A Visit To The Ljubljana Castle

Ljubljana Castle View

Castle Road

Castle Restaurant

Castle Tower Stairwell

Sitting high above the city of Ljublana as a majestic ruler is the imposing Ljubljanski grad, or more commonly known to us mortals as the Ljubljana Castle. A structure that has watched over the city for more than five centuries, it is the perfect place to take in the fantastic valley city surrounded by mountains and morning fog. The castle is reachable by cable car or the old-fashioned way, by simply walking up the hill along a lusciously green country road. Mind you, that the cable car is perhaps the easiest way to make the short trip, but not necessarily the most satisfying for a photographer. So up the hill it was, and I couldn’t have been happier with the decision. The castle has a varied history, to say the least, and throughout its five century existence, it has housed everything from local rulers to a prison. It’s present use as a museum and tourist destination are the perfect place to spend a morning. But whatever you do, you shouldn’t even think of leaving the place before lunch or dinner, for to do so would mean to miss out on an incredible Slovenian meal washed down with local wines at the elegant Na Gradu restaurant.

The views from the castle tower are the best in the city. It takes a little bit of climbing to get to the top of the tower, but as you can see in one of the photos above, the stairwell alone is worth the effort of going up. Obviously, a lot of renovation has taken place at the castle, but there are plenty of original hallways and chambers throughout the structure to enjoy the historical flavor of the place. Best of all, once you pay the small entry fee, you are free to roam throughout the castle without anyone hurrying you along. On the way down from the castle, there are several trails to follow leading to another part of town and to another fantastic coffee shop. In one carless morning, a walk in the woods, a tour of a castle, a sumptuous meal at a beautiful restaurant, and a Macchiato to die for. I may not be certain, but I think that this is how you begin to fall in love with a place.

The Allure Of All Things Old

Polish Restaurant

What is it with this nostalgia that refuses to leave us alone? I mean, why is it that we sometimes feel so unable to shake those feelings in our heads about times gone by and moments that will most likely never come again? I’ve heard it said many times that it is sometimes better not to see or hear some things because once they are inside your head, it is simply impossible to rid yourself of them. For travelers this is specially a problem, perhaps because once you get to see or hear of a glorious place, your life is never the same. The visions linger inside of you mercilessly, and before you know it, you begin to cherish those quiet moments in your life that allow you to sneak away into those faraway places from wherever you happen to be at the time. You are carried there by that classic feeling of nostalgia, by the “sentimental longing or wishful affection for the past.”

And that brings me to the “old world;” to the time, money, and effort travelers spend every year visiting all things old around the world. Sure, travelers also love the glittering lights of modern Tokyo, or the clinical modernism of a Singapore, but for the most part, their feet seem to take them to old Beijing, to Old Town Prague, and to the far corners of the well-trodden world in search of things that have been around for a long time. Dark, cobblestone alleyways around the world send our heartbeats into overdrive in a way that modern minimalism just doesn’t seem to understand. It’s not a value judgment, though, but rather an impulse lathered with nostalgia that seems to be the culprit. The modern, by virtue of its newness, will be around for a while, but the old may not be, and that alone seems to be reason enough for lighting a fire under our feet. We just need to “see it before its gone.” We just have to. And no, it has nothing to do with the logic of where it’s best to spend our limited resources. Rather, it has everything to do with the images that live inside our heads, with that feeling that can only come when strolling slowly in an old world whose silent history whispers in our ears the sweet, romantic songs of adventure and melancholy that make us the conflicted souls we all are. So here is to the old world, to nostalgia, and to a future that finds its highest expression in the past, for it is in that past that we so often find the windows to our future.

