mad max for a day

It was the annual municipal clean-up day in my Budapest neighborhood (a.k.a the Jewish quarter) last Friday. Each district has a different date for the clean-up, when residents may throw out–non-hazardous, non-organic–waste (especially large household items) and simply pile the unwanted stuff in front of their building in the street. It is an old “tradition” loved by some, abhorred by others due to the fact that it has a tendency of turning parts of the city into an urban wasteland out of a 1980s dystopian movie. If the wind is blowing, the cinematic effect is near perfect with paper scattered all over the streets.

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Admittedly, I am a big fan of lomtalanítás (as it called in Hungarian). I enjoy seeing my neighborhood in an unusual light and I am a sucker for free vintage stuff. If one is willing to climb piles of debris, dig into unsavory looking bags and touch objects of dubious origin, one is to find amazing pieces of personal history such as letters, postcards and photos, newspapers and travel brochures from decades past as well as books, clothing, rugs, furniture and any household item imaginable. Of course, not everything is worth saving; there are things that I only photograph and leave there:

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I once found a photo taken on the 101st birthday of a woman along with her medical records and postcards written to her in front of the building next to mine. She seems to have died soon after her birthday and the family simply threw her belongings out in order to clean the apartment and sell it. I pick up such personal things out of curiosity and respect: I simply cannot bear seeing pieces of someone’s life scattered on the pavement. This time I brought home a box of slides with pictures of a family’s Christmas and skiing holiday from 1982.

Clean-up days are interesting not only in terms of the past but what they reveal about present social conditions. The system of city-wide clean-up days has been, in fact, highly controversial in recent years, which has to do both with growing poverty and with dramatically rising anti-Roma sentiments in Hungarian society. There are Roma families (especially in unemployment-stricken eastern Hungary) who survive by collecting and selling scrap metal and discarded usable household items. A unique economy has emerged around clean-up days: impressively well-organized groups (mostly families) come to Budapest days or even a week before the actual date to claim, reserve and guard buildings in desirable streets. They used to camp out in front of a given building or street section for days, but this year they rather marked the reserved territory with a hand-written or even neatly printed sign. This change of tactics is due to an increasing intolerance toward loitering and homelessness on the part of the authorities.

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Last year, I talked to the person sitting on a camping chair for five days in front of my building and he said that they mutually respect it if a building has been claimed. (I suppose it was not a coincidence that he himself was not exactly small…) Strong male family members claim the buildings in advance, the women (often with children) and older men appear on the day of the clean-up and guard the pile in front of their buildings. The group “in charge of” a given building has the right to preselect the things being dumped. Others are allowed to dig into the general pile but are not allowed to touch the things selected and set aside. One major downside of this informally emerged system is that the non-organized scrap metal and junk collectors who work alone cannot compete with the established groups. If there is a conflict on the day of the clean-up itself, it is not among groups but between a group and a lone outsider breaking an unwritten rule.

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The men drive around in their run-down trucks and vans and collect appliances and other things made of metal from the piles belonging to their group, the women set up stalls and sell retro and antique objects found among the discarded stuff for a few bucks. It varies what “stall keepers” consider sellable and what they leave in the general pile up for grabs. Some select only intact and unique objects, others try to sell chipped vases and water-damaged books.

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As a hobby waste enthusiast, I have had only good experiences with the “professionals.” I respect them and the rules of the game, and–I have the impression–they respect me for not being afraid of getting my hands dirty (even if they often wonder and ask why I pick up or photograph certain apparently uninteresting or valueless things). I am, of course, not the only “lay” person rummaging through waste, there are many others, most of them either very poor or very hip: those who need it and have no other choice and those who find it unique and different.

The dystopian chaos lasts only for one day. The garbage trucks and cleaning teams are out at the crack of dawn the next morning and life is back to normal by noon.

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This year’s might have been the very last city-wide clean-up, as there are plans to change the system–for one single reason only: to get rid of the presence of the Roma. I do hope that it is not going to happen. Cancelling the municipal clean-up out of barely veiled racism will not magically cure Hungarian social ills after all.

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black cat, white cat

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As I mentioned in my previous post, we live in a gentrifying neighborhood of Vienna–an old working class district with a significant immigrant population. A third of the inhabitants of today’s Ottakring were born outside of Austria: about eleven percent speak Serbian, eight percent Turkish and more than four percent are native speakers of Croatian. There are numerous shops, restaurants and bars catering to the different communities–including several Turkish bakeries and an African and a Pakistani supermarket.

This colourful mix of cultures has attracted an increasingly visible young hip crowd. It is, nevertheless, the “Balkan” flair that is still one of the defining characteristics of our neighborhood. Last Tuesday, I heard lively brass band music playing in the street and I opened the window to realize that it was not some festival or a marching band but, in fact, a wedding: an Emir Kusturica movie come alive. Two brass bands played in front of the building of the bride as family members decorated a pimped-out Ferrari, which later led the car procession that included an RV. The bands played and guests danced in the middle of the street and, after a while, the bride and other family members joined them. It was, I think, a Serbian Roma wedding. More and more passers-by gathered in the street to watch: the mix of people who stopped and enjoyed the music was a cross-section of the population of our neighborhood. No one seemed to mind the blocked street and the traffic jam, even the UPS truck waited patiently.

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tulips at home

home by Katideahome by Katideahome by Katideahome by Katideahome by Katideahome by Katidea

We live in a gentrifying neighborhood of Vienna and while we are not really part of the local art and food Szene, we do enjoy the weekly Saturday’s farmers’ market on our doorstep. I just could not resist the tulips (three bunches for four euros) after buying our usual bread, fish and vegetables. They perfectly match our living room decor, don’t they?

may day balloons

The best thing about state socialist May Days were the balloons. As a kid, I usually got a balloon and cotton candy at the fair after the official parade. The fair–with cheap food, beer and entertainment–was a kind of reward to the people for marching under banners with slogans like “Forward on the road of socialism!”

Photo: Fortepan/Mihály Szent-tamási
Photo: Fortepan/Mihály Szent-tamási
Photo: Fortepan/Mihály Szent-tamási
Photo: Fortepan/Mihály Szent-tamási
Photo: Fortepan/Mihály Szent-tamási
Photo: Fortepan/Mihály Szent-tamási
Photo: Fortepan/Mihály Szent-tamási
Photo: Fortepan/Mihály Szent-tamási
Photo: Fortepan
Photo: Fortepan
Photo: Fortepan
Photo: Fortepan
Photo: Fortepan
Photo: Fortepan

The participants of the parades (held in all cities) were organized by workplace: the factories, institutions, schools etc. were supposed to send a certain number of people equipped with banners and paraphernalia representing their workplace and line of work. The choreography and visual appearance of the May Day celebrations did not change much over the decades (the first four pictures are from the 1950s and the last three from the 1970s). By the 1980s they were pretty much empty rituals, which still had a vital function. What was expected from the population was not so much that they believe the slogans (and the ideology behind them) but that they participate–in person or in front of their television sets watching the day-long broadcast from Budapest.

spring!

Spring is finally here. It feels like we have been magically transported from winter to summer overnight.

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Someone aired their winter clothes before storing them away for the summer in the yard of our Budapest building and the square under our Vienna window was instantly filled with life at the first sign of spring last week.

thatcher in budapest

Photo: MTI/Attila Manek
Photo: MTI/Attila Manek

The late Margaret Thatcher visited the Great Market Hall in Budapest in February 1984. I remember what a huge deal the British prime minister’s official visit to Hungary was, the state media making the most of it. Interestingly, the first thing my eighty-six-year-old neighbor–who until recently took the tram to the market hall every week–recalled hearing about Thatcher’s death was that the famous politician once went shopping and bought Hungarian paprika at the Great Market Hall. The image of the Iron Lady observing strings of red peppers is, in fact, one of the iconic images of late state-socialist Hungary.

(Note the circle of overzealous men, the feminizing food shopping and bouquet of flowers and the absence of any other woman in the picture.)

easter 1916

I love sifting through thrift stores, charity shops, antiquarian bookstores or any shop that sells used, vintage things with patina and history. One of my favorite such places in Budapest is Soós Fotó. They primarily sell second-hand cameras and photo equipment, but you can also find old photographs and postcards for pennies.

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This card–bought at Soós Fotó a few months back–is almost a hundred years old. It was posted in Weyer (Upper Austria) in April 1916 and features a postage stamp depicting emperor Francis Joseph. The stamp was designed by Koloman Moser, one of the leading artists of the Viennese Secession, to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the emperor’s reign in 1908. The card was sent to Miss Mitzi Paule in the Schottenfeldgasse in Vienna’s seventh district (not far from the Westbahnhof railway station and the Mariahilferstrasse shopping street) by her sibling–most likely a brother–and his family. He wished his sister, father and mother happy Easter and kindly reminded his sister of her promise, the nature of which will unfortunately remain a mystery forever.

snowy passover

I took these photos last Wednesday morning in my Budapest neigborhood (a.k.a. the Jewish quarter). I could not believe how much it had snowed overnight. And still no sign of spring…

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1. Orthodox synagogue, Kazinczy Street, 2. Kazinczy Street, 3. Kazinczy Street, 4. Madách Imre Street, 5. Kazinczy Street, 6. Rumbach Sebestyén Street (with synagogue), 7. Gozsdu udvar (courtyard), 8. Kazinczy Street, 9. Holló Street, 10. Orthodox synagogue, Kazinczy Street.

double take

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One June morning last year, I stepped outside my building in the heart of Budapest to find myself in an unexpectedly unfamiliar neighborhood … of Moscow. It was, in fact, not a strange dream but the pragmatic/desperate reality of regularly renting out and closing off central areas of the city with its eclectic architecture and dilapidated grandeur to Hollywood film crews. Budapest has stood in for Buenos Aires, Paris, Berlin, London, Moscow and, well, Budapest. What I stumbled upon this time was the wrapping up of the overnight shooting of a scene from the new Bruce Willis movie A Good Day to Die Hard on Madách square.

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