I don’t think I’m alone when I say that we’ve had enough of this winter. Not that the DC Metro area can compare with the likes of Norway or Hokkaido, but rather that we are just not used to this long, wintry seasons any more. Sure, they show up every three or four years, but this lack of consistency is not enough for anyone to justify those big winter purchases, if you know what I mean. Proof of this is the fact that a single inch of snow is enough to close all area schools and the Federal government (do they still get paid if they stay home?). Small businesses are affected as well when area customers gravitate to shopping malls and large retailers in order to stay warm while overcoming cabin fever syndrome. So, if by any chance Pope Francis happens to be reading this blog (I know, a long shot, but I’m going to take it anyway), I would like to ask him to do a little lobbying above his pay grade to see if this endless winter can finally be put to rest. And just in case, a million thank-you’s in advance.
Photographers are constantly reminding each other that taking pictures in public places is generally a legally-protected right. Like anything else, there are limits, and many cases where photographers have been arrested for exercising this right have been documented in the press. Bottom line: it’s a risky business no matter how you look at it. Of course, most people taking photographs out in the open are innocently recording everyday life, with their photos destined for their personal blog (like the case here). But to fully ignore, or disreguard for that matter, privacy and propriety considerations out there could be a risky business. The law is somewhat murky and perhaps designed so that a visit to the local courthouse is all but inevitable if you are not careful. This also gets a lot more complicated when you travel abroad, as different countries have different interpretations of what is permissible and what is not. Bottom line: best to do a little research and never leave common sense behind when stepping out with a camera. And when in doubt, don’t. Then again, that may take all the fun out of photography.
It is virtually impossible to get tired of the Virginia countryside, specially if you are a photographer. Even in winter, when local weather services constantly struggle to get their predictions right, a slow journey along the rolling landscape near Middleburg will reward you in ways that are hard to describe. Manicured horse farms with dark wooden fences, historical dwellings side by side with million dollar mansions, gorgeous horses lazily wandering along undulating meadows, and tree-covered country roads gently disappearing into the horizon. It is an incredible landscape constantly displaying the rich heritage of the state. During the snowy, winter months the city-slicker crowds with their late-model BMW’s are gone and the place finally slows down to its more characteristic, rhythmic crawl. It is the slowness, surrounded by incredible beauty, that nourishes your photographic soul.
Something good always happens in our national capital region when a snow storms forces most of the government to shut down for a few days. For starters, the entire region’s stress level comes down a notch or two. Bureaucrats get to enjoy a paid day off courtesy of the taxpayers and the environment gets a bit cleaner thanks to tens of thousands of commuters staying home for the day. What’s more, a sort of calm sets into the area with the falling snow, giving people a chance to reconnect with themselves and the place where they live. It may not be quite enough for advocates of the Slow Movement to label Washington, DC as a Slow City, but it’s nice to experience for a day or two what all that slow stuff is all about. I’m digging it.
These days workers appear to be clamoring for a little space away from their overcrowded, communal offices. What’s more, it appears that in order to find a little peace and quiet, any space will do, even if it means planting themselves behind a column, or on a chair that is totally out of place with its surroundings. It doesn’t seem to matter, as long as the result is that level of temporary solitude that today’s office environment seems to deny them on a daily basis. As most of you know by now, modern office design, with its overemphasis on team work, is typically designed to promote constant human interaction and contact. While noble, this traditional approach has led to an interruption-driven ecosystem where most forms of solitude and introspection have become virtually impossible, if not outright frowned upon. Luckily, people are not totally surrendering to the always-on office syndrome, as my most recent lunchtime stroll with my camera revealed. So, I am pleased to report that escapism, even if mostly limited to lunchtime hours, is alive and well in today’s office jungle environment.
Ever come to the realization that there are just some things that only the young can do? Or should do? Well, I have. And while I would prefer to think of it in terms of growing older and wiser, I hate to admit that this jumping over trash cans and concrete steps was never “my thing.” Not that I could not think of the mechanics involved in such daredevil acts, mind you, but rather that pain (or the possibility of pain) has never been something I willingly accepted as part of growing up. These folks downtown Washington, DC didn’t seem to be too concerned with such mundane things as crashing, smashing your face against a trash can, breaking bones, or painting some of the pavement with their epidermis. Nope, all they seemed to care about was speed and landing on that skateboard after soaring in the sky for a few seconds. And they were pretty good at it too. That they gave me the opportunity to try out a manual-focus camera on a fast-moving sport like skateboarding was even better. Thank you guys!
