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(Un)Packing Up, Again

I’m someone who is fascinated by starting over, probably because it took me nearly 24 years to finally start a new life for myself. I’m not a fan of sitting still. I also wear a necklace everyday that my mother gifted me which bears an arrow and the words, “Find Your True North.” However, in order to locate that True North, one must eventually, inevitably, reach a destination from which they aren’t meant to depart, at least not for a good deal of time. I also once wrote that I wish to have 1,000 homes in this life, but how we define “home” and “True North” changes with the wind.

In November of 2019, I landed a remote part-time job while living in Ohio that was set to turn into a full-time position, which would require me to move to New York City to work in the office. At that point, I had spent the majority of the year embracing the newly unpacked ‘nomad multitude’ that lives inside of me; however, I was getting tired of living out of a backpack and I was electrified with the idea of finally having my first apartment in one of the cities I’d always envisioned as a home for myself.

Before this, I had packed up & changed homes three times in the previous two years, and after months spent on the West Coast and abroad, I was just excited to have a bedroom of my own again, a front door, and some space to unpack for a bit. Maybe I’d even get some furniture. Plus, my family belonged to the East Coast for the first six years of my life and my father has called Brooklyn home for the entirety of his, so I was bound to wander back one day. Don’t sons always follow in the footsteps of their fathers, anyway?

Naturally, almost poetically, my father made the eight-hour drive with me last spring. After he dropped me off that weekend, I jumped on the train to The Strand (because I was yet unaware of the vast wealth of indie bookstores scattered across the city.) I found a book called Goodbye To All That — a play on the timeless Joan Didion work — which is a collection of essays from writers of all genres about falling in and out of love with the City That Never Sleeps; on the infatuations we have with places, which are just as intense & intimate, if not more so, as those we have with people. My hopes held high, I made my way back to the apartment and with the trees in the (inaccessible) backyard still bare from the icy, end-of-winter air, I could see the Empire State Building all the way from my partially-punctured air mattress in Brooklyn.

But just three days after signing my lease and finally making my appearance in the office, my job became fully remote, I started to see just how bad it could be when you decide to get an apartment with people you’ve never met before, and the romanticized New York City of every writer’s most desperate fantasies became nothing more than a hallucination to me, not much unlike what I could see from my bedroom at night in Crown Heights. And soon, the leaves bloomed, and I couldn’t see a goddamn thing for months.

Buried in the essays from various writers such as Emma Straub, Roxane Gay, Cheryl Strayed, and more is the utter admission that a city like New York — the idea of New York — is never anyone’s to own entirely; many may think it’s “their city” but when the lights come on, you see a million other neon nomads staring wide-eyed from their windows, all nodding along to the same exact narrative in their head.

I’m not the first to pen some sorta’ farewell to New York and even after 2020, there will never be a last to do just that. In many ways, I don’t even feel qualified to say “goodbye” when I never even got to introduce myself in the first place. However, I offer no hate or resentment to the city that is loved by so many within its limits and worldwide; because, in truth, New York City has no limits. But people do, and I met mine early on as I tried endlessly to convince myself that it was still ‘for me’ and that moving to one of the biggest places on the planet at the start of a global pandemic somehow happened for a reason.

I’m still trying to unpack what I learned over the last year. I know for certain that I will never sign a lease with strangers again. I know that $7 tawny port tastes almost as good as $30 tawny port; a cast iron pan belongs in everyone’s kitchen; and I realized that on some level, sooner than later, we can all feel the future and, if I’m being honest, I never felt that New York was going to be my home forever, even back in November of 2019. This isn’t me breaking up with New York because I never gave her my heart in the first place. This isn’t me saying that I’m done with New York for the rest of my life, either. After all, as everyone and their mother have pointed out to me, I never got the real New York experience, and part of me hopes it’s still out there, somewhere.

Maybe I’ve just been thinking too much about Nomadland but in truth, sometimes the bravest thing you can do is to walk away from a dream. I’m just stuck wondering if moving to the Big Apple was ever a dream of mine at all, or if I was just desperate for any dream & any chance to connect with the normal, ‘how-about-you-take-a-break-from-always-just-passing-through-and-settle-in-for-a-bit ‘ multitude that lives inside of me alongside the others. New York very well could have been my ‘normal’ for the last two decades had my family moved to my grandmother’s duplex in Sheepshead Bay instead of to Ohio back in 2001. But you can play what if all day and it takes courage to admit you’ve outgrown an old version of yourself, even if you never got to meet them. I’ve always said that comparison will kill you but in this case, I’m hoping it saves me, instead.

Days before I left my Brooklyn apartment for good, I had the chance to go to the top of the Empire State Building thanks to a soulful partner of mine, Molly. Despite it being one of the most touristy things someone can do in the city, it was on my bucket list since the day I moved in. And I’m proud to say that after surviving the city for an entire year during the pandemic and despite all of the set-backs and dark days that found me over the last 12 months, I was able to end this chapter of my story on top — literally. I said my piece while looking back across the East River. I waved to all those windows and to an old version of myself that, in this case, I was fortunate enough to get to know for a bit.

To be honest, I don’t know why I’m writing this. I just know that I had to, for one reason or another. To humor my own hubris? Definitely. To say something that hasn’t already been said a million times? Definitely not. I’m still playing around with the narrative of my father moving me into my first apartment in what will always be his first home, and I’m already thinking about what’s might find me next spring — before I’ve even spent one night in my new apartment in Seattle. (Who knows — maybe 4th moves-a charm?) But for better or worse, I offer no resolve; I can only offer the story that found me while living in New York City during a pandemic. And, as we all know, stories find you exactly when & how they’re supposed to, even if that why isn’t so clear.

