Chances are that you have never set foot inside the Smithsonian’s imposing Arts and Industries Building. Not that the building is hidden away somewhere where no one can find it. It rather sits in plain view of us all, right next to the Smithsonian Castle and smack in the middle of the Washington Mall. The building is incredible large and a beautiful architectural masterpiece, not to mention that it borders what many consider to be the most beautiful garden in DC, the Enid A. Haupt Garden. But not too many people have been inside, as it has been in constant renovation for a while now (translation: empty and closed to the public). I have lived in the area for nearly two decades and have never set foot inside, and have grown accustomed to seeing the plain-paper “closed” sign taped to its magnificent doors. That is, until today, when by chance I happened to walk by and some great folks conducting a demo along Jefferson Dr SW who thought that I was a tourist and told me to check out the inside of the building. At first I thought they were joking, but it turned out to be that they were not.
From inside, the structure is nothing short of spectacular. A throwback to another era with the finesse and class of an old Parisian covered market. The metal ceiling and beam-supported upper deck reminded me of the central market in Budapest, but without the people and the cheerfulness that is typical in those markets. Empty, underutilized, and unseen by most of us, this Arts and Industries Building, like a queen in exile, sits royally at the heart of the nation’s capital in total silence. And that is a pity. Perhaps one day it will be yet another museum at the Mall, but if it were up to me, I would create a food market to rival some of the best food markets in the world. Sadly, this will never happen. Most likely, and in true local fashion, a city full of museums will gain another museum in the end, and another place where you are expected to be quiet. Oh, well. I guess once I set eyes on the place, it was more of a “laugh out loud” kind of vision that wedged itself inside my head.
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.
It is said that Mount Vernon is one of the country’s most beautiful estates, but after a short walk around the grounds of this incredible property, I can’t help but think that this observation is a gross understatement. That is, of course, provided you can allow your eyes and imagination to see beyond the massive amounts of tourists (not to mention high schoolers loudly taunting the animals on the property) that descend on the place like locus the moment the weather warms up a bit. You just have to blank that out and let yourself be transported to the period when our First President and his family roamed the grounds of this quiet haven along the mighty Potomac River. If you do that, then you’ll get a better picture of what life must have been like in such a beautiful place.
I had been to Mount Vernon briefly before, but during my first visit I didn’t have the opportunity to walk around the extensive grounds of the estate. The Mansion itself was impossible to visit at this time, as the line for those waiting to enter was about a quarter mile long. No worries, though, because the grounds themselves deserve a visit in their own right. In the quiet solitude of those expansive grounds, I could understand why this place held such fascination for the great General. In fact, after having reluctantly agreed to serve a second term as President (and adamantly refusing to serve a third), he couldn’t wait to get back to his property. I can see why. Places like this, and the lifestyle they surely afforded the First President, must have been the direct opposite of what President Washington had to endure in the city. Fast forward a couple of hundred years, and with the exception of some well-deserved maintenance and the imposing Museum/Education Center, the place looks pretty much the same as it did when the Washington family lived there. George Washington, the master surveyor, certainly knew how to pick a place. Then again, no one could ever doubt the great man’s many talents.
Once again, and after a few years, I find myself in Lausanne, Switzerland. However, and unlike the last time I had the good fortune to visit this wonderful city by Lake Geneva, this visit was a short one. In fact, it lasted barely 24 hours, and while admitedly too brief, it was nevertheless enough to remind me of why I fell in love with this place during my first visit. Perhaps it was the much slower pace than I’m used to, or the contagious courtesy of the Swiss people, or perhaps it was the natural beauty of an old, hilly city dotted with twisting cobblestone streets that captivated me. Not sure. But one thing I do know for sure: Lausanne is a hidden gem hidden from most people’s travel radar, and that is a pity.
