Spanish Steps In DC? Well, Yes.

Spanish Steps

Couple At Spanish Steps

Who would’ve know. Mention the Spanish Steps to anyone who enjoys travel, and immediately romantic images of the Piazza di Spagna in Rome with its fountain and multitude of lovers peering down the busy Via dei Condotti come rushing in. A stroll with your lover down the narrow Via del Babuino in late afternoon to the imposing Piazza del Papolo before catching a romantic dinner along the undulating Tiber River. The stuff dreams are made of. So, it is time to get those tickets and head on out to the Bella Italia and Old Rome in search of the Spanish Steps? Perhaps. But guess what? Just yesterday I discovered that right here in good old Washington, DC, we too have Spanish Steps, and you can get there by metro! Steps? Check. Lovers? Check. Views? Check. Tiber River? Well, would you settle for the off-color Potomac River? If yes, then check. Romantic dinner? There’s plenty of romance a few steps away at Dupont Circle, so check. Antiquity and beautiful architecture with narrow, cobblestone streets? Highly overrated.

So, yes, there you have it. Hidden away between S St NW and Decatur Pl NW a bit north of Dupont Circle, and sitting amongst a slew of foreign Embassies, lies our lilliputian version of the famous Italian landmark. And you know what, they’re kind of nice. Small, but offering the kind of privacy that sometimes makes all the difference. Very few people seem to know about this place, specially if they don’t live close by and have to traverse the area out of necessity. Beautifully out of sight in plain view. Brilliant. And while somewhat lacking the grandiose magnitude of its Italian distant relative, it didn’t seem to lack any of the romance for lovers occupying its steps. There were giggles. There were stares. There was a kiss, and a lover’s hand. When you already have all that, who needs Rome after all.

To Wander Is To Discover

Sometimes the best scenes are to be found behind building walls.
Sometimes the best scenes are to be found behind building walls.

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.

 

A Lover’s Kiss

The cool days at the beginning of autumn bring out couples to the Potomac shores. [Click photo for larger version]
The cool days at the beginning of autumn bring out couples to the Potomac shores. [Click photo for larger version]
Lovers kiss while oblivious to the world around them.
Lovers kiss while oblivious to the world around them.

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.

 

Cherry Blossoms Mark The Arrival Of Spring

The pre-dawn hours along the Tidal Basin showcase the Cherry Blossom trees at their best. [Click photo for larger version]
The pre-dawn hours along the Tidal Basin showcase the Cherry Blossom trees at their best. [Click photos for larger version]
The annual ritual brings people to the Tidal Basin in droves and allows for great photo opportunities.
The annual ritual brings people to the Tidal Basin in droves and allows for great photo opportunities.
When the blooming of the cherry trees, a city not known for public displays of affection, momentarily displays a decidedly Parisian flare.
With the blooming of the cherry trees, a city not known for public displays of affection, suddenly shows a decidedly Parisian flare.

It is a yearly ritual, but it never ceases to amaze. The annual spring blooming of the Cherry Blossom trees along the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC is one of those unique gifts of nature that no matter how many times you have experienced it in the past, the sheer beauty of this blooming spectacle is something not to be missed. Sure, the photos by now have all started to look the same, and the crowds will always descend on the place as pilgrims on a pilgrimage, but it really doesn’t matter. Has anyone ever tired of looking at a pretty face? Or has anyone ever wished for less happiness in their lives? Impossible. In the early morning hours of a perfect spring day, the blossoming cherry trees along the undulating shores of the Tidal Basin are the stuff of fantasies. The pink and white colors of the blooming flowers appear to fight for everyone’s attention, while the cool, misty fog along the water’s surface gradually gives way to the lazy, yellow light of a morning sun. It is a spectacle like no other, and year after year, it will bring us back to see and feel the coming of a new spring. A reminder of how beautiful life can be, and how great it is to be alive.

 

To Hover Is To See: Images From Two City Blocks

This gentleman was looking away, but waiting for him to turn around produced the desired photograph. [Click photo to enlarge]
This gentleman was looking away, but waiting for him to turn around produced the desired photograph. [Click photo to enlarge]
Couples in love will always be great subjects to photograph. [Click photo to enlarge]
Couples in love will always be great subjects to photograph. [Click image to enlarge]
Rare as it may be, there's always plenty of public romance in our cities. [Click to enlarge]
Rare as it may be, there’s always plenty of public romance in our cities. [Click image to enlarge]
Candid moments are simply the best, provided you learn to anticipate the scene. [Click for larger image]
Candid moments are simply the best, provided you learn to anticipate the scene. [Click image to enlarge]
Sometimes the secret is to see the image amongst all the environmental noise surrounding it. [Click image to enlarge]
Sometimes the secret is to see the image amongst all the environmental noise surrounding it. [Click image to enlarge]
 

Recently, I bumped into a local photographer friend of mine who happened to be hanging around an icy puddle of slush on a Washington, DC downtown corner.  Noticing that he was kind of hovering around the area with his Leica rangefinder at the ready, it was obvious that he was waiting for something to happen, so I asked him how it was going.  Without taking his eyes away from that puddle of slush for more than a second, he told me that he was waiting for the “decisive moment” when someone would hop over the puddle so he could capture it a la Cartier-Bresson.  To say he was working the scene would be an understatement.  Dodging people and nature while constantly shifting his position, he appeared to be moving with the grace of a Mohamed Ali within the confined amount of space allowed by a busy sidewalk.  I don’t know if he ever got his picture, but if he didn’t, it was certainly not for lack of trying.

Working a scene is what appears to be at the root of any great photograph.  When we look at some of the unbelievable photographs made by National Geographic photographers, what makes these photographs so special to a large extent is the unique perspective from which they were captured.  Composition, angle of view, and masterly handling of light are not things that happen by chance.  At that level, lots of considerations go into a photographer’s choices before that shutter is finally pressed, and luck, while always welcomed, has nothing to do with it in the vast majority of cases.  It is visual decision-making at its best: when to hang tight, when to move, when to aim, when to shift left or right, when to squat, or climb a building–they are all the product of intense observation and quick reaction, even if the end result is to stand still and wait.  While not perfect in any way, every single photo on this blog today was made possible by the simple act of waiting. Waiting for the cigar-smoking gentleman to look at me, waiting for the couples to show some tenderness, waiting for the grandfather to strike a teaching pose at the museum, and waiting for the waiter to approach the window.  Waiting, and anticipating.  Some may call this luck, and no doubt there’s some truth to the fact that the subjects could have acted otherwise, but the old saying, “The more I practice, the luckier I get,” may also have something to do with it.  Learning to see, combined with the patience that so often rewards anticipation, will pay great visual dividends after the shutter is pressed.  So after hanging around two downtown blocks for an entire afternoon on a very cold day, here’s the photographic lesson that was reinforced in my mind: that it is OK to run when you have to, but when you don’t, then don’t. Great things may happen when you allow your eyes the time to do what they do best: to see.