I still wish to have 1,000 homes one day. New York happened to be one of them, even if not forever, and Seattle will soon be counted among them, too, for how long I have yet to determine. As I continue to unpack what I learned last year and to pack-up my life into a handful of boxes & bags, once again, another lesson I’m taking with me to the West Coast and everywhere I wander is that the act of searching for my True North is actually what gives me the truest sense of “home” I’ve ever known. And that the arrow hanging around my neck isn’t pointing to any singular location but simply, forward, always forward.

My entries for the Fuji FanBoys 3rd Annual Best of Show Competition!

To learn more about the contest, check them out, here.

Go follow them on Instagram, too!

BLM Protests. Fuji x100T. Brooklyn, NY Summer 2020
A Western Sunset. Fuji x100T. Colorado Springs, CO, Summer 2019
Neon Daydream. Fuji x100T. Manitous Springs, CO, Summer 2019
Hey, you, up in the sky! Fuji x100T. Colorado Springs, Co, Summer 2019
Misty Mountains. Fuji x-Pro 2, 50mm f/2. Seattle, WA, Spring 2021
Just a wicked sunset over New York City. Fuji x100t. New York, NY, Fall, 2020.
Untitled. Fuji x100T. Brooklyn, NY, Fall 2020.
Soft Pink Light. Fuji x-Pro 2, 50mm f/2. Williamsburg Bridge, Brooklyn, NY, Winter 2020.

Back to Basics: Photo Lesson #1 & Rookie Mistakes

I am by no means a professional photographer. One of my goals for the 2021 is to finally sell a photo of mine — and to print more, too. Until then, I like to consider myself an enthusiast who just so happens to know more than your average geek. But I still can make a mistake from time to time.

My favorite photography quote — and one that I feel is applicable to every aspect of artistic creation — is, “The best camera to use is the one you have with you.” Essentially, “Start where you are,” for photo nerds.

A few weeks ago, on a blisteringly cold & windy day in New York City, I walked across the George Washington Bridge because…well, who doesn’t love a good scenic view, especially one of a river as famous as The Hudson?

After fighting my way through the icy wind to the middle of the bridge, I took out my tough but shy little Fuji X100T, which isn’t weather-sealed. I raised the camera to my watering-eye, framed my composition of the Hudson expanding out into the dark horizon, pressed the shutter, and was expectedly surprised that the camera was holding it’s own in the freezing, misty cold. I then promptly exclaimed, “Oh, f*ck me.”

It’s safe to say that my new favorite photography quote is, “Don’t forget your SD card.”

Thankfully, my Pixel 4a has a helluva camera, itself, so I was still able to walk away from the day with a few decent shots. But the picture from my Fuji, which was recorded to internal memory at a comically low file size, was the one I really wanted. Even though the image is entirely too small to ever blow-up, I’m still happy with how it turned out; I actually admire the grim, grainy, grungy, old-world-y & other-world-y quality of it. I’d just be even happier if it wasn’t only 628 kb.

Taken with the Pixel 4a.
Taken with the Fuji X100T.

An Ode To A Cat We Never Expected To Have

About 14 years ago, my pet parakeet, Elmo, was coming to the end of his life. I’d had him since I was a child, and he’d flown with us from New Jersey to Ohio after my family moved to the Midwest in 2001. Now, you may be asking yourself, “Who gets a parakeet as a pet?” I don’t know… low effort? A little more interesting than a goldfish? But back in 2006, my family was asking a similar question when a small, multi-colored kitten showed up on our porch one afternoon: “Who gets a cat?”

My sister is allergic to dogs & cats, even the hypoallergenic ones, so neither were ever an option for my family. Yet amazingly, she didn’t have any sort of reaction to the little cat who arrived seemingly out of nowhere, covered in shades of black, brown, and caramel. For the first few weeks, we kept offering it plates of deli meat anytime we heard it meowing at our door, but no further action was even discussed as our house’s lease didn’t allow for pets. From the start, her fur reminded me of the multicolored swirl bread we had as kids and once the name left my mouth, it just kind of stuck, just like the cat stuck around our porch for those few weeks. So as the summer slowly began to end and as my mother’s birthday was right around the corner, and because our landlord at the time was nothing short of a righteous asshole, my family started to ask ourselves a different question: “Who wouldn’t take a kitten in off the street?”

And so we did. And we named her Marble.

Soon after bringing her inside, my parakeet, Elmo, flew off to the big birdcage in the sky. At first, I was pissed off like any 12 year old would have been. There were quite a few close calls of a particularly curious cat getting ominously close to a not-so-sturdy birdcage. But as the years rolled on, I — along with the rest of my family — began to realize just how great of a companion something like a cat could be, and Marble quickly became integral to all of us, like the stitching on your favorite jeans, only getting stronger by the day. It was nice to think that as my first pet’s life was coming to an end, the life of the next was just beginning. Maybe it’s just the hopeful romantic in me, but I like to think that Marble found us for a reason.

