Buenos Aires

If there is any other city that I “felt” closest to being in the Calcutta that I grew up – it would be Buenos Aires. A city that is ornate with past glory and grandeur but is a bit lost in today’s world. A city that symbolized modernity in its outlook, character and dereliction long before the rest of the world thought we were living in the modern age. I usually try reading about the place before I visit, usually some fiction. But this sudden trip did not give me much of a chance. I tried reading Borges once but it was a bit to digest his convoluted plots and storyline. So perhaps this time around, I will understand the literature better after visiting the place.

Buenos Aires is a walking city. The streets are full of action. It is filled with beautiful women and even men know how to dress well. Their is a certain classiness among people despite mass poverty and 40% inflation; where cash is still king, as credits cards are not accepted everywhere and ATMs are often drained out. There is a vibrant cafe culture, book stores in almost every block (and you can find a Sartre, Camus, Marx, Kant in a newspaper kiosk) and although I don’t understand Spanish, the limited exchanges I had with strangers were warm, welcoming, and refreshing. While walking in one of the side streets – I curiously asked a group of men what they were drinking.  It was Mate.  They poured me and said, “try it.” It was awkward to drink from the same cup (Mate), but they explained thats how it is.  You pour water into the leaves and then have to drink the entire pour, and then you pass it on to someone, who then gets a fresh pour. It is communal and social. For a moment I got a Zen-like shiver of human connectedness with a group of policemen (yes that group were plain dress off-duty policemen, which I only later found out). But you never know who you end up with, is what brings me out wandering in streets and by-lanes. Like my visits to Calcutta that ground me, people in Buenos Aires come across as enlightened, worldly and intellectual without a long tail of degrees or a wallet full of money. These values go beyond monetary pretension and indeed, there were times and places that exemplify that.

There is a joke about Argentines – more specifically, the Portenos, literally meaning the “Port People”, but a term used for the people of Buenos Aires by others. That they are originally Italians, who speak Spanish, but dress like the English and wish they were French. I think there might be some truth to that. I was told that every visitor needs to do three things – eat steak, dance Tango, and buy leather. I was able to do all three – thanks to some good suggestions offered by my local contact – Chim. Chim who is a Canadian and an alum of Drama Centre London, which has produced people like Colin Firth and many contemporary stalwarts. He left doing Shakespeare and now is a artisan shoemaker in Buenos Aires. He personally took me to the Recoleta cemetery, which I went with some reluctance. This place has a stature similar to the cemeteries in Paris. It was a fascinating experience as he explained the mix of faiths, especially the Masons, Judaism and Christianity as well as paganism. We had a long discussion on Eva Peron, the rise of today’s populism and even the current Pope. I left with more questions than answers.

It was an eyeopener to visit Pope Francis’ original church. Speaking to some of those who know him well, interestingly enough, I got an explanation of his openness, that I had heard but never knew why. “The credit goes to the previous arch Bishop, who mentored him as a Christ purist,” they said. The basic doctrine of love thy neighbor, tolerance and forgiveness. They showed me a set of pictures and newspapers cuttings of the Jewish center bombings in the 90s and the role the church played in solidarity with the Jews that would otherwise be unthinkable for the Catholics. There is also a painting of Madonna – where Mary is depicted as an ordinary “woman”, which is also unusual – as historic Catholic paintings mostly depicted women either as virgins or prostitutes. But hardly as ordinary women with needs, desires, and aspirations, interacting with the world.

I met Jerry and Lucia, a very nice couple; Jerry is Irish and Lucia is local, who are Tango teachers in the San Telmo area. They took me to a Milonga. It was a trip down the memory lane – with a room full of locals dancing and having a good time. The demographic was similar to going to a rock concert these days, heavily skewed to 55 and above; but a stolid reminder of a time when men behaved like gentlemen. In fact, there was this ~80 year old Toto, a legendary Tango dancer of the 70s, who still dances in an almost defunct style, which was designed to protect the woman from getting hurt from the accidental kicks from others in the dance floor. Communication between the man and the woman happens through the eyes. You glance at the woman and if she gives you a friendly glance back; you go and have a dance with her; if not, you “Tango on”. As they say, there are no mistakes in Tango and poetry. You just flow.

