to tread is the smart thing to do in such places especially if you are working in the streets in an unknown place. I was lucky to find Alex Coghe who is an accomplished street photographer to provide a one-on-one photo experience.

For two days I worked with him going through the streets of Mexico city. Alex impressed me in various ways. As an Italian, he bears the feeling for light that is characteristic among Italian photographers – something that you can get when you see the work of Vittorio Storaro or Paolo Pellegrin.  You see in the films of Fellini.  So during the two days I was thrilled to get into the spaces where there was some play going on with light.  Alex mentioned he is deeply inspired by Daido Moriyama – not just the high contrast images of electric proportions but also when it come to the style of working.  He uses a compact camera to get close. He was using his Leica X2 where he could and a Ricoh compact camera in more intimidating places – very similar to Moriyama’s style of using a compact to shoot in Shinjuku area of Tokyo.  Shooting is fast, pre-visualization is the key to composition.

Alex is a very kind person and his friendly nature made my experience quite fruitful – not to mention the two restaurants he took me.  Here he writes about the experience and the photos posted from the food excursion.  The other aspect of Alex’s photography was his interest in blending urban elements into the pictures, which I found very intriguing.  Urban elements blended with how people go about doing their daily business bring out the modernity of life in a city. This is in the core of why I love cities and what I try to capture in the street expressions. Modernity is in a way how the new combines with the old. Decay and decadence not in just the structures and the visuals but also in the psyche and beliefs – largely all man made.  But at the same time the underlying spirit to survive and thrive and prosper – indulge in arts and culture, work, raise children, and find happiness amidst all odds.  A modern city also defines neighborhoods in their own way – with its own flavor, color, and sounds, which I saw from – Colonia Roma to Zona Rosa to Polanco.  Things changed exuding their own distinct character.  In short, an anarchy, an organized chaos of contradictions. In that sense Mexico city held its ground and made it a fascinating place to go around.

I cannot write about Mexico city without mentioning street food.  Cocinita Pibil in its fullest expression with the bone or in a Tamale was my favorite. So was the Taco Villemelon which had pork, pig skin, etc.  With Pulque, it is a just a greasy, tasty escapade – without which your Mexico city vacation is incomplete.  After food comes the need for music.  My last night was at the Sheraton Maria Isabel. Their night club Bar Jorango was quite entertaining.  The two Mariachi bands – a bunch of guys singing popular number numbers in Spanish that I did not understand and then a bunch of middle aged women playing a rock version of Mariachi as well. Overall, a nice excursion to feast all my senses.

One of my photography teachers at ICP – Joe Rodriguez advised me not to mix photography with family travel. I have been fortunate that I am able to take these trips as pure exploration of my photography.  Relaxing and fulfilling.

 

London and Dublin

Taking photos in London has always been challenging to me. London deserves special attention. And like New York there is so much to do in the city that if photography is clubbed with anything else, there is no way one can do justice to anything. In the end I am left with an unfilled desire and then the pictures don’t speak much. I have been to London many times, and yet not been able to take enough pictures. Hardly anything. It is hard to capture on the go. There is this rich history that is alive in those iconic sites. There is this huge body of splendid architecture from the old and absolutely stunning modern situated side by side – the Inns of Court along with modern architecture. There are streets and buildings that bear the names from the classical English texts – Dickens and Conan Doyle. There is cricket and the hallowed halls of Lords. The tube, Foyles. There are people of all kinds – interesting characters – and just too much happening to keep focus and attention. Time is always short and whether you get enough of the museums or lager and lime – well – it is just way too much. I wish I am able to live in London for a length period of time to take some pictures – some day maybe. The easiest way to get a quick overview is to take a walking tour, which is what I did.

