In Ruins

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We live in a world of manufactured trends. Manipulated desires: must sees, must dos, must haves. Does anyone know what they really want anymore? Who gave these people permission to designate our desires? Uniformity permeates even the cutting edge. The mainstream weird is carefully molded to give the illusion of individuality, but it is also the product of a cultural assembly line. A truly spontaneous outburst of creative ingenuity is rare these days, but when it happens, it blazes.

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In the summer of 2010, I stumbled upon my first Budapest ruin pub. During exploratory walks around my new neighborhood, I noticed a sign that hung over a derelict building: Szimpla Kert. The interior was a wonderland of havoc. Furniture and decor was salvaged from dumpsters and sidewalks. Benches were made from bathtubs and even a gutted Mini car. Religious and antique pastoral paintings, along with art pieces made out of random materials, hung on the gouged and peeling walls. Sharp edges and exposed wires. I always ran my hand over surfaces before sitting down. A tetanus shot in a Hungarian hospital was a terrifying thought. The room in the photo below could be the result of art therapy at an insane asylum. I was never able to hang out in this one.

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I began to venture deeper into the slummy streets of the Seventh District, peering into doorways and windows. Somehow I knew that there were others. In any other city, such scenery would equal danger. But in Budapest, it was simply neglect. The next discovery was Ellátó Kert. It was tiny and minimalist. A few battered tables scattered around an empty lot. Then came Kuplung, housed in a former car repair garage.

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I found Instant on a lively street in the Sixth District. One look at the rabbit tree and I knew I’d found my realm. It was even bigger than Szimpla Kert, though the decor was more minimalist. Different music buzzed in different corners of the hive. The dank, dark cellar smelled of mold and throbbed with erratic noise. Every Friday at around two in the morning, the spectacle would begin. My husband and I, and any guest who was visiting us, would stand back and marvel. At the elderly gentleman tearing up the floor to dubstep, waving his gnawed straw like a crazed orchestra conductor. Or the tall, blonde, angular twins sporting khaki Bermuda shorts, white polo shirts, and argyle sweaters tied around their necks. They busted into synchronized dance moves like some Aryan Nation Milli Vanilli. Every week it was some new impromptu tantrum. This was the place to let it all out with abandon. Everyone was welcome and everyone understood.

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Over the next three years, in the warmer months, my husband and I would begin our weekly jaunts in the earliest Friday morning hours. We usually began at Szimpla Kert, but from there the itinerary fluctuated. Instant was always included, but the others in between were always different. Sometimes we’d end up at the rooftop bar at Corvintető, or if the weather was bad, at the club inside.

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This was the most intimidating place to enter. Burly bouncers did security checks before entry. At least one bouncer stood at the edge of the tensest dance floor I’ve ever experienced. I danced on the perimeter or watched from afar. The only way out was a freight elevator, which was operated by a smiling young man offering a farewell shot of liquor. Our friend Alexandra, in the photo below, thought it was the coolest thing ever.

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We would head home just before sunrise, more energized than tired. This is what it’s like to witness a phenomenon. The spark of uncontrived eccentricity. You need to savor it while it lasts. And I knew it wouldn’t be long.

It’s a familiar cycle: artists move into cheap, desolate areas. They breathe color and vibrancy into the decay. Rich developers see investment potential. They buy up the property, sanitize it and repackage it for the trendies and hipsters who then co-opt the sensation. The artists are then banished to new territory.

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The first casualty was Ellátó Kert. The new murals were tasteful. The colors matched. Ibiza style chillout music had replaced the jarring electronica. Across the street, a trendy ruin pub opened. It was a huge success. Then another one opened a few streets away. And yet, it wasn’t enough that they had their own places created especially for them. The invasion was stealthy, at first. A stag party here, a meticulously manicured beard there. One night, Instant was suddenly populated by stiletto heels, solarium tans, and plastic surgery. My husband and I sought shelter in the cellar. These girls would sometimes descend, by accident, to the depths. Their unease amused me. The flustered glances at one another. Is this cool or not? Someone please tell them what they should think. After a polite amount of time, they’d ascend back into the light with sighs of relief.

