It was a cliffhanger, but the famous Tidal Basin Cherry Blossoms did manage to show up after all. A bit subdued mind you, but there they are along with the crowds. And while the cold, rainy season is kind of putting a damper on people’s mood, it is virtually impossible to walk amongst these wonderful trees and not feel some sort of uplifting, positive force that could can turn any sour Washington bureaucrat into a happy person. And believe me, that is saying a lot. Every year, this beautiful gift of nature appears to remind us that not everything is gloom and doom in this world. In fact, it is a reminder that the dark, cold days of winter don’t last forever, and that there will always be a spring, and flowers blooming, and lovers moved by nature’s spectacle. Life as an eternal cycle, with endless springs to come.
Not everyone enjoys empty spaces. I’m referring to those empty rooms where maybe a sole couch sits, or a sole print on the wall. Sort of a Japanese Zen kind of room, devoid from visual distractions, but perhaps with a single object in it to demand your total, and uncluttered attention. It is really incredible how the Japanese have turned the absence of something into a thing of beauty. If only we could do that in this part of the world, where people cannot have enough stuff to cram into whatever space they have. Kind of what we do with our time, where society feels compelled to fill every minute of it with some activity, like checking a cell phone for that constant stream of those “insignificant little nothings.”
But when we search for creativity, empty spaces do seem to take an importance out of proportion from their normal selves. Perhaps it has to do with the visual isolation they allow, or perhaps with the fact that the less taxing our visual reaction is, the more our minds can wonder and compose. Whatever the case, it is in that desolate, empty distance separating feelings from the subject of our attention, where I find the glorious sustenance that feeds my imagination. That gap, that clear path where nothing lives and where obstacles don’t exist, is precisely where inspiration dwells. Nothing stands in the way of our eyes, thoughts, and admiration. It is glorious emptiness, where unable to be seen by the naked eye, incredible amounts of energy bounces back-and-forth without obstacles between the admirer and the admired.
In his meditative book, “The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down,” Buddhist Monk Haemin Sunim eloquently identifies this zone where nothing, and everything dwell in perfect harmony:
What makes music beautiful is the distance between one note and another. What makes speech eloquent is the appropriate pause between words. From time to time we should take a breath and notice the silence between sounds.
The absence of notes and words makes “noticing” possible, just as the absence of obstructing things make beauty noticeable. A pause in a conversation. The expectation of the next note. A lone painting on a wall. And the empty space between us. I couldn’t help but notice.
I roam the streets a lot. I mean roam in the sense that together with my camera I’m always looking for that great moment when the time and effort spent in the search is rewarded by some great photographic scene. This is the case in pretty much every city I visit, but more so than most, in the area where I happen to live, which is a stone throw away from downtown Washington, DC. Looking at the thousands of photos I’ve taken over the past few years, however, has revealed some key information about my photographic taste, but more than that, about the places I seem to prefer when out with my camera. From this data, it appears that photographically speaking, my favorite place in the city is the Georgetown neighborhood. And no, it has nothing to do with the Georgetown Cupcake store, that pilgrimage destination for sugar lovers everywhere. Well, at least not entirely. Let me explain.
Georgetown could be a city in its own right. An expensive one, mind you, but kind of in the way that Rodeo Drive has its own identify that sets it apart from other places in LA. It kind of pulls you in, and for reasons that have nothing to do with the balance on your credit cards. The reason has to do with atmosphere, with je ne sais quoi, and with the undefinable vibe. Charm? Well, there’s plenty of that too. Ok, if you need to know, with endless coffee shops, slick restaurants, plenty of bars, boutiques, and great city views too. It’s all there. Toss in a never-ending parade of beautiful and disheveled people, and the unique neighborhood brew is completed. A photographer’s dream, even if most people there would rather you never photograph them. But if it is your glam side you want to strut in the city, Georgetown, with its swanky shops and riverside promenade is the place to do it. Just watch out for those sneaky photographers trying to take your picture.
