The stall owner put me down with a thud. This was my new home, at least until someone bought me, on the wooden table outside the shop in the middle of the market. Other cameras sat to the side of me, some newer and some older. The big ones sat there on tripods looking like a mechanical insect of some sort, with squeezebox lenses similar to accordions.
People crowded round, walking through the narrow alleyway that made up the heart of the Ecseri Market, eating greasy lángos from the stand across from the shop, doing shots of cheap pálinka before wandering off. The sun heated up the plastic casing. Clients flinched when they touched me before looking at me with a squint as if I were a historic and redundant relic before walking off into labyrinthine lanes of the market.
“You’ll get used to it,” I heard something whisper through the air to me. It came from the horn from the old, bronze gramophone, barely a whisper, either inaudible to humans or simply ignored. “The sun tends to go round in an hour or so. Been here long?”
“Since this morning,” I said. A flock of tourists strolled past taking photos on their phones. I hate those things, the more people used phones, the more obsolete we cameras became for people.
“I’ve been here for months, people aren’t into gramophones these days, looks like those handheld ones that play music and take pictures have replaced both of us.”
I could see all kinds of objects in my periphery, more cameras, some even older than me, porcelain, furniture, vintage placards and other odds and ends. Entering the market I saw all kinds of objects, like a fountain with a giant enamel snake curving up around the spout, probably taken from a villa up in the XII District, and even giant painted portraits of political leaders, some living and some dead.
“Does anyone buy this stuff?” I said.
People walked back and forth carrying vintage trinkets and retro relics. I saw two men would carry a wardrobe through the market perched on their shoulders followed by a young woman who stopped to hold up her newly bought antique brass coffee grinder to glint under the sun.
“Oh stuff gets bought, either stuff that’s useful or stuff that’s antique. Sometimes people buy broken or random things,” the gramophone answered.
Budapest is discarded things, I’ve photographed quite a few myself. I remember when András wanted to experiment with artistic photography. He took me into a place they called a ruin bar, filled with furniture and items you’d dig out from the piles of other people’s trash left on the side of the road during lomtalanitás*. The city streets had changed since my youth, where walls have been left to crumble in some houses, while others have disappeared to leave only a firewall behind painted with street art or a new building altogether. The city is a collection of curiosities from its ever changing city streets to the items that inhabit them. Many of its stories end up here, on the eclectic stalls in Ecseri market out in the XIX District.
“Where did you live?” I asked the gramophone.
“In the I District, up by Krisztina Tér.”
“I didn’t know much outside the flat. Only the view. I could see the Castle walls from the living room, they kept me next to the window, so I could see everything down by the street below. I was more of a decoration in the end, they hardly played me, even before my owner died. She was 90. I was a wedding present. She kept me out of sentimentality, on the table by the window but after her husband died, she never played me again. The daughter sold me to a salesman, who brought me here.”
“When was the last time anyone played you?”
“I can’t remember,” the gramophone said, although time and memories meant little to objects with no sense of mortality.
Everything dies, and while a human lives up to 70-90 years, sometimes more, sometimes less, and animals and insects live to the fraction of that, objects can be immortal or have a short shelf life. There are items in the market over 100 years old, and they may live 100 years more. There are objects I’ve seen in the museums that are hundreds, even thousands, of years old and still going, each with their story to tell, just like everything here in Ecseri. But when we become disposable, when our shelf life is up, we get discarded, thrown out or if we’re lucky, sold. Some items are buried, like the mortal dead, and others get reincarnated, with bits and pieces going onto make other objects. As a camera, maybe my lens will be used again, or my plastic gets melted down to make something new. Objects, when they are new, are loved and used with pride, but then somewhere down the line we become obsolete and a new replacement comes along, if we haven’t broken down by that point. There comes a turning point when our age itself becomes our value, we become retro, vintage and those of us who live to tell the tale, antiques.
Here, in the market, I saw items of all kinds of vintages, although nothing new. There are some bits and pieces that are old enough to have been sold and given away, but not old enough to be considered an item of value.
“When was the last time someone took a photograph with you?” the gramophone asked me.
It wasn’t long ago in the context of human time – perhaps a year, two or maybe more? András was still with Lilla then. She loved photography and anything old, and she got excited when she found me.
