Photographers are never a happy lot. If you are like most photographers, you tend to spend too much time reading photography sites and worrying about the gear you don’t have, or the photos you are not taking. Seldom will you check out a photo’s EXIF data and find yourself rejoicing. No, on the contrary. What’s more likely to happen is that all that technical data contained in those accompanying files will leave you with a sense of quiet desperation. One side of you will see that the great photo you’re looking at was taken with a more expensive camera/lens combination than what sits in your camera bag. Another side of you, and perhaps more painful to ego and wellbeing, will discover that the photograph was taken with a much cheaper camera/lens combination than what you dished-out for your precious. Whatever the case, your mind will immediately begin questioning your choices, and a raging war of words from pundits living in your subconscious will not waste a single second in turning your brain into a virtual battle zone. You need more, you need less, you need different, more time, more knowledge, more, more, less, less. It’s enough to get you committed to an institution. In the end, all you really need is the desire to take photos, and the ability to do so. Time and disposition are the key, and just like wine, whatever you think is good, is good enough. So best to purge those voices in your head and just go out and make photographs with whatever gear you’ve got. Believe me, I’ve been plenty envious of what some people are recording with their iPhones. But maybe it was because I didn’t have the right lens. Oh no, there again are those voices in my head.
Lately I’ve talked to a few folks that seem somewhat morose about everything that’s going on around them. You could actually see the burden on their shoulders, not to mention their cautious, hesitant steps. It is as if this hyperactive world is finally beating them down, leading to conversations long on medical tests and anxiety about a world that has seemingly gone mad. Too many travel warnings, too many terrorists, too many lying politicians, too many medications, and too little time to live a little. It’s all kind of depressing, to tell you the truth, and if you let these worries get into your head, it won’t be long before you convince yourself that life is nothing but a mad dash downhill to the end of the road. What’s so fun about that?
The antidote to all this is nothing less than focusing on always going uphill, rather than downhill. That’s right, struggle more, not less. Celebrate your ignorance, because there will be so much more to learn, but do get on with it. Look in front of you and plan your next move, be it learning something difficult or doing something challenging. Get rid of negative talk and fix your eyes on the hill ahead, no matter how high it is. Look at the stars above and not at the dirt below. Live for the joy of living, and never take that dreaded downhill road. Others have tried that route, only to discover that it leads nowhere. So cheer up, look up, and push up that hill with gusto, because it is along that road where great things always happen.
You would’ve thought that after so many years of traveling, I was over it by now. That after a great trip, my mind and attitude would accept that I had had enough, and that now it was time to adjust to the daily routine that is my everyday life. After all, it is not like it’s the end of travel for me. Rather, it is more like a pause of some sort while aching joints and muscles catch their breath and a new, even more exciting travel adventure begins. Been there a thousand times in the past, so I should be very used to it. Right? Well, no. So what’s the problem? The problem is that I’m not well and have a recurrent, and quite serious case of “Post Travel Stress Syndrome.” It is a case induced by a travel experience that ended way before I was ready for it to end. A classic disconnect between the body that came back home and the mind that stayed behind wandering around the cobblestones and canals of Europe. Been there yourself? Then you know what I’m talking about.
But what’s really strange is the feeling that this incurable condition may actually be a good thing. Like hunger driving a good appetite, the time and financial limitations of travel drive the desire to see more, to experience more. A feeling of scarcity induced by limitations, real or imagined. Longing tempered by reality. Like seafaring discoverers of yesteryears, once back at shore it is impossible to look at that vast, open ocean again without something pulling at your heartstrings, and at your feet. A mermaid’s distant call, whose sweet melody foreshadows that there will be many journeys still to come. It is the sweetest song of all.