In trying to recount some of my favorite moments of her, I’m realizing that I was just too young to write many of them to my memory; most are anecdotes or fleeting scenes, like the way she’d jump & flip in the air chasing some flying feather-covered toy, or the rattling sound of her swatting around these small bright orange, bead-filled balls across the carpet, most of which ended up rolling under the couch until one of us decided to hunt them down for her (after she began to look at us like, “Are you gonna’ get that?”) I can’t tell you how many times her wild, goofy behavior made my parents, sister, and me laugh hysterically, almost cathartically, no matter what might have been happening in our daily lives. She was also extremely photogenic, no matter what crazy position she’d contorted herself into.

But my favorite memory of her was the little spot of jet-black fur on the top of her head. It was always just so soft that I could never resist planting a kiss there. After years of this behavior, it began to seem that if she saw me getting close to her, she’d close her eyes and practically lower her head in anticipation. As cheesy as this is, I’d always whisper something like, “You’ll always be my favorite girl,” when I did.

Through multiple houses, through high school & college; through many bad days, through a handful of good ones, too; through such important parts of my life like Speech Coaching and my moving out of my parent’s place; through my traveling last year to my eventual departure to New York this Spring, Marble was always there. Whether she was running around frantically at 2 am or sleeping the day away on a dining room chair; whether she was crying for attention or curled up on someone’s bed looking to be left alone; whether she decided to come out of hibernation and sit on the couch with us or, even occasionally, sit on our lap and chest, she was so much more than ‘just a pet.’

In October, I was back in Ohio for a friend’s wedding and I had some time to visit my parents and Marble. She was getting older, slept more often than anything, and had struggled for years to keep-on weight because of a bad thyroid. I hadn’t seen her in months and, after spending the bulk of 2019 out of the state (and country,) it felt a bit like ‘coming home’ when I got to pick her up and drive her crazy, even if just for a few hours. Before I left again, I gave her another kiss on-top of her forehead and said my usual line, for what felt like potentially the last time. And on Sunday, November 22nd, I told my father over the phone to give her one last kiss on that little black spot for me all the way from Brooklyn.

One thing I’ve learned over the last 18 months and throughout the cacophony of opportunities for self-discovery that 2020 has offered is that, even when you know there are plenty of blank pages left to fill, even when you can feel that there is so much story left to tell, sometimes the ink just runs out. In the midnight hour of that Sunday morning, before the news came in the afternoon, I swear she found me in a dream, showing up out of nowhere as serendipitously as she first arrived to my family, just so I could tell her that she’d always be my favorite girl one more time. Cheesy, I know, I can hear it when I read that line back to myself in my head. But I’d be lying if I didn’t mention it.

Whether I said it out loud or only in my sleep, I’ll never know. Whether I actually dreamed this or it was just an hallucination of my subconscious playing me for a fool, I’ll also never be certain. Just like how sometimes when you’re away from someone or some place for so long, things don’t quite feel as real as they once did. Now, I don’t mean to sound like a ‘crazy cat guy’ or anything like that, especially given my recent fascination with bulldogs (IYKYK.) But Marble was as much a part of our family as any of us, as I’m sure all pet lovers can attest. Even now when I say it out loud it doesn’t necessarily feel real because she was — and always will be — part of our story; old chapters don’t disappear, dried ink doesn’t always fade. It stains you for better or worse, in this case for the better, and leaves its mark wherever it touched you.

There’s no particular way to end a piece like this. I wasn’t even planning on writing it at all. And a few paragraphs on WordPress can’t begin to encompass a life of 14 years (I’m sure I’ll think of a million new things to say the moment I click ‘publish’ anyway.) So all I can offer is that it was lovely knowing there was this little furry creature who would always somehow give us her energy and attention, just so long as we gave it right back to her (along with too many of those Temptations-brand treats.)

I’m glad you chose to tell your story on our pages, Marble. I’ll never forget how soft that little black spot on your head was, what it felt like when you finally let us cuddle and squeeze and bother you. Thanks for all of the double-winks, your lowered head, and even occasionally swatting my own head with your paw if I really started to drive you crazy. It was a privilege to call you a pet & a family member. Until next time.

iSwitched! From iPhone to Android with the Pixel 4a

Two weeks later with what Google is touting as everything you need, for less

It was an emotional moment for me a few weeks ago.

My Pixel 4a arrived in the mail. I powered it on, swapped out my SIM card, and began setting up my first Android phone in about five years. I then *gulp* turned off iMessage for my phone number and became a green bubble once again *audible gasp*.

And I couldn’t be happier that I made the switch.

It’s never been easier (or confusing) to upgrade your phone but for most people, the decision to buy a new device isn’t driven by crazy tech specs or ‘the next big thing,’ but simplicity. That’s why most iPhone users tend to stay iPhone users; it always looks & feels the same, and it just works — and has since day 1. It’s a great ecosystem but it can get pricey.

I used to be obsessed with all the bells & whistles that new Android phones always advertised but as I got older, I realized that you can’t put a price on convenience — or at least Apple has for many years, so I switched to iOS mainly because that’s what all my friends had. But just a few years ago, Google ran an ad campaign titled “Be together, not the same,” that always stuck with me. And now, as an adult navigating his 20s, his creative life, and a literal pandemic in the Big Apple, I realized that there’s a difference between cost and value, especially when it comes to the latest & greatest tech.

I’m not here to compare Apples to Androids, or even all three of the new Pixel phones side-by-side. I just want to share my experience and show you that, as I’ve said before, you’ve got (affordable) options.

The Manhattan skyline, shot with Night Sight from the Brooklyn Bridge.

