The Persistence of Nostalgia

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About a year after I moved to Budapest, the majestic monuments lost some of their command over my attention. I began to see another facet of the city’s personality. It had been before my eyes, in plain view: a dusty little shop here, a burnt out neon sign there. Fragments of a past that many still remember.

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Curling one’s hand around a cold soda bottle on a hot summer’s day.

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Buying ready-to-wear suits when it was still a novelty.

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I peered into the grimy windows to see if this watchmaker’s shop was still open. The lights were never on when I passed, and I saw no movement amid the clutter.

The soda and clothing brands had long since disappeared. The signs are no longer capable of illumination. In the dark, they looked like ornate skeletons of nostalgia. My long walks around lesser known districts of Budapest became treasure hunts.

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Some old landmarks were still in use. The Socialist era Corvin department store building housed a supermarket and clothing store, and on the roof, one of the coolest bars in the city. I’d heard rumors that the whole place was set to be demolished in the near future.

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In an isolated corner of City Park, a former ticket booth was turned into a quirky little restaurant – Pántlika Bisztró.

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Magyar Radio still broadcasts across the airwaves from this building.

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On one of my long walks around the quiet part of the seventh district, outside of the körút, I stumbled upon this bakery. It was tucked away on a street between streets. A place for locals, you’d have to hear about it to even know how to look for it. The glass counter displayed pastries made with margarine and imitation vanilla. White haired ladies gossiped with customers. I smiled as I went on my way.

Budapest has seen a resurgence of retro in recent years. Tourists can take a tour in a Trabant. Shiny new cafes have opened, their neon signs, memorabilia, and retro furniture flawless. I never frequented these establishments. It’s the dusty corners and cobwebs that I find mysterious. The wear and tear of time.

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My favorite retro sign was that of a tiny thermal bath in the seventh district. This one is not found in any tourist guidebooks. There was often a line of people waiting to get in. Whenever I passed, I’d slow my pace and lift my eyes. It reminded me of a sign on the South end of Bay City, Michigan. It was on a corner of a road that I lived on for a short time when I was a very small child. When I was a teenager, I used to drive out of my way to see it. Now I don’t remember what the establishment was – a shop or a pizza place. But I remember that lonely sign on the edge of town, receding in my rearview mirror as I drove on.

I know that I’m not alone in my fascination with retro signage. As the world speeds up, these traces of the past are demolished, dismantled, and snuffed out to make way for modernity. The signs are a comforting anchor to yesterday. Yes, it did exist. We were there. The thing I liked most about Budapest was the hesitation to loosen the grasp and wipe the slate clean. For now, the past is allowed to flicker before going dark.

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40 thoughts on “The Persistence of Nostalgia

  1. Fascinating tour and the perfect antidote to all those global brands that appear in every city – there is a danger that one day, everywhere will look the same. A great set of images, particularly the first.

    • Thanks, Robin. I dread the day when these countries in this part of Europe are totally “cleaned up” thanks to EU money and foreign investment. It was already happening in Budapest. The uniformity was marching relentlessly forward, street by street.

  2. I love the photographs here-I think they are among your best-and a fascinating read. It is sad to see how quickly we can now discard the past because it does not somehow *fit* with what we perceive our present and future to be. . .

    • Thanks! After I moved to Budapest, I started to get more serious about taking good photos and experimenting with photo editing apps and software. And then a couple of years ago, I received a nice little camera from Santa. 🙂

  3. Love this post, the photos are so artsy and you know I have a thing for neon signs ;). Like the new look, the colors and design goes perfect with your writing and vibe of the blog. I was thinking of doing the same, changing my blog or starting a new blog.

    • Thanks, Doris. I like to change my blog look every 4-5 months. WordPress has so many nice themes, it’s a shame to not try out different ones from time to time. I look forward to seeing your new design.

  4. Ah – nostalgia. I love this topic! Your photos and thoughts capture the essence of a wistfulness that comes with the passage, not only of time, but of experience, traditions, cultural awareness.

    Recently, I was in the heart of downtown Vancouver, the place where I worked for many years. So much has changed. The coffee shops and little bars where I met with friends, the restaurant that my mom and sister would join me for lunch – they are no more. Not even a sign to to mark the place that held so many recollections. Instead, there are new places, with the trendiness of today. Friends still meet and memories are being made. I felt that strange longing that comes with remembering, followed closely with the knowledge that the memory is enough. We live in moments – perhaps that is why I’m so drawn to your photos for they capture a story that mingles with my own…

    “We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.” Anaïs Nin

    Thank you for another wonderful post – I do enjoy our conversations!

    • Thank you, Rebecca. Your insightful comments always amaze me. I tend to be contemptuous of the trendies. I’m trying to get over that. You made me realize that in these fashionable coffee houses and eateries, memories are also being made. However, will these places stand the test of time or will they fade slowly away? Today, as soon as places are closed, they are torn apart and renovated, so the former patrons don’t have the luxury of seeing the slow fade.

  5. You really have quite brilliantly captured the nostalgia of the post and of Budapest. Your photos are dripping with history, moving us back and forth in time. You have a great storyline here that shows me the power of what can be achieved with these pictures, bringing elements into focus. An absolutely beautifully rendered piece.

  6. Reading this page I feel like following you in your streetwalk, it’s really striking. Our longlasting memories are in details: a colour, a sign, a scent. Happy Thursday!Cris

      • A Flaneur is a modern urban explorer, an investigator of the city, a connoisseur of the street. The name was originally given to literary types of l7th century France. For more info ready my Feb. 24th post. V.

        • I actually did read your very cool post. My response was a French slang version of the most common question form that they use which can mean, “oh, really?” (in a funny/sarcastic way) or “ya think?” among many other things. I suppose I should have clarified that. I was also going to add “takes one to know one”. Cheers. 🙂

  7. Not exactly sure how I found you…so glad I did. Love your photos as much as your words. Major family connection to this area, it’s always been on my bucket list. Thank you so much.

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