Adventure, Identity, Travel

Budapest Then and Now: A Photo Essay

The venerable Cafe Gerbeaud is almost obscured by B-U-D-A-P-E-S-T, a popular photo backdrop.

In an era when anyone can take a decent picture, even of themselves, with just one hand using a smartphone, it’s hard to recall a time when we needed a camera, film and two hands to capture a scene. Then, we decided in advance the number of exposures, the sensitivity to light we wanted and if we preferred shooting with color or black and white film. We made all of these decisions long before composing a shot. Then, unless we had a tripod and a timer, we had to ask another human to snap our photo. After finishing a roll, which might have taken days or weeks, we dropped it off at a camera store or sent it for processing via mail. At a bare minimum, days passed between the moment of creating an image and seeing a print. Typically the gap between the click of the shutter and the arrival of the image was much longer. Receiving pictures from a trip used to be a big deal, at least for me. Today, images are instantaneous. I wonder if the gain in speed comes at the loss of something else.

When I lived in Budapest after college, I did not take tons of photos, perhaps because of the expense and likely because I believed that one had to “be a photographer” to shoot a lot of images. Then, I hadn’t begun to cultivate my artistic side and didn’t even know I had one. It’s hard to believe now, but people didn’t document everything they saw, ate or did, and certainly not as extensively as today. Such behavior would have been quite strange. During my various stays in Hungary’s capital I took photos in both color and black and white. I don’t remember if I used two cameras or if I alternated types of film. The black and white images, I suspect, connected me to a more timeless quality of the place. They also conveyed melancholy.

When I returned from Budapest in late December, I looked at some of my older photos and realized that, decades later, some of the same things still drew my attention even as my photographic repertoire had expanded. Here are some examples. Click the images to enlarge.

The payphone. 

Why did I photograph the quotidian payphone? Probably because it looked so different from an American one and because it was a frequent fixture in Budapest. At the time I lived there, many households didn’t have landlines and payphones served an essential function. Having enough of the correct change to operate them was critical; one had to be prepared to make a call, something hard to imagine now. It’s difficult to see, but the rectangular sign above the rotary payphone on the left says 2 forints would purchase three minutes between 7am-6pm and six minutes between 6pm-7am. That rates had been double for peak times hinted at Hungary’s openness to capitalist thinking even before the end of socialism. Today, 2 forint coins no longer exist (they’d be worth less than one cent each). Public phones are now brightly colored and are far more prevalent than in the United States, where they’re largely extinct. Still, with cellphones everywhere in Budapest, I did not see many people using the public ones.

Nyugati (Western) railway station. 

In 1989-1990, I lived not far from this iconic station. I often passed it on foot or by trolley, which stops in front. While it had a seedy quality, and was often plagued by money changers, drunkards and hucksters preying off exhausted travelers, the station was, at its best, a portal to adventure and a place where Budapest and Hungary connected with the rest of Europe. During my stay, one of the country’s first McDonald’s opened next to this station. Shiny and bright, it represented hope, change and even prestige to many locals, who eagerly lined up for burgers, fries, shakes and the chance to work there. To me, it felt like Budapest had received a black eye. I didn’t want Hungarians to shun their own culinary traditions and leisurely meals for American fast food. Still, I sometimes relented and went into the restaurant to use their clean bathrooms (the city has few, free public restrooms). The restaurant is still packed with people. Since then, many more McDonald’s, plus other chains, have opened. I did go into a few fast food joints, not to eat or use the washroom, but to connect to WiFi so I could consult a map on my iPhone.

The villamos

I loved Budapest’s yellow trolley, known as villamos, and still do. That they squeaked and occasionally lurched around curves made them endearing and adventurous to ride. The periodic appearance of a stern and intimidating ticket inspector kept passengers alert; those who tried to skip the fare vanished before getting caught. Today, both older and modern trolleys ferry people throughout the city. There are still ticket inspectors, although the ones I saw seemed to inspire less fear than before. A few even smiled. Some of the sleeker trolleys, manufactured in Spain and Germany, are decked out in advertisements. A few natives complained to me about the ads. Looking closely at the older photo, I see that the middle car has an advertisement for Toto Lotto, the Hungarian lottery, on top. The ads have been there for years, just not as flashy or obvious. In my opinion, the advertisements are a small price to pay for a smoother commute, although I’d be sad to see all of the older trolleys disappear altogether.

Anker Palace at Deák Square. 

It’s hard not to notice this building which, like its homonym suggests, acts as a visual anchor for Deák Square, a transit hub and popular hangout for younger people. Today, a ferris wheel has been installed nearby, offering an aerial view of this building and a sweeping vista of the city. This odd structure, shabby then and today, still commands attention. Perhaps the building, like a domineering dowager in an outdated wardrobe, is a metaphor for the city itself: grand, a bit quirky and in need of fresh paint.

The ABC grocery store. 

When I lived in Budapest, I could count on the ABC (pronounced Ah-Bay-Tsay) to be spare in its inventory, atmosphere and friendliness. There was little to browse and no incentive to linger. Unlike many other workers of that time, cashiers performed their jobs with exceptional and at times ruthless efficiency. Woe to the shopper who didn’t proffer exact change, or as close as possible, immediately after the cashier’s rapid-fire calculation on a manual register. That sluggish shopper received the stink eye and perhaps a harsh word for having failed to summon the cash in the smallest denominations possible, given the scarcity of currency.

Hungarians today have far more supermarket options. Some Western chains even have loyalty programs and cashiers often asked if I were a member. Being able to use a credit card makes the check out process somewhat less fraught, although you better have that plastic rectangle at the ready. Those who fumble are frowned upon. The ABC of today, compared to other options, is more of a convenience store with lower end products. The one on the right, near the apartment I rented, is open 24 hours, once unthinkable.

The central second-hand bookstore. 

Perhaps the logo of the Központi Antikvárium, the country’s largest used bookshop, reminded me of my college’s owl icon, which is why I photographed it back in 1989. I had forgotten about it until I went to my first Aikido class in Budapest during my most recent trip. I had planned to take a streetcar and then a trolley to the dojo. According to the new electronic billboards, the trolley was running exceptionally late so I decided to walk. That’s when I passed the store. My heart sighed seeing it again. With American bookstores disappearing, it came as a relief to see this venerable establishment still standing, its updated neon sign a friendly landmark on a dark, wet evening.

Magyar Posta.

As an avid letter writer, I frequented Budapest’s post offices when I lived there. The colorful stamps compensated for cantankerous staff. Because people used the postal system to pay bills and send or receive money, lines were often long. All it took was a minor infraction or misunderstanding of postal protocol to be returned to the back of the queue or given a scolding. Still, watching and hearing the clerk manually cancel my letters with a rubber stamp felt like an important part of the ritual. Witnessing my letters take the first step on their long journey made me believe they’d arrive just a bit more quickly. This time, I did not buy stamps or send letters. But I did visit one neighborhood post office just to see. Its modernity stunned me. One corner functioned as a mini-market, filled with sundry items and greeting cards. In addition, customers could use an electronic kiosk to select the reason for their visit. They received a ticket with a number. When it was their turn, the number lit up in front of a clerk. The bright space defied my memory of dark, wood paneled counters more fitting of a magistrate than a postal worker. Times have changed, and the Magyar Posta logo has been refreshed, too. The image on left is of a vintage mailbox I spotted last month.

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The Wisdom Daily published a long essay about my decision to return to Budapest after 22 years. You can read it here


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About ilona fried

Writer, Feldenkrais champion, Aikidoka and explorer of internal and external landscapes.


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