“We wanderers, ever seeking the lonelier way, begin no day where we have ended another day; and no sunrise finds us where sunset left us. Even while the earth sleeps we travel. We are the seeds of the tenacious plant, and it is in our ripeness and our fullness of heart that we are given to the wind and are scattered.” … Kahlil Gibran
I find very few things as satisfying as walking around neighborhoods in Europe to find out what people are really like away from the tourist spots and the hustle and bustle of city center. I’m talking about those neighborhoods that never make it to travel brochures, but which are teaming with ordinary life like the one I leave behind every time I embark on a journey. Interestingly, I travel thousands of miles, spend more money that is prudent to spend, and put my joints through grueling day walks, just to observe and experience the lives of ordinary people like myself living ordinary lives like mine. Now, I grant you that this is not everyone’s cup of tea, or that it ranks up there with what most people would choose to do with their limited time and money, but for me, this relentless pursuit of “distinctive sameness” (how’s that for confusion?) is what has fueled more than 40 years of travel around the world. You could say that I am simply fascinated by all that is the common amongst the people of the world, but at the same time different. A narrow line marking the distinction between cultures and people, but for me, a demarcation zone that has fueled the pursuit of a lifetime.
In absolute terms, human behavior and culture, are rather similar. We all eat, enjoy art, labor, love, pursue happiness, experience sadness, etc., etc, etc. We just go about it differently, and that is where my insatiable interest lies: on the “unique” ways we all experience all these common traits of humanity as a result of history, culture, and geography. The Japanese people bow deeply with tears flowing down their cheeks upon seeing someone dear to their hearts after years of separation, while the Italians hug incessantly as if trying to fuse two people into one. Same feeling, different expressions. And it’s the same wherever you look, be it in what people eat, or what they do with their free time. A beautiful river with incredible landscapes invites contemplation and romance. An industrial city replete of square, concrete buildings, perhaps not as much. Thus, the factors affecting our adopted behaviors are indeed many and varied, and there’s no better place to discover these behavioral distinctions than in the neighborhoods where people disarmingly engage in them without a care in the world. In the process, I learn a lot about them, and without a doubt, a little about myself.
No matter how many times you ride trains in Europe, it never ceases to be a fascinating experience. Don’t know whether it is the novelty of it all, the beautiful landscape, or just the rocking motion of those mighty machines that so enthralls those of us who rarely experience such treats. No doubt it’s a combination of those and many other factors, but whatever it is, I just can’t get enough of it. Mind you, though, that I much prefer to experience European trains during the off-season, when the multitude of visitors to the continent have gone back to work, but even if that’s not possible, any day will do as far as I’m concerned. But this affection for trains is not something everyone possesses, as I recently met some Europeans who literally hated the idea of having to take a train. Go figure.
To a large extent, my love of European trains has a lot to do with seeing things for the first time. When we travel, it is like we send our senses into overdrive. From what we see to what we eat and feel, travelers seem to be in a constant state of overdrive, or enhanced sensitivity. It is as if we cannot get enough of all the things around us, which no doubt receive way more attention than what a local is willing to bestow. As locals ourselves back home, we find it kind of entertaining sometimes to listen to tales from visitors about places we have become too familiar with to notice anymore. Like them, we have been afflicted by a kind of visual numbness induced by familiarity.
Exactly the opposite happens when we travel, specially in trains. That whole combination of speed, visual overload, and briefness, plays wonders inside our heads. Like beautiful postcards flashing at high speed before our eyes, those flashing scenes on a window demand we focus all our senses in order not just to see, but to remember. After all, the very Europe rapidly passing in front of us is precisely the Europe we spent so much money and time to experience. That is why when I ride a train in Europe, afraid that I will miss something, I cannot bring myself to look at anything but that window. Nope, I didn’t come to Europe to read a magazine on a train. I came to Europe to see, feel, and experience Europe. And that window, with its rapidly changing landscape, is precisely the Europe I’m talking about. The small villages, the rivers, the mountains, the pine trees, the tree-lined country roads, the graffiti, the blue sky and vast plains. Yes, all of it. Memories some day, but just as part of me as the world back home. A love affair that has no end.
There are some things you just can’t have enough in life. For me, that’s traveling through Europe. That is because no matter how much I visit that continent, there’s something new to discover and experience. The fact that you can find a completely different language and culture by just driving the equivalent of crossing an US state line, just adds to the experience every time. But today’s Europe is not the same as the one I experienced during the days of the Cold War and before globalization. Today, it is a much-changed cultural landscape, where the old, great architecture is still there, but goods and services are pretty much the same as in any US major city. Of course, I’m referring to the large cities in the continent, because once you get to the countryside, the Europe of your imagination is still hanging on to culture and mores. Of course, this is not to say that the large cities have lost all manners of cultural identity (because they have not), but rather that the forces of globalization are a lot more evident in the great capitals than anywhere else in the continent.