Jerry suggested that I should go to a particular Parilla (Argentine steakhouse), so I went. It was a no-frills place, except that in the lore you hear the long list of celebrities that they have served – from the Obamas to the Hollywood stars. Waiters are elderly and old-school and they act as advisers as much as servers. Customer is not the king here. There was an young American couple who were given a paternal reprimand for ordering too much. The waiter cut their order down by saying, “you can’t eat that much…just because you can (order) does not mean you should”

Cities like Buenos Aires make me feel alive. Make me a part of something larger. At will I can become a participant or just a bystander, like my last evening, after buying a pair of shoes –  I spent in the Davidoff lounge – sipping shots of espresso and watching people through the window. I felt like Baudelaire’sFlaneur“. And just as I came to appreciate Baudelaire through Buddhadeb Bosu, I felt closeness to Buenos Aires through my primal attachment of Calcutta.

Valparaiso and Santiago

In Ode to ValparaisoPablo Neruda writes about Valparaiso’s perennial chaos and ugliness, that stood through time and the thousands of ships that passed by for centuries. This port city with small colorful houses lining up the hills – looks as disorderly today as it has been for ages.  After the opening of the Panama canal in early 20th century – Valparaiso as a port, slipped away in its stature, and as the customary halt for ships going from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  But as Neruda says, the colorful houses and street art and a few functioning fulniculars remind us of the heydays gone by.  Charles Darwin in his diaries note several insects linked to this city during his voyage in the Beagle, which ultimately influenced his Origin of Species.  Today, the Chilean Naval HQ and the constant flow of students – ensure its perpetual relevance and youth.  I stopped by Valapariso on my way back from a visit to a power plant nearby.  Yes, I am fortunate to visit such places in a “day’s work”.  In the few hours I had – I tried to soak in this place as much as I possibly could.  As a former gateway to the south and to the new world, the port is still vibrant with lines of dock equipment and ships hemming the shoreline.

In this maiden visit to Latin America, I was politely corrected early on – that I should not use America as the byword for the US.  Deep rooted nationalistic sentiment is pervasive and people here, and rightfully so, will remind those not mindful enough, that “they” in the southern hemisphere are Americans too.  And indeed, there is character, culture, and diversity that is worth giving its dues.  It is more than just their shared love for life and football. Here in Chile it is of course – Colo colo vs. Universidad de Chile ( the club has nothing to do with the Uni any more) that runs the football fever and occupies people’s mindshare.  Santiago, compared to Valparaiso may lack in character – or perhaps the modern urban plague has hit hard to unify and harmonize the look and feel, such that parts of the manicured Las Condes and Providencia, resemble Polanco in Mexico City or even Gurgaon in India – gated communities and large multi apartment complexes punctuated by lovely villas.  Chile (and it shows in Santiago), is a developed and economically progressive place compared to most of Latam. The Chicago boys had a hand in it to set it up in the 70s, and even today the business community is very bullish about this place. It is a controversial topic no doubt but that’s a topic for another day.

The old city with its fish and vegetable markets still retain the dirt, smell, and the feel of the developing world – of chaos but also of freshness, where everything is still organic, and markets are synonymous to conversations and meeting platforms. The old city also has a plaza or a city square built in European style filled with locals, hawkers, and chess players.  The square is surrounded by a worn down old church and commercial buildings, such as the old stock exchange that are remnants from the Spanish colonial times. Many of these are being brought down to make way for new shopping malls and other outfits. Progress has its own ways to plough through history.

