There are areas of the world that no matter how many times you visit, you never cease to be enchanted by their beauty and atmosphere. For me, the wine region of Alsace, France is such a place. From its undulating hills covered with luscious vineyards, to the quaint, ancient villages that dot the countryside, the entire region comprising the Rue de Vin is the stuff of fairytales, and romance. At its heart, the picturesque village of Ribeauville, with its easy vibe and postcard-perfect setting, is the kind of place you never heard about, but can’t imagine leaving once you set foot on it. The great Alsatian food and wines alone will keep you there longer than what your credit line would consider prudent. Walking its narrow, cobblestone streets under the spell of freshly baked bread and just-out-of-the-oven macaroons is enough to transport you to a world that only existed in your imagination. No use resisting, though. The village of Ribeauville alone is one of those reminders that life is a wonderful thing and that it’s worth living to the fullest. And if you add copious amounts of local wines, macaroons, and Alsatian baked tarts to your visit, you’ll immediately understand what I’m talking about. One day at the place is enough to make you forget the problems of the world, even if for a brief, yet wonderful, moment. I just added a second day just to be sure.
Deafening tranquility. That is how I would describe the simple abode I happen to be staying at for a few days at the foot of the Vosges Mountains of eastern France. Green apples strewn around the orchard floor, grapes on the September vines waiting for pickers to arrive, and a sweet morning fog enveloping a valley that has yet to wake up. Serenity, a blooming garden, a slow moving tractor reminding you that you are amongst farmers. Morning coffee, soft pastries from the village bakery, and the melodic sound of a common, but never tiring, Bonjour. Morning dew over the herb garden, a butterfly, a drop of rain. Silence. The first touch of a morning breeze. Peacefulness. The simple life. Happiness.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Oh, spring. It comes every year as a refreshing breeze that renews our spirits in ways that are hard to describe. With the emergence of those wonderful first flower buds from their winter slumber, we can’t help but think that life continues its yearly ritual of offering us a new beginning, and a much-needed momentary antidote to all that the gloom accumulated during the winter months. And as we take those first, hesitant steps into the warm sunshine infused with the subtle perfume of those first blooms, we realize once more that in spite of all the challenges in our lives, there is still plenty of beauty out there for us to enjoy.
And strange as it may sound, one of the most wonderful places in the wold to enjoy the glory of a new spring is none other than our nation’s capital, Washington, DC. From the incomparable beauty of the Cherry Blossoms at the Tidal Basin, to the dreamlike magnolia trees at the Smithsonian Parterre and Moongate gardens, this city of massive concrete buildings and long faces suddenly cheers up as it transforms into one of the greatest gardens in the world. Bureaucrats don’t seem to hurry as much, passerby’s actually smile a lot more, and lo-and-behold, the city experiences a dramatic increase in “public displays of affection.” And if the spring flowering ritual can infuse such transformation on hardened DC bureaucrats, just imagine the effect that it has on the rest of us. Without a doubt, a magic potion for all that afflicts us.
As far as I’m concerned, imagination, or simple flights of fancy, are the stuff of life. I say this because no matter how hard I try, I don’t seem to be able to look at the world for what it is. No, not possible. Images, and the scenes I constantly see before me, are mere windows into an imaginary world. For some reason or another, I keep thinking of what I see as incomplete stories, almost begging for me to fill in the blanks with my imagination. A man standing at a corner is not just simply a man standing at a corner. This untamed imagination refuses to see just that. He must be waiting for someone, he has nowhere to go, time doesn’t matter to him, he is there because the events in his life, he seems to be in love, or appears to be totally devoid of it. Whatever. It just goes on and on, and there’s nothing I can do to control it. Imagination, like time, is simply impervious to boundaries.
And thus the photograph above. Is it just a picture of a man in a white uniform staring at passerby’s? Or a baker taking a break from the morning rush? I stood there for nearly ten minutes observing the ongoing scenes, and all that I could think of was the title of Thomas Hardy’s famous novel, “Far From the Madding Crowd.” What to make of this solitary man with his forlorn look, staring at a “madding crowd” of shoppers and consumers? Surely, more than twenty or so feet separate their world from his, and there is no doubt that he was being ignored by the very people who’s lives he was enriching by his labor. Did he envy these people? Or pity them? Did he aim to join them, or leave them? I wondered what his plans were for the holidays. Who would be waiting for him at home. Who misses him when he’s gone, while he quietly observes the crowds, not uttering a word to anyone and no one uttering a word to him. And so it goes, imagination trying to add context to the scene, something that photographer Duane Michals understood very well when he addressed the subject: “I believe in imagination. What I cannot see is infinitely more important than what I can see.” I must agree, because therein, behind the raw data collected by our senses, lies the mystery, and the wonder of the things we see.
Ever wonder about what it takes to make a great photograph? Well, join the club. There is no question that photographers, at their core, are shameless dreamers. They constantly dream of that photograph, the one that will set them apart from others, the one that will surely bring recognition for hours of tireless devotion to their craft. Countless times a day the topic so expertly depicted by Émile Zola in his 1886 novel “The Masterpiece,” is played in the minds of photographers all over the world. In his work, Zola presented us with an artist who, in his own mind, found it impossible to live up to his own imagined potential. Nothing he did was good enough to be called great, or lead to the immortality he so desperately envisioned. That the artist drove a few people crazy in the process (not to mention himself) was a given, and no matter how good his work was in the eyes of critics and observers, the artist always found it lacking. Something, something impossible to ascertain with any degree of certainty, was missing. Frustration reigned, and professional emptiness was right there by its side.
But Zola, in his genius, also provided us with the other side of the coin. That is, with the life of an artist who very early in his career created his greatest work and who went to live a long, unhappy life trying to unsuccessfully reproduce his early achievement. Critical greatness visited him before he felt he had achieved the pinnacle of his art; his sudden, and early acclaim condemning him to a life of denied recognition past his initial masterpiece. Nothing he did was to be as good, or memorable, as that earlier work, and the voices in his head never ceased to remind him of his lifelong descent from that early, momentary glory. It speaks to Zola’s greatness that he was able to represent so vividly the many, and often conflicting emotions that live inside an artist’s mind.
And so it seems to be the case today with photographers and their work. The Internet is full of tales of photographers stating that they went out on a project and took thousands of photographs, but at best, they only liked a handful of them. The rest? Just not good enough, or memorable enough. Ask any photographer to pick a photo that they would consider to be their masterpiece (apart from Steve McCurry and his Afghan Girl), and you will witness human contortions that would put Cirque du Soleil to shame. No, we’re not a happy lot, or to put it better, we’re not a very satisfied lot. That great photo is out there, and if it takes a lifetime to find it, that’s OK with us. And what about that magnificent photo you took that everyone seems to like so much? Sure, it was good, but not the best. The best is still out there, hidden in plain sight, and there’s no time to waste in our never-ending chase. In the 1964 words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when describing how he could tell something had crossed the threshold into the seedy, we tell ourselves that “I’ll know it when I see it.” And even when our eyes have seen so much over the years, the idea that we will recognize our masterpiece when we see it continues to dominate our photographic minds. Like Zola’s protagonists, we convince ourselves that this is a decision for us to make, when all along, and in keeping with the nature of any art, it is always a decision for the audience to make. Like Justice Stewart, they will know it when they see it, and there’s not much an artist can do aside from trying to create the best work possible everyday of his or her life. I guess Zola figured this out almost 130 years ago.
I’m fascinated by tables. No, it’s not a clinical condition or anything of the sort, but rather that whenever I see a table with some chairs, it is almost impossible for me not to photograph it. Now, mind you, that I’m not talking about just any table out there. My photographic fascination lies with those unoccupied, lonely, waiting-for-someone kind of tables. Yes, yes, a bit awkward, I’ll grant you that, but I just can’t help it. Every time I see one, I am inevitably transported to an imaginary story of a secret rendezvous, a long wait for a person who never shows up, or the melancholic story of a table that remains unoccupied, night after solitary night. Yes, I can see it now: a long wait, nervous anticipation, an uncomfortable smile, a conversation, a tear. Who knows. All I know is that I’m no writer, but if I were, perhaps it would be at one of those empty tables where I would start my next great story, or end it.