Who would’ve know. Mention the Spanish Steps to anyone who enjoys travel, and immediately romantic images of the Piazza di Spagna in Rome with its fountain and multitude of lovers peering down the busy Via dei Condotti come rushing in. A stroll with your lover down the narrow Via del Babuino in late afternoon to the imposing Piazza del Papolo before catching a romantic dinner along the undulating Tiber River. The stuff dreams are made of. So, it is time to get those tickets and head on out to the Bella Italia and Old Rome in search of the Spanish Steps? Perhaps. But guess what? Just yesterday I discovered that right here in good old Washington, DC, we too have Spanish Steps, and you can get there by metro! Steps? Check. Lovers? Check. Views? Check. Tiber River? Well, would you settle for the off-color Potomac River? If yes, then check. Romantic dinner? There’s plenty of romance a few steps away at Dupont Circle, so check. Antiquity and beautiful architecture with narrow, cobblestone streets? Highly overrated.
So, yes, there you have it. Hidden away between S St NW and Decatur Pl NW a bit north of Dupont Circle, and sitting amongst a slew of foreign Embassies, lies our lilliputian version of the famous Italian landmark. And you know what, they’re kind of nice. Small, but offering the kind of privacy that sometimes makes all the difference. Very few people seem to know about this place, specially if they don’t live close by and have to traverse the area out of necessity. Beautifully out of sight in plain view. Brilliant. And while somewhat lacking the grandiose magnitude of its Italian distant relative, it didn’t seem to lack any of the romance for lovers occupying its steps. There were giggles. There were stares. There was a kiss, and a lover’s hand. When you already have all that, who needs Rome after all.
I love to travel. Yes, I do, and the pages of this blog can attest to that in more ways than one. But I also love to look around my neighborhood, which in my case happens to be the greater Washington, DC area. I couldn’t begin to tell you the many hours I’ve logged walking the streets of DC and the northern Virginia neighborhoods with my camera in search of visually interesting scenes. It’s kind of visual grunt work, and more often than not all I have to show at the end of the day are sore feet and a few, if any, possible keepers. But sometimes, and I say this with a bit of creative emotion if that’s even possible, you are rewarded for being in the right place at the right time. A few seconds in a long day, a man alone, and a sunset in the most unlikely of places for such a spectacle by mother nature. Nobody comes to Washington, DC to watch sunsets, but on this particular day, in a place where thousands of people live, work, and roam the busy streets of Rosslyn, a single, pensive man stood there enjoying one of the rarest, and most wonderful gifts of nature. It was nature at its best; it was glorious solitude at its best. One click. The man walked away, and a moment in time captured forever. I guess it is true, that if we care to see, we will find photographs all around us, regardless of where we’re at.
Seriously. Have you noticed how serious and intolerant the world has gotten lately? That’s not to say that there are no serious issues confronting humanity that need urgent addressing, but any cursory review of history will show that this has been the case since Adam and Eve left paradise. Rather, the point is that no matter where I look these days around the world, people seem rather morose and depressed about everything around them. Happiness, and its pursuit, are taking a bit of a beating as negativism and mistrust continue to become the mainstream attitude for far too many people. And this is not the case of any particular country, mind you. It seems to be everywhere. Everyone hates their government, everyone hates their institutions, everyone hates the corporations, everyone hates the price-gouging retailers who charge too much for roadside food and trinkets, restaurants are killing you with butter and salt, vegans can’t stop criticizing meat eaters, meat eaters can’t stop mocking vegans, parents don’t understand the young, children are considered lazy and unfocused, hospitals everywhere are letting people die, etc., etc., etc. The list is endless, and it is gradually inducing mass depression on populations all over the world.
The world just needs to lighten-up a bit and remind itself that overall, humanity is perhaps living in one of the glorious era in the history of mankind. Problems all over? Sure, but so are solutions and resources. Most of the world is indeed at peace. Most of the world is not starving. There are plenty of reasons to laugh, to be optimistic, and to show compassion, love, and humanity like at no other time in history. Want to support a cause in faraway Nepal? You can do that, but don’t forget to look also around your neighborhood for opportunities to express your altruism. It will be a sad day when people stop actively looking for the good in things and just squander their time on earth interpreting everything as being bad. Walk around anywhere and it is the long, strained faces devoid of smiles that will confront you. Happy people? Where? Time to lighten-up a bit? Absolutely. A world that forgets that there are plenty of reasons to smile and be grateful for is a world doomed to live in self-induced depression and despair in spite of its riches. Perhaps Martha Washington was on to something when she said, “I’ve learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our disposition and not on our circumstances.” My sentiments exactly.