In my travels to such foreign lands, food is a big part of my exploration. Through food, I believe one can tell quite a bit about a society.  It was obvious, rather quickly, that there was nothing unique about traditional Chilean cuisine.  The ceviche is ubiquitous but it is mostly made in Peruvian style. Chile’s relations with its neighbors, Peru, Argentina and Bolivia have been strained in the past, and this is not just political — people are sentimental about it, although the more educated and worldly, express it with a grain of self-deprecating wit. But Chile unlike many other countries is not stuck in the past but is constantly re-inventing itself.  People do not mind being called a copycat of the US as long as it is symbolic of moving forward in prosperity.  Such pragmatism is noteworthy. With its market-based economy, it is in much better position compared to the once developed Argentina, or the corruption laden Brazil.  I know I digressed. So, finally, desperate to find local Chilean food, I ended up in Borago, which is rated in the world’s top 50 restaurants. (Not to rub it – but I guess Peru has three restaurants in the top 50). Chef Rodolfo Gunzman is creative and tried his best to bring indigenous ingredients – mostly local Chilean items that grew in the rocks to prepare several exotic courses bringing out flavors that are quite distinctive. Pictures are below:

In the recent years, Chilean wine has become quite popular. After France, Italy, and Spain, Chile ranks fourth in global exports. The topography with mountains along the coast and another range running along the Argentine border creates a microclimate that supports the reds of Maipu and the whites of Casablanca valley. I took the wine tasting tour as part of the standard city tour but it was deeply underwhelming compared to those in France, Tuscany or even the commercial Napa. But if one can get a private tour to a place like Concha y Toro, it can well be a very memorable experience.

In large cities, I try my best to go off the mainstream, to find the sub-cultures that reside in parallel worlds. I was happy to connect with a photographer who does freelance for BBC these days and was connected once to our common ground – the ICP in New York.  We went to some of parts of the rough Bohemian area, which has a bursting street art scene. Lots of paid commission along with the usual tagging and graffiti.

It was interesting to find that there are quite a few British expats here, including my photographer friend. Some say that it is the sea that brought them; others believe that given the animosity between Chile and Argentina – the Falklands dispute resulted in some friendly overtures. Clouts against a common enemy.  I ran into a small group of English expats – in Wonderland cafe in the Belavista area. Most of them worked for the BBC South American news service and knew my photographer friend. They were dressed in tropical coats and Panama hats, with tanned faces coated with days of sweat – an image out of the Raj brought to life.  Life for foreign correspondents is a feast or famine business and it was obvious that they were enjoying now, given that the wildfires that consumed the news have gone for a while. It is now time for afternoon tea in a languid, lazy Sunday — filled with hearty laughs with your lady friends.

My stay, in contrast, was a rather busy workweek, looking for a couple of days over the weekend to sneak out to Buenos Aires. It turned out to be very different city from Santiago. Will write about that soon. Meanwhile – here are the pictures from Santiago and Valparaiso.

Berlin – The Wild Side

The video of two members of the Berlinkidz gang slinging from a rope tied to the roof of a high rise building in Berlin has gone viral since it came out. In the twilight, when the lights of the Berlin sprawl create a mystical haze – these guys take just a few minutes to scribble a few characters that resemble an obscure South American ancient script.  We can see them standing up on the roof of a speeding U-Bahn – with arms stretched, crying the sound of victory, after spraying their mark on the trains.  Vandalism or art? That is the question.  Beating the sight of building owners, tenants, and the law enforcement, these kids would go to the extreme of danger to leave their “mark”.  Ego, adrenaline and the sheer excitement of the wild are the main factors driving them. This is a glimpse of the wild side of Berlin – the world that gets exposed to the mainstream through tagging, graffiti, and street art, and these days social media and youtube videos. For many this is considered as “breaking the law”, and a mere destruction of public space. But street artists would argue – that – so are the advertisements and the thousands of billboards across the city landscape. What is visual pollution and what is not – is a topic for another day.  But this side of Berlin has much to offer – raw and uncut. A pure expression of the human spirit.

