Fujifilm Anyone?

Life Preserver

No doubt I’m quite late to this party, but I finally took the plunge and got a Fujifilm camera. Not that I’m late to Fujifilm, mind you, because back when when I first picked up a film camera, it was usually a Fujifilm role of film that was inside of it. But lately, after hearing (and seeing) so much about the digital Fujifilm “look” being produced by its film simulation settings, curiosity and a bit of nostalgia has gotten the best of me. To cautiously dip into Fujifilm territory you could say that I went “low end” with the fixed-lens Fujifilm X70, which kept things neatly below the sub-$1,000 mark. Results? Wow. Their Classic Chrome simulation alone (picture above) is enough to make you begin to think JPEG again. After years of shooting with Leica and Nikon cameras, I have to wonder why those leading camera manufacturers don’t have anything that comes even close. And while I have yet to master this little X70 camera, it is a refreshing feeling to have my photographic eyes opened up again to all sorts of new creative possibilities. Maybe I’ve been spending my money in the wrong place all these years, or grew too complacent with the improvement drips coming out of those leading camera manufacturers. Who knows. But what I know for sure is that I will be giving Fujifilm cameras a more extended look in the future. I can’t say yet, but they may be the gems that were hiding in plain sight all along, and at a much lower price point. More later about all this, but in the meantime, these film simulation shots will definitely be a common presence on this blog.

The Magic Of Solitary Pursuits

Alone In A Cafe

I am a people’s person. No, really, I am. But it just also happens that as much as I love people, I also happen to love being alone just as much. This may sound like the beginning of another esoteric discussion on the differences between loneliness and solitude, but I assure you that it is not, as these differences have been amply documented by many others much more qualified to do so. Suffice it to say that my desire to be alone is directly related to the state of mind that comes with contemplation and creativity. Put another way, it is directly related to the wonderful byproduct that results from moments of solitude and detachment from the “noise” of everyday life.

The wonderful thing is that being alone doesn’t necessarily mean to be distanced from other people. I’m talking about the state of being “mentally” alone, of being in the zone, or something akin to an out-of-body experience. The phenomena is not necessarily physical, but mental. It is being in that moment when your reality is only yours, whether you are walking in a crowded city with your camera in hand, writing your next great novel in a crowded library, or pondering your next direction in life. It leads to a place where creativity, meaning, and purpose live in seclusion until we all dare to open the door and free them from that dark place. A state of mental (and sometimes physical) blitz that is as precious as it is short. Eventually, what the world will see of us is nothing but the result of what happens in those precious moments of solitude.

Shortcuts And The Modern Era

Working hard.

I should start this post by saying that I have nothing against shortcuts. In fact, I’ve spent a good part of my life searching for them, only to discover that there are very few alternatives to old-fashioned hard work available to us all. And yes, there’s the winning the lottery thing, but since that is about as probable as surviving a free fall without a parachute, I’ll disregard that particular shortcut for now. What I’m talking about is our human proclivity to try to find a shorter way to our destination, to compact time so that whatever it is that we’re engaged in, takes a lot less time than what life has already established as necessary. After all, this is the 21st Century, so why should be believe Henri Cartier-Bresson when he said that, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” Don’t we get lots of “likes” in Instagram and Flickr? Isn’t that proof enough of our artistic excellence? Well, unfortunately it is not.

But something has undoubtedly changed. And that is that, in the advent of the digital revolution, fame and success are no longer so intimately tied to competence in any particular field. Call it the democratization of opportunity or whatever, but what could be happening these days is that while Cartier-Bresson may still be right in his observation, it really wouldn’t matter for a modern audience. Ever heard of Tardar Sauce? That’s the name for the famous mixed-breed Grumpy Cat that took the Internet by storm and made both cat and owners instant celebrities. No 10,000 photos were needed before the owners started cashing in on the cat’s celebrity status, and while Cartier-Bresson may be turning in his grave as a result, the cat’s photographs and paraphernalia may have achieved about as much commercial success as Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl photograph ever did. I tell you, if it were not for the eternal feeling of hope in us all, it would be enough to make you want to throw your camera away and get a cat instead. But such artistic surrender would not do anything for art in the long run. And just like in the case of the now popular gastronomic farm-to-table movement, it is every creative’s hope that the artistic excellence that they so painstakingly strived to achieve over time in their particular fields, will be similarly valued and compensated. That, at least, is the hope. But I’m afraid to ask what Grumpy Cat has to say about that.