The Fire Below

Couple At Hot Springs

Bathhouse Selfie

Hot Springs Restaurant

Bath House

Capone Hangout

Ever had the feeling that you were standing on top of a volcano? Then welcome to the club. Of all places in the world, I just happened to find myself in a place that everyone seems to have heard of, but few have ever visited. Mount Vesuvius? Nope. Mount Fuji? No. The infamous Mount Pinatubo? Not quite. In fact, nothing that dramatic, even if at times it did feel that way. The place I’m talking about is none other than Hot Springs, Arkansas. Yawn. Ok, no lava running down the streets or anything like that, but if you’ve ever imagined what it would be like to stand at a garden on top of a pressure cooker, then you’ll understand what being in Hot Springs feels like. Something is definitely happening under your feet, and the flesh-burning water coming out of the rocks, accompanied by ominous plumes of smoke spouting out of most city street drainage covers, is the stuff they make Hollywood movies about.

But just as in the valley adjacent to Mount Vesuvius in Italy, a wonderful existence takes place oblivious to the cauldron below. Steam, magna, sulfur, and who knows what? No worries, mate. On the contrary, health tourism appears to be booming, and to tell you the truth, I too felt my lungs happily expanding while getting a facial from all that steam. Well, it seems like they were expanding, but I better check with my provider just in case. But the point is that in some strange way, what takes place on the surface appears to be somewhat at odds with what’s taking place under the surface. Central Avenue downtown is downright wonderful, with the kind of great hangouts that once attracted the likes of Al Capone and friends. The bathhouses (of which yours truly did not partake), with their imposing structures, give the town a certain grandeur that makes you think of places frequented by royalty with their elaborate carriages. An outpost of health and beauty, but one apparently sitting on top of a boiling pot.

 

The Simple Beauty Of Alsace

Alsace Hotel

Bergheim Street

Restaurant Staff

Through The Window

Epfig Church

It is often said that we go where our feet take us. No doubt, there’s a lot of truth to that, as all travelers seek something in their journeys. It is as if the world were a blank canvas and each one of us were given a brush to paint on it. What we paint will say a lot about us, and the choices we make of colors, strokes, and form. The same with travel. Do we choose to climb mountains when we can, or do we choose to navigate down silent rivers? Choices. We all make them, and oftentimes because that just happens to be how we were feeling at the time.

So what to make about my choice to spend some of my September time in Alsace, France when there were so many other choices available at the time. The title of one of my previous blogs pretty much gives it away. It was simply the pursuit of solace that let me to Alsace. Rolling, green hills filled with blooming vineyards. Blue skies. Absence of major cities. The rural lifestyle. The Vosges mountains dotted with sleepy villages. Fantastic wine and food. Empty, undulating trails. Narrow, country roads lined with trees. Quiet. The list could go on and on. For me, Alsace is just one of those places where your mind is free to roam, where the oppressive nature of large cities simply does not exist, and where every hour of the day appears to strike a balance with your long breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. The region’s beauty and easygoing flow totally transforms your days from a high-energy break dance into a Viennese waltz. Time to think, time to live, and time to be. Who would’ve known. Driving away from the area down the enchanting Rue de Vin country road, I couldn’t help but think that making a yearly trip to this part of the world would be the best therapy any human can enjoy. As Alsace drifted away in my rearview mirror, I couldn’t help but think that I was leaving much sooner than I was willing to let go of the place. And like a sailor going out to sea, all I could do was look at that receding horizon and hope that I would get to see those shores once again in my future. No doubt I will. No doubt I must.

 

Lately, I’ve Been Seeing Red

While small in size, the red purse dominates the canal scene. [Click photos for larger versions]
A red purse dominates the canal scene.
A red mailbox is a very rare sight these days.
A red mailbox is a very rare sight these days.
Even in a busy scene, the color red will stand out like no other.
Even in a busy scene, the color red will stand out like no other.

Not all colors are alike. How’s that for a tautological argument? But let me explain. I spend a considerable amount of my time on earth walking around cities searching for interesting photographic subjects. And while my somewhat optimistic searches don’t always prove fruitful (ok, some of it may have to do with my inherent photographic limitations), there is no denying that colors, or the lack of them, kind of influence what I look at, or at the very least, what I find interesting. They make objects stand out from their surroundings and dramatically influence the visual choices we make out there in the world.