The city impresses the moment you set foot on it. Walk up from the train station via the curvy Rue du Petit-Gêne and you will begin to see boutique hotels and quaint restaurants that you are sure to visit during your stay. Reach the higher elevation Rue du Grand-Gêne and (after you have a chance to catch your breath), you’ll be right next to the majestic Lausanne Palace Hotel and the imposing Place Saint-François. Walk down to the Rue Centrale to find some of the best cafes and pastry shops in the city before getting lost in the old town. This was pretty much all I had time for during my 24-hour visit while in transit to Locarno at the tip of Lago Maggiore. Overlooking the tiered vineyards of the Valais from the train on the way out of the city, I found myself wishing for more time in Lausanne and wondering whether Locarno would be just as enchanting for this wondering photographer. I was soon to find out that the answer was a resounding yes, but that is a story for a later day.
Here’s one place that most likely very few of you (if any) has ever visited: the Jones Point Lighthouse in Alexandria, Virginia. Don’t blame you, though, because admittedly, I recently discovered the place myself. Well, discovered in the sense that someone else led me there during this year’s Scott Kelby’s Worldwide Photowalk (read rainy, cold day). Not having had much time that day to photograph the place, I decided that I would come back to this somewhat isolated spot along the Potomac River when I didn’t have to fight a multitude of photographers for position, or the weather for that matter. But once I set out to find the place, I began to realize why the lighthouse is somewhat of a desolate, albeit beautiful, place. The lighthouse is just not easy to find, let alone bump into, even when millions of people drive by it everyday as they cross the Woodrow Wilson Bridge linking Virginia to Maryland. Getting there, though, is half the fun, specially during the fall season when the park seems to be celebrating a festival of colors, with reds, orange, and yellow leaves shinning bright against the deep blue sky of autumn. Considering that downtown Washington, DC lies only a few miles away, you would think that the Jones Point park and lighthouse would be on people’s radars when visiting the area, but the opposite seems to be true. Quiet, isolated, and only reachable by foot, it sits majestically and alone by the water’s edge, with its occasional visitors enjoying the zen-like experience the place seems to induce.
What is it about days gone by that so much fascinate today’s imagination? With the digital revolution being experienced by our generation, it would seem that everyone has been caught up on the modern technological era, looking forward to a connected world trying to move as close as possible to the speed of light. And yet, if you take a stroll down the Virginia countryside (or any state countryside for that matter), you will immediately notice that nostalgia for simpler times is alive and well in the American psychic. There are endless reenactments of colonial era lifestyles, county fairs where old machinery clonks its way throughout the day, and local entertainment that has nothing to do with today’s hip-hop generation. In some sense it is a look back in search of grounding, a retrospective yearning for meaning in a modern world that seems to lack meaning at times. And if we cannot tell where we came from, I guess we will never know how far we’ve traveled along that road we call life. So let’s hear it for nostalgia, for that marker along the road by which we measure the progress in our lives and which will always be our guiding light in an uncertain and unpredictable future.
I have walked by Fire Station #201 in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia many times before. After all, Prince Street is somewhat of a well-known street in Old Town, specially during spring when some of the best looking tulip plantings in the area can be seen barely a block away. Never had I seen the station doors open, though, or seen any of its personnel hanging out outside like they do in the movies. I guess this is a good thing when you think about it, because when firefighters are not busy putting out fires it means that some level of human and property suffering is being avoided. But today, as I decided at the last minute (and for no particular reason) to take the long way to where I was headed, I was pleasantly rewarded with the opportunity to visit the #201 Station by some of the nicest people I’ve met in a long time. The folks at the station were extremely friendly, informative, and obviously very proud of the work they are doing to keep the rest of us safe. For this roving photographer, what started as a quick walk on a sunny Sunday morning turned out to be a lesson in history, a walk of discovery, and a realization of how thankful we all must be for the professionalism and sacrifice of our great firefighters (of which my brother-in-law is one). I guess no day, no matter how ordinary it may look, is really ordinary. I met some great Americans today at a place that is both part of America’s past and of its present, and I am glad to report that we could not be in better hands when it comes to our safety and wellbeing. So, a big thank you goes out to the great folks of Fire Station #201 for their generosity and the great work they do together with firefighters from other stations to keep the rest of us safe and secure.