But whatever the changed landscape, return to Europe I must. And just like every time before, what I found was quite incredible and left me (as always before) wanting to return as soon as possible. In true “slow travel” mode, I once more discovered that slowing down, venturing off-the-beaten-path at odd hours of the day, and taking time to absorb everything around me, made all the difference in the world. From the royal architecture of Vienna, to the cobblestone streets and towers of Prague, it is all fascinating to me. The quiet, precious moments at daybreak, when the majestic, war-scared buildings of Dresden were drenched in the lazy, yellow light of a new day ricocheting off the mighty Elbe, inevitably transported you to another century long the stuff of history books. And then, there were the Royal Gardens of Herrenhausen in Hannover. You could spend an entire day enjoying what has to be one of the great, and most romantic gardens of the world. New and old, coexisting for centuries. In Berlin while wrapping up this never-long-enough European tour, I couldn’t help but think of the incredible talent that centuries past created such works of beauty, and the incredible hatred that so often tried to destroy them in equal time. Human frailty and the human spirit, battling it out throughout history. We can only hope that the spirit continues to help preserve such gems for future generations.
The city of Berlin never disappoints, and seeing it again after a few years, I find it continues to be an energetic and dynamic metropolis. If you believe everything you read in some publications, you would be forgiven for believing that the city has lost most of its mojo, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The city remains as vibrant as before, if not more. Great stores, historical sites, and lively neighborhoods keep the city on the move, with streets packed with people at all hours of the day. Hang around the Kurfürstendamm, Friedrichstrasse, and the Gendarmenmarkt and you’ll soon know what I’m talking about. No doubt that when the time comes time to leave, I will once again regret my departure from such a great city.
I am here today to defend the proposition that there is no better part of the day than the early morning hours of a day. That’s right, I am taking a stand. And yes, this is a subject that is much ignored by most folks, but in the name of the pursuit of happiness, I feel that it is my duty to openly declare that those fleeting hours when the sun begins to appear over the horizon are about as close to heaven as we will get on this earth. They are poetry incarnate, manifesting a choreographed rhythm replete with rituals, lights, beginnings, and discovery. When we wake up (and no matter our speed of movement), we tend to do the same things every day, even if during the rest of the day we proudly profess not to be the victims of routine. It is those little things we do without fail that make morning so special. Eyes opening with the first light, setting those same eyes on a loved one, laboring in the kitchen, and going through our mental checklist for the day. It is busy time, but busy with new beginnings and the hope that today will be better than yesterday. So there you have it: I’m officially issuing the “morning is best” edict, so we all better start enjoying them a little bit more. Still skeptical? Just ask the fella sitting at that bench.
There is perhaps no better place to be in America during Memorial Day that in Washington, DC where a grateful nation pays tribute to so many fallen heroes in such a honorable way. The annual pilgrimage is really something to see. What are otherwise empty streets on weekends are now overwhelmed with the rumbling sounds of motorcycles and visitors making their way to the countless ceremonies taking place at memorials all over town. They come from just about every part of the country with a sense of pride and patriotism that you only wish you could bottle it and sell it to those who could use a little dosage of both. But what I like above all is that these are ordinary Americans, the ones who have built a great nation through personal sacrifice and ingenuity. Even better, their yearly arrival at the capital they own happens to coincide with the hasty exodus by professional politicians from the city, as well as local elites going into lockdown at their pricey downtown condos (God forbid that they had to mingle with “them” people). Am I digging this? Maybe a little. But it sure is nice to know that a great nation full of incredible folks stills exists beyond the walls of Minas Tirith.
Something feels a bit different when you step into a library these days. The first thing you notice is that these great places of wisdom have ceased to be the meeting places of yesteryears. These days the level of activity within these ancient temples can be best described as a trickle. Long gone are the days when the library was central to our thirst for knowledge, or to our social lives. The Internet and the digital revolution rendered them pretty much irrelevant for most people, and it all happened seemingly at the speed of light. The digitization of knowledge meant that we no longer had to physically travel to find it. Rather, knowledge would now come to us through a few, simple strokes on a keyboard. Ditto for our social interaction. Handshakes? That’s so yesterday. Today we just click on a “like” and be done with it. Catching a potential partner’s eye across the library table? You kidding? Just make sure your online dating profile is up to snuff and that your photoshopped photo looks great on the dating site. Click. Send. Done.