You wouldn’t know from the young, vibrant faces of a new generation of Chinese Americans that this past weekend they were actually celebrating 4711 years of Chinese cultural history. As the Year of the Horse dawned on us all, a small but proud Chinese American community in the Penn Quarters district of Washington, DC took to the streets to celebrate the cultural traditions that the elders surely experienced back in the old country many years ago. In spite of the fact that DC’s Chinatown is a mere shadow of what it once was (the 2010 DC census shows 24.84% of the local Asian population as ethnic Chinese), year-after-year the dwindling community goes through great efforts to keep this colorful event alive. With the relentless encroachment of the business community in the area, it is hard to say what the future holds for these types of events, specially as the ranks of the older generation continue to dwindle and a new generation looks to the suburbs to plant their roots. Even local newspapers have a tendency to point you in the direction of the Virginia suburbs and Maryland if authentic Chinese food is what you are after. That’s a pity, but perhaps somewhat typical of the realities being faced by similar communities around the country. Nevertheless, I am convinced that notwithstanding this reality, as long as we keep supporting events like these in the various ethnic communities around the country, something very precious will be preserved for future generations. And that, my friend, would be a good thing.
I was headed to a museum today to photograph old, Oriental relics for a change. But as it happens in far too many occasions on my way to a photographic interest, something catches my eye that turns out to be a little bit more interesting (from a photographic perspective) than what I had originally intended to photograph. It is the proverbial “seeing of a photograph before you actually get to take it.” So here I was today, standing in the middle of the street while cars maneuvered around me, waiting for this gentleman to fill a little more of my 50mm lens frame. A quick three-frame burst later I was done and the subject of my photographic inspiration simply continued on his merry way. Maybe this city is not as hostile to photographers as I once thought, or maybe it was because I was using a Leica instead of a bulky, in-your-face DSLR. Who knows. I guess only this “international man of mystery” would know.
The weather report is forecasting a very cold, wintry day for tomorrow, but today the weather could not have been any better. A bright, sunny day with temperatures around 50 degrees made for a good day to walk the streets with your camera. The strange thing was that I found myself photographing once again around the Georgetown waterfront as if pulled by some cosmic magnetic force beyond my control. And you know what? There may be something to this after all, because if there’s a place that can exert such force on mere mortals, it must be the lollypop-shaped Georgetown Labyrinth. Never mind that on this day its primary purpose seemed to be to serve as a racetrack for a father and son combo trying out their dueling remotely controlled cars. No, I have to believe that this divine center of gravity in a city mostly known for governmental witchcraft and cutthroat politicians exists to elevate the human spirit above its mundane nature. Yes, that’s got to be it. The Labyrinth must emanate some sort of magnetic field that attracts imperfect souls to its bosom, to the circle of self-discovery and introspection in order to cleanse the spiritual attic of our lives of all its cobwebs and imperfections. There is no doubt that this is the reason why I found myself on this very spot today, looking at the skies from the center of the circle waiting for something great to happen. Well, I didn’t have to wait long for it. First, there was a swoosh, then another, then a rattling noise by my feet that I interpreted as my soul about to be elevated above the clouds to a higher level of existence. And then, there they were, circling around me at high speed, but never to be confused with stars and magnetic forces of any kind: two noisy electric cars moving at high speed in a nausea-inducing crisscross pattern, with father and son busily punching at their control boxes as if they were commanding a nuclear submarine. My spirit safely tucked where it had been all along, I made it out of the Labyrinth before the local Nascar duo had a chance to tromp all over it. I knew it; this place exists for a purpose, and it may well have to do with the bonding between a father and his son.
