Taking The Time To See

Looking At Sculpture
“The value of experience is not in seeing much, but in seeing wisely.” William Osler

Do you take the time to see? I mean, to really see. You alone can answer this question, but I have to guess that most of us in these time-starved days simply don’t have the opportunity, or willingness, to slow down enough to “smell the roses,” so to speak. After all, time, with all its virtues and detriments, plays games on us all. There’s simply too little of it available for creativity and inspiration after factoring in all the “must do’s” in life. Work, family, personal grooming, chores, wait time, you name it and we’ve all been there. In fact, and as much as it pains me to say it, I’ll go as far as to say that such demands on our time are simply unavoidable. They are an integral part of the weave of life, at once detracting from and enriching our short journeys on planet earth. But if these time demands are inevitable, how is it possible to find time for creativity and inspiration in this journey. Was Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD) correct when he said in that it is not that we have so little of it, but rather than we waste so much of it?

Perhaps the answer lies not in the effort to create more free time than what we have (although this is always a good thing), but rather on increasing the “quality” of the time we have. And yes, I’m talking about he old “turn lemons into lemonade” argument (which admittedly Seneca described much better), but with a twist. This twist has to do with the difficult process of accepting that in this finite world, there are simply a lot of things we must choose to do without. Want to concentrate on truly discovering every intricacy of a work of art? Then you will have to consciously accept that you will not be able to get to other parts of the museum. Need a healthy amount of solitude to create your masterpiece? Then you will have to dispense with the company of others for long periods of time. Want to really get to know Croatia and the Croatian people, but only have two weeks of vacation? Then you must accept that Italy, Slovenia, and Switzerland are journeys for another day.

This sort of acceptance is primarily a mental one. And while there are spacial constraints there too, they only seem to play a minor role when compared with our willingness to “accept less in our pursuit of more.” Looked at it this way, the road to personal fulfillment could very well be paved by our individual abilities to do without. It is the feeling that comes from waiting for the sun to go past the horizon during an incredible sunset. Stillness and divestiture of worldly concerns and impositions, while short-lived, are the building blocks of indescribable joy. Call it “being in the moment,” or whatever, but they are moments when nothing else matters but what is in front of our eyes, immediately present in our reality. Fireworks on a moonless night. Forever in a minute. But what a minute it is.

 

The Yards: An Old Neighborhood Reinvents Itself

The most prominent architecture at The Yards is its modern footbridge. [Click photos for larger versions]
The most prominent architecture at The Yards is its modern footbridge. [Click photos for larger versions]
The Yards are characterized by lots of open, quiet spaces where friends can hang out.
The Yards are characterized by lots of open, quiet spaces where friends can hang out.
While still somewhat urban, the views from The Yards are some of the best in the city.
While still somewhat urban, the views from The Yards are some of the best in the city.
Lost of places to sit and enjoy a quiet lunch while the rest of the world is going crazy.
Lost of places to sit and enjoy a quiet lunch while the rest of the world is going crazy.
Young, eager entrepreneurs have discovered the area's potential early on.
Young, eager entrepreneurs have discovered the area’s potential early on.
Creative urban planning has totally redefined the character of an old neighborhood.
Creative urban planning has totally redefined the character of an old neighborhood.
With the Federal Transportation Department in the background, The Yards are a great example of livable urban spaces.
With the Federal Transportation Department in the background, The Yards are a great example of livable urban spaces.

They often say that if you want to really get to know a city, that you must first familiarize yourself with its neighborhoods. I kind of agree with that and have made it a point to visit distinct neighborhoods whenever I travel. But sometimes you don’t have to travel very far to see how new neighborhoods transform the cities in which they sprout. As old continues to give way to new, places like The Yards in Washington, DC continue to redefine the city’s urban living landscape.  Sure, not everyone is happy to see an old way of life disappear, but shinny, new things also have their attraction.  And in a city that has experienced significant population outflows in the past, authorities are quite eager to attract those taxpayers back to the new neighborhoods.  The bait: open spaces, shinny new apartment buildings, trendy restaurants, and above all, quick access to the Metro. Oh, and should I mention that a Major League baseball park and a New York Trapeze School are within walking distance too? Well, that surely must help.

This recently-developed, waterside area of Washington, DC is sandwiched between the Navy Yard and the Washington Nationals baseball park. Major construction projects are still going on out there, so the place still has that “work in progress” feeling about it.  And if the area has not been totally discovered by locals yet, this probably has more to do with its somewhat off-the-beaten-path location than with anything else. Sure, you can get there via metro, but if you drive, prepare to pay at the few parking facilities there (and even on Sundays when most of DC does not charge for parking). Enough reason to stay away? I don’t think so. The Yards are one of the few places in the city where the lack of crowds, traffic, and noise allow for the perfect evening stroll, or for enough quiet to concentrate on that great book you’ve been meaning to spend some time with. Trendy restaurants, coffee shops, and an all-natural ice cream shop round up the good news about the place. Who knows, this may end up becoming one of the best kept secrets in the 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.

 

The Simple Beauty Of Locarno

The imposing Madonna del Sasso church and monastery watch over the town of Locarno and the Swiss Alps.
The imposing Madonna del Sasso church and monastery watch over the town of Locarno and the Swiss Alps.
A rainy day doesn't seem to scare shoppers at the quaint Via alla Ramogna near the Locarno train station.
A rainy day doesn’t seem to scare shoppers at the quaint Via alla Ramogna near the Locarno train station.
Like in so many other places in Europe, entering through an open door can reveal some magnificent views generally hidden from the public.
Like in so many other places in Europe, entering through an open door can reveal some magnificent views generally hidden from the public.
One of the most beautifully serene piazzas in Locarno is the Chiesa di Sant'Antonio.
Up the hill from the main shopping area in Locarno lies one of the most beautifully serene piazzas in the city, the Chiesa di Sant’Antonio.
Locarno's old town is a wonderful maze of colorful, narrow streets lined with small shops and family-owned restaurants.
Locarno’s old town is a wonderful maze of colorful, narrow streets lined with small shops and family-owned restaurants.
The old doors and brick structure of Castello Visconteo are a reminder of 15th Century Locarno.
The old doors and brick structure of Castello Visconteo are a reminder of 15th Century Locarno.
Doors that are closed during the early morning hours open up to reveal some of the most incredible courtyards in Ticino.
Doors that are closed during the early morning hours open up to reveal some of the most incredible courtyards in Ticino.
The many covered walkways in Locarno are lined with boutique shops, gelato stands, and a whole array of Italian restaurants.
The many covered walkways in Locarno are lined with boutique shops, gelato stands, and a whole array of Italian restaurants.
Not even flooding could stop traveling musicians from setting shop at the shore of Lago Maggiore.
Not even flooding could stop traveling musicians from setting shop at the shore of Lago Maggiore.

Nearly ten years ago I had the pleasure of driving near Locarno, Switzerland on my way to Lucerne, it’s more popular neighbor to the north.  At the time I remember being so fascinated with the landscape that I promised myself that one day I would return to visit Locarno and its surrounding areas.  Well, here I am, and to say that Locarno has lived up to my expectations would be a gross understatement.  The postcard beauty of this small town by Lago Maggiore is only exceeded by the friendliness of its people.  And while I must admit that I was a bit skeptical of the description of the Ticino area as one having “Italian culture with Swiss efficiency,” I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this is indeed the case.

Four great sights seem to be at the heart of this great Swiss region.  For starters, there is the imposing Lago Maggiore, which appears to be suspended in air while blessed with clear Alpine waters.  Then there is the center of Locarno, the curved Piazza Grande, lined by the old town to its north.  Further up the mountain is the famous Santuario della Madonna del Sasso, with its imposing views of Lago Maggiore, the city of Locarno, and the snow-capped Alps around the lake.  And last, but not least, there are the Alps themselves, ruggedly imposing and with snow tops reminding you of that idyllic world we all experienced only in postcards.  It is all the kind of visual wonderland that only existed in our imaginations.  Perhaps too much to take in during just one visit, but it all leaves you with the unmistakable feeling that whatever magic the place is playing on you, there is no doubt that you want more of it in your life, and lots of it.  I know that the moment I watch Locarno from my train window receding in the horizon, the same feeling which consumed me so many years ago will immediately return.  I will have to come back someday, but this time it will not be out of curiosity.  Rather, it will be out of an incredible sense of wonderment.