I realize that I could be considered just as pretentious as the targets of my criticism. I’m not looking down on those who enjoy harmonious decor, interesting cocktails, stylish clothing, soothing music. I like these things, too. Even though I feel like an imposter when I’m in the territory of the trendy. Everywhere around the world, there are places that cater to the look-at-me crowd. Those who don’t want to, or can’t, adhere to their dress and behavior codes know to stay away. It’s the sense of entitlement that disgusts me. The attitude that they are the ones responsible for the magic.

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It’s not so much the customers’ fault as it is the developers’. One must adapt to stay competitive in the marketplace. Struggling artists don’t equal profit. By the summer of 2013, the battle had been lost. Kuplung, Corvintető, and Fogas Ház had been completely renovated. The sleepy, disheveled bartenders had been replaced by clean cut pretty boys, and scowling wannabe models. Ruin pub crawl tours were advertised to backpackers and stag parties.

Fogas Ház had become another favorite the year before. The pub had expanded from the ground floor of one building to the upper levels and into the courtyard of the connecting building. The tables and chairs matched. New eyes swept over the scene, making assessments. My husband and I became visible: a middle-aged couple sitting in a corner. I squirmed under the scrutiny.

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Szimpla Kert had become a tourist attraction long before I had discovered it. It never pretended to be otherwise. For this reason, it has survived unscathed. Hipsters, hippies, trendies, backpackers, stag parties, the elderly, chubby fanny-pack wearing tourists, and children. No group can claim dominance.

As of July 2013, our final month in Budapest, just one stronghold remained: Kőleves Kert, a circus/playground themed ruin garden right in the middle of the Kazinczy Street mayhem. Other, more underground, ruin pubs and gardens had opened in other districts. It takes some effort to find them, and I’m not going to offer my help by naming them here. Maybe they, too, have since metamorphosed into something else.

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64 thoughts on “In Ruins

    • I can just imagine the spirit – defiant and united in the aftermath. Since you said “original”, does that mean that a newer, less authentic version has taken its place?

      • They moved from the original site to another site in town. Can’t remember why they had to move. I haven’t seen the present site but it is probably a bit more sedate than the original. Same owners though.

  1. I enjoy reading your posts, I’ve made no bones about that from the first time I commented in here. However, as much as I’ve enjoyed your writing up to this point, as much as I’ve felt myself really drawn into the images you paint with your words, this post resonated with my own attitudes and perspectives from the very beginning to a degree I was not expecting.

    [ begin rant ]
    Who gave these people permission to designate our desires?” – we have done this, and we continue to do so on a continuous basis, every time we placidly accept that our sense of identity and belonging is best nourished by the approval of the masses, to which we feel compelled to conform. A part of this is our own nature – we are social creatures, with a need to bond with others – however this nature of ours has been horribly exploited by institutions of our own creation, dedicated to the task of swelling their bottom line profitability like a bunch of bloated ticks. We have created corporations that are treated as living entities; however they (the corporations) are not human, and it is perhaps one of our greatest follies as a species to expect them to place human needs at the forefront of their goals and functions. These corporations are served by marketing specialists, who train in ever more innovative ways to exploit the human psyche and condition, so as to serve their masters with greater efficiency. One of these innovations has been to hide its own influence in our lives, causing us to drop our guard and more readily accept the illusions meant to keep us amused, entertained and passive. We are like cattle to this process, penned in with our carefully-measured freedoms, waiting to be milked.

    Imagination and critical thought are two things that might help to stave off the effects of this process – the problem is, in many cultures, these two things are also carefully formed from childhood onward, so as to insure maximum conformity. Those who refuse this process are then viewed as having malfunctioned – a response conditioned to keep the masses from the dangerous act of realizing just how much of our individuality is being bought and sold.
    [ end rant ]

  2. I can feel the vibrancy Julie – lucky you to have been at the right place at just the right time. By the time they are advertised to the general public, you’re right, the lion’s den has become a prettified cage in a zoo.

  3. Ah…the fatherland. I’m trying to imagine the Budapest as it was in the late 1800’s when my family “escaped” to start a new life in America. Love the quirkiness, the individuality, would have loved to see it before it became homogenized. Thanks for the unique photos, Julie. You captured some of it before the “Starbucks” effect takes full hold. ❤️

  4. You’re breaking my heart, Julie! If only I’d known you were in Budapest when I was! I’d have gotten off the boat. Thank you for sharing the wonder and excitement of a lost world.

  5. The hoary and traditional giving way to ever hungry capitalism’s redevelopment and glitzy marketing. But it is happening everywhere, Julie, and Hungary, or any other place, is no exception. About the culture of conformity, that’s another story…best wishes… Raj.

  6. We are a sad lot. Thanks to you and some others we will go on finding originality before it it is transformed.Gorgeous shots and article.

  7. We didn’t have the pleasure until 2013… I imagine it would have been a whole different world to the experience we had.

    Still, I guess I probably qualify as one of those backpackers… just add about 15 years to the age column and replace up all night with in bed by 2, otherwise legless!

    • To those who don’t know differently, visiting the ruin pubs today is still a cool experience. That’s why I always advise anyone who asks me for ideas of what to do in Budapest to at least visit Szimpla. I’ve got nothing against backpackers, except for the obnoxious party hostel/frat boy variety. The backpackers were always present and individual hipsters probably hung out from time to time. It’s just that no one noticed different “types” until they started to come in large groups that segregated themselves from other “types”. This is the thing that disappointed me most.

  8. A wonderful post, as usual. And timely. We live in a world that craves movement, change, excitement. In our existence, we only experience a forward push along our timeline, which allows us only memories; and those get blurry as time passes. (That’s why I think blogging is essential) These past couple of months, I have been involved in a huge “decluttering project” which forced me to look back, to remember, to celebrate. There are many things that are no more. There are many friends and family that have passed. And I look around and am amazed that I am now looking into a future of artificial intelligence, increasing interconnectedness and complexity. We desperately need our artists, our poets, our writers, our musicians. They give voice to the whole of human experience. My most favourite quote is from Vincent van Gogh: “It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done.”

    • I believe that’s why there is such a parasitic urge to take over these places from the artists. No one wants boring, but many aren’t able to create a vibrant ambiance. Then when the work is done, and it’s co-opted by those lacking in personality, the artists flee in disgust.

  9. Thanks for the interesting post. A shame to see such spontaneity become trendy, and then abused and changed, yet this happens the world over. What a magical experience it would have been for you. Every Friday?

    PS One small typo – “It’s not so much the the customers’ fault as it is the developers’.”

    • Thanks for the typo alert. Yep, every Friday (from April to October) just after the stroke of midnight. We tried other nights, and found that this was when the most interesting characters showed up.

  10. I feel your pain!!! Family reasons – am I the only one happy to see the in-laws and secretly wishing to be able to move in their same country? – mean that I’m often in Hungary, at least three or four times a year. My girlfriend took me to Szimpla when it was still filled with locals and it was a blast, tokaji from a big bottle kept below the counter and zsíros kenyér for a handful of forint. Needless to say, I’ve never been able to get out of it unscathed.
    Then I found Szimpla kért, then Kőleves Kert, then other issues prevented me from going there for some time. When I returned, earlier in the year, it was as if a whole squat full of Hoxton twats had descended upon Budapest, and some perhaps even did. But, perhaps, this is how it’s meant to be. They’re 23, I’m no longer even 25, so I suppose this is how it feels to be grow…ehm, aging.
    But the other thing I’m horrified about, and that you’ve mentioned, is stag dos. I’ve seen many, participated to a few, but I think that the ones leaving out from Britain should be banned. I long hoped that they would remain confined to Amsterdam, Riga or – shock horror – Blackpool, but they’re coming as well. I don’t know if I’m ready to see hordes of lads in matching t-shirts vomiting around town without the excuse of celebrating Ferencvárosi’s last victory.