I’m always amazed at how much I have yet to see in this world. Sure, I move around a lot and seem to suffer from some incurable travel compulsion, but no matter how much I experience through travel, there always seems to be much more out there to see and photograph. What’s more, even the places I’ve visited so many times in the past seem to have a surprising way of revealing something new all the time. Case in point: the historic Christ Church in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I have walked these grounds with my camera, but I hate to admit that until a few days ago, I had never gone inside the Church itself. This was not because of a lack of curiosity, mind you. In fact, the more I walked by, the more I kept telling myself that I had to try to sneak in with my camera someday. Little did I know that when services are not being conducted, everyone is more than welcomed to come in and take as many photographs as your memory cards can hold.
But what makes a visit to Christ Church even more rewarding is the incredible historical information provided to visitors by local volunteers. Walk in when there are no other visitors around and you may catch one of these volunteer quietly sitting in President George Washington’s family box pew waiting to enlighten you about the history of this magnificent building. And yes, just like the local historian, you too will be able to spend some time inside the Church’s two most famous pews: the one used by President’s Washington’s family and the one used by Robert E. Lee’s family many years later. And just in case you begin to wonder about your exact geographical location, the local guide will be nice enough to remind you that your feet are now well planted in “the south.” I guess it is always important not to miss any of those significant historical details. After about twenty minutes, myself and the visitors from Siberia wrapped up our visit. Not sure where they went, but my compass unmistakably showed I was headed to “the north.” And that was OK with me.
After a few days in Amsterdam I’m beginning to realize that like Venice in Italy, this is a city that requires a little time to get used to it and discover its hidden treasures. It is a place of stunning beauty, but also one that doesn’t divulge its true nature easily or perhaps willingly. As a visitor, it would be too easy to walk through the narrow streets in the Museum District or the Jordaan without ever talking to any local or getting to know what gives a particular neighborhood its character. The locals, while quite friendly, do seem to expect you to make that first friendship move, but once you take that first step you invariably find how friendly and nonjudgmental everyone seems to be.
Hang around the city’s many neighborhoods and you will be amply rewarded. From the ethnic diversity of the Pijp in the southern part of the city to the more genteel dwellings around Leidseplein to the west, Amsterdam is a city that begs to be discovered (and even in winter when constant rain and high winds remind you how far north you really are). Behind the imposing City Hall and the curved Amsterdam Music Theater you will find some of the most interesting shopping experiences in town, which are perhaps better characterized by the seemingly popular Cafe Reefer (the name very aptly describes it). But the city Flea Market and Rembrandt House are also in the area, thus providing a good balance to the neighborhood. Continue further west and you will soon be crossing the gorgeous Old Town section and the über-busy Kalverstraat, where you will also find the tiny Vlaams Friteshuis Vleminckx french fry legend. They have been making fries at this place since 1957 and topping them with as many as 25 different sauces. But be prepared to stand in line for a while and to eat out of a paper cone down the street, as the place serves its potato delicacies out of a window.
And then, there is the Jordaan. Just about every travel publication exhorts you to visit this neighborhood, and I can now see why. This is indeed Old Europe at its best. Small stores selling eclectic wares, tiny cafes filled with trendy-looking folks, and narrow, colorful streets almost begging you to turn here, or there, or anywhere. It is also one of the places where you are most likely to be run over by a bicyclist, as the narrow sidewalks filled with flower pots and bicycles often force you to step onto the cobblestoned streets where all the fast-moving Dutch cyclists aggressively zoom by while ringing warning bells. But none of that danger really matters, as you will most likely be languishing at a cafe or small restaurant oblivious to the passage of time. And if Amsterdam has any poets, I think you will most likely encounter them at a cafe in the Jordaan. Yes, right there next to you, where time and life’s burdens don’t seem to matter much.
Amsterdam is a city of contrasts. On the one side there is the city of great art and imposing architecture, while on the other there is a somewhat more earthy side, to put it mildly. What’s even more interesting about the city, though, is the fact that so much of what makes Amsterdam what it is seems to lie inside its somewhat uniform buildings. Sure, there are the marvelous canals crisscrossed by beautifully undulating bridges packed with bicycles of all kinds, but enter some of those building lining the canals and you’ll be amazed at what you’ll find inside.
