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The difference that daylight makes

IMG_2360 (600x800)There was a time when Szimpla Kert was my last port of call on a night out. When I first arrived in Budapest, it fascinated me with its nooks and crannies, its clever (re)use of junk and other people’s cast-offs, and its eclectic mix of people. But that was years ago. Before it made the guide books. Or before I realised that it had made the guide books. So now it’s somewhere I bring visitors for a look-see. to show them what a classic ruin pub looks like and to show them a side of Budapest that many don’t get to see during their weekend-stay in the city.

IMG_2377 (600x800)In  addition to being  a late-night hangout, Szimpla has now added a Sunday morning market to its repertoire. And seeing the place in daylight is quite an experience. Room after room is furnished with bits and pieces from everywhere and anywhere. Graffiti passes for decor and the whole place has a sense of old-style destitution that once laid claim to regality. I’ve heard tell of those who can spend hours in front of  a painting in a museum and still not see everything it has to show – I feel a little bit like this about Szimpla. I thought I knew the place inside out but each time I turned my head, I saw something different.

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IMG_2390 (800x600)Vintage toys seem to litter the place but on closer inspection appear more strategically placed. For all is mismatchedness, everything seems to fit and have its place. Perhaps that’s a reflection of Hungarian society in general  – or simply the way it is in Szimpla. Perhaps its beauty lies in the depth of its shallowness and nothing more.

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IMG_2380 (800x600)I was there a few months back with an Australian mate who had dropped in for a few days en route to Ireland. We sat upstairs and through the window watched old black-and-white silent movies from way back when  – fashion shows of days gone by. This Sunday, the silent movies were replaced with cheese and sprouts and jams and jellies and all sorts of homemade goodness.

IMG_2368 (800x600)I’ve been converted to sprouts and have them now for breakfast, dinner, and tea. Who’d have thought that Szimpla could have wrought such a change in my diet? It just goes to show that surprises lurk in the strangest corners. I’m still working on the cheese thing though. IMG_2367 (600x800)There’s plenty going on and lots to choose from, so if you’re in the neighbourhood on a Sunday morning and fancy a snoop ’round Szimpla, drop by. You can stock the larder at the same time and indulge in some homemade cakes and pastries on the top floor. Something for everyone really.

And seeing the scene that was the ‘night before’ in broad daylight isn’t the disappointment it usually is. Funny how nothing quite looks the same when the real light of day shines on it.

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Butterflies, tigers and Budapest bars

Art is making something out of nothing and selling it… or so said the legendary Frank Zappa…and I think he said it after one of his trips to Budapest. Whether it be the light features made from empty wine bottles in Köleves, the seats made from old bathtubs in Szimpla kert, or the complete interior remake from someone else’s trash in Csendes, the Hungarian ability to make something from nothing is artistic simplicity at its best.

I had the (mis)fortune to be in Alaska when the Celtic Tiger took up residence in Ireland. Happily ensconced in my log cabin, hundreds of miles from the nearest city, I was quite oblivious to its antics. Ireland had practically full employment; GDP was growing in double digits on a yearly basis; and for the first time in living memory, emigrants were returning in their droves. And I missed it all. While I was living off Copper River reds, frying up moose-burgers and chewing my way through last-season’s caribou jerky, Ireland was wining and dining in Michelin-starred restaurants, gorging herself on oysters and caviar, and becoming all too familiar with Dom Perignon and Ms Bollinger. And I was happy for her. Her day had come.

Pubs with soul

Before the Celtic Tiger was born, you could find pubs in Dublin where floors were covered in sawdust and used as ashtrays; where granny’s hand-crocheted anti-macassars decorated flea-ridden sofas whose patterns had long since faded into oblivion; where grandfather clocks signaled closing time. Pubs where musicians on their fiddles and tin whistles and bodhráns lulled us merry punters into a happy melancholy, providing a soundtrack for the heady Guinness-fuelled opinionating on everything from the state of world politics to the odds of Dublin winning yet another All-Ireland final. Pubs where elderly couples sat in companionable silence, having said all there was to say and the boys in the back played the odd hand or two of cards for a few quid to carry them over till payday. Back in the day, before the Celtic Tiger, pubs in Ireland’s capital had soul.

Everything measured, everything matched

But as the Celtic Tiger grew into an all consuming monster, the slow death of tradition began. I know we welcomed it with open arms…and who could blame us? After so many years of playing second fiddle to other EU states, it was time we had our turn on the world’s stage, and we relished it. But at what cost? Old pub interiors were gutted and replaced with shiny new wood and brass fittings. Quirkiness was replaced with more of the same. Designer candles took centre table. Cocktail menus offered screaming orgasms, sex on the beach and long slow comfortable screws up against the wall. Everything was measured; everything matched. Yes, the price of a pint had gone through the roof but sadder still, that witty deconstruction of the week’s events had been replaced by a dreary discourse on the price of property. With the smoking ban in place, smirting (smoking and flirting) outside in the freezing cold was nonetheless much better craic than staying indoors to be browbeaten by loud piped music and tales of killings made on the stock exchange.

A Magyar tigris

I moved to Budapest for many reasons and for no particular reason at all. Perhaps I was hoping to get in on the földszint of what I was sure was going to become another European success story. To see first-hand what happens when EU money swells the coffers of a relatively impoverished nation; when foreign investment wipes out unemployment; when talented emigrants return to the fold bringing with them a new perspective; when non-nationals flood to the country, armed with exotic languages and spicy foods. But now, two years later, there’s ne’er a sniff of a Magyar tigris. The only black and orange creature I’ve seen here is a butterfly. And when I sit in one of the many ruin pubs in Budapest, I give silent thanks.

I dare not say aloud what I am thinking. Selfishly, I want the bars in Budapest to stay as they are. The collection of random furniture; the smoke-filled rooms alive with animated, intelligent conversation where music accompanies thought rather than drowns it out; long tables scattered with half-smoked boxes of cigarettes and novels in many languages; people moving effortlessly from Hungarian to English to German so that everyone is included in the conversation, the toe-tapping beat of gypsy jazz. Nothing matching; nothing measured; everything unique.

And then I look across the road and see the shiny modern interior of a new pub through huge, brightly lit windows…and the smudge on the glass looks remarkably like a paw print.

This article was first published in the Budapest Times 12 October 2009