So what is it about the color red that usually makes it stand out supreme from other colors? It’s not even my favorite color. But no matter where my eyes take me, red is a color I’ve found impossible to ignore. In its own silent way, it screams at me, demanding my visual attention like no other color out there (well, maybe with the exception of the neon oranges that some tourist groups wear so they won’t loose anyone). From a fashion perspective, you would not catch me dead wearing such a color. Perhaps because different to other colors, I don’t find red to be a passive color, or unassuming for that matter. It visually pokes you and demands not to be ignored. In its own convoluted way, it represents both passion and pain, smiles and tears. It can’t hide and cannot be missed. It pulls more than it pushes, and demands a photographer’s attention like no other. Resistance is futile, so it’s not even worth trying. Isn’t that wonderful?

 

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.

 

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.

Little Havana: 50 Years Late, But Still Worth It

Symbol of Cuba in Miami.
Symbol of Cuba in Miami.
Summer straw hats have been a symbol of the Caribbean nation for longer than anyone cares to remember.
Summer straw hats.
Hand-crafted Cuban cigars are one of the main reasons tourist still flock to Little Havana.
Hand-crafted Cuban cigars.
Cuban espresso is everywhere.
Cuban espresso is everywhere.
Hanging bananas brought back memories of youth growing up in the Caribbean.
Hanging bananas typical in the Caribbean.
Ground zero at Little Havana.
Ground zero at Little Havana.
Not everyone can join the local domino games, but if you are over 55 and a local resident, then you're in.
Must be over 55 to play.
The colorful, Cuban restaurants are still thriving there, with prices that will make you want to come back over and over again.
Colorful restaurants thrive in the area.

Sometimes, it takes a long time to get to a place that has always been right in front of you.  In my case, four or five decades, to be exact, but even if late to the game, the trip was still worth it.  I’m talking about one of the most famous communities in America: Little Havana.  After endless trips to Florida, I finally made it to the famous Calle Ocho (8th Street) in Miami.  And while perhaps the original flavor of the place has changed somewhat since the 1960-70’s, the Cuban latin vibe that made it famous in the first place is still there, even if perhaps in smaller quantities.

Coming from the somewhat sober Washington, DC area, it was more than refreshing to walk down a street while listening to the latin rhythm of bongos and enjoying the unmistakable aromas emanating from Cuban kitchens.  And while I had been forewarned about petty crime in the area, all I experienced were great, friendly locals who didn’t mind at all you taking their pictures.  Maybe the fact that I spoke Spanish had something to do with it, but I’m not totally sure.  My impressions were more of a very proud people intent on showcasing their cultural heritage while feeding you copious amounts of food.  And if it is great food at incredible low prices you’re after, go no further than the Nuevo Siglo (New Century) grocery store/restaurant, where you can eat lunch with various sides for less than $10.  I guess the domino-playing locals at the Domino Park were right when I asked them where would they have lunch today in Little Havana if they had to.  A little bit of Cuba and the Caribbean in America.  And for this roving photographer, a welcomed reminder of an island upbringing and the Spanish melodies that still, quietly reverberate inside his mind.

 

Empty Tables

There is something about empty tables that always stir the imagination.
There is something about empty tables that always stir the imagination.
Exploring behind restaurants can sometimes result in incredible finds.
Exploring behind restaurants can sometimes result in incredible finds.
Empty tables wait around the fountain in Old Town Alexandria.
Empty tables wait around the fountain in Old Town Alexandria.

