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.
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?
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.
Ever had the feeling that you were standing on top of a volcano? Then welcome to the club. Of all places in the world, I just happened to find myself in a place that everyone seems to have heard of, but few have ever visited. Mount Vesuvius? Nope. Mount Fuji? No. The infamous Mount Pinatubo? Not quite. In fact, nothing that dramatic, even if at times it did feel that way. The place I’m talking about is none other than Hot Springs, Arkansas. Yawn. Ok, no lava running down the streets or anything like that, but if you’ve ever imagined what it would be like to stand at a garden on top of a pressure cooker, then you’ll understand what being in Hot Springs feels like. Something is definitely happening under your feet, and the flesh-burning water coming out of the rocks, accompanied by ominous plumes of smoke spouting out of most city street drainage covers, is the stuff they make Hollywood movies about.
But just as in the valley adjacent to Mount Vesuvius in Italy, a wonderful existence takes place oblivious to the cauldron below. Steam, magna, sulfur, and who knows what? No worries, mate. On the contrary, health tourism appears to be booming, and to tell you the truth, I too felt my lungs happily expanding while getting a facial from all that steam. Well, it seems like they were expanding, but I better check with my provider just in case. But the point is that in some strange way, what takes place on the surface appears to be somewhat at odds with what’s taking place under the surface. Central Avenue downtown is downright wonderful, with the kind of great hangouts that once attracted the likes of Al Capone and friends. The bathhouses (of which yours truly did not partake), with their imposing structures, give the town a certain grandeur that makes you think of places frequented by royalty with their elaborate carriages. An outpost of health and beauty, but one apparently sitting on top of a boiling pot.
Location, location, location. We have all heard this a million times with regards to retail businesses, but over the years I have become convinced that the same mantra applies to photography. The concept of location is really absurdly simple, as if you cannot take a photo if you are not there. But the simplicity of this notion hides a lot more under its skin, so to speak. That is because location is also inspiration. It brings out the desire to create, to compose, and to see with new eyes all things around us. That first time we set eyes on the Eiffel Tower from the courtyard in Palais de Chaillot in Trocadéro, or the morning when with the first light of the day we emerge from the Via del Corso onto Piazza del Popolo in Rome, are the stuff that feed our creative souls like nothing else can. It is as if such places pull some dormant creative energy from inside of us that for some reason or another, never managed to come out during our more routine lives. Call it creative adrenaline or whatever, but it is real, and some places just reach into us and pull it out. Which places? Well, that’s really a personal thing, and no one but ourselves can tell us where that is. But you’ll know it when you get there because you will feel that uncontrollable creative pull suddenly overwhelming you. And that, my friend, is why our feet take us where they take us.
Some things we just cannot have enough of in our lives, and for yours truly, one of those things is the Alpine culture of Europe. I’m not talking about mountain climbing here, although there’s plenty of that going on along the mountain chain. Rather, I’m referring to that overall feeling that immediately hits you the moment you come in contact with those mountains and the endless villages that dot its lower elevations. I’m talking clean air, transparent rivers, green vegetation, breathtaking scenery, and a much slower pace of life than anything we Americans are accustomed to. But wait, did I forget the food? Well add that too to the mix. I’m sure that those used to seeing such places in a regular basis may feel a bit different about them, but for a traveler whose life only provides such sustenance in small, occasional dosages, such sights serve as emotional antibiotics to the many routines that consume most of our existence.
And that is precisely why a traveler should not travel all the time. How else to avoid the disenchanted effect of the routine life? Travel, if done in excess, could have the same soporific effect as not traveling. It will suffer from its own excesses, just like eating a sumptuous meal every hour of the day for the simple reason that you happen to love food. Too much of it, and it looses some of the magic that resides in its absence, in the lack of, and the longing. That is why my extended absence from the beautiful European alpine region has such a dramatic effect on my travel life. Many years ago, and somewhere along those clear, mountain rivers lined with small villages and pine trees, I discovered a sense of serenity that only shows its face when confronted with such beauty. It never lasts long enough, or comes around often enough, but its scarcity is no doubt part of its wonder. The other part lies within us, for as Ralph Waldo Emerson reminded us so many years ago, “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.”
It is often said that we go where our feet take us. No doubt, there’s a lot of truth to that, as all travelers seek something in their journeys. It is as if the world were a blank canvas and each one of us were given a brush to paint on it. What we paint will say a lot about us, and the choices we make of colors, strokes, and form. The same with travel. Do we choose to climb mountains when we can, or do we choose to navigate down silent rivers? Choices. We all make them, and oftentimes because that just happens to be how we were feeling at the time.
So what to make about my choice to spend some of my September time in Alsace, France when there were so many other choices available at the time. The title of one of my previous blogs pretty much gives it away. It was simply the pursuit of solace that let me to Alsace. Rolling, green hills filled with blooming vineyards. Blue skies. Absence of major cities. The rural lifestyle. The Vosges mountains dotted with sleepy villages. Fantastic wine and food. Empty, undulating trails. Narrow, country roads lined with trees. Quiet. The list could go on and on. For me, Alsace is just one of those places where your mind is free to roam, where the oppressive nature of large cities simply does not exist, and where every hour of the day appears to strike a balance with your long breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. The region’s beauty and easygoing flow totally transforms your days from a high-energy break dance into a Viennese waltz. Time to think, time to live, and time to be. Who would’ve known. Driving away from the area down the enchanting Rue de Vin country road, I couldn’t help but think that making a yearly trip to this part of the world would be the best therapy any human can enjoy. As Alsace drifted away in my rearview mirror, I couldn’t help but think that I was leaving much sooner than I was willing to let go of the place. And like a sailor going out to sea, all I could do was look at that receding horizon and hope that I would get to see those shores once again in my future. No doubt I will. No doubt I must.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Some travelers do not enjoy returning to places they have visited in the past, but I’m not one of them. Granted that with so many places to see around the world, it is perhaps advisable not to narrow your travel focus to a mere few of these. Nevertheless, there’s something nostalgic about visiting old stumping grounds after your feet have taken you far away from those familiar places, and for far too long. Strasbourg, France is one such place for me, and while it has been undoubtedly too long since I once roamed its streets accompanied by those happy days of youth, the magnificent sights of this great city still evoke the sense of romance and awe that was there when life was nothing but a long, uninterrupted spring.
During the month of December the city of Strasbourg, with its award-winning Christmas Market, dresses up for the holidays like very few cities in the world can. Anywhere you go in the Old Town there will be too much to see, too much to eat, and when it comes to that great, spiked wonder that is Gluehwine, too much to drink. And while in other places of the world people may complain about cold, overcast, and otherwise sun-deprived days, in Strasbourg these sort of days only add to the pure magic of the season. Small, cozy restaurants and cafes around the inner city will be beautifully illuminated and decorated, affording couples the perfect backdrop for conversation accompanied by a glorious Alsatian wine. Stopping during the blue hour on the Passerelle de l’Abreuvoir bridge to take-in the ancient rooftops surrounding the Cathédrale Notre Dame will transport you back to those days in the 17th Century when the cathedral was considered the tallest building in the world. And if it is your softer side you need to get reacquainted with for a change, just walk the narrow, twisting streets of La Petite France at night and you’ll be reminded that life is not just about speed, or about the eternal chase of golden mirages. Walking along these streets as if in a mindless drift, I could not help but think that the sheer beauty of this dimly lit city during the Christmas season had to be the perfect antidote to the many worries afflicting us these days. A beautiful city, lit by candlelight. An energy drink for the soul, and the stuff of which life’s most pleasurable moments are made of.