    • Thanks a lot for adding your perspective. Hoxton twats. That made me laugh. Oh, the stag dos were already in Budapest back in 2013. I saw more than one fat hairy guy squeezed into a wedding dress, bellowing like some wounded sea lion and spewing vomit around Vorosmarty ter. I can only imagine Szimpla in the early days. It must have been a horrible shock for you to see it (and Kazinczy Street!!) as it is now. And us older folks deserve to have a fun environment, too. It’s a sad, sad loss.

      • Well, I have to say that now I mostly just go out for dinner, have a drink or two and it’s home time. That, and the occasional gig or footie match when the price allows it and the crowds are entertaining to watch. Time to leave the dance floor to the guys with fixed wheel bikes, methinks!

  11. Luckily, we only have to walk through our front door for dumpster chic. Most of our furniture is the stuff other people discard. As much economic circumstance as choice, I’ve lived pretty much the same all my life. Really enjoyed the photos and article.

  12. Just perfect Julie, especially that opening paragraph. The whole piece puts me in mind of your fine sentence ‘wot I borrowed’ – “as the noose of uniformity winds ever tighter around the planet”. I can see me borrowing more for my sequel 😉

  13. Lovely article. As a writer, I must say my favourite part was your use of the phrase “wonderland of havoc”, I instantly understood exactly what you meant! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  14. I was told by a couple in Ljubljana Slovenia to visit Metelkova the artist colony. So I went. A 10 minute walk through housing units in 35degree heat at about 2 pm in the afternoon. Not a good time to go. I seemed to be the only person there, a coup,e of people on a porch but I didn’t feel there was anywhere I could enter, closed or most likely just the wrong time to go. I felt as if I was walking through a film set, fixed in a previous time, deserted.
    No energy or bravo to go back at 11pm.

    Glad you had the experience in Budapest.

    • I’ve heard of Metelkova, but didn’t check it out when I was in Ljubljana. I actually feel uncomfortable seeking artist areas out. I prefer to stumble upon them, like I did the ruin pubs. Your experience sounds like the one I had in Uzupis in Vilnius…totally deserted. It was also a very hot summer day. Maybe even the artists flee the summer city heat.

  15. “Must see, must do”… I know these things. When I first visit a city, I do some of them but I don’t worry if I don’t see them all, I say to myself that I’ll come back. Usually, I try to walk in a city, get lost a bit, and that’s where the discoveries are (or not – it depends). I did this in Bangkok and saw how people live there, not in the big buildings but in little house where the washing hangs in the street. Or the place where they repair the tuk-tuks in the streets…
    For Budapest, I have’nt made a program of visits yet. I’m beginning to do it for Japan and already found some places that are unknown to the travel guides but that will be very interesting, I think.

    And I think Budapest is a popular destination now, I know lots of people who went there or will go.

    • I think that’s the best way to get the feel for a city – get a little lost. I do that, too. But I learn where the dangerous areas are first, so I can avoid them. If I see any travel article with a must do/see in the title, I look the other way. It just seems so bossy. I’ve found that the best info for interesting places to visit are blogs by locals or expats.

  16. Creativity and modesty are often together. And if the mainstream of society find their places it’s the beginning of changing. It’s a similar phenomen in cities with a university: if the tourists find the places of students they leave their locations.
    Thank you for that wonderful and invaluable post, Julie.
    Greetings,
    Ulli

    • Hi Ulli – thank you for reminding me that student hangouts are also targets. So true that (unfortunately??) real creativity doesn’t usually equal money. But when I look at artists who have grown rich, most of them seem to have changed into what the mainstream wants them to be.

  17. “Someone please tell them what they should think.” Brilliant. By its nature, creativity tends to run against the common grain and is thus never about fame or wealth. One can only hope that new creations pop up in the few places not yet possessed of “hipness” which can delight other travelers looking to discover a place for themselves.

  18. I really related to your words here. I find myself echoing these very sentiments far more as time goes on. I wish I could say I saw this as a young teen but I was so blinded by life I didn’t. Is this why so many others think life is all about what it is not? Great thoughts and writing.

    • Hey, thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts. It takes maturity to be able to see life clearly (or at least clearer), and, even then, some never find the ability. You are among the fortunate ones.

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