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.
Curling one’s hand around a cold soda bottle on a hot summer’s day.
Buying ready-to-wear suits when it was still a novelty.
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.
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.
In an isolated corner of City Park, a former ticket booth was turned into a quirky little restaurant – Pántlika Bisztró.
Magyar Radio still broadcasts across the airwaves from this building.
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.
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.