The city stirs up my familiar colonial psyche that has always looked upon the mother country and its capital as the hallowed destination. Wrapped in the fables passed on my grandfather and the exemplary standards set by the British, there is a sense awe that permeates even before I get there. With a sense of reluctant but deep appreciation, I feel I owe this land for the language and everything that has allowed me to walk about in the international arena and also filled in with the curiosity of this once all-powerful country of the planet. This quest to find all of these – to discover – comes in direct conflict of taking pictures. For London is not Paris. London is vibrant, noisy, in many ways a filthy city that is on the move. The old charm is not really so much distinct like in Paris. Much of the city had to put a modern veneer during Olympics. There is no romance that I could find on the surface. It is not like The Kinks singing Waterloo Sunset. The London cabs are decked with advertisements these days. St. James and Picaddily look like Times Square. There is not much of a difference I see between cities these days as a matter of fact. On the surface yes, but then in the next layer – there is nothing much. Even the street acts were the same elsewhere – the woman plastered with silver paint feigning to be a statue – the parkours and street rappers – hard to tell whether they were from East London or from Bronx. But I am sure, beneath this layer there is a huge difference – and to discover that will give a lot of delight – but I have not been able to get it. The quest remains. Overall – a nice family union – meeting cousins, uncles, and aunts — just the right way to shift to the next leg in Dublin.

Dublin was mostly all indoors with an occasional walk to Grafton street. To me if you love literature, this is the city for you. The literary walking tour was the highlight where two actors banter and enact scenes from different iconic books – from Waiting for Godot to Joyce. Joyce permeates through and through – mainly because he has immortalized Dublin as a city. Several tours through the city – even a luncheon at the The winding stairs – a bookstore and a restaurant was quite interesting. Apart from that – a lot of Guinness. Strolling in Temple Bar. The visit to Trinity college was interesting – especially, the Book of Kells. Missed going to other parts of the country. Maybe next time.

Istanbul

New Years in Istanbul is an experience of a kind. One group of the population does not care about it – the other parties. My 10 days in Istanbul in late December/January 2012-13 was a fascinating experience – I have heard about the inherent confluence of cultures, times, and geography – all draped in layers of history. Yes these are the cliches that we all hear – but to experience it is another thing. And then to allow it to soak and sink in completely is of overwhelming proportions. It is a different world. In the last several weeks the places I so languidly strolled around – sipping on Ayran and Doner Kebabs have been razed with disturbance. Politics put aside – this is unfortunate. I hope immensely – things will become normal soon.

Reminiscing New York City

It has been almost 8 months since I moved back to DC. I spent quite some time last year shooting in New York during my brief stay from April to December. Here is a sample of that body of work…

Farmers Market


There is a certain charm and specialty about the farmers market. It speaks not just about the produce but also the shoppers. It is not just about buying something, it is why you are buying too. It is about supporting your local farmers and buying local produce. You can call it is trendy but to many it is getting produce almost from an extension of your garden. There is more to buying vegetables here; you come to engage in a conversation, and if you come too often you may form a relationship. And within this relationship you try to conduct the transaction. There is an air of connectedness, a sudden deceleration into a make-belief pastoral times… and for some shoppers, the basket has to exemplify the whole experience.

Fire in Greenwich Village

In New York, a surprise is often awaiting just around the corner. Walking up Broadway in Greenwich village from Houston St on my way to Union Square, I notice a speck of dark clouds over the Grace church. It can’t be rain clouds, I thought, and soon the noise of fire trucks made things clear. I rushed to the place of action where fire broke out in a restaurant in the first floor when a boiler exhaust in the 5th floor exploded. According to a cook who witnessed the fire explained it to me. “I heard a boom and flames gushed into the kitchen.” NYPD was in action quickly. Over 2 hours of battle with smoke and fire ensued. The Chief giving directions. Water hoses, hydrants, axes, etc were all in use. More than 10 trucks were present in the scene. Neighbors were obviously anxious, while passers by were capturing the action in their iPhone.  No one was hurt or even close to any form of injury as far as I could tell. Overall a New York moment for me. Some drama, some action. Glad I was able to make some pictures.