Ever noticed how most travel photography seems to be sometimes about the same old things? Not that the world’s most famous landmarks are not worth visiting, on the contrary, they are, and we should all be so lucky to have seen a few of them. Finding them is also rather easy, as every travel guide in the world points directly to their location and to the logistics of making it there during the best times of the any travel day. All this is good and well, but just like our own countries of origin, there is a whole new world of undiscovered possibilities in every country that are totally ignored by travel guides and tourists alike. To a large extent this is quite understandable, as time and resources are necessities that most of us don’t have in great quantities. One single trip to Italy in your lifetime? Then it is time to choose appropriately and wisely as to what to see, and the well-trodden tourist path is definitely the way to go. And as we all know, there’s a guide book for that.
But there’s also another world out there, and one that hardly ever makes it into any travel guide, but which is full of rewards and undocumented beauty. Yes, Madrid has the Prado, but it also has off-the-beaten-path cantinas where locals will treat us as family if we are willing to relax our western stiffness for a second. Same in Copenhagen, Berlin, and Kyoto. But these off-the-city-center experiences do take time and somewhat of a personal involvement. Like making friends in our own neighborhoods, we are required to sit, linger, and be willing to engage in conversation. These are things that are hardly, if ever, addressed by travel guides, and if it were not by some very creative bloggers and YouTube folks, they would remain unknown to the world. Alternative media is where it’s at, if your goal is to get off that beaten path. After all, who needs to be eating at the Ritz in Paris anyways when you can be having a great conversation with the locals at a German currywurst food truck. Ok, that’s a pathetic stretch, but let’s just say that if you cannot afford the Ritz, then that food truck is a great place to hang out while meeting the locals and dreaming of the Duck a l’Orange at the Ritz.
What is it with this nostalgia that refuses to leave us alone? I mean, why is it that we sometimes feel so unable to shake those feelings in our heads about times gone by and moments that will most likely never come again? I’ve heard it said many times that it is sometimes better not to see or hear some things because once they are inside your head, it is simply impossible to rid yourself of them. For travelers this is specially a problem, perhaps because once you get to see or hear of a glorious place, your life is never the same. The visions linger inside of you mercilessly, and before you know it, you begin to cherish those quiet moments in your life that allow you to sneak away into those faraway places from wherever you happen to be at the time. You are carried there by that classic feeling of nostalgia, by the “sentimental longing or wishful affection for the past.”
And that brings me to the “old world;” to the time, money, and effort travelers spend every year visiting all things old around the world. Sure, travelers also love the glittering lights of modern Tokyo, or the clinical modernism of a Singapore, but for the most part, their feet seem to take them to old Beijing, to Old Town Prague, and to the far corners of the well-trodden world in search of things that have been around for a long time. Dark, cobblestone alleyways around the world send our heartbeats into overdrive in a way that modern minimalism just doesn’t seem to understand. It’s not a value judgment, though, but rather an impulse lathered with nostalgia that seems to be the culprit. The modern, by virtue of its newness, will be around for a while, but the old may not be, and that alone seems to be reason enough for lighting a fire under our feet. We just need to “see it before its gone.” We just have to. And no, it has nothing to do with the logic of where it’s best to spend our limited resources. Rather, it has everything to do with the images that live inside our heads, with that feeling that can only come when strolling slowly in an old world whose silent history whispers in our ears the sweet, romantic songs of adventure and melancholy that make us the conflicted souls we all are. So here is to the old world, to nostalgia, and to a future that finds its highest expression in the past, for it is in that past that we so often find the windows to our future.
