Simplicity

The Flower Pot

Everything is too complicated. Really. Or should I say, we make things too complicated for our own good. Here as I seat pondering a new year, I can’t help but wonder whether my expectations for 2018 will be any different from those I conceived of for the year 2017. After all, what difference does a year make, or should make? I would like to think that with every passing year we become a somewhat better, refined version of ourselves. As our vision narrows with time, the complicated expectations of fame, fortune, and endless adventure are gradually fined tuned to a more personalized set of intentions. This focus was perhaps where our vision should have been all along, but when life is enjoying its boisterous spring time, it surely must be allowed some leeway for its blessed recklessness and exuberance. With time, however, we manage to gradually squeeze the essence of things, just like the concentrated extract of a fine perfume. What really matters gains in potency by the process of discarding the superfluous. During this process, slowness becomes a virtue, and simplicity a much-cherished objective.

And so it goes with my approach to 2018. No need to visit a hundred countries when spending a lot more time in a few would do. No need to live it up in fancy, über-expensive hotels when a quaint b&b in the French countryside would do. No need obsessing over eternal money pursuits, when loved ones are starving for a little more time with us. It is far too easy to become a slave to the constructs in our heads, to that complicated notion of who we should be that always comes at the expense of who we are. Less, with simplicity as its accomplice, may well be secret passage to a life of happiness and bliss. That scarcity, strange as it may sound, may just be the sweet fuel of our dreams and expectations. A new year, a new approach to living and traveling. And if anyone out there, like me, comes to the realization that it would be virtually impossible to see all the stars in the universe, then we all should just pick one, and give it all we’ve got. The journey will be equally rewarding.

 

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.

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.

Imagination Defines The Image

What we see if usually more important than what we look at. [Click photo for larger version]
What we see if usually more important than what we look at. [Click photo for larger version]

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.

 

Slowing Down In Freiburg, Germany

A young woman walk by Adelhauser Platz during the early morning hours. [Click photos for larger versions]
A young woman walk by Adelhauser Platz.
While not as large as in other cities, the Freiburg Christmas Market is just as colorful.
The colorful Freiburg Christmas Market.
Vendors don't seem to miss a day to sell their wares by the Historisches Kaufhaus next to the Freiburg Cathedral.
The Historisches Kaufhaus next to the Freiburg Cathedral.
There is never a shortage of patrons at one of the most popular breweries in town.
A town of great breweries.
Like in most European cities, getting lost in the backstreets is half the fun.
Getting lost in the backstreets is half the fun.
Blankets are very popular at local cafes, where locals insist to sit outside no matter how cold.
Blankets are very popular at local cafes in winter.
A small canal bordered by quaint restaurants and coffee shops is part of the charm in Freiburg.
A small canal bordered by quaint restaurants and coffee shops.

Some places have a way of captivating you through their quiet, unassuming ways. They usually don’t make the front pages of travel magazines, nor do they become world-famous for hosting major events like the Olympics or the World Expo. And yet, for those who venture outside the normal touristy venues to explore a bit deeper into a country, these somewhat out-of-the-way gems are full of rewards. In a type of understated way, they charm you not with UNESCO-type monuments to humanity, but rather with the easy-going simplicity that characterizes most of our everyday lives. Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany is such a place.

Straddling the western side of the Black Forest, this smallish university city in the state of Baden-Württenburg provides a much welcomed break from its more touristy French neighbor to the north, Strasbourg. It’s geographical location alone (sitting on the south-west corner of Germany by the Black Forest) makes it somewhat of a refuge from the tourist lanes that crisscross most of Europe these days. To go to Freiburg, you must want to go to Freiburg, because it will require you to get off the main road to do so. But this, my friends, is the good news about this wonderful city. It charms you for what it’s not, which if you have traveled any time recently to the overcrowded, major European cities that dominate most vacation brochures, you will soon come to appreciate.