Admittedly, this wild underground life of Berlin has toned down quite a bit in the last couple of years after a run of more than 20 years, since the Wall came down. So when the wall came down in 1990s, a large section of the central city area called Mitte opened up. During the Iron Curtain era, this was largely abandoned and fell in the no-man’s land within the eastern section. Being so close to the border with West Berlin – no one really developed it. So it was not surprising to find garbage and rubbish from WWII still remaining there. Broken jeeps, aircrafts, shells – not to mention the ruins from the war that were left intact. (Check out this book) . So people started making stuff out of it. Given that there was not much out there – the people who came to this area were mostly freaks and misfits. There was already the Kreuzberg area in the West that was thronged by those who wanted a safe haven to dodge the German military service (yes Berliners had an exception). A combination of all these factors gave rise to a subculture that brought out the “other” side. Cheap living supported by major gentrification push from the government, brought in people from everywhere – mostly artists who took to the streets as their theater. Today, many of them have gone to major commercial success. The Banksy effect is pervasive and Berlin has its fair share of commercially successful artists. Many street “purists” however, do not like them; and are not pleased with these commercial developments and would prefer to keep doing streets from the underground, away from material mainstream success, in stealth and incognito. Such folks breed anarchy at heart. And I admire them.

Now personally speaking, ensconced in the mainstream, this subculture was outside my radar until a few years back when a friend of mine in New York introduced me to Parkour and street art in the Bronx and Yorktown area. I will get into the connection between the two later but like second hand cigarette smoke I was still a bit removed from what really went on. Walking around Berlin with a former member of the 1Up gang was an eyeopener. My first lesson was to understand the distinction between tagging, graffiti and street art. Graffiti is an outline with fillings of color – almost always done to make a personal statement. It is meant for other gangs or groups – usually a statement of ego and vanity. As simple as – “mine is bigger than yours”. Tagging is a basic form of graffiti – mainly to demarcate territory. There is a hierarchy within the gangs that ought to be respected. 1Up was one of these gangs that has an elevated stature in Berlin that others rarely crossed. Tagging and graffiti also serve to contextualize the place. There are folks who keep tagging over and over again. Someone cleans it up just to get tagged again. Tags are also a mark of protest – one such was all over Mitte to make a statement against the commercialization of the area. Mitte today is so trendy and expensive that it is driving the poor artists away.  It has become a hip neighborhood now with art galleries and trendy coffee shops.

Street art, however has a very different purpose. It is mostly for the viewers consumption. I was told that the newer breed of artists that are coming in are treating the street as just a window into their virtual world of social media. So they use the street to just get noticed and then conversation on art and commercial terms continue via social media. This is driving some of the old school graffiti/sprayers to other locales as a path to commercial success. I am told opportunities are opening up in other places in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. I did see that in Budapest last year and in Chile and Buenos Aires earlier this year.

I walked around marveling at the details and learning the stories behind them.  Stories on the refugees migration, their ironical detention in the Tempelhof airport (which was used for the Berlin airlift), deceit, human rights, heartbreaks…they are all there. I was struck with the variety of materials that are used. The staple is the paint can. Usually a beginner starts with chrome and black paint learning to do outlines. They have to be clean, proportionate and obviously, have to be done quickly. It takes several months of watching, practicing outlines, and forms before they can give a test and join the group as an artist. Once they join, then go up the hierarchy. There are rules, and gangs have their own set of highly rigorous governance mechanisms. A group like 1Up! has about 100 members – with a large percentage of girls. (Approach them at your own peril; gangs are very protective of their girls, and there is no tolerance for sexism). Many artists use stencils. Multi-layered stencils are used directly when the artists want to keep the artwork for long. Others can do more complex work on stencils in the studio and paste the paper onto the wall. Of course, these wither, crumble and fade away sooner. The only thing apart from the materials that ensure longevity of the art work is the respect for the artist itself. The notion of transience and impermanence is central to the artist’s psyche. Whats pretty today will not be there tomorrow. Either will get overwritten or just gone and forgotten.

