Monday, September 29, 2008

Top Five Budapest Cafés for Writing

Since the tacky renovation of my favorite writing café, Angelica Kávéház, on the Buda side, I have made it my business to scout some other attractive places to sit for a few hours with a notebook and pen, or laptop. It is not easy. A good café for writing is one where you can find solitude while still being amidst a crowd (which is not entirely unlike a writer’s function in society). There should be noise present, but not invasively so. And, for me, there needs to be an unnamable sort of moldering in the air, the knowledge that writers before you have fearlessly taken up their task in the space you are sitting in, and others will come after. Every good café has a ghost or two.

New Starbucks clones, as well as old Viennese-style coffee houses, abound in Budapest. Some are opulent beyond belief (the New York Café), some are local-minded and packed with students (Praga café) but only a few are truly ideal writing spaces. It is worth pointing out that, at the turn of the last century, the city’s cafes were hotbeds of intellectual activity, and social clubs for the those involved in the golden age of writing in Budapest, when the famed Nyugat literary review published the work of Hungary’s most daring, innovative, as well as revolutionary (in the real sense of the world) writing–the writers known as the nyugatos. Those days are gone, but the writers who lived and wrote over a hundred years ago (Móricz, Babits, and Ady, to name but a few) are paid homage in one way or another at cafes across the city, which are quick to put on display any paraphernalia connecting them to this unique literary scene.

As for me-I write, live, and commit acts of minor revolutionary import, on the Pest side, and the list reflects that:

5. Café Eckermann: the only truly new space on my list, though its former incarnation on Andrássy was a regular spot of local artist and writers, including Esterházy Péter. Not many revolutions were started from that place, but more than a few drinking binges were. The new space on Ráday is one of the only cafés that can still actually lay claim to hosting a literary community: editors of the German literary review Harom Holló (Three Ravens) meet here regularly, and their review is available for purchase. Eckermann also offers great vegetarian and home-cooked food, as noted in my review on chew.

4. Puskin Kávéház: Nothing grand or spectacular here, but the Puskin has always been a wonderful spot to people watch, and be left alone (in a good way) by the wait-staff for hours. Its space is functional, but all the components come together well, and the coffee is very fairly priced. Frequently doubling as a gallery, up-and-coming Hungarian artists and photographers are chosen by a curator who knows what they are doing. This is a great fall-back café that stays open later than most others. Puskin, it should go without saying, is named for one of Russia’s greatest writers.

3. Uránia Café in the Uránia National Cinema: they invented the cliché ‘painstakingly restored’ with the Uránia Café in mind. The details on the vaulting and ceiling are worth a trip alone. There are surprisingly few tables in the large space, and they are set far enough apart that conversations of surrounding patrons diminish to nothing more than a pleasant babble. Plus, there is a choice table, but only one, on the balcony overlooking Rákóczi, for those who really want to be alone to work.

2. Művész Café: I have been going to Művész off an on since arriving in Budapest so many years ago. There is a faded, refined feel to the place; it is homey and well patronized by expats, though it also attracts its share of tourists. That they closed for renovations was cause for worry, but they reopened with no real modernizations; it still looks old, just a bit more polished. Művész is a Budapest classic, and good for writers who don’t mind overhearing the next table’s chatter, and can allow for interruptions from friends, as it is quite popular. Prices reflect the Andrássy location.

1. August Cukrászdá: Just when I thought I knew every good café or pub to go to in Budapest, friends over at the food/music blog Dumneazu turned me on to this classic café. Old and elegant without being ostentatious or stuffy, professional and deferential service, a few dark, shadowed nooks, and fantastic pastries, cakes, and coffee, it has everything a writer could want. August is a quiet, atmospheric, and intimate space, hidden in a courtyard off Rákóczi. It attracts mostly locals, as the tourist traffic is no doubt lured away by the near-by Café Central, which reeks of literary history, but is a bit too up-scale for my taste. August is great for those who like solitude and quiet within a public space, and like to write in long hand (I have yet to see a laptop there); which means, ideal for me.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sign Language

There is something romantic, and totally Budapest, about the old store signs around the city, be they hand painted, neon, or graphic. They are artifacts of by-gone times, and are disappearing all too rapidly in this climate that only seems to value the new. Like the architecture, the old signs in Budapest have an elegance that ages well. They just look nicer when a bit faded.

There is a certain word lettering, that I have not yet been able to identify, that has a Bauhaus feel: blocky and modern, yet timeless, that is typical of the style of sign that brands the store as uniquely Hungarian. This flower-store sign is a perfect example:

I have been documenting as many old style signs as I can while they are relatively plentiful. Following are some of my favorites, mostly from central Budapest.

A timepiece seller:

A wine cellar:

A furrier:

A bookstore:

A women's hair-dresser:

Ham-radio hobby shop:

A beer hall:

A movie theater:

And, finally, the defunct baggage check at Keleti, the eastern train station of Budapest:

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Cover Me

If one were to sum up the Budapest live-music scene from the point of view of a touring band, it could only be, "highly skipable". The list of bands that have bypassed Budapest in favor of more receptive markets is too long to contemplate, and includes some of our favorites: the Pixies, the White Stripes, the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, and Arcade Fire. It is particularly irksome that most of these bands take their shows directly from Vienna to Belgrade without stopping off in Budapest, which, last we checked, was on the way. Even worse, indie bands like Hawk and Hacksaw are actually coming to live in Budapest to absorb what they can of the recently hipster-approved Balkan sound, then hightailing it back to the US without even playing a token gig for the local audience.

