In 1983, a young Michal Solarski watched as his father packed the roof of his family’s tiny Fiat with two weeks' worth of suitcases and supplies. Food vouchers and pocket money in tow, they set out on their first family holiday. From the back seat, Michal and his older sister watched the chilly grey Polish landscape evolve to lush greenery and blue skies, as they drove 300 miles south from their home in the small village of Goleszow. Their destination was Lake Balaton.
Popularly referred to in land-locked Hungary as The Hungarian Sea, Lake Balaton, located 80 miles southwest of Budapest, is the largest lake in Central Europe. A sanctuary of spas and health resorts, thermal pools and sun bathing, Balaton lures tourists from all over Hungary and its surrounding countries. “We were usually spending days on the beach,” remembers Solarski. “The waters of Balaton are very shallow. In some places you could literally walk 100 yards from the shore and the water was hardly reaching your waist. It was a perfect place for kids to swim.”
Thirty years later, Solarski, now a photographer living in London, set out to make a body of work that would recreate the nostalgia he felt from the vacations of his youth. Inspired by a single blurry snapshot of him with his sister from that first summer – all that remains of the visit, and seven subsequent summers at the lake – he attempts to resurface his childhood experience and preserve it in a way his parents could not.
“The photograph was taken during our first visit to the lake in 1983, by the Hungarian family that we shared a house with,” he recalls. “It is the only photograph from Hungary in my family album. My parents didn’t own a camera at that time.”
Solarski returned to photograph Lake Balaton in the summer of 2010 and has been working on the project ever since. The resulting series of original photographs and found postcards stimulates the senses – one can feel the sun’s warmth, and the coarse sand underfoot, the joy of experiencing something for the first time. “For us everything was new,” remembers Solarski, “The fancy cars driven by the tourists from West Germany or Austria, the shops with assortments that, for us, were virtually mind blowing, and the ice-cream in all possible flavors and colors. It was impossible to experience that in 1980s Poland, where shops were still only offering basic goods.”
The vintage postcards are real, sent by vacationers from Lake Balaton to friends and family back home, lost or let go by their recipients over time. Resurfaced through internet research and hunting through shops in Hungary, Solarski quotes the original handwritten notes and includes them in the series with his photographs. The messages – mundane and ordinary – further serve his intent to take the viewer outside of the present, and draw them into the time capsule he’s created. For a moment, the world around us disappears and we are transported back to our own memories, to our own family holidays of years past.
Perhaps the only viewer unaffected in this way is Solarski himself. When asked what it was like returning to Balaton so many years later, his response was reflective. “When I was spending holidays there with my family, I was part of a vacationing crowd. We were all there for the same reason – to enjoy summer in a beautiful place and to have quality time with loved ones. This time it was different. I was kind of a voyeur, looking at others from a distance. I felt excluded, strange and very lonely at times. As a child I wanted the summer at the lake to last forever. This time, I was looking forward to coming back home.”
Michal Solarski is a photographer based in London.
Bridget Harris is Senior Photography Producer at TIME.