Such is the case with two of Amsterdam’s most famous attractions: the Van Gogh Museum at Stadhouderskade 55 and the old Heineken factory at Stadhouderskade 78. From the outside, the buildings housing these two local landmarks are a bit industrial in character, but what lies inside is quite remarkable and more than worth the time you have to spend in line before getting inside (which on a rainy, cold day made the Van Gogh Museum line to get inside a bit of a challenge for the hundreds of people inching their way to the ticket booth). But once inside, you are treated to some of the most creative art you’ll ever see anywhere. The four-story museum was divided according to the different stages in Van Gogh’s short creative life (about ten years total), from the days when he was perfecting his style in Paris to his mental asylum days in Arles and Saint-Rémy. A definitely troubled life, but an incredible creative one.
About a quarter mile from the Museum Quarter park, a somewhat different experience can be found at the old Heineken factory (which moved its production to a new location in 1988). What is now termed the Heineken Experience will set you back about 18 Euros, but it will be some of the best money spent in Amsterdam. The old equipment is still there, to include the still-in-use stables with the black Heineken horses. They even “turn you into beer” in a small theater where the audience is put through the beer-production process as if it were the liquid itself with a vibrating stage that is at various points subjected to heat lamps simulating the fermentation process. And to top it all off, there is the tasting room followed by an incredibly slick bar where you get the two beers that were included with the admission price (which also include a free canal ride aboard the Heineken boat and a souvenir at their downtown store). Not too shabby, and quite educational to boot. This city is definitely growing on me.
I have barely set food in Amsterdam and almost immediately I find myself captivated by this beautiful city. Everything from its romantic canals to the vibrant, youthful vibe that gives the city so much energy makes you wonder why it has taken you so long to visit this colorful city. Not that this is my first time in Amsterdam, as I did get to spend about three hours downtown more than twenty years ago. But this time it’s different. Time is now on my side and I’m getting to really see the city as it should be seen, slowly and completely. From the narrow streets emanating away from Rembrandt Plein to the incredible hole-in-the-wall restaurants and pubs in De Pijp, Amsterdam is full of delightful surprises. So here I am, barely twenty-four hours in the place and already experiencing the unmistakable feeling of love at first sight, and that’s more than OK with me.
As we all get ready to celebrate the Christmas holidays with family and friends, I cannot say enough to thank the legion of people who work so hard during this time at restaurants and retail businesses so that we can enjoy the Christmas season. These folks work long hours during the holidays and quietly take care of the rest of us so that we can all have a great time when dining out or finding that last-minute gift for a loved one. So if you are out and about over the next couple of weeks, I encourage you to be kind to them. And whatever you do, don’t let them feel invisible. Acknowledge them, talk to them, ask them about their loved ones, and wish them a Merry Christmas. And don’t forget to leave them a big, fat tip. It won’t make up for time away from their families and friends, but it will go a long way to show your appreciation for their service.
Funny how sometimes we convince ourselves that traveling always involve getting into a jet and flying to some exotic, faraway place. Sure, that’s a lot of fun, but the more I think of it, the more I’m beginning to realize that distance may not have as much to do with the “travel experience” as I once thought it did. Sometimes the experience can be a lot closer to home. You know, the places we usually see from a few thousand feet above ground when taking off from the local airport to our great, once-a-year adventure. Those places do look quite fascinating from the air, but like so many of them we see in aerial photographs, they tend to remain abstractions in our lives. They are things we momentarily glance at on our way to destinations.
Well, yesterday I decided to change all that. On what turned out to be a rare, beautiful mid-December day in northern Virginia, I ventured out to cross the Potomac River by water taxi. Doesn’t sound too exciting, does it? But I can guarantee you that it was, and the reason may have had as much to do with the absence of crowds as with the incredible views that are only possible from a river boat. Bald eagles, bridges, historic shorelines, and the soothing sound of a river boat gently slicing the river waters. It was a surreal experience magnified by the fact that it was so out of character (in a good way) with the crazy, busy world that exist in the area a mere mile inside the river shores. The ride, which connects Old Town Alexandria on the Virginia side with the National Harbor complex on the Maryland side, lasts less than half an hour each way and will set you back $16 for a roundtrip ticket. Would it be cheaper and faster to just zoom down by the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in your private automobile? Sure, provided the destination is all that matters to you on any given day. But if it’s the journey you are after, then that slow, undulating ride across the river will definitely do the trick. And the view of the cluttered, busy highway above the bridge is quite nice too.