Who would’ve known, that in a city hardly ever associated with romance, you would find such a display of PDA (i.e., Public Display of Affection). That’s right, I’m talking about Washington, DC, the same place where sanguine bureaucrats like to play with your hard-earned money and where where sensitivity is not a word most locals would use when socially describing their ideal versions of themselves. But a few days back, there it was, out in the open for all to see. Love, affection, and obliviousness to the world around them. A cool day ushering in the short days of autumn, a lazy sun tired of its summer work, and a lover’s kiss. Who would’ve known, there’s hope for this city after all.
Speed. What a noble virtue. Its need is everywhere, from computers to transportation. It saves time, it shortens the undesirable, and it allows us to accomplish a lot more in the limited time we all have in our lives. It is an adrenaline rush too, quite dramatically illustrated in blockbuster movies like Top Gun and the myriad of action movies that inundate our daily consciousness. Smell the flowers? You kidding. Who has time for that?
Well, as it seems, a lot of people do. In the last few days I have been concentrating my photographic time on the number of people that I constantly see moving in what for lack of a better term I’ll refer to as “the slow lane of life.” To a large extent, this slow road exists in somewhat of a parallel universe in society, dictating its own rhythm, its own sense of urgency, and its own rewards. It is not characterized by what it manages to accomplish in a short period of time, but rather by what it manages not to do over a longer period of time. It is subtraction, not addition; forsaking, not gathering. It is finding time instead of lamenting not having any. It is admonishing Seneca’s observation that the lack of time has more to do with how much of it is wasted than with how little of it is available. It is a road as real as the busy one our lives travel on, and it is always there, whether we’re conscious of it or not.
Interestingly, there was a time when I thought that the glorious “slowness” was only possible at life’s extreme ends. That is, when you were very old and financially comfortable (that is, whey you begin to talk about your days being numbered), or during your youth, when someone else took care of the bills and most of life’s worries (when we all believed we had all the time in the world ahead of us). In my mind, the middle was made for the fast lane, for the never-ending “too busy” lamentations, for the social fly-by’s, and for dreaming about that distant, slow lane. The rose garden? Nope. No time to plant it. Need to get going. And so it went for far too many years. And why not? Everywhere I looked people were traveling at the same rate of speed, down the same rocky roads, and in the same general direction. This was normal, and everything else seemed, well, abnormal, or at the very least, too far out in the future. It was all an exciting, zero sum, high-speed journey that if left unattended could have culminated many years later in a place that no one really wants to arrive at: the valley of regrets.
One day, however, I dared to take my foot off the accelerator in order to experience the effects of deceleration on the trajectory I was riding on. I slowed down, took a detour, acted on one long-neglected dream, and surprised a loved one in the middle of the day. Deceleration made it all possible, and clarity, its inevitable result, did its part in dissipating the stubborn forces of obfuscation and neglect. No longer would I drive past that farmer’s produce stand in order to lament later of not having had the time to stop. No, that story was changed to the great time I had while shopping at that very own farmer’s stand during my busy day. I also made it a point to never talk about that abstract walk in the park everyone talks about, but never takes. No, my story changed to how incredible it was to find the time to walk along the the carpet of fallen, yellow leaves that infuse such a bright, golden hue to a cold, autumn morning. Moreover, I made time for my friends so we could spend long hours at the dinner table solving the problems of the world over multiple bottles of wine. And without a doubt, it was a lot more meaningful to say “I love you” to the one I love while staring at her eyes rather than texting the words, Emoji in tow, over an impersonal data network of bits and bytes.
Time. Speed. Contemplation. Obfuscation. Neglect. Love. They all do battle in our busy lives. Some of their challenges will be conquered by speed, others by simply slowing down. And just as it seems impossible to always travel at high speed down the proverbial road, it appears just as unrealistic to spend a lifetime on that slow, off-the-beaten-path lane. The secret in dealing with this dilemma may lie on both sides of the spectrum–on the adoption of a “variable speed” approach to life. Never accelerating without a well-developed plan for deceleration. Never decelerating without accepting that in life, even the good things often require a little acceleration on our part. The concepts are not, and should never be, mutually exclusive. Perhaps, and this may be mankind’s eternal hope, meaning and happiness will be found somewhere along that continuum. And at every one of those critical junctures along the way, changes in speed, and the detours we dare to take, will dramatically increase our chances of finding the cherished moments that will weave the incredible stories of our lives.