A Few Days Of Heaven

Monument Blossoms

Like happiness, it never last very long. That’s just the way it is, but while it lasts, it is nothing short of heaven. I’m obviously referring to the yearly spectacle that is the Cherry Blossoms blooming season around the Tidal Basin area downtown Washington, DC. That’s right, the same town where politicians have given new meaning to the word hate, but where nature, in spite of their attempt to spoil it, explodes in all its beauty for a few days in March every year. Around the grassy meadows of the Washington Mall, the eternal fights just a few blocks away seem as in a different galaxy. The beautiful bloom of these bendy trees remains as oblivious of the politicians as the politicians remain of their delicate flowers. In fact, the Cherry Blossoms are a happy zone, a zone where smiles and enjoyment of what life has to offer are potent enough to exclude any feeling of unhappiness and dejection. A zone where “public demonstrations of affection” are not only evident everywhere you look, but where they are impossible to repress amongst so much beauty. It is a yearly ritual that only lasts three or four days, but one that that is the clearest symbol of spring and of the beauty, happiness, and hope that still exists in the world. Nature, and people, at their best. The world could use a little bit more of both.

The Empty Space Between Us

Lady By Windows

Not everyone enjoys empty spaces. I’m referring to those empty rooms where maybe a sole couch sits, or a sole print on the wall. Sort of a Japanese Zen kind of room, devoid from visual distractions, but perhaps with a single object in it to demand your total, and uncluttered attention. It is really incredible how the Japanese have turned the absence of something into a thing of beauty. If only we could do that in this part of the world, where people cannot have enough stuff to cram into whatever space they have. Kind of what we do with our time, where society feels compelled to fill every minute of it with some activity, like checking a cell phone for that constant stream of those “insignificant little nothings.”

But when we search for creativity, empty spaces do seem to take an importance out of proportion from their normal selves. Perhaps it has to do with the visual isolation they allow, or perhaps with the fact that the less taxing our visual reaction is, the more our minds can wonder and compose. Whatever the case, it is in that desolate, empty distance separating feelings from the subject of our attention, where I find the glorious sustenance that feeds my imagination. That gap, that clear path where nothing lives and where obstacles don’t exist, is precisely where inspiration dwells. Nothing stands in the way of our eyes, thoughts, and admiration. It is glorious emptiness, where unable to be seen by the naked eye, incredible amounts of energy bounces back-and-forth without obstacles between the admirer and the admired.

In his meditative book, “The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down,” Buddhist Monk Haemin Sunim eloquently identifies this zone where nothing, and everything dwell in perfect harmony:

What makes music beautiful is the distance between one note and another. What makes speech eloquent is the appropriate pause between words. From time to time we should take a breath and notice the silence between sounds.

The absence of notes and words makes “noticing” possible, just as the absence of obstructing things make beauty noticeable. A pause in a conversation. The expectation of the next note. A lone painting on a wall. And the empty space between us. I couldn’t help but notice.

The Alpine Effect

Garmisch River

Oberammergau Bridge

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.”

 

Zurich, Switzerland Never Disappoints

The magnificent financial capital of Switzerland acquires a certain glow in winter. [Click photo for larger version]
The magnificent financial capital of Switzerland.
Just about everywhere you look in Zurich, you are surprised by some incredible landscape.
Incredible city landscape.
Get off-the-beaten-path in the city and you will be rewarded by some unique finds.
Get off-the-beaten-path for some unique finds.
Sometimes, it is the little things that make Zurich and other Alpine cities so special.
It is the little things that make Zurich so special.
While not quite fast food in the American style, many local eateries do cater to those short of time.
Local eateries do cater to those short of time.
A local chef and a bartender take a break before the dinner crowds descend on their establishment.
A local chef and a bartender.
Ever wonder why photographers love European models? Well, wonder no more.
Ever wonder why photographers love European models?
In Zurich, Christmas celebrations in the Old Town section appear to be quite fashionable.
Christmas celebrations in Old Town.

It’s been a long while since I last visited Zurich, Switzerland.  In fact, it’s been about a decade, to be precise, and if it was wonderful the day I left, it has gotten even better now.  Sure, the crowds have increased quite a bit, and this world financial center has not gotten any cheaper.  But the Alpine magic that once captivated a younger version of myself is still there, and in great quantities.  The blue evening glow generated by the sun’s reflected light from the snow-capped mountains, the chilly morning strolls along the Limmat river, and the joyful holiday spirit that makes the Christmas season so special along the Alpine Region of Europe.  Yes, they are all still there, and so is the evoked feeling that you are visiting a very special place in the world, where in the course of one day you can’t avoid but feel that you have heard just about every language under the sun spoken along the old, cobblestone streets in the city.  I may not understand most of them, but one thing I do know for sure: that they are as fascinated as I am with this gem of a city.  How do I know this?  Because a happy face is easy to spot, and happy faces they have.  After all, couples don’t hold hands and kiss in public places when they are not happy.  But Zurich has that effect on people, and as long as it does, this aging traveler will continue to come back to find its incredible magic.

A Winter Day Along The Virginia Countryside

Even in winter, horses roam freely along the rolling meadows of the Virginia countryside near Middleburg.
Even in winter, horses roam freely along the rolling meadows of the Virginia countryside near Middleburg.
While relatively close to Washington, DC, the stables and farmhouses of the Virginia countryside appear to be worlds apart on a winter day.
While adjacent to Washington, DC, the stables and farmhouses along Route 50 are worlds apart from the Nation’s capital.
The ever-changing Virginia weather can go from intense snow to idyllic weather in the course of a morning.
The ever-changing Virginia weather can go from intense snow to idyllic weather within the course of a single morning.
The incredible beauty of the Virginia countryside near the community of Middleburg is intensified during winter months.
Some of the most beautiful farmhouses in America are only an hour away from Washington, DC.
Adjacent to the million dollar properties and vineyards along Route 50, old Virginia continues to be alive and well.
Adjacent to the million dollar properties and vineyards along Route 50, old Virginia continues to be alive and well.

It is virtually impossible to get tired of the Virginia countryside, specially if you are a photographer.  Even in winter, when local weather services constantly struggle to get their predictions right, a slow journey along the rolling landscape near Middleburg will reward you in ways that are hard to describe.  Manicured horse farms with dark wooden fences, historical dwellings side by side with million dollar mansions, gorgeous horses lazily wandering along undulating meadows, and tree-covered country roads gently disappearing into the horizon.  It is an incredible landscape constantly displaying the rich heritage of the state.  During the snowy, winter months the city-slicker crowds with their late-model BMW’s are gone and the place finally slows down to its more characteristic, rhythmic crawl.  It is the slowness, surrounded by incredible beauty, that nourishes your photographic soul.