But no matter how much some of us appear to be grieving for the passing of the old-fashioned library, I still think that its total demise remains a thing of the future. Sure, the books in those buildings appear to be more decoration than references (when I visited not one person had a book in front of them, but everyone was at a computer terminal or sitting with a laptop), but some of the traditional attributes of libraries remain as needed today as they were decades ago when we all used to hang out around such places. Quiet. Silence. Solitude. A sense of space. A time for introspection and learning ( and yes, on account of propriety I’m leaving out some of the shenanigans that made libraries famous for different reasons way back then). Today, there are simply not too many places available in cities and communities for people to enjoy those somewhat passive pursuits. Noise pollution and endless visual demands have taken a serious toll on all of us. But in a library, the moment people set foot in them, silence and quiet take over just like magic, and a sense of “do-not-disturb” immediately becomes the norm, rather than the exception. Social detox at its best. Bastions of peace and quiet in a world bent on denying us those simple pleasures. And while such musings could easily be interpreted as excessive nostalgia or some equally forlorn feeling, I can only hope that such places never cease to exist, even if the betting is heavily stacked against them.
Today I would like to spend a little time praising the virtues of aimless wandering. I say aimless in the sense that such wandering is not constrained by any particular pattern of the type that leads to predictability of your course. No, the type of wandering I’m referring to has to do with selecting a general geographic area and then letting your feet (and curiosity) take you wherever they want to take you. Not for a moment, but rather for hours on end, and even full days in some occasions. It is the joy of day-after-day discovery, and a constant reminder that there’s a world out there that is both dynamic and exciting, not to mention the source of endless visions that will last a lifetime.
It was wandering that led me through a beautiful, ancient door and into a magnificent courtyard in Milan where lovers lazily embraced on a sunny summer day. It is wandering that has led me to discover the everyday lives of people in cities and neighborhoods that practically don’t exist in most people’s radar consciousness. Life reduced to a lover’s embrace, to a smile from a stranger, or to the asynchronous rhythm of a city coming alive in the mornings. There, between the silence which makes its last stand in the mornings and the inevitable noise of humanity mercilessly charging forward at the break of dawn, is where I find the tumultuous nature (and beauty) of living. Wandering, in small or large quantities, makes such discoveries possible. Drive or walk to work? Try taking a different route on a regular basis. Going shopping? How about trying that Korean store, or a farmer’s market for a change. Ditch the car and walk sometime, enter a restaurant where most people don’t speak your language, or hang around people who are not like you for a while. Visit a new city just because and get lost on foot for a few days. Travel and linger. Wander with a purpose, or without one, as places have a funny way of guiding your steps sometimes. Who knows, you may even discover that most people are alright after all.
When it comes to restaurants, it doesn’t get much simpler than the great American diner. And while restaurants come and go, all those magnificent diners that dot our great land are nothing but the rough diamonds of our culinary landscape. Too greasy? Yes. Too many calories? Sure. Cholesterol bombs? Definitely. Delicious? Absolutely. This culinary dichotomy (eyes raised to the heavens while placing one foot on the grave) is what makes these places a must while we spend time on this earth. Gravy on the biscuits? Must you ask.
But what is it that attracts so many people to the simple American diner? To a large extent, it is a large degree of nostalgia. Diners remind us of simple days, of small town America, of long-gone family time when you could dress casually while enjoying food that at some level helped to bind us as a people. What’s more, when go to a diner, we really don’t care much about how the food tastes. We already know how it’s going to taste. After all, how may permutations of eggs and hash browns can there be. No, going to a diner will always be about feeling differently when we’re there; about unpretentious servers who greet you as if they’ve known you forever. It is about the sweet “seat yourself” melody resonating in our ears, and about not being able to decide what to order because everything looks too good to pass. Heaven on earth, if you ask me. A place to be who you truly are and not the promotional version of yourself. I only wish I could turn back the clock a few decades or so, to a time when I could have added a couple of pancakes to my order. Next time, my friend, next time.