I’m fascinated by tables. No, it’s not a clinical condition or anything of the sort, but rather that whenever I see a table with some chairs, it is almost impossible for me not to photograph it. Now, mind you, that I’m not talking about just any table out there. My photographic fascination lies with those unoccupied, lonely, waiting-for-someone kind of tables. Yes, yes, a bit awkward, I’ll grant you that, but I just can’t help it. Every time I see one, I am inevitably transported to an imaginary story of a secret rendezvous, a long wait for a person who never shows up, or the melancholic story of a table that remains unoccupied, night after solitary night. Yes, I can see it now: a long wait, nervous anticipation, an uncomfortable smile, a conversation, a tear. Who knows. All I know is that I’m no writer, but if I were, perhaps it would be at one of those empty tables where I would start my next great story, or end it.

 

Life At 24mm

Long Hall
The wider you go with a lens, the more perspective you will add to a photo. [Click photos for larger versions]
Work Outside
In what passes in DC as a patio, a man finds a little quiet in which to do some alfresco work.
Lunch Break
With a name like the Upper Senate Park, this quiet local gem is hardly ever visited by tourists.
Market Restaurant
The 24mm focal length is ideal for capturing a lot of real estate when photographing indoors.

Wide-angle photography is not everyone’s cup of tea. Ask any photographer out there what his or her favorite focal length is, and more-likely-than-not the answer will be other than a wide-angle lens. I count myself in this group, because throughout the years I’ve developed a real affinity for 50mm lenses. You could say that 50mm is my general visual comfort level, even if this sounds a lot less glamorous than the more technical explanations you’ll see on the Internet. But it is what it is, and no matter how many times I hit the streets with my camera, a 50mm is always inside my bag.

Having said that, it is also true that in the last year or so, I have also developed quite an affinity for the 21-28mm focal length. Perhaps because reality makes more sense when it appears in context or something, but ever since I acquired the incredible Leica 21mm f/3.4 Super-Elmar lens, my eyes have been opened wide, so to speak. These wide, optical marvels usually don’t come cheap (they can set you back as much as the cost of an European vacation), so my move into this area can best be described as hesitant at best. At least until recently, when I decided to give cheap a chance.

That’s where my incursion into the 24mm range comes in. It all started with a conversation that took place during my recent trip to Chelsea in NYC. During this trip I had the pleasure of meeting Olof Willoughby, one of the co-founders of the popular Leica Meet group. It just so happens that Olaf is quite fun of the Leica 24mm range (think European vacation here too), and the day I met him, that was all he was carrying. So, I started wondering that if such a distinguished photographer as Olaf loved that 24mm focal length, that perhaps I was missing something. Not that I haven’t dabbled into 24mm before. I have, and I was once the proud owner of the magnificent Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED lens. But weight and bulk considerations got the best of me, and after kind of abandoning this lens back at home for too long, I decided to part ways with it. Have I lived to regret this decision? Of course I have, but since that lens now retails for about $2,100 (which admittedly is way less than its Leica equivalent) I haven’t been too keen to replace it.

But here is where the “hiding in plain sight” story comes in. I’m referring to the Nikkor 24mm f/2.8D lens, a small gem originally designed in the 1990’s. Retailing for $391 and weighing a mere 270 grams (9.5 oz), it is no wonder why the lens has remained quite popular with travel photographers. Affordable, lightweight, and tack-sharp, this lens produces incredible results while ensuring you stay away from your chiropractor’s office. Nano crystal coating?  No.  Any aspherical elements?  Nope.  Class leading element/group combo?  Of course not.  Modern design?  You must be joking.  Great photos while saving you thousands of dollars you could put towards that European vacation?  You bet.  Modern glass, while unquestionably great, is not providing thousands of dollars worth of optical performance gain to justify their ever-growing cost.  That is specially the case when you factor in the capabilities of modern processing software.  Blasphemy?  Not really, but perhaps a kitchen analogy will help explain it.  It is often said that buying a modern knife will not necessarily result in making anyone a better cook.  The secret to better meals is just to learn how to cook better rather than to keep spending tons of money on the latest kitchen gadgets.  Too simple?  Perhaps, but something that entire generations of Italian grandmothers figured out a long time ago.