First of all, you get a 5.8″ 1080p OLED display — not bleeding edge 4k, but it’s still absolutely crisp and bright and punchy, and is HDR certified. You get a best-in-class camera system, with Google’s signature Night Sight, Astrophotography, and Portrait modes, all of which produce beautiful shots the first time, every time. You get a 3140 mah battery which, thanks to Google’s adaptive software and my stunning lack of notifications on a daily basis, easily lasts the full day if not into the next morning. You also get an 18w fast charger in the box which juices the battery up to 100% in just about an hour and a half. Oh, and don’t forget about guaranteed software and security updates for 3 years (look out for my full Android 11 review soon) and a super-fast, conveniently placed fingerprint scanner on the back — which pairs perfectly with wearing a mask.

Daily performance has been stellar without so much as a hiccup or stutter, the size of the phone is a welcome departure from the ongoing phablet craze of many manufacturers, the buttons are super clicky and responsive, and, if you’re the type of person who actually cares about phone calls for some reason, the audio quality is excellent, too. (Thanks, Grandma, for testing this out for me.) And while I was initially worried that my lack of iMessage would be a slight issue, most of the people I speak to regularly use other messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram, so I haven’t missed so much as a single text. (Alas, see ‘my stunning lack of notifications’ comment above.)

An apartment building in the East Village, cast in shades of Autumnal orange.

The Pixel 4a is a phone that gets the job done without ever getting in the way. I can wake up and know it’s going to power me throughout the work(from home)day, snap great photos as soon as I take it out of my pocket during the day & night, and be my daily driver for at least the next 18-24 months. It comes in one color, Just Black; one storage size, 128GB; and cone price, $349. The minimalist in me appreciates this very, very much. I also was able to score the phone at $299 thanks to a new activation deal Best Buy had with Verizon, and because I sold my iPhone 8 to Decluttr for about $200 (with an extra 10% coupon code,) my final all-in price was just about $125 after tax. You physically cannot find a better phone for that amount of money, especially anything with an Apple logo on it (even used.)

Think about that: For just a few hundred bucks, you’re getting a brand new phone directly from Google that will last well into 2022/23 (as long as the world doesn’t completely end this year.) And if you’re trading in a device to any buyback site or Google, directly, the Pixel 4a could be significantly less or even completely free.

Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan.

It may not have iMessage or AirDrop. It may not have a multi-camera setup, a 90hz display, the largest battery, or 5G. It doesn’t have a million marketable, albeit gimmicky features like you see on many flagships these days; there’s no LiDAR, there’s no ‘100x super zoom,’ and there’s no Ceramic Shield (glass is glass.) I do miss that official IPX water resistance rating, I wish some of my most-used apps like Instagram and Lightroom were better optimized for the platform, and I get it — Android isn’t for everybody. But where the Pixel 4a may fall short on flash or frills, it exceeds at practicality and reliability. It can definitely surprise you at times, but it’s going to be everything you need and not much more than that. And honestly, that’s what most users actually need & want, especially right now. It’s an entirely intentional device and experience.

There are a lot of things to consider when buying a new phone or any sort of tech; after all, a few hundred dollars is still a few hundred dollars; it’s an investment in the device, itself, and the type of user you see yourself as on a daily basis. But realistically speaking, are you interested in shelling out $600, $700, $1000, or $1500 another year just to be able to send some texts, scroll endlessly through social media, watch Schitt’s Creek, and occasionally — even if reluctantly — make a few actual phone calls? That’s a question you’ve got to answer (pun intended.)

Here’s the link to my original post on LinkedIn.

The iPhone 12 Pro Won’t Magically Make You a ‘Pro’ Photographer

Cover image is a screenshot from Peter McKinnon’s latest video. Check it out!

Let me just say that I love what Apple is doing to push the photo industry — and the creativity industry forward. iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro first impressions videos are finally live on YouTube, with some of the best coming from MKBHD and Peter McKinnon. While there are lots of things to talk about, especially as Apple has basically headlined all of Techtober, one of the most important features to buyers is undoubtedly the new(-ish) camera set-up. And given the hefty new price tag that comes with each version of the phone, we need to continue to talk about the difference between cost and value.

This year, the biggest upgrade across the entire line will be felt with iOS 14, the A14 Bionic chip, and upgrades to Apple’s Deep Fusion HDR processing, not necessarily the hardware of the new phones (save for the Pro Max’s increased sensor size and sensor-shift stabilization, but that’s a different story.) That being said, it’s still interesting to watch a video like this to see just how the new 12s handle in the real-world, and from a professional photographer’s perspective.

Across most lighting conditions, this level of dynamic range will be insane to have in your pocket for everyday pics. The ability to record 10-bit Dolby Vision with the same device truly has the potential to change the way we all think about mobile filmmaking. And whether you’re shooting stills or videos, with some basic editing in either the stock Photos app or 3rd party apps like Lightroom or Premiere Rush, this could be the best camera that many buyers have ever used, period. But you’ll be paying for it.

Can you use this phone to take the pro-looking shots during the day and at night? Absolutely. Can you use it to record something like a documentary or short film? Of course. Could this replace something like a full DSLR or Mirrorless camera for a lot of casual photographers or enthusiasts? Maybe. But as Peter McKinnon says at the end here, “Can you drive a jeep without the doors in the middle of winter? Well, yeah, but you probably won’t want to.”