If I had to pick a term to describe my time in Freiburg, I would probably refer to it as “slow travel.” None of that need-for-speed stuff that characterizes major metropoles these days. On the contrary, days wandering the twisted, quiet streets in Freiburg tend to blend into each other with the ease of day passing into night. After spending some time in a major European city, life in Freiburg felt like you had arrived at a place you could call home. Orderly, clean, and charmingly low-keyed, it is the kind of place where you go to recharge your batteries while enjoying a simpler way of life. But don’t get me wrong, Freiburg is not some desolate city where nothing of any consequence is happening. Rather, it is a charming city with all the trappings of a larger city, but on a much smaller scale (and a lot cheaper too), and with a lot less tourist traffic. And even if you wouldn’t think so from trying to find a free table at the incredible Hausbrauerei Feierling brewery (which by the way, is reason enough to go to Freiburg for a few days), you will be able to dispense with any notion of speed during your visit there. The city, with its easy-going, unassuming rhythm, will definitely grow on you. And as you board that train on your way to Basel, Stuttgart, or wherever your travels are taking you, you will be glad you took the time to stop and visit this charming city by the Dreisam river.

 

Attempting To Figure Out Luxembourg City

An old observation post sits high above the Vallé de la Petrussé. [Click photos for larger versions]
Above the Vallé de la Petrussé.
Great places in small packages.
Great places in small packages.
While there seems to be a lot of French influence in Luxembourg, the city has its unique, classy character.
A unique, classy character.
The European artisinal café culture is alive and well in Luxembourg.
The artisinal café culture is alive and well.
The dancing figures stood in sharp contrast to the foggy, dreary days of November in the city.
The dancing figures and foggy days.

There are some places that are not that easy to figure out. This may have to do with the grey area that lies somewhere between expectations, reality, and perceptions, but whatever it is, warming up to them may take longer than you have when you visit. For me, Luxembourg City is one of those places. During my short visit there, I found this banking enclave in the heart of Europe to be both beautiful and a bit of a riddle. Can’t quite put my finger on it, but it sort of reminded me of those parties where everyone is having a good time, but nothing much exciting is taking place. Lots of mingling, but no music, and definitely no dancing. A city that you travel to not so much with the intention of being in the middle of it all, but rather with the intention of being a bit removed from it all.

In all fairness, though, my first impressions may have had something to do with the time of the year. November in that part of Europe can result in some rather gloomy, sun-deprived days. In fact, for the three days I was there, the thick fog never quite lifted, casting a mysterious (and quite wet) blanket over most of the city. I know there was sunshine there somewhere, but I never saw it in great abundance. But what I could see was quite impressive. The views from the magnificent Monument of Remembrance high above the Rue de la Semois are nothing short of spectacular. And if shopping is what you’re after, you can’t do any better than along the designer stores along the Rue Philippe II (just take a lot of cash with you). Take a stroll at night along the Place Guillaume II and the Palais Grand Ducal during this time of the year and you will find yourself in one of those mysterious, foggy scenes right out of a Hollywood thriller. Without a doubt, everything that is happening in Luxembourg at these hours is happing inside, somewhere behind those imposing doors and majestic facades.

So what to make out of Luxembourg City? A quote by Lady Edith of Downton Abbey comes to mind. Upon hearing from Anthony Gillingham that it would not be very English to make public scenes about things people were passionate about, Lady Edith said, “No, but I envy it… all those Latins screaming, and shouting, and hurling themselves into graves. I bet they feel much better afterwards.” As my train left the Luxembourg station on its way to Belgium, I couldn’t help but think that a little bit of that Latin attitude could do the city of Luxembourg a bit of good too. I can only wonder if all those bankers would agree.

 

The Charming Secret Garden Cafe

Simple elegance is the best way of describing The Secret Garden Cafe in the community of Accoquan.
Simple elegance is the best way of describing The Secret Garden Cafe in the community of Accoquan.
Bright and spacious, the Cafe is where you are going to find many of the locals socializing at lunchtime.
Bright and spacious, the Cafe is where you are going to find many of the locals socializing at lunchtime.
The simple lunch fare at The Secret Fountain Cafe includes some creative takes on traditional sandwiches.
The simple lunch fare at The Secret Fountain Cafe includes some creative takes on traditional sandwiches.
When the weather is good, the garden, multi-layered patio dining area is the place to hang out.
When the weather is good, the garden, multi-layered patio dining area is the place to hang out.