 

A Little Street Photography Therapy

The corner of 7th St NW and E St NW is a perfect location for people watching. [Click photo for larger version]
The corner of 7th St NW and E St NW is a perfect location for people watching. [Click photo for larger version]
Everyone seems to have a sunny disposition before a long weekend.
Everyone seems to have a sunny disposition before a long weekend.
You know it is a perfect day when the tables make their way outside.
You know it is a perfect day when the tables make their way outside.
Even during perfect spring days, not everyone can afford to lay out in the sun.
Even during perfect spring days, not everyone can afford to lay out in the sun.

You know those days when no matter how hard you try, it is virtually impossible to come up with any great idea for a photographic project? Well, today was one of those days. Nothing there. So as I have done so many times in the past when I am in desperate need of some photographic therapy, I grabbed my camera and out I went. I figured that a little street photography would do me some good by clearing up the Friday photographic fog. No plans, just random walking for as long as my feet could stand it. I’m glad I went out, thought, because everyone seemed to be in a good mood in this otherwise grumpy city. No doubt the Friday “I’m out of here” thing was beginning to sink in or something, but more likely it was the effect of a perfect spring day before a long holiday weekend. Whatever it was, it was definitely contagious. Over six miles of walking with my camera, a very enjoyable culinary visit to several of the local food trucks, and a quick stop for some liquid therapy at the bar in Jaleo, and everything was well with the universe once more. A great day after all.

 

The Lakeside Town Of Como

Lake Como is surrounded by some of the most picturesque towns in Europe. [Click photos for larger versions]
Lake Como is surrounded by some of the most picturesque towns in Europe. [Click photos for larger versions]
Getting lost in the winding, narrow streets in town is the best way to find the region's hidden treasures.
Getting lost in the winding, narrow streets in town is the best way to find the region’s hidden treasures.
A typical, small bar down one of the many side streets in the old part of town.
A typical, small bar down one of the many side streets in the old part of town.
The small Piazza Duomo is lined with restaurants facing the imposing Cattedrale di Como.
The small Piazza Duomo is lined with restaurants facing the imposing Cattedrale di Como.
Street musicians bring a little romance to the old town.
Street musicians bring a little romance to the old town.
The Piazza Alessandro Volta  is typical of the small towns dotting the northern Italian lakes.
The Piazza Alessandro Volta is typical of the small towns dotting the northern Italian lakes.
During the spring season, and before tourists descend on Como in great numbers, you can have many streets to yourself.
During the spring season, and before tourists descend on Como in great numbers, you can have many streets to yourself.
The beauty of Lake Como attracts lovers from all over the world to its shores.
The beauty of Lake Como attracts lovers from all over the world to its shores.
Set of stairs leading to and from the town's main train station.
Set of stairs leading to and from the town’s main train station.

If I ever were going to attempt to write romantic novels for a living (don’t worry, I’m not), there is no doubt in my mind that I would do so from a place like Como in Italy. This sleepy, little town by the shores of the lake that takes its name, Lake Como, is everything you can imagine of the romanticism of a bygone era, and then some. What is it with these northern lake regions in Italy and southern Switzerland? To say they are beautiful doesn’t even begin to describe them, because they are so much more than that. In fact, I had once heard a Swiss actress in America say that she returned to her small village in the area every year in order to recharge her spirit. And now that I have had some time to wander in the area from Locarno in Lago Maggiore to Como, I now fully understand what this actress was talking about. Life at a slower pace, natural beauty beyond description, and some of the most wonderful food in the world combine to form the perfect antidote to all that ails us in our busy, chaotic lives. I may not know how many places in the world possess such wonderful potion, but Como definitely has its share of it.

Como the town is not a big place, but three main areas seem to dominate the region. For starters, there’s Lake Como with its postcard-perfect landscape. This southernmost part of the lake is quite a busy place, with ferries taking passengers to other famous towns around the lake and lovers slowly strolling down Lungolago Mafalda di Savoia as if oblivious to the world. The lake and its indescribable scenery are nothing short of visual candy, and sitting by that shore on a perfect spring day will be all the proof you’ll ever need that it is possible to be happy in this life.

The other two main areas in town are the city-center square, Piazza Alessandro Volta, and the imposing Cattedrale di Como at Piazza Duomo. Both extremely impressive and surrounded by small shops and quaint restaurants where you could easily pass the hours away with total disregard to time. In between these two, an old-world paradise for the senses makes sure that you never move at a fast pace while you are in town (which the many cafes in the area would’ve guaranteed anyway). Stopping every few steps to gawk at some window display while stopping yourself from spending your retirement money becomes virtually impossible in Como. This is what Italy does to you, and we love her for it.

On the train back to Milan I couldn’t stop thinking of how beautiful this country is.  Sitting in that train longingly looking out the window to the passing countryside before me, I couldn’t help but think that I had just been to one of the most wonderful places on this planet. And as the train got farther and farther away from Como, the famous words of composer Giuseppe Verdi kept replaying in my head: “You may have the universe if I may have Italy.” My sentiments exactly.

 

A Visually Chaotic Order

Friends enjoy the magnificent view out of the second floor at the National Portrait Gallery.
Friends enjoy the magnificent view out of the second floor at the National Portrait Gallery.
Service attendant at one of the many help desks inside the Washington, DC Convention Center.
Service attendant at one of the many help desks inside the Washington, DC Convention Center.
Man dines alone at the Ceviche bar at the trendy Oyamel restaurant downtown Washington, DC.
Man dines alone at the Ceviche bar at the trendy Oyamel restaurant downtown Washington, DC.
A bride appears to be running late for her photoshoot inside the National Portrait Gallery.
A bride appears to be running late for her photoshoot inside the National Portrait Gallery.

I will be the first to admit that today’s post has somewhat of a random quality to it. In fact, that’s precisely my goal. You see, I have come to believe that most of the beauty of life has to do precisely with this randomness concept–the multitude of seemingly disconnected activities that characterize our everyday living. For lack of a better term, I like to refer to this phenomena as the chaotic order of society. Everyone pursuing his or her own activities totally different from that of others, but in some strange way, in an orderly, life-synchronous way. Yes, it all kind of falls together quite nicely, even if at first impression these activities appear to be ricocheting all over the place. Contemplation, stress, joy, and pain all seem to come together as if by necessity and disorderly design.  For some, this sense of uncontrolled living is the root of all problems in society; for others, it is nothing but randomness beauty, a symphony orchestra tuning their instruments before the greatest performance of their lives.

Is this what fascinates so many street photographers out there? Perhaps, and while I wouldn’t dare pretend to be speaking for this community, there’s got to be something in this chaotic order of our human ecosystem that proves to be irresistible to so many of these photographers. That something is there, and it always is, in an endless succession of juxtaposing micro-events that is both chaotic and orchestrated. To be able to witness them is pure joy, a confirmation that whatever occupies us in our daily lives is intrinsically intertwined into a larger, colorful quilt that is more obvious when observed from a distance. Remember the last time you sat down to relax and to engage in a little “people watching?” I’m sure that the world around you acquired a somewhat different dimension, an unexplainable revelation that highlighted everything you’ve been missing when looking at life through a panoramic lens. Contrary to the old expression about the devil being in the details, for those who aim to feel the pulse of that chaotic order out there, heaven is what lies in the details. A bride’s hurried steps on her way to a museum photoshoot, a lonely man sitting at a restaurant, friends looking out of a window, and a lone public servant waiting for someone to ask her a question. Details. Different worlds. One fabric. Beauty.