We all know that iPhones generally take stellar shots. Countless “#shotoniphone” campaigns over the last few years have adorned billboards worldwide and thanks to years of fragmentation across Android, most users think high-quality photos are practically an Apple exclusive. Speaking from personal experience, even older versions like the iPhone 8 (even in 2020) can still produce gorgeous images, given the right conditions and subject matter. But honestly, so will most phones released in the last 12-18 months.

The way that a lot of phones are sold as ‘pro’ these days is very misleading to everyday consumers, and I’m not the first person to feel this way. The cheapest iPhone 12 starts at $700 (without a charger in the box) and gets you a standard wide-angle lens and an ultra-wide lens. The Pixel 4a is $350 flat and comes with the standard wide-angle but if you want the ultra-wide, too, the Pixel 4a 5G will only set you back $500 (and all Pixel models come with an 18W charger in the box.) Both have Google’s incredible image processing and Night Sight/ Astrophotography modes, too. I’ve personally been using the 4a for a few weeks and have been blown away by the image quality on a device at this price point.

This is not to say that any generic phone will always match the new 12s in terms of picture quality, video quality, or even user experience, because a lot of factors go into each of those. Plus, I haven’t even touched on things like Apple’s new ProRAW file format for editing, but this won’t impact most everyday users. Now, it’s easy to watch a video like Peter’s and think, ‘the moment I get the new 12 Pro Max, I’m going to take images *just* like that!’ And sure, you can and probably will at some point. But above all else, aside from any new buzzwordy feature or ad campaign or YouTube review, given enough light and an interesting subject matter, most modern phones will still produce nice images, especially just for social media (which most users are thinking about anyways when it comes to this topic.)

When it came time for me to decide which new phone to get a few weeks ago, I naturally gravitated towards the then-unannounced iPhone 12 (Pro) for the photography experience. Now, I may have a dedicated photo account on Instagram yet I am by no means a pro; I’ve never been paid for a photograph in my life and until that day comes, I generally refer to myself as an enthusiast more than anything, one who has taken some of his favorite shots on outdated hardware and second-hand cameras. So when I saw the starting price point of $1000, I thought about what I’m actually looking for in a smartphone camera, what kind of images I usually take with my phone, and if that new pacific blue color was really worth a month’s rent.

If you have money to blow, want the most premium experience across the board, and genuinely feel that you’d make personal or professional use of the new recording features, the 12 & 12 Pro (Max) are the way to go, hands down. People like Peter McKinnon, Marques Brownlee, and the rest of YouTube’s upper echelon of tech reviewers and photographers will easily see these as a no brainer for their daily driver and a useful part of their professional workflows.

But if you’re just looking for a modern camera set-up, excellent image processing, and the versatility to take great night photos & portrait shots with the phone in your pocket, it’s important to note that you have more options than ever. As the saying goes, ‘the best camera to have is the one you’ve got with you,’ not just the most expensive.

The Photos You Don’t Take

First of all, this isn’t about ways to be more present in our day-to-day lives; that’s a conversation for another day. Over the last year, I’ve tried to jump into the world of street photography headfirst, approaching strangers and asking for their picture, keeping a quick-draw wrist strap attached to my camera at all times, and doing my best to find those everyday moments that seem ordinary or unremarkable, and turn them into a scene worth documenting. It’s not easy but as with any art form, it’s simply about persistence, timing, and intent.

Last weekend I went into Manhattan determined to rekindle my creative spark that’s been severely dampened throughout Quarantine; I had a gut feeling that I’d see something, anything worth taking a picture of. I roamed the Upper West Side and Midtown for nearly 6 hours but aside from a few sunset pictures that anyone could have taken, I went home empty-handed. Maybe my ‘eye’ is still just rusty after sitting inside for so long. But as so many photographers who’ve passed through the City That Never Sleeps have said, there is an entire ‘New York’ underground just waiting to be explored. *Simon & Garfunkel’s “Kodachrome” plays softly in the background*

One of my personal rules with street photography is that I will go out of my way not to photograph people who exhibit behaviors that indicate they need physical, medical, or mental assistance. Despite my humble Instagram following, I just don’t feel comfortable exploiting someone else’s rough day for a handful of likes. Many street photographers say that documenting life exactly as it presents itself to you is the whole point; that avoiding the hard-to-look-at moments is actually disrespecting the medium, itself. Maybe they’re right but I just can’t bring myself to take a picture of a homeless person slumped on a bench dreaming about having a roof over their heads before going home to my $1000/month bedroom.

After a long afternoon and evening of very little shooting, I made my way to the 2/3 platform at the Atlantic Avenue station to wait for my train home. I was tired — depleted, actually — and didn’t even have the energy to look up from my feet, let alone hunt the environment for a photo opp. At the top of the stairs was a man leaning both against & over the railing for support. He had a nice trenchcoat draped over him and stood next to some luggage that appeared to be in decent shape. It looked like he was on his way to or from the airport. But his eyes were flickering, his mouth moving without making any sounds; he was rocking back and forth, and looked like he could collapse at any moment. When I got to the top and took my spot standing against the wall to wait for the train, I couldn’t stop looking his way; he was now extending his rear-end while still maintaining a life-or-death grip on the railing, forming a triangle-like shape with his entire body. He looked as if he couldn’t decide whether to stand up or collapse to the ground.