She insisted they go to the park for a shoot. She wore a short black dress with red and white flowers and a wide brimmed hat. She thought she looked Parisian. András agreed, but I have photographed women in Paris before and didn’t agree with her declaration. Lilla was always difficult, she tried to be something she’s not. Once she convinced everyone at a party she was born in England and drank tea with her pinky raised, when she, and her entire family, came from Debrecen. Whatever was in vogue, Lilla wanted it. It was the reason András pulled me out from his father’s storage room, when Lilla became obsessed with everything vintage. He’d carry me around and snap pictures on film of Lilla posing in some kind of outfit near one of Budapest’s landmarks – in a ballgown on the steps of the national gallery, in furs outside the opera, and today in a summery dress in Városliget.
I was filled with Lilla, her image rattled around inside of me. András collected the images and had no idea what to do with them – especially when she broke up with him for an artist whose show she had posed in only weeks before. Lilla was always looking for the next hot thing, and when the bluntly painted nudes of Lilla and other girls got displayed along with other terrible art hanging next to the exposed brick in Kisüzem, András took a photo of her posing in front of her own portrait. She flicked her henna dyed hair back, as she grinned under a patchy nude depicting her legs spread out. You couldn’t tell it was her, among the clumsy brushstrokes of painted flesh and strips depicting her chestnut hair.
In those last few weeks, Lilla was distant, and spent more time with the artist. She eventually told András she was sleeping with him, and had been doing so while he painted her portrait.
“He’s going to be great! While you just snap around with that old, trashy camera. I’ve never even seen one of the photos you’ve taken of me.”
András just walked away from the park. Silent without a word and even trying to plead and fight back. His silent must have stung Lilla, who thrived on attention. He did the best in ignoring her. He stood at the Szabadság Bridge with the camera in his hand. He raised his arm, moving to throw me into the river but stopped. He remembered I belonged to his father. He remembered his smile as he took photos of him as a child. He couldn’t throw away the camera, only the memories of Lilla. He opened the back and pulled the film out scattering it to the wind watching it as it fell into the water and floated on top the not-so-blue Danube.
He put me in a box and locked me up in the cupboard. I collected dust among all the other unloved items. One day, someone took me out of the cupboard. It wasn’t András. I don’t know what happened to him, but a few days later and I found myself here in the market for sale.
“That’s a sad story,” the gramophone said, “but at least you’ve seen a lot of life. You have memories at least.”
“If I didn’t carry memories inside me I wouldn’t be much use as a camera. That’s what we’re for, we’re here to capture memories.”
Although watching people wander around, snapping things on their smartphone before uploading to this thing called “Instagram” — Lilla was obsessed with Instagram — surrendering their memories for likes, where the rest of the photos sit on the phone unloved and forgotten since there are just too many. With film, people curate their memories, each photo matters, on a phone it becomes disposable, just like the people they “swipe right”. Infinite choice, infinite resources and the less it matters. Just like those forgotten photos and the old cameras people would throw away after one film, I too, have become disposable. Perhaps all of us in this market are forgotten creatures waiting for an owner to love us again, use us again.
I watch a couple who remind me of Lilla and András stop in front of the gramophone.
“That’s so cool!” the girl shouts as she fingers the bronze cone shaped like an open flower on the gramophone, “I bet this will look even better than vinyl.”
“You don’t even know what vinyl is,” said the guy, “Just cause the DJ you tried to pick up at Ankert raved about it. Besides, not sure if you can play much on this.”
“Oh I wouldn’t play it,” she said, “it would go well in the corner of my room. Kind of like a decoration, maybe put some flowers in here. It would make a cool flower pot.”
The girl haggled with the owner. Notes changed hands and she put the gramophone into a tarpaulin bag she handed to the guy.
“I guess being a glorified flower vase is better than getting dust inside of me here,” the gramophone whispered in the wind to me as they carried it off.
Maybe one day someone would pick me up off the table and take me home as a decorative antique. Maybe one day I may even take pictures again. But as the vendors started to pack up their goods to the soundtrack of metal shutters rattling down, closing us all in darkness until the next market day – today was not that day.
~~~ The End ~~~
About the author: Jennifer Walker is an Anglo-Hungarian former nuclear physicist turned writer based in Budapest, Hungary. She’s passionate about discovering Budapest’s hidden places, architecture and art.
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About Ecseri Market: Located in the suburbs of the XIX District, Ecseri Market is an open air flea and antiques market that’s open Monday – Saturday from 8am to 4pm (3pm on Saturdays). You can take the 54 or 55 bus from Boráros Tér to Használtcikk Piac and make sure you cross the bridge over the motorway.