Once in a while you come across a restaurant where all the elements seem to click.  I’m not referring to some drain-the-bank-account type of place, mind you, but rather to a restaurant that seems to seamlessly combine those little things like good service, elegance, and basic good food with a little flair.  One such place is the Secret Garden Cafe in Accoquan, Virginia.  Not that I knew about this place before today, or that I would have found it without my good friend Mark suggesting I check the place out (the entrance is down a short alleyway and the restaurant is at the back of a local business).  What I discovered at the end of that short alleyway was one of the most quaint and charming places I’ve seen in a long time.  The white-linen tablecloths and the soft, pastel colors inside set the tone for the type of clientele that is always looking for that little extra in a place.  And when you consider that you can have a two-course lunch with enough freshly squeezed lemonade to kill a horse for less than $20, the place becomes even more attractive, specially for someone used to DC restaurant prices.  Next time I’m in Accoquan, I know exactly where I’m going for lunch.

A Wintry Georgetown Day

The walk along the Georgetown Canal late on a wintry day is definite soup for the soul.
The walk along the Georgetown Canal late on a wintry day is definite soup for the soul.
The new breed of chic cafes along the many side streets in Georgetown will reward those with a vivid curiosity for the road less traveled.
The new breed of chic cafes along the many side streets in Georgetown will reward those with a vivid curiosity for the road less traveled.
In a scene reminiscent of Paris, the Georgetown neighborhood has the greatest concentration of bakeries in the city.
In a scene reminiscent of Paris, the Georgetown neighborhood has the greatest concentration of bakeries in the city.

I sat at home yesterday thinking about the old saying that, “There’s no such thing as a bad day to take photographs,” and pondered the wisdom of going out with my camera to challenge the near-freezing temperatures outside.  Don’t get me wrong, I am a tough guy. Well, above freezing temperatures at least, but I generally do not let a bad day hold me back from hitting the streets in search of the perfect photograph (which by the way, rarely is out there waiting for you).  Nevertheless, out I went to Georgetown because I figured that if anyone would be outside on a cold day like this, it would be the always-there Georgetown crowds.  To my surprise, though, the crowds were quite thin today, but the colors on this gray, overcast day could not have been any more perfect.  And then there was the light, yes, the light.  Not just any light mind you, but that creamy, yellowish, soft light that photographers dream of and which is generally only experienced during what is commonly known in the photography world as the “magic hour.”  Who would’ve known, that on this gloomiest of days we would all be blessed with some of the most beautiful light these sorry eyes have ever seen.  Go figure.

Charming Shepherdstown, West Virginia

The imposing Bavarian Inn with its panoramic views of the Potomac River is one of the landmark structures in Shepherdstown. Nikon D800, AF Nikkor 14mm f/2.8D ED.
The Lost Dog Cafe on Shepherdstown’s main street is one of the main activity hubs downtown. Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED.
The eclectic Blue Moon Cafe at the corner of Princes and High Streets with its health-oriented menu and relaxed vibe is one of the best hangouts in town. Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED.
The classy Bistro 112 on W German Street downtown will make you think you just drove out of Paris for a quiet meal somewhere at the French countryside. Nikon D800, AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED.

I have to be one of the first to admit that I didn’t know much about historic Shepherdstown, West Virginia before this past weekend.  Didn’t know it was the oldest town in West Virginia, or that it was around this area where a fellow with very little formal education named James Rumsey invented the steamboat and showed the contraption to none other than George Washington himself.  For me, Shepherdstown just sounded like a nice place to spend a long weekend with my cameras while discovering a part of America I had never seen before.  But to say that I was up for a surprise would be an understatement.  Friendly people, beautiful setting, fantastic food, and a relaxed atmosphere that couldn’t be more different than the hectic world that lies a mere couple of hours south at our nation’s capital.  Start your mornings with a down-to-earth breakfast at the incredible Betty’s Restaurant at E German Street, hit the quaint shops downtown while your feet hold up, and then treat yourself and your significant other for lunch at the classy, yet laid-back Bistro 112 down the street.  More shopping in the afternoon or a quick trip  a short 11 miles south to historical Harpers Ferry, followed by drinks and dinner at the Bavarian Inn’s Rathskeller, where the German decor, beer, and food will do wonders for your tourist aches and pains.  All these were great finds, but for me, the greatest revelation this weekend was that places like this continue to exist in America and that the people you meet in such quaint, little towns around the country continue to remind us of the simple work ethic that has made our country great.  It is comforting to know that somewhere, along these scattered, lightly-populated, small towns in America, the heart of a great country continues to beat in silent rhythm for future generations.  You can’t see it, but you can feel it, and that was good enough for me.