There was a clear route to an image here; I could have put my camera directly in his face for a very raw, intimate portrait because he wasn’t coherent enough to know what was happening. I saw the image in my head as clear as any other I’d taken before. The shadows, heavy contrast, and level of grain; it would be in black & white, too, no other way. But every time I reached for my camera — even as the 3 train began to pull into the station — I couldn’t bring myself to actually take a shot. I couldn’t even take a step towards this person. Along with everyone around me, I was immobilized by staring at the man who was dancing with a partner he couldn’t control.

This could have been someone’s friend, family member, father, and he was clearly having a worse time than I was. I knew that in 20 minutes I’d be back in my apartment making dinner and maybe watching an episode of Broad City, safe and sound. But where would he be? As the train came to a screeching, slow halt, he began to gently lift himself into an upright position because he was startled by the sound of the subway, not because he suddenly came-to. Once the doors closed I immediately began wrestling with my decision. I was disappointed I didn’t even try to get a shot without his face in it, but I also was proud that I stuck to my values, to my intentions. Sometimes moments like this should be documented but in this context…what message would I (or anyone with a camera) be sending, what story would I be telling? Would a shot like that actually push the street photography conversation forward or would it just be satisfying my own interest for an eye-catching picture to add to the ~aesthetic~ of my portfolio? The job of every creative is to find a story worth sharing but not if it comes at another person’s expense, not for a handful of likes and hashtags, especially if the subject of the artwork doesn’t have the agency to explain themselves. I’m not one to preach about what an artist should or shouldn’t do when given an opportunity to create. All I’m saying is that there’s a fine line between photojournalism and photographic exploitation.

I hope he got the help he needed and I hope he didn’t miss the last train home.

Here’s the link to my original post on LinkedIn.

A Day Alone in Lucerne

Early in the morning, Harman and I got up to grab a quick bite at the Coop Supermarket and then meandered around the city for a bit before his train to Zurich arrived. We bounced between a handful of bakeries and confectionery shops multiple times, taking new samples of that day’s pastry over and over again. We didn’t have a ton of time but walked the Chapel Bridge and surrounding blocks that have a home on the Reuss river. At one point we found ourselves on a bench freshly stuffed with plenty of desserts from the local shoppes, watching the water rush underneath our feet, wondering what life would be like once we got back home.

Harman, a new life in Seattle, a dream path, a job for which he absolutely deserved. I, on the other hand, was still TBD — and it was finally starting to set in; it was getting easier to forget that I was in Europe with my best friend. When Harman asked me what I was planning on doing at the end of the next week when my return flight left Paris, I teased the idea that I’d run off to Italy for awhile like the most cliche of movies or books, not to be disturbed for years to come. I thought I’d follow him to Seattle and continue building that foundation I laid earlier in the summer while trade working. Or maybe I’d follow in my own father’s footsteps, I offered ironically, and fall back to Brooklyn for a bit to take pictures and write and just figure life out where he had decades before. It’s funny how even the most innocent of energies we offer to the universe can so quickly radiate inside of us, writing the next chapter of our story before we’ve even had a chance to get past the first page.

After Harman boarded the train to Zurich, I found myself just kind of drifting around with my camera in my hand. I didn’t know anybody, our Aussie roommate at the hostel, Kristee, who, much like the bartender in Nice, was oblivious to my existence, had left early in the day to go sailing with some Swiss men whom she’d met the day before, and I had nothing to do except sit around with my own thoughts — and some incredible Swiss chocolate which, while actually a bit difficult to hunt down in the maze that is Lucerne, is absolutely worth the global hype. And this was the moment that I began to understand one of the most important lessons from the entire trip. You can run off to any country or city, with anyone by your side, with any intention at all. You leave without a trace or without warning. But you cannot run away from yourself.

While traveling absolutely opens your eyes to a world you have never seen before, it also delivers a frightening sense of clarity within yourself. I’ll be the first to admit that both back then and today, I’m not very good at being alone. This, I know, is coming from the person who once wrote that he wished to have a thousand homes, never overstaying his welcome in any particular place. Maybe the most interesting stories are always the most confusing and contradictory. But I digress. Once the sun began to set I realized that I didn’t ‘feel’ like I had just walked around Lucerne for the day; it was like I blinked and suddenly it was 7 p.m. For as beautiful as the city is, for as alluring are the restaurants and bars and boutiques, another lesson to keep in mind is just how important rest is, traveling or not. Exhaustion is a dangerous drug.

I went back to Coop for a few assorted baked goods and a carton of white wine for dinner, which actually was pretty comparable to Italy’s vino prices. When I got back to the Lion Lodge, I sat in the common room at one of the only tables that was positioned next to an outlet, charged my camera batteries, and took out my Moleskine. The wine didn’t last long. Throughout about five pages of rambling, what I wrote most was that its shame we all miss out on so much by trying not to miss out on anything at all. We could all so quickly become nothing more than a tourist in our own lives, passing in and passing through. I was also surprised to find just who came to mind when half the world away. Souls to the North, souls to the East, souls that were certainly not longing after me.

I began to miss everything and everyone, memories that weren’t even mine to hold onto. I was terrified to think of who I was going to become (or try to become) when I got back home. Maybe I would miss my flight in Paris and just hang out on the other side of the world for a bit longer, but then I began to wonder what made anyone dream of living a life built entirely out of uncertainty and instability, much like those of lifelong hostel workers around the globe. Did I have what it took to do that? And did I want to? Did that desire make you ‘one of the crazy ones,’ and if it did, was that such a bad thing? And what the hell was I actually going to do with myself if I didn’t skip my flight and was back en route to Cleveland? But as I’ve come to learn in my brief time on earth, sometimes life leaves you with more questions than answers. It was about 10 p.m. local time and was still thundering outside. Plus, the wine was gone and I realized that sometimes there just isn’t anything left to say, so I packed up and waited for Harman to get back.