No matter how many times I visit the National Art Gallery in Washington, DC, there’s always something fascinating to be found amongst its many art chambers. And while I too admire its world-class exhibits, I would have to admit that it is the pursuit of the elusive perfect photographic scene that keeps me coming back to this wonderful place. Sadly, I haven’t found it yet, but sometimes I can’t help to think that I am so close to it, that I can feel it in the next chamber. Along I go, heart beating with the expectation of a 15-year old, and always hopeful that this time will be the lucky one. Mysteriously, and no matter the amount or level of disappointment, I never cease my quest. I know it has to be there, that perfect scene just waiting for me around the corner, with the backdrop of canvases and the magic strokes of long-gone masters of the arts. Yes, it has to be there, and no matter how much my feet hurt, or how tired I am, I can’t bring myself to stop looking, for to do so would amount to voluntarily extinguish the spark that lit the search flame in the first place.
The thing is, that no matter how hard I look, I really don’t want to find that perfect photograph. This may render my quest somewhat illusory, but in reality it is a case of enjoying the search (i.e., the journey) more than the idea of getting to what I’m after. It may not sound unique, but it really keep those aching feet taking one more step along the way. I will grant you that this whole notion resides somewhere deep in my mind, but after all, don’t we all live inside our heads? Photographers do, and that is why they wrestle all the time with the concept of visual meaning, or value for that matter. One minute they are happy with their work, the next they are not. The emotional and artistic yo-yo effect constantly pulling in one direction or the other. And all driven by the notion that next time, yes, next time, they can do better than yesterday. Self-dilusion or unbridled optimism? Take your pick, but I think I’ll stick with the optimism part for a while longer.
Here is yet another one of those “hiding in plain sight” stories. Ever heard of the Dumbarton House in Georgetown, DC? Well, neither had I. That is, until the last 48 hours or so. In fact, I wasn’t even looking for it, as I was driving along Georgetown’s Q Street on my way to the eccentricities of Dupont Circle, my photography destination for the day. Considering how enchanting this Dumbarton House is, I am kind of glad that I never made it to Dupont that morning, even if my discovery soon led to disappointment when I discovered that the House itself did not open its doors until 11:00 AM for inside-the-house tours. Thus, the early bird did not catch the proverbial worm this particular morning.
Like other houses built around 1800 in the area (almost all of them private properties closed to the general public), the simple elegance of the mansion bespeaks to a world that is almost unimaginable by today’s standards. It is described as a fine example of Federal Period architecture of the type that began dotting the Washington area during the early days of the capital. And while the attached East Park and Herb Garden are beautifully serene, the gem of the outdoors has to be the section right behind the house itself, were blooming flowers perfume the morning air with the soft embrace of a morning sun. A quiet, little-known hamlet surrounded by busy streets and busy people, and a reminder of how rewarding it can be to take a detour from our charted journeys in order to see where our tired, wandering feet will take us.
Think most politicians dream of spending time in the White House? Then think again. It just so happens that high up on a hill barely three miles north of the White House, a simple cottage next to a civil war cemetery was the preferred dwelling of none other than Abraham Lincoln himself. During the Civil War years, when more than your usual number of shady characters walked the power hallways of our nation’s capital, old Abe managed to spend around one-forth of his presidency conducting business from the quieter government quarters a short walk away from the Soldier’s Home in the District. And after spending a few hour recently touring this little-known Washington attraction, I can definitely see why he chose to spend his summers there. He may not have been able to avoid the raging civil war, but he was able to put some distance between himself and the grinding politics of Washington during these troubled times.
The Cottage is a bit out-of-the-beaten-path for most people. You pretty much have to drive there, although you could get there by bus if you have unlimited patience reserves, or by Metro if you if long walks are your thing when you travel. However you get there, the Cottage is well worth a visit for anyone interested in history and the personalities of the Civil War era. Be mindful, though, that the place is not what I would call photography-friendly. The DC area as a whole is a bit paranoid about photographers, but at this restricted installation you would think that you just entered Area 51 or something like it. No photographs inside any building, severely restricted movement around the Cottage, and security personnel on you like a cheap suit. You would certainly be forgiven for thinking that President Lincoln was still there. But the place is part of the rich history of our country, and well worth enduring the minor photographic and movement inconveniences that come with visiting.