Garbage Day!

Whew! It’s been a while, but I finally had a long weekend to stretch and get myself writing again!

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I still don’t know how it began. On the morning of March 9, piles of stuff began to appear on the streets of District VIII in Budapest. As I went to class, I passed people hauling books and cardboard boxes out of my building and stacking them between parked cars on the curb. By midday when I came home for lunch, the small stacks had merged into large piles of trash, knickknacks, lamps and chairs. Then came the appliances, as well as tables and piles of wood and other building materials, so that by 7 o’clock the streets were, as one BSM student later put it, perfectly perpared for a performance of Les Misérables.

Trash on the streets (László Balkányi We Love Budapest)

There was a reason that my neighborhood was playing the part of nineteenth-century Parisian revolutionaries constructing barricades to stave off the French army, and that was lomtalanítás—or “get-rid-of-your-junk” day. Instead of providing any regular trash service for bulky items or large quantities of trash, the city guarantees on this day that any of the stuff left out on the curbs will be removed by the next morning. In essence, it is free garbage disposal, so all of my neighbors were ready with everything, big and small, that they deemed to be “trash.”

That night, I left my apartment and walked to a friend’s house. The scene on the streets was surreal. The local online publication We Love Budapest (an excellent resource, and where some of these photos came from) described the experience well. Watching lomtalanítás unfold, as they described, was “akin to setting out into a post-apocalyptic city where no apocalypse has occurred.”

It didn’t feel this way primarily because of the trash piles everywhere, but rather because of the people crawling over the piles and looting through the junk. It was not uncommon to turn a corner and have someone stop and turn towards you, wondering if you were coming towards their pile.

Most people walking down the street found something interesting to consider (some treasures below), but some others appeared to turn the day into a whole economic operation. Teams of people in trucks, and occasionally whole families, sorted through the household items for clothing, appliances and functional electronics that still had value. It was clear that these “professional” crews knew what they were looking for. I also tried to scavenge, with subpar results. I was mostly unsuccessful, but eventually found a wonderful wok on top of a washing machine (I later realized that it was actually not-so-wonderful, so I left it on top of a different pile).

Once I found out about lomtalanítás, I was surprised that I hadn’t heard about it before. There were certainly things that I could have contributed! There were no posters or announcements that I had seen. After doing some research online, I found out that the city actually tries to keep the exact date of lomtalanítás a secret until the day itself because of the competitive scavenging crews that commute from cities around Budapest to participate. And no, I still don’t know how everyone else knew…maybe Hungarians just know, you know?

The practice of lomtalanítás began during the communist era over thirty years ago, and residents look forward to this day every year. According to the same We Love Budapest article, politicians occasionally try to end the practice, but they always end up abandoning the idea because they run up against fierce opposition. Lomtalanítás is engrained in Budapest’s culture, and—I can attest—is one of the many things that makes the city unique.

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