Nothing, Then A Moment

A quiet moment.
A quiet moment.

Like any other aspiring photographer, I too get tired of the familiar. I’m talking about those places where we tend to spend too much of our limited photographic time in the hope that on any particular day, that great photo opportunity will simply appear before us. Most of the time, it is a total waste of our time. Same thing, different day. But every now and then, something happens. A spot that we have photographed a thousand times without ever liking any of the photos taken, suddenly rewards us with a moment, a keeper moment, if you know what I mean. Hard drives full of photographic junk immediately evaporate from our consciousness, and for a moment (but what a moment), that simple click becomes the justification for endless hours wasted in pursuit of a reason to get behind a camera again. Perfection? Not by a long shot. Satisfaction? Oh yes. Such was the case with this photograph. A familiar deck in Alexandria that I have photographed seemingly a million times before, but only for what seemed destined to my photographic junk pile. I have photographed the deck from every side and from every angle short of being on a boat in front of it. Nothing. Nada. Photo junk. And then this guy shows up. I watch him walk towards the deck and I just stand there waiting for something, anything, to happen. Pack down, leg up on the bench. Click. Moment over. An imperfect photo for sure, but one that reminded me that being there to take the photo is ninety percent of the way to making great photographs. We just have to keep showing up.

Photographers And The Voices In Their Heads

Alone with the voices in his head.
Alone with the voices in his head.

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.

Better Uphill Than Downhill

uphill

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.

Post TRAVEL Stress Syndrome

Momentary rest in a traveling life.
Momentary rest in a traveling life.

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

Everyday Europe, In Black & White

City parks are abundant and accessible in Europe.
City parks are abundant and accessible in Europe.
The beautiful landscape invites contemplation.
The beautiful landscape invites contemplation.
Some do, some observe.
Some do, some observe.
Life extends to the streets.
Life extends to the streets.
Cafes are cultural centers.
Cafes are cultural centers.
Outdoor markets as part of everyday life.
Outdoor markets as part of everyday life.

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.

Seeing Europe From A Window

Classical view from an European train.
Classical view from an European train.

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.

City Hopping In Europe

Prague will always be at the top of everyone's favorite cities in Europe.
Prague will always be at the top of everyone’s favorite cities in Europe.
The historical importance of Vienna is evidenced in its majestic buildings.
The historical importance of Vienna is evidenced in its majestic buildings.
Old Town Hannover transports you to another era.
Old Town Hannover transports you to another era.
Sitting by the Elbe River, Dresden lives up to its historical grandeur.
Sitting by the Elbe River, Dresden lives up to its historical grandeur.
In Berlin's Mitte, old and new coexist as if they had ever been there.
In Berlin’s Mitte, old and new coexist as if they had ever been there.

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.

Hanging Out In Berlin… Again

The beautiful Gendarmenmarkt square.
The beautiful Gendarmenmarkt square.
View from Pergamonmuseum.
View from Pergamonmuseum.
Berlin has creative vibe.
Berlin has creative vibe.
The modern Potsdamer Platz.
The modern Potsdamer Platz.

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.

Mornings

Everyone has a morning ritual, but lingering by a river at daybreak has to be near the top.
Everyone has a morning ritual, but lingering by a river at daybreak with a cup of coffee has to be near the top.

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.

The Start Of A Weekend Like No Other In Washington, DC

Members of the Rolling Thunders begin to make their presence felt in the city.
A sea of American flags lies between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.
A sea of American flags lies between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.
For at least one weekend a year, bureaucrat suits give way to a more relaxed American attire.
For at least one weekend a year, bureaucrat suits give way to a more relaxed American attire.

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.

A Visit To A Neighborhood Library

The Georgetown Neighborhood Library is one of the lesser known gems in Washington, DC.
The Georgetown Neighborhood Library is one of the lesser known gems in Washington, DC.
High ceilings and incredible windows accentuate the quiet atmosphere at the library.
High ceilings and incredible windows accentuate the quiet atmosphere at the library.
The library royally sits on top of one of the highest points in DC.
The library royally sits on top of one of the highest points in DC.

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.

 

To Wander Is To Discover

Sometimes the best scenes are to be found behind building walls.
Sometimes the best scenes are to be found behind building walls.

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.