Ever wonder whether we are all artists in some way or another? I mean, even if you have yet to express yourself publicly in some artistic form or fashion, it is not an exaggeration to say that within us all there is an artistic bend that has yet to be discovered, even by ourselves. Why am I saying this? It’s all because of the photograph above, or more precisely, because of the artistic expression that became the subject of the photograph above. You see, the lady in the photo was just spinning very slowly on the raised platform while every 4 to 5 seconds striking the same cords on the guitar. On and on it went, while the rest of us stood there at this famous museum simply staring and waiting for the next stroke to come on, even if it was not any different from the one that preceded it. And you know what? I thought it was great, even if right now I couldn’t tell you why. Suffice it to say that art is art, and the fact that someone may not admire a particular art form, does nothing to diminish this fact. It is creativity given expression through some mean, and just like a plate of food, someone’s dislike does not do away from the simple fact that it was actually food and someone else will like it. So it is perhaps high-time that most of us aspiring creatives just let loose out there. Paint if you feel like painting, write if you feel like writing, and sing if you want to let loose the song in your heart. And never worry about what others may be thinking. The lady with the guitar didn’t seem to mind, and still everyone stared admirably in silence eagerly waiting for her hand to move. Sounds absurd? No, it’s art.
Where is winter? I know that not everyone around America is asking this questions at the end of January, but for the folks here in the Washington, DC area, winter is mostly something that has yet to happen. Sure, temperatures are kind of low and most trees are devoid of leaves, but the real stuff (you know, the white thing that fall from up above) has yet to show up in any meaningful way. Yesterday, folks were jogging in shorts around the local monuments, while other sat at park benches or the grassy sections of the Washington Mall. Did anyone cancel winter and didn’t tell the rest of us? Whatever. But one thing I do know for sure: old winter has a nasty habit of visiting the area with the same subtleness as the Katrina hurricane. First nothing, then all hell brakes loose. And just as unpredictable as the local weather is during these months of the year, so will be the forecasts. A few inches could turn out to be a few feet, mild temperatures could translate into frostbite and hypothermia. And if Trump … OK, none of that. I guess we will all have to sit tight and just wait for our uninvited, and unpredictable, winter guest to arrive. It always does.
I have to admit that I have not spent a lot of time in the American states that are generally grouped together as “the south.” This has been more for reasons of circumstance than of design, mind you, but whatever the reason, I am a neophyte when it comes to the traditions and manners of this wonderful part of the country. Nevertheless, my recent forays into a few cities along the Eastern Seaboard has convinced me that I should have ventured into the area a lot sooner than I did. Case in point: Savannah, Georgia. Walking through this beautiful southern gem of a city, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps my sight had been fixed on faraway places for too long while I was missing what was right there in front of me all along. This historical city of enchanting parks, majestic trees, and incredible restaurants kind of took me surprise, to say the least. For certain, a couple of days were not enough, and like so many people there who kept telling me that they come down to visit every year, I too may become somewhat of a regular visitor myself. My list just keeps on growing. Isn’t it wonderful?
This will be another of those “photographers are weird people” kinds of post. Its origin started with a recent realization at the Hirshhorn Museum downtown Washington, DC. I love museums, and that is why during one of the coldest days of this winter, I decided to visit (ok, if you really need to know, I needed a warm place) this eclectic museum to see their new exhibits. If you know the Hirshhorn, you’ll know that it is the kind of museum that challenges that strange part of your brain that is not used very much, but which when engaged, turns your reality into something that takes some getting used to. Translation: I love the place. But there’s where this sort of epiphany took place. You see, like the museum’s split reality, I too possess a kind of split view of the world: one with camera on hand, the other sans camera. With a camera, it seems I only visit museums to observe other people observing the museum art. People, all of them, become part of the ongoing exhibit, with one lacking any meaning without the other. Take that camera away from me and suddenly I become Joe the art critic, with eyes only for the inanimate objects (excuse me, art) found therein. Weird? Perhaps a little, but it is what it is. The camera, like a window for a writer, transforms you somehow. It pulls something from within you that affects your vision of the world around you. It makes you see the human ecosystem as if you were wearing X-Ray glasses. See deeper, see more. A walk through a magnificent visual door that will allow you to hold on to that saw forever.