 

What Occupies Us

There appears to be some truth to the fact that what occupies us most of the time defines who we are as a person.
Some would argue that what occupies you most of the time may define who you are as a person.
Admittedly, some activities may be more helpful than others in determining what makes a particular person click.
Admittedly, some activities may be more helpful than others in determining what makes a particular person click.
It is entirely possible that what occupies a person most of the time may not be a true reflection of who that person believes he or she is.
It is entirely possible that what occupies a person most of the time may not be a true reflection of who that person believes he or she is.

 

Recently, I came across a quote by Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist, that got me thinking about the things we say and the things we do.  What made this quote even more puzzling for me was that it came in stark contrast with something I read in one of my favorite books of all times, “Cassanova In Bolzano,” by the famous Hungarian author Sándor Márai.  The contrast between Carl Jung (a realist) and Cassanova (an idealist) could not be more stark.

Let’s start with Carl Jung. The quote I’m referring to goes as follows:

 

You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.

 

Jung could not be more blunt.  A waiter, then, is just a waiter and not a writer.  An office worker is an office worker, and there’s no use describing him or her as a painter.  If you have a great voice, but don’t sing professionally, then you are definitely not a singer, according to Jung.  No room for dreamers here, or for trying to convince anyone that you are really an artist trapped in the daily toil required to put food on the table.  Plain and simple, no amount of talk, of dreaming, or wishful thinking will change what is obvious for everyone to see.  A harsh reality indeed, but Jung obviously called them like he saw them.

And then, there was Sándor Márai, telling us through his character Cassanova that what you do does not necessarily defines who you are.  That you, in your hearts of hearts, could be a painter even if you’ve never painted anything.  That what defines a writer is not the product of his or her labor, but rather the poetry that forms inside his or her heart.  What we think we are is what we are, not what the trappings of life and circumstance have forced upon us.

In his book, Cassanova is somewhat annoyed by his assistant (Balbi) questioning why he called himself a writer if he had never written anything, or gotten paid for it for that matter.  For Cassanova, his life was, in a sense, his writing.  It was just that he had yet to put it down to pen and paper:

 

… I am that rare creature, a writer with a life to write about! You asked me how much I have written? … Not much, I admit… I have been envoy, priest, soldier, fiddler, and doctor of civil and canonical law… But that’s not the point, it’s not the writing, it’s what I have done that matters. It is me, my life, that is the important thing. The point … is that being is much more difficult than doing… When I have lived, I shall want to write.

 

It would have been an event to remember to hear Carl Jung and Sándor Márai discussing this contrasting philosophies.  I can’t help but think that at times I’ve found myself fervently ascribing to one of these camps or the other.  That is why photographs like the ones above make me think so much about the nature of people, or at least, the nature of the people depicted on the photos.  Who are these people?  Are they what I see, or is there something more to them (perhaps their true nature) that is hidden from my eyes?

Unbeknownst to me, about a month ago I was standing precisely on the line of demarcation between these contrasting approaches.  Upon visiting one of the major art galleries in Washington, DC (will not mention names here in the name of privacy) and walking down one of the empty, yet beautiful corridors, I came face-to-face with one of the security employees who hangs around the hallways making sure no harm comes to the artwork at the gallery.  What my eyes saw was a security guard doing his job, and one that at first impression, did not look like a very exciting one.  After a short conversation I discovered that he and his family had come to this country in search of the safety that they could not find back home in their African country.  More than that, he confided that he had run for President back home and lost, but that it remained his dream to go back and try again when the conditions were right.  He also gave me a short lesson in African economics and development, and all without me ever asking.  Obviously, there was a longing in his heart and a vision of the role he felt he was meant to play in his life.  I was just surprised at the trick my eyes had played on me.  Now looking back at this experience, I can only wonder whether Jung and Márai, had they been in my position, would have seen the same man in front of them.  The eyes, after all, can be quite deceiving.