Stepping out into the world makes you realize who you were all along, or at least who you want to be. It unsettles you, can unhinge you, but ultimately brings you closer to the truest version of yourself than you’d ever been before. That, in itself, is scary. It reveals things about yourself that you both have overcome and things that you still need to learn to embrace or throw away. Even the most ambitious of travelers can have nights when they feel a shattering sense of loneliness, of separation. Nights when distance becomes so much more than a word. After all, I’m not from here, can be an isolating phrase to repeat to others and yourself. So many people are just looking for a place to finally be from, after all. For all my melancholy that night, before I finished writing I left one final question unanswered. Did the wheels of the universe always spin you exactly in the direction you needed to be facing, forward or backwards or somewhere in-between?

I can’t remember when Harman got back but eventually, we both found ourselves in that all-too-familiar morning-packing-panic before our FlixBus showed up. When we got to the depot it was raining again and we took shelter underneath a covered motorcycle rack with the rest of the crowd waiting for the pickup.

The bus, itself, was incredibly empty that morning, and Harman and I both had an immense amount of space to sprawl out. It would be about an hour to Zurich where Harman would head to the airport and I’d switch bus routes, this time bound for Frankfurt. The entire ride north, neither of us said much to each other. We were both exhausted, yes, but I don’t think either of us could admit out loud that the trip was over, the trip we’d spent half of a year planning. When we pulled into the depot in Zurich, I walked with Harman as far as I could to the tram that would bring him to the airport before turning around to sit in a Starbucks for some free WiFi before the transfer. We gave each other a bro-mantic hug, said, I love you, brother, and wished each other safe travels. Again, sometimes there just isn’t anything left to say.

Suddenly I found myself alone for a week in Europe. And this was the part of my trip I actively avoided telling my mom about until I was overseas and safely out of her reach.

A Day On Top of the World

I could spend an unfortunate amount of time detailing every single thing wrong with the Lion Lodge, but the damn place isn’t worth more than this: The owner/desk manager doesn’t have a kind bone in his body and somehow holds no patience for paying guests. The WiFi is only available in the common room which shuts down – and locks up – at 10 p.m., or whenever the manager feels like closing that night. The rooms are typical of many budget-friendly joints but the bathrooms are one per floor (or one for every 30 guests) and include a single toilet and shower stall, the latter of which is secured by nothing more than a flimsy curtain. No other amenities are included and if you even consider checking out (or in) early… well, you better hope that there’s somebody at the counter. We only booked our stay there because it was the last available location with any vacancy that wasn’t more than $100 USD per night. Word to the wise: Environment is everything.

But with just a four-minute train ride to the town of Kriens, we found ourselves far away from the Lodge and in the shadow of Mt. Pilatus, so we decided to spend that drizzly, black and white day with the mountain. After a few misguided steps, two poorly-read bus schedules, and one group of middle-aged men who had a keen eye for misplaced tourists and were patient enough to point us in the right direction, we eventually found our way to the cable car depot.

The standard ticket to the top was roughly $75 USD and provided a ‘one way up, one way down’ deal, while another more expensive package offered a ride down from the mountain on the Cogwheel Train and a ferry ride across Lake Lucerne back to your original starting place. At first, I was a bit surprised by both prices but finally learned one of the most important lessons when adventuring either domestically or abroad: If you have a chance to do something that you may never be able to do again – especially in a country or city you’re not guaranteed to return to – just spend the damn money. Traveling can get pricey fast but by opting for hostels and cheap eats instead of hotels and fancy restaurants, an extra hundred bucks here and there is more than worth it.

We got a car all to ourselves and relaxed for the 45-minute (it may have been longer, it was so peaceful that we both lost track of time) ascension through the hills, farms, cow pastures, foggy forests of spruce, fir, and everything else to which belonged the most mysterious shade of green, the same shade of green that I found in the eyes of that Irish bartender back in Nice, France, who, as memory serves, couldn’t have been less interested in me if I tried.

You also have the ability to hike the mountain if you’re a masochist, yet Harman and I rationalized that if we would have even attempted to make our way to the top – or even just the first trail a few hundred yards from the base of the park – we would have been met with a muddy, tragic fate. And remember – when we first arrived in Switzerland at the convenience store with remarkably inconvenient prices, it was clear that we wouldn’t even be able to afford our own funeral in the country. We were more than content to be safe and sound in that rickety little gondola dangling a few hundred feet above the ground, instead.

About halfway up there’s a mandatory car change and another when you reach the final leg of the ride that scales the steepest part of the mountain. A small word of advice: You’ll want to try and get a window seat for the climb through the clouds. At the end of the ride, you’re deposited into a small travel center built on top of the mountain, complete with a gift shop, small café, and boutique just in case you want to drop a cool 15,000 CHF on an Omega. But if you’re going to spend that kind of money on a watch you might as well do it at the top of a friggin’ mountain, right?