The most fascinating material I saw was the use of the fire extinguisher. It came to Berlin from the streets of Paris. Fire extinguishers are easily available – one just need to break and grab it from a public place. Fill it half with paint and the other with some medium – then pressurize it with compressed air at a gas station – and you are good to go. It holds a lot of paint – so one does not need to carry a ton of paint cans. There is a strict protocol not to leave any material behind at the site so with the extinguisher it helps keeping your paint gear light. It takes a lot of practice to master the use with the nozzle though, but it is very effective. Without mastery bad things can happen. Notice the scribble near the famous astronaut – it is one such disaster. Although the guy who blew it was quite senior, he was not experienced in the nozzle control. Following the rules of the gang – he was apparently demoted and had to suffer a reprimand course of training before he was allowed back.

The recent trend is to combine parkour and graffiti art. Sadly, but not surprisingly, it has resulted in many casualties and fatalities especially when trying to do the epitome of all public places – the trains. It is the ultimate thrill of action art. I always associated action art with someone like Jackson Pollock  but this is of course of a different league. No absinthe or LSD involved. Quite the contrary – the Berlinkidz don’t touch alcohol, dont smoke, or do drugs.  They are on a strict diet and exercise. Despite their dedication, the Berlinkidz are believed that they would either get hurt or end up in prison. Pushing the human boundaries to the limits of danger – both physical danger and danger from the authorities to make that personal statement is of course not everyone’s thing. One artist told me, “the street is a very humbling place. You need to learn the hard way and then get erased soon. We do not come from art schools, but we learn and express through this rough cruel way.” I found this to be quite a paradox. But then as with many things in life – I am too small to pass a judgment. I can see both sides to this quite vividly. It can be pursuit of an ego trip in a humbling way. The truth to me is to be able carry forward and bear these contradictions – co-existing with each other.

I learn a great deal from such excursions. Not the least of which is that beyond the apparent two dimensional view of what I see there is a third or even more dimensions that is not visible but it is there. At a minimum there is always a “story” behind these art pieces, which is not available to everyone. I am grateful that, even in a very limited way, I could get behind the visible and learn about some of these stories.

Note: Here is a collection of pictures – mostly taken with my iPhone and a few with my Leica M9.

Budapest – My Intro

How does it feel when you land on a new place?  A foreign land.  What gets evoked? And when you leave, what do you take away? How different is it? Pondering on these questions, revisiting them, looking at old pictures — are all useful ways to live and internalize these trips and sojourns. With lives so consumed by the pressures of livelihood, and the changes enforced, it is easy to forget a vacation like a fleeting dream. Yes it happened but it did not make any difference.

I visited Budapest recently.  Eastern Europe has longed intrigued me. It has always been an enigma.  Behind the iron curtain, Eastern Europe was truly foreign.  Indeed, growing up, I hardly knew anyone from that area or one who ever been to that area.  Not surprisingly, it felt exotic in a rustic manner.  Every few years or so they would perform in Olympics or the World Cup usually putting together a very strong performance. They always gave an impression that they had the ability to punch above their waist. Once the cold war was over, the gradual exposition was equally intriguing. There was an aristocracy once with splendid buildings, that got smothered under the cloud of communism.  Really? Along with the communist drab, there was a history of art and architecture.  Hungary, particularly is such a marvel.  In many ways it is not like any other communist country; it had a lighter touch from the communists and enjoyed (if I may say) broader autonomy and discretion that some of its surrounding neighbors.  So what was it like.  What was it under the Austro-Hungarian rule and what happened during the communists and what is it today.

My interest in Hungary started with my early days of stamp collection, I had pages (yes pages) of stamps from Hungary.  My inheritance from my maternal uncle was partly responsible but then the other part was collected as gifts from friends and family over many birthdays.  Clearly Magyar Posta had posted a mark in my memory.  Then there was football or soccer as it is known here.  The football that mattered in Hungary dates back to the 50s and 60s.  I heard the folklore from my grandfather and father on Puscas and the big deal when they defeated England.  Today, it was quite interesting to see that victory plastered on a giant wall in a parking lot in Budapest. Where can one find an event such immortalized that is over half a century old. It happens if there is a poverty of achievements or if it was truly a defining moment. It was clearly the latter that reinforced the Magyar identify after the brutal war as the nation was picking up its pieces.

Well, my trip to Budapest was thus filled with anticipation and lots of speculation.  I was eager to get there.  The evening I was flying, there were attacks in Munich, but thankfully my connection was through Frankfurt, which was not that bad.  In fact I was moved to an earlier flight and arrived an hour before my scheduled arrival in Budapest.  The landmass of Hungary is connected to the European mainland so it is not that alien – yet as the plane was landing it was strikingly different.  The houses were much smaller and more austere in the countryside. The green pastures were plentiful.  Large open spaces.  And clearly there was no modern look as one would see landing over Frankfurt, Schipol, or Munich.  The airport is small but modern. It was filled with people and some very pretty models getting ready for the Formula 1 next day.    While I was not able to go much into the countryside, the short 25-30 mile ride to Hungaroring for the Formula 1 race on the Sunday (August 31) gave me a glimpse what a suburb and the sub-suburban looked like and by stretch of imagination – what a rural setting would be.

There are some major developments that took place in the last 20 years in Budapest.  Just after the end of the cold war, as I was told, the capitalists came in and there were a slew of quick investments.  In many cases they messed up with the architecture.   The lure of quick lucre is enticing.  Clearly the Marriott hotel where I stayed most of my days in Budapest qualifies as one.  Standing on the Danube on the Pest side, it is an absolute abomination compared to the beautiful buildings that line across the river bank.  Just cross over the Chain Bridge, another marvel built in the late 19th century by Szechenyi and you will get that loud and clear.  As my local guide and friend Zsusha pointed out – even the modern Sofitel hotel somehow was able to blend, but not the Marriott.

Looking into the city, one can’t stay away from the architecture.  It is everywhere.  The last day after several days of exploring and feeling the city and its people, the ruin bars and the hipsters, I was at the Boscolo, that houses the gorgeous New York Cafe.  I got transported to an imaginary past to absorb the lovely raw beauty of the city.  Lines of ornate houses. Indeed the end of the 19th century was the glorious period of prosperity.  The Belle Epoch in France, the Edwardian era in Britain and the glorious days in Hungary before the world completely fell apart and changed in the 1910s.  On the back of the industrial revolution Budapest became one of the prominent centers with a brand new metro system.  The Line 1 which goes down the Opera to the Heroes Square still has the old world charm.  At the turn of the 20th century, every country in Europe was looking for its own identity.  Budapest was no different.  It set ambitious plans – with the metro – with the lines of architecture.  In the early 1900s there were so many writers in Budapest that as John LuKacs in his book Budapest 1900 writes – “there were so many writers that they complained that their readers turn out to be other writers”.  My dessert that night in Budapest took place sitting in the mezzanine level and watching over the swarms of people seated at the central hall.  For a moment – thinking about a hundred years ago – who would have thought that the place would still be there under a different cloak, with a solitary Indian native looking at their ghosts.  Hundred years from now, who knows who will watch the ghosts that I leave behind.

My morning ride through the streets of Budapest met with the city that has just slept. Yes – the parties go to the wee hours of the morning when men and women strut and duel with their shadows to return to their abode.  The taxi was speeding through the empty streets. I waited for my flight back to the west – first to Frankfurt and then to DC.  As I left I kept wondering of the guy I met one day in the Irish bar.  While I was clearly nostalgic and talking about preservation, he was tired of the old and wished Budapest developed, with better jobs, and better pay so that he does not have to work in Switzerland. While I was taking a romantic view dipping into the nostalgia of the glory once this city may have, he was quite tepid about my enthusiasm.  I then realized on my way back that an outsider’s eye will never be the same as that of the local. What is beauty to me may not be of much value to those who have to make a living out of it.  I sensed the same when I was in Istanbul a few years back.  And perhaps, thats why I am drawn to these places.  Who knows when they become so modern or disgustingly touristy that it departs from the roots of its past.  For instance, one has to look for those remnants in places like New York.  For now, it was comforting that I was able to gaze through the place, looked into the myriads of houses that are over a century old, people carrying on with their lives, each house with its own story.

 

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 to 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.