Far be it for Mókus Pokus to speculate as to why this is the case. There was that instance where ticket buyers to a Liza Minelli show were treated to the last-minute substitution of Bonnie Tyler who, if reports are correct, thought she was head-lining all along. Liza, apparently, didn't even know about the concert. This might be the most obvious manifestation of the kind of short-term chicanery that plagues most service-oriented business in this town - but, again - who can say? The result is that the only way we will get a whiff of bands like The Hold Steady and Okkervil River is if there is a strong wind blowing in from Vienna.

Ideally, the dearth in touring bands would create an atmosphere where Hungarians would fill the void with hearty, non-GM, home-grown rock. But, sadly, Hungarian bands are to rock what the Yugo was to automotive transport. There is just not to lot to keep one's interest, beyond the two seconds it takes to figure out who they are ripping off.

The upside is that there is a lively tribute-band culture in Budapest. And we are not just talking about the phenomenon of the Depeche Mode Fan Club (which deserves a post all its own), but ranges the pop spectrum from tributes to Led Zeppelin, the White Stripes, to KISS.

Within the legal-theft realm of the tribute band, Hungarian musicians thrive. One of our favorites is Kiss Forever (in pic at top: fake band, real groupies!) who, as we remember, did a scorching salsa version of Detroit Rock City. (On a digressive side note: we will never forget when the 'Gene Simmons' of Kiss Forever looked us dead in the eye after a gig and, without a trace of irony, said, "We don't like playing in Germany. Germans don't get pyrotechnics.") Never doubt the sincerity of these projects: they are pure expressions of fan-dom and, for the most part, technically adroit covers. What is surprising is that there is a market to support their sometimes prosaic enthusiasms. KISS was designed to self-replicate - but Toto? And why are tribute bands so attractive to play in? We put that question to local expat musician Kris Wackerman, founder of the White Stripes Project. He gave his answer in an eight-point plan:

(1) I am a beginner-level drummer with no formal training, and the White Stripes' songs have basic, but interesting drum beats, perfect for me to play and to grow as a drummer at the same time. The beats are so bare that they leave room for improvement and touches that I can add as I get better.

(2) I met Gabi, the lead guitarist, about a year and a half ago and we became fast friends. Until I met her, I didn't know that chicks could even play the guitar. We formed a two person band named "Horny Tea", but we could not really agree on what type of cover songs to play. Most of the songs had "heart" in the title, or were by Jack Johnson. I finally convinced her to learn Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground, which blew me away when she played it. I knew then that a White Stripes cover band with the roles reversed - a male drummer and female lead - could be very popular. But, I could not get Gabi to learn a complete song from start to finish, gave up on the idea, and we broke up the band.

(3) My obsession with the White Stripes continued, and the idea of a tribute band began to burn a hole in my brain. I figured the only way I could pull it off would be to get a third person to sing and to help me get Gabi focused. I posted an ad on Caboodle, got a lot of ridiculous responses, and then, when I was about to give up, Lisa Steele started emailing me. We met, we practiced, the band took off, and we suddenly had played six gigs within the first three or four months.

(4) The White Stripes are not very well known in Hungary.

(5) Writing original music is difficult and potentially soul crushing. I honestly can't imagine being in a band that plays only original tunes. Great bands, the greatest bands, started out playing covers of popular songs. Pink Floyd used to play R & B covers and discovered their sound by changing the songs, by playing an extended 11 minute solo of Johnny B. Goode or something. I figured, I love the White Stripes sound, why not learn it, and then start to modify, see if we can't grow into something of our own. The original plan was to learn 20 White Stripes songs perfectly, start modifying the songs a bit, start covering other songs in the White Stripes style, and then start writing original music of our own. This is easier said than done. After nine months, we are just now at the point of starting to truly modify the songs.

(6) I wanted to show Hungarians that you do not need a bass player or an electronic keyboard to be a rock band.

(7) I wanted to show people that chicks can also rock out with their cocks out.

(8) I wanted to be a band leader. I was in a horrible, horrible cover band called Aggressive Washing Machine, playing covers of the Beatles, the Doors, the Cars, and some classic Hungarian Rock songs The band was so dysfunctional and disorganized that I knew I could do it better.

*video of White Stripes Project shot by Nathan Kay

It would be nice to say that we don't need the original bands to come to Budapest: who needs Jeff Poraco when we have the Jeff Poraco Experience! This would be rationalizing more than we are comfortable with. But until Liz Phair or Vampire Weekend decide we are worth their swing-by time, I am pretty sure there is some scrappy kid from Miskolc who is going to pick up a guitar and say, "It's time for a show. Here I am, rock you like a hurricane!".

Below, we have compiled a long, but by no means comprehensive, list of Hungarian tribute bands:

The Queen Is Dead (The Smiths)
Pornography (the Cure)
The Queen Unplugged Project (Queen)
SlipChaos (Slip Knot)
Jimmy Hendrix Experience (Jimmy Hendrix)
Back In Black and AC/DH (AC/DC)
Station (U2)
White Stripes Project (White Stripes)
Blackbird (The Beatles)
The Lennon Memorial Band (John Lennon)
Cry Free (Deep Purple)
Szepultura (Sepultura)
Alchollica (Metallica)
Zep Session (Led Zeppelin)
Synkronized (Jamiroquai)
Piknik Park (Linkin Park)
Stoned (The Rolling Stones)
Dust N' Bones, Hollywood Rose (Guns N' Roses)
Nem Csak Berry (Chuck Berry)
Cosmik Debris (Frank Zappa)
Jeff Porcaro Emlékyenekar (Jeff Poraco, of Toto)
Iron Majdnem (Iron Maidon)

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.