Up until that point in the afternoon, the forecast had been entirely accurate: Drizzly and chilly. There were plenty of moments of summer that found their way through the clouds, but the majority of the day could have been described as gray, grayer, and grayest. When we first got to the top and left the guest house, we were both blown back by the sheer force of the wind and rain nearly 7,000 ft. up. It was miserably cold and remarkably saturated. This was the precise moment that I learned another critical travel lesson: Always, always bring a raincoat. After getting pelted relentlessly for about 15 minutes straight we decided to just head back inside to join the other few hundred guests who were avidly avoiding the storm. A half-hour later the rain eased up and we decided to try again, this time navigating the tunnel that is burrowed through the peak. You literally are walking inside of a mountain, with ‘windows’ that offer dizzying views into the clouds and nothing else. It was otherworldly.

Following the tunnel’s path, you emerge on the opposite side at a narrow, rocky outcrop that offers dizzying views of its own, and leads you to ‘do not enter’ stairwell that, well, we entered without hesitation. Climbing up a staggeringly steep steel staircase (it had to have been at an 80 degree angle) you eventually pop out back at the top of the peak, with the travel center in view a few hundred yards away. Somehow, the clouds over-dramatically parted and the rain stopped for a few minutes, gifting Harman and I a view of the Swiss Alps all to ourselves. It was a landscape of cobalt and charcoal, and seeing this was one of the most humbling moments of the trip. It was hard to imagine — even standing right in front of it all — that places like this actually existed in the world. Even looking back at the photos I took, it still doesn’t look real.

But once a pack of aggressive, selfie-stick-wielding families erupted from the travel center in our direction, we decided to make a break for it and were able to snag the window seat for the trip back down the mountain, enjoying another serene descent back down to earth. From the top of Pilatus you can’t see the rest of the world but it certainly felt like it that afternoon. It was another one of those moments when I found it hard to believe that my mouth could make such a sound as I just spent the day on-top of a mountain in Switzerland. I’ve always had a particular affinity for mountains; not that I’ve ever gone camping or anything remotely like that. But something about the sheer spectacle of it all – the volume, altitude, their isolating nature – inhabits an undeniably spiritual geography and it’s always fascinated me. The notion that you could get indescribably lost and still find yourself in the same place as you started: Somewhere in the mountains but in the mountains, just the same.

The following day would be the final in which Harman and I were together; He was bound to visit a friend of his in Zurich for a bit and I would begin preparing for a week in Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and Paris on my own. I was eager to know what it felt like to be a solo-traveler in Europe but didn’t want to get too far ahead of myself. I still had a full day in Lucerne to lose myself in, after all.

The Mountains to the North

While our final night in Italy may have seen us off with an easy if not slightly melancholic farewell, the following morning was nothing short of the hottest of messes, rivaled only by our struggle to get hail an Uber in Marseille or my misreading of the departure time for my flight home out of Paris. But I’ll get to that at some point or another.

I woke up to grab some coffee before we left and I spent the initial part of my breakfast occupying varying levels of awkward silence at the common room table. At times I was entirely alone, at others I was accompanied by one or two fellow travelers – neither of which made a sound more than the crunching of their toast – but eventually found myself at the head of the table with a half-dozen strangers around me, most of which were more than happy to actually have a conversation. It was a fine way to start the day, as the chance to just meet a handful of new people from all over the planet (however briefly) could warrant any ticket price. But as you realize too often when traveling, time can get away from you, so I returned to my room to pack as manically as I could. (Pro-tip: Pack as many of the same items as you can so that you aren’t always worried about what you’ll wear that day of your trip. My stockpile of plain black t-shirts came in handy countless times.)

Harman and I weren’t running late that day, so much as we didn’t plan for a lack of transportation options, yet again. (Spontaneity is underrated, in my opinion, even if that meant getting stuck in La Spezia for a bit longer.) You can buy a local bus ticket at any newspaper stand but apparently, there was no news to speak of that morning because every shop was closed. You can also buy a ticket beforehand online unless the app refuses to process any of your attempted transactions. Cash isn’t an option, although I guess we could have tried to barter with some well-placed gesticulating. And Uber also wasn’t along for the ride, so we had to hoof it for a few miles to the bus station which was inconveniently located on the other side of the harbor.

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Lugging 30-40lbs of clothing on your back in even the mildest of climates is exhausting, let alone one as humid as coastal Italy. At one point I almost stopped to put on more deodorant but by that time I was losing the will to live, let alone smell nice. After dragging our feet for nearly 45 minutes, we both looked like we had just lost the world’s least exciting triathlon, hunched over and sweating and begging for the sweet release of death at the finish line. The layout of the bus station parking lot appears to have been arranged by a blind man, as well, so we paced back and forth with our mouths sucking in incredible gusts of hot, seawater air for at least another 15 minutes in search of any sort of information. Thankfully we weren’t alone in our pursuit as we soon found a few other travelers waiting for the same FlixBus as us, so we took solace in the fact that, if we were actually about to keel over, we wouldn’t be dying alone.

 

We had a 9-hour bus ride ahead of us and even though there’d be air-conditioning, it was one that neither of us were looking forward to. It would be hellish, if only for the fact that both of us hadn’t slept well the night before. I, due to my superpowered insomnia and Harman, thanks to a remarkably noisy new bunkmate in his room.

I’ve never been able to sleep on buses or planes or in cars; Something about the eager anticipation of what’s down the road – even if not for 5, 10, or 13 hours away – keeps my brain wired constantly. In a moment of self-reflection later on the trip, I’d come to realize that, for better or worse, my fatