Melancholy wins. The sky is gray and light is dull. I had planned this day for taking pictures and posting an exciting blog; but find my efforts stifled by a wintry cold front….and I haven’t even stepped outside.
Last few trips to London over the years have been with family, and it’s been go go go. See this, do that, eat here, drink there, check in, check out, and cram as much into every day as possible. London is fun, right?
Now I’m back here on my own, with free time, and the only journey I want to take is inward. 25 years ago this was my playground. But it was also my home, and to be back here in winter brings back all the winter memories I had long forgotten. How cold it is, how gray it is, and how to make the best of a dreary day.
I had a student rail pass (in the days of BritRail), and when the rains came down, I would get on a train and just ride, anywhere. I’d carry only my journal and a camera, and sometimes I’d return with a few pages full, other times a few rolls full. But my journey would always take me somewhere, finding a new place I hadn’t yet discovered, a person I was meant to meet, a story waiting to be told. I’d return all the better and wiser for the experience.
Now I’m here and I’ve been gifted with an oyster card (London Transport), and it’s screaming at me to be let loose and go for a ride. All right, little tube/bus/train pass, you win. Euston – Watford. Slow train. In the rain.
There are few cities in the world that I love at first sight, often it takes a few days of finding my way around and getting a feel for things before I am entirely seduced. But once in a while, I am swept off my feet the moment I step out. And stepping out from the Ritz Hotel in Madrid was like my first kiss all over again. It simply took my breath away. Much like this Fresco at Palacio Real:
I thought I had seen plenty of Palaces, too many roman ruins, and enough Cathedrals to warrant me Catholic. I figured I had already admired a sufficient share of fountains and sculptures. I firmly held the belief that I wasn’t a big sports fan. And I was certain I’d had my fill of art museums. Madrid proved me wrong on all counts, and I experienced the pulse of the city right along with my own heartbeat….which was pounding.
I arrived in Madrid on a Sunday afternoon, and the first experience on the agenda was attending a real live futball game (soccer). Atletico Madrid vs. Mallorca. It was cold and rainy, but the crowds poured into the stadium and I was glad for the red & white scarf I had bought (team colors) and the seats sheltered from the elements. Well, most of the elements. The fans (and the Spaniards in general) love to smoke, even cigars, and there was a constant second-hand warmth to the cool air. Cough. I cheered like a native Madrilleno; I got angry at fouls like I knew what was going on; I booed when the Mallorca team would get the ball; and I laughed as I watched countless players from both sides take falls. Oh the passion!
There was a real art to it. No matter how light or heavy the contact (excuse for a fall), it would go something like this: the player would kick his feet up, spin about 1/3 way around in mid air, and land flat on his back (often after the action had moved elsewhere). After hitting the ground he does one of two things: he lays frozen on his back as if knocked out; or, he rolls over and brings a knee up to his chest, wreathing in pain. Sometimes he would bring both knees in and under himself and sit like a turtle in it’s shell. He doesn’t move. By this time the clock had been stopped and play halted. A team of medics comes running onto the field with cases, and sometimes a stretcher. Everyone watches intensely. A huge fuss is made over the downed player, and when sufficient attention has been attracted, the player calmly sits, then stands with the help of the medics, then takes a few steps and limps toward the sidelines…..then, suddenly, as if nothing ever happened, he turns around and runs right back out into the field without a hint of pain or injury. Silly game this. And they laugh at American footballers for all the protective gear they wear. At least they’re not falling down every time an opposing player brushes an arm hair. We (Atletico Madrid) were the first to score, and it was awesome. (See, I’m talking like a true Madrilleno already) But the game ultimately ended in a tie, which was good for one reason: no excuse for the fans to storm the field. As the timer counted down to the minute, the “crowd control” appeared with all the anti-riot gear and lined the sidelines of the field, just in case. Of course, the game didn’t go without a small squabble amongst the players, and not without my camera tracking the action.
The next day was slated for the usual “highlights of the city” sightseeing. This was when Madrid charmed me at the other extreme. First, the pounding heartbeat of the fans in the stands enveloped me, now it was time for the alluring romance of the city to gently embrace me. And that it did. I’d already seen the Alhambra in Granada, and numerous palaces and Alcazars in Sevilla, Cordoba, and Toledo.
Still, Madrid’s own flavor of grand palaces easily wooed me into awe.
Palacio Real de Madrid
Madrid Atocha railway Station
The afternoon unfolds slowly as siesta is honored and respected in this bustling capital. I wander into a locals Tapas place where there was no menu in english, and took a seat at the bar. I was already exhausted from the morning’s excursions, so I lingered over a café con leche to awaken my senses and take in my surroundings. Which, here again, meant second-hand smoke. But at the bar I could easily see the selection of tapas, so I ventured my way through the most appealing in appearance, and discovered tastes that matched. The tv in the corner of the room offered a bit something for everyone, sort of like entertainment tapas, and you could choose to watch what interested you. First was a news program of mostly international headlines. Then sports: highlights of last night’s futball game had everyone’s attention, and like a true local, I stopped eating to catch the play by plays. Ok, so I was really scanning the crowds to see if I could spot myself, but maybe everyone else was doing the same, who could tell anyway? Then after about an hour, I noticed a group of women enter the restaurant and stake out a table close to the tv. No sooner had they ordered, then a daytime soap began, and they all turned to watch as they enjoyed their meal, chatting during the commercial breaks.Around 5 or 5:30, the shops opened again, and I wandered myself into a sprint from store to store through the old city and ultimately to El Corte Ingles, the mega-department store. I have to admit that I haven’t had as much fun shopping since London in the early 80’s.
I finally made my way back to the Ritz in time to prepare for a special evening out. We’d been invited to join a Spanish aristocrat for dinner at the Gran Club Pena, the oldest established private club in all of Spain. As it turns out, the club was to be closed that night (it was a holiday), but our host had arranged for it’s opening just for us, and we had the entire club to ourselves for the evening, with all the waitstaff and bartenders at our service. Our host was the owner of several Spanish wineries, and we tasted some amazing wines throughout the evening. I learned a whole new dimension to wine tasting, and enjoyed the sensory experience tremendously. The conversation was just as fantastic – politics, religion, the environment – all the usual topics to avoid over dinner were addressed and discussed head on in true diplomatic style. Spain has not had a perfect political history, but they have a great way of accepting it and owning it as part of who they are today, right or wrong, what happened happened, no denials whatsoever. Now that’s pure, refreshing, and admirable.
The next day in Madrid was highlighted by a guided tour of the Museo del Prado, and let me tell you, it was truly the best museum experience I have ever had, despite being utterly exhausted and already museum’d out (so I thought). I have only two words to describe the Prado visit with a private guide: Worth It.
The same may be said for the grand detour of flying to Bilbao just for the day to visit the Guggenheim, only it takes three words: Totally Worth It.
And here I didn’t think I was much of an art afficionado, but there is something so different about seeing a master’s work with one’s own eyes – and not in an Art History text book. Now I want to bring everyone I know back to the Prado and share all the insights they’d otherwise miss on their own. I also gained a newfound respect and admiration for painters.
Madrid captured my heart on many levels, AND has inspired me to write about it. That says a lot. Ole Madrid!
“A Latvian Potato Farmer markets her spuds at the Riga Market.”
I was moved to capture this image because of the woman’s striking resemblance to…well….a potato!
She watches over them with a humble pride, like a new mother admiring her offspring. Every few moments she would pick up a couple and move them around, perhaps to display the most beautiful ones on top. The more I studied her, the more I wanted to buy her potatoes.
Her hands say that she personally pulled each and every potato from the dirt, and her face says that she has been doing this her whole life. The pouch around her neck says that her life depends on the potato.
The selling of a potato requires no fancy marketing, no flashy signs and no shiny plastic packaging with “pre-washed” stamped on the bag. The potato simply is what it is, and the world doesn’t question it’s value.
For this Latvian woman, the potato is her labour, her livelihood, and her love. It shows.
Arriving in London the same day as Barack Obama might have been more exciting than it was, but for the Londoners it was just another summer’s day. After the fanfare of Berlin, Obama’s London appearances were subdued and understated. The general consensus of the locals (the ones I spoke to anyway) was of complacency – it didn’t matter who would be the next President, it would still be the U.S. and nothing would be any different in the world. Primarily due to the lack of sleep on my transatlantic flight, I slept through any spontaneous public appearances he made in London. The next few days, we made a few of our own. Ah, summer in London (unable to shake the 80’s Madness tune from my head). As beautiful as any summer days anywhere in the world. Temperatures in the high 70’s, blue skies, and puffy passing clouds; streets filled with every language, and parks crawling with the sun-hungry British. We set out by boat 90 minutes along the Thames in the glorious sunshine for a fantastic perspective of the best the city has to offer….for those who can afford it….in the developing luxury apartments along the riverbanks. The architecture of London is fantastic even in the ordinary flats. But if you’re Michael Caine….you may prefer a penthouse with a panoramic view of the city….and of the gawking tourists floating by on the river. The Kew Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was our destination 90 minutes upriver. As large as a zoo, one could spend a full day here and not see all the trees, flowers, plants, ponds, and greenhouses. The imposing Sunday afternoon heat was most welcome to the Britons, who flocked out of their homes to the parks and pubs. Pubs are better known as a warm cozy escape from the cold – but in summertime, the tables and chairs are set up in the gardens with flowers in full bloom, and the Thames riverbank was lined with sunning pubgoers. But all in a day, summer ended, and the open air river cruiser arrived back at the dock near Parliament in a torrential downpour. The next day was warm again, but with trust lost in the weather, it was an unplanned day for being spontaneous. In London, this meant shopping. Somebody mentioned wanting to get some tea, and I mentioned Fortnum & Mason. This elegant department store has it all, and is quieter and classier than Harrods in the summer. And, photography is permitted, as well it should be! The next day, a tour of Parliament. Although photography was not permitted, the tour held amazing interest. Unfortunately, the first day of open Parliament tours, a water tank on the roof busted, and the House of Lords was flooded. So the pre-reserved-pre-paid-months-in-advance-tour cost was refunded in full, but the tour of the House of Commons and Parliament corridors normally off limits to even the press made for an impressive tour. For more pictures of iconic London, please visit the stock archive gallery at www.miraterraimages.com. That’s it from the Northern hemisphere – I’ll be posting next from Cape Town, South Africa!
No one told me, I mean really told me, how I would love the south of France. And other than the impressionists in the museums, no one really made an effort to describe the light to me. Why hadn’t anyone told me about it? I mean, I’m a photographer Who better to appreciate it?
I remember when I worked across the street from the Art Institute of Chicago (how lucky was that? ) and strolling over during my lunch hour to gaze at my favorite Monets. There were several paintings of simply a haystack, no big deal at first. But each was different – the colors he chose were surreal: eggplant purple, tangerine orange, icy white, olive green, often all thrown together in perfect harmony. Only a brilliant eye could find all those colors in a haystack, never mind convey them to others.
But now I get it. Now I’ve been to where the light is magical, and now I understand the vision of a painter who, literally, sees the light. It’s just something a camera doesn’t capture….why is that? But once witnessed and experienced by the naked eye, it’s impossible to erase, and the magical light shows up everywhere, with a palette of astral colors to transform the mundane into surreal.
I was never much of a painter – I pretty much still draw pictures the exact same way I did as a child (which only my 4-year-old thinks are brilliant). And my colors had to be exact, but even the Crayola super 100 box didn’t have the right brown for a horse, or the right green for a tree. It always looked like just crayon colors to me. And I wasn’t any happier with paint. It dripped too much or appeared brighter in the cup than on paper. And it smeared as my hand moved. Nope, the right side of my brain refused to speak artistically to my left hand, and I left the fine art talent to the right-handed members in my family.
Thankfully, at that same young age, I learned other mediums to express myself as an artist – dancing, acting, performing, writing. And I also learned the camera. I liked the pictures I could create with it, they were far more realistic than anything I could draw, and photography made better use of both sides of my brain.
But even now, and now especially, I am dissatisfied with the inability of digital photography to capture the colors of nature with the same depth and richness of Velvia film, which, in itself, falls short of accurately rendering true color as seen with the naked eye. But these astral colors were there! I saw them! Why didn’t my cameras???
The light is everything to a photographer – the difference between good and perfect. We chase the window of “perfect light” in that space between day and dusk. So when I looked out the train window enroute to Nice, I would have sworn it was that magic window of the day….but my watch, set to local time, read 11:30am. The winter sun was high in the sky.
The sun was high over the Mediterranean too. And from the southern coast of France, in the early days of January, the winter sun magically rises from, and sets into, the waters of the Med, spending the whole day crossing east to west over it. I concluded that was the reason for the magic light – the sun is constantly over the water and reflecting off it onto the southern coast of France. Reflected light is softer and gentler than direct light. It permeates everything with a soft glow. I’ve seen it elsewhere, I’ve captured that golden glow on faces and in nature in other parts of the world with my camera, when timing was everything. But here, in Nice, in Menton, in Rocquebrun, even in Monte Carlo, it’s day-long perfect light. And….as if that’s not enough….. there’s still a window of even more perfect light in the last hour of the day. (My favorite thing about perfect? My daughter’s inability to pronounce it, always exclaiming gleefully “it’s perfket ”). That work’s for me. The only thing better than more perfect is perfket.
So, my camera failed me in the south of France. Sure, I took lots of pictures, many in perfect light, some in perfket light, but none capturing what I was seeing with my naked eye. Those colors. Those astral colors – the ones Monet pulled out of the haystack. I saw them. Every moment of every day, with every step I took along France’s Riviera. I was certain it was attributable to the magic light of the sun reflecting off the Mediterranean. Surely Spain would follow suit.
But when I got to Barcelona, the light was different, the magic less. Casablanca. Marakesh, Tenerife, Madiera, even Malaga, on the southern coast of Spain, didn’t have it. There were the usual windows of the day when the light was best, but it wasn’t the same.
The colors, however, the new astral palette, followed me. I saw them everywhere I looked. And even back home now, I still see them, like never before. The light may be ordinary, but the world looks different. Monet’s haystacks are everywhere.
This is where I’m supposed to upload some images. Not gonna happen, sorry.
Perhaps these colors exist only in the mind – so an artist can create them on canvas, but a lens can’t capture them on film. I don’t know. I could comprehend the light – easy enough to explain. But the astral palette….well….I can’t explain it. And now I can appreciate why no one ever tried to tell me about it. It’s not something to see, not something a photographer is going to have any success at capturing….it’s something simply to experience. And yet, not everyone does.
I guess Monet and I are among the lucky ones. How perfket.
Layover in Paris……ahhh Paris….doesn’t even feel like I am really here. It’s my first time being in a city with someone who so detests it, still, I am excited to be in Paris. The first foreign city I ever experienced at 15, under such a different context. The strange familiarity – the billboards against aged buildings, the same brand diaper ads, the cute citroens and minis filling the long avenues. We took the bus from CDG airport – my idea, I wanted to see the city as we drive in and get our bearings. He points out Sacre Coeur. Wow, it looks so different. The air is thicker, the city seems to be choking…much more than my last visit over a decade ago. I never imagined such an old city could visibly age even more in my lifetime. But it has. Sacre Coeur sits not quite so majestically white and high upon the hill. Grayer, smaller, and blanketed in smog. Rather haunting to look at it now. There’s the Eiffel Tower, still visible from everywhere in the city, but it looks like it’s getting buried. More tall buildings, more choking haze. Almost like its sinking in a quicksand of concrete rubble. Was this really where I left it? Do the years add color and brightness to photos of the mind, while fading photos of the album? Or is this city, Paris, aging still….. Atleast Paris is easy. I know these places, I’ve walked these rues in a different time. It’s so refreshing to stretch the french muscle again…it comes back like an old familiar etranger. Three spokes on the Charles de Gaulle Etoile takes us to Avenue de Hoche, a short distance to the Hotel Royal Monceau. Never would I be stepping into such a hotel in any of my earlier circumstances. This short sojourn does not involve a Eurail Pass and a last-minute call to Eric, Daniel or Beatrice to ask for a place to coucher. Not this time. Not any time again now that so many years have passed. I’m a grown up this time. Ah, me voici. I’m aging too Paris. Perhaps that is why I will always look fondly on you. That first impression. That first big beautiful glance remains etched in my mind. For once the mind has known the beauty of a place, it never forgets. Paris, you can go ahead and dress in gray and haze on the outside, because I know your beauty exists. Maybe it’s in the smile you bring with your silly Louis XIV furnishings and funky toilet fixtures. Those tiny beds in tiny rooms that people pay incredible monies to call home for a night just because its Paris. Oh but it’s all part of it. We take a stroll through the Parc Monceau, where the daily lives of Parisiennes decorate an otherwise bleak canvas. Late fall. Some trees still holding on to their last color; yellow leaves dangle while brown ones crush underfoot. It’s 5:30 p.m., and so many people are out. School kids and soccer balls. Gray coats and brown dogs. Couples, singles, mothers with babies. Tout le monde en dehors. Those who walk together and watch. Those who sit alone. And watch. A young woman is singing a tune to the baby in her arms as she rushes past. Nobody is still, everyone has their steps to take. The gilded gates beckon us back through to the busy streets, unsure if we have had our fill of the fantasy garden. A last glance back at the trees standing guard over white statues. Farewell to the Parc Monceau…a place to return another time, another age. Out and up the winding streets with shops open well past dusk….to a welcoming “Bonsoir Madame” from the Hotel doorman. Madame. Am I a Madame now? Hmph. I’ll leave Paris wearing a new coat…and it’s old and graying. Paris is old and graying. But it is comforting, still. Just open your eyes and let it surround you and ignore you all at once. Paris doesn’t care if you’re here or not, if you’re old or not; but you can’t help caring that you are in Paris.
3:30 a.m. The room has a smell. I know this smell. It teases my nose when sleeping, but hides the moment I stir. It tempts me, whispers to me. You know me….you remember me….
The bread ovens have been lit.
Merci Paris, for welcoming me back in your own gentle way. J’ai quinze ans encore.