Let’s face it, in 2017 the world will continue to be as dangerous and exciting as it ever was. Read any news site these days and pretty much all you will read about is about the calamity that humanity has become. Crime, terrorism, corruption, betrayals, and all sorts of negative punditry appears to be competing to overwhelm our senses. Fair enough, all these seem to be happening in one place or another. But not everywhere, and that is the point of this blog today. You see, as eagerly as some people are working to ruin our enjoyment of life, others are working equally hard to preserve and promote our enjoyment of the world. Our burden (or challenge, if you will), is precisely to chart a road ahead along the positive route while avoiding the pitfalls of the negative one. But don’t misinterpret this encouragement as some sort of advocacy to burry our collective heads in the sand. Quite the contrary. It is just a reminder that for every part of the world where conflict and misery are spreading havoc, there are other parts of the world where happiness and the safe enjoyment of life are an integral part of daily life.
Nowhere is this more evident these days than in the vast European landmass. While tensions in major cities like London, Paris, Berlin, and Istanbul appear to be off-the-charts these days, this is not the case throughout most of Europe. Sure, these are the type of famous cities where tourists flock to during their holidays, but anyone willing to expand their horizons a bit will be rewarded with a more peaceful ancient continent where people go about their daily lives as if the rest of the world existed in another galaxy. Basically, getting off the proverbial “tourist” path in Europe is where you find the continent that seems to have fallen off the front pages of our tragic newspapers. Thinking of going to Paris because everyone goes there? Why not try Fontainebleau or Chartres instead. Berlin on your radar? Why not Quedlinburg or Halle in its stead. Istanbul anyone? Perhaps Bucharest and the beaches of Constanta are a quieter, and safer, choice these days. The point I’m trying to get at is that all of us, as travelers, still have lots of choices as to what to do with our time and money, not to mention our safety. Somewhere along those less traveled roads is perhaps where we will find the true pulse of a country and its people. That these places are not always easy to get to is no doubt a blessing in disguise, for the endless social and political problems afflicting large, popular cities across continental Europe will find it equally problematic getting there. So, in case anyone is keeping scores, go ahead and score one for the road less traveled.
As it happens every year during the last days of December, I find myself unwittingly drifting down the introspective channels of my subconscious. I say unwittingly because such meditations are not the result of conscious efforts to sort things out in my life, but rather because without warning or intention, the cold, dreary days in December carry me there like a Pharaoh being carried to the temple. At first I thought this was a case of repressed nostalgia, or something to that effect. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that, different from any other time in the year, the last few days of December form some sort of chronological bridge in our lives. Like an unmarked threshold, they seem to separate the historical “us” from the “us” that has yet to emerge and be realized. It is an offer that presents us with the kind of challenges and opportunities that only change can bring in order to give life to the idea of us that constantly roams inside our heads. But this happens every year, you would say, and I would have to agree. Nevertheless, like a full moon over a dark, endless horizon, the recurrent and cyclical nature of this phenomena does nothing to dampen the excitement of its arrival.
One such idea inside my head is that of an insatiable world traveler. Don’t get me wrong, I do get to visit some wonderful places from time to time, but the life of a visitor is dramatically different to the life of a traveler. One flies by while the other lands and lingers. One visits countries with populations of 40+ million people and leaves without being able to call a single one of them a friend, while the other takes the time to forge friendships that may last a lifetime. Those in one group tend to miss more the places they’ve been, while those on the other group will miss more the people they’ve met. And on that line between those two divides is where I find myself on this gray December morning, a witness to the vanishing December days of another year gone by. Far into the distance I can see the silhouette of a magnificent bridge whose beautiful arches and ancient wooden structure beckons travelers to cross the rumbling river below. We’ve all seen this bridge before, but seldom have we decided to cross it. Perhaps now, before a new year dawns into our lives, is the time to dare cross that bridge so we can live more in tune with the self that only dwells in our imaginations. After all, self actualization would me meaningless without the self. Such crossings are deeply personal in nature, but as for myself, the aspiring insatiable traveler, I think I’ll start hastily walking toward that arched bridge on the horizon. After all, that feeling of December will not last forever.
The more time I spend with my cameras, the more I realize that the true magic of photography happens when a photo conveys such emotions as to render words unnecessary.