Commie Kitsch in Budapest’s ‘Ruin Pubs’

Rick Steves: Hungary's hottest nightclubs evoke the last days of communism

07.07.10 | 11:54 AM ET

Budapest ruin pubSzimpla (Photo: Rick Steves)

Budapest’s trendiest clubs are called “ruin pubs.” Inhabiting ramshackle old buildings in the city center, they feel like a gang of squatters made a trip to the dump yesterday and grabbed whatever was usable, moved in today, and are open for business tonight. Enjoying a drink here, I’m reminded of creatures that inhabit discarded shells in a tide pool. The formula really works. With the come-as-you-are atmosphere, these clubs attract people who make a point not to be “fashion slaves.” And, for the traveler, it’s easy to meet people in a Budapest ruin pub.

I end up sitting with Peter (who designs ruin pubs), Laura (who works at a hotel), and Sandra (whose father’s company, “Heat Wave,” introduced pornography to Hungary after freedom in the 1990s). I say how much I like the shabby lounge atmosphere of a ruin pub, and Laura declares that this one, Szimpla (which means “Simple”), is the mecca of ruin pubs in Budapest. Sandra agrees, but is distracted when Miss Hungary walks by. With a little disdain, she says, “There’s Miss Hungary—a beauty brat with a Gucci handbag, and nobody notices her.”

Ruin pubs come with a bit of communist kitsch. The 20-somethings that love these lounges were little kids during the last years of communism. Too young to understand its downside, they have fond memories of the good times, when the pace of life was slower and families were tighter-knit. Ruin pubs sell nostalgic commie soft drinks along with the cocktails.

Peter buys everyone a round of spritzes (rosé with soda water). He’s excited about the new ruin pub he just designed across town, and wants us to go there. I comment on how well the design works. He explains how these clubs are the soul of underground culture. It’s the anti-club: flea market furniture, no matching chairs, a mishmash of colors. It’s eclectic, designed to be undesigned. On hot nights, the pubs spill out into shoddy courtyards, creating the feeling of a cozy living room missing its roof ... under the stars.

Everyone seems to smoke. Here, where no one’s a fashion slave, not being a fashion slave creates a similar burden. Peter demonstrates the different ways you can smoke a cigarette in a counterculture enclave. First he does the affected “Beauty Queen” smoke, then the calculated “Godfather” smoke. Finally, gulping the cigarette in the middle of his lips, he does the “Working Smoker,” saying, “You smoke with big lips.”

Laura is talking with Sandra in Hungarian about her dead relationship. There’s nothing there, but she’s afraid to leave. When I join the conversation, she shifts to English and says it’s like she has sexual anorexia. Her boyfriend and she are drifting apart. She wants him to watch “Sex and the City,” and says, “To understand the soul of a woman, you must watch ‘Sex and the City.’” This topic gets Laura and Sandra talking about how Hungarian men aren’t as good as men from other cultures—not considerate, not thoughtful in conversation, and so on. I explain to her the concept of “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” She says we’re talking beds, not fences, and doesn’t buy my theory.

Politics are in the air all over Europe, with everyone looking at Greece’s economic disaster and wondering what to do. Hungarians are used to making not much money, but having the government pay for things. While Budapest is better off, in the east of the country, people still make horrible wages and expect the government to cover the essentials. The government provides, but things are supplemented with tips. Health care is a good example of this heritage of communism. Hungarians insist on complete coverage—with no co-pay. Technically, they get it. But everyone knows the system only works with the help of “pocket money”—people actually pay cash tips to their doctors in order to get an appointment and have their concerns taken seriously. That’s how it was in communist times. And that’s how it remains today.

In 1989, with the “spontaneous privatization of the society,” the Communists in power had the inside track and grabbed up the lion’s share of the country’s economic equity. Therefore, today, the former Communists are the privileged capitalist class and, ironically, these former “defenders of the proletariat” are now defenders of industry and corporate interests. Young people, who have a Tea Party edge to their politics, are wary of any promises that are populist and founded on deficit spending. They are tired of electing politicians who tell them what they want to hear. They see other former communist countries doing better than Hungary in fiscal discipline.

Old people are inclined to vote Communist, and young people want the new austerity. In a recent election, young people joked about how to stop your Granny from voting. Pop stars were making videos: Lock her in her bedroom, send her on vacation, ask her to babysit for a couple of days. Or be straight with her and convince her to vote for her granddaughter’s future. Thanks to Greece, populism has taken a big hit in Eastern Europe.

Rick Steves

Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. He is the author of Travel as a Political Act.

4 Comments for Commie Kitsch in Budapest’s ‘Ruin Pubs’

ann 07.07.10 | 2:49 PM ET

Great article… You captured the essence…
I’ll visit these “Ruin Pubs” next summer when I’m there; looking forward.

Layne 07.08.10 | 6:53 AM ET

Great piece. I wonder how the ruin pubs in Hungary would compare to the bar scene in Albania? If you ever feel like checking Tirana’s pulse, I’d love to get your impressions.

Larry J. Clark 07.10.10 | 7:30 AM ET

“...populism has taken a big hit in Eastern Europe.”

This is the 21st Century…Shouldn’t that be “Central Europe”? 07.13.10 | 11:12 AM ET

Great post about the “ruin pubs!”  They sound like a lot of fun.  You can have a lot of interesting conversations by hanging out with the locals.  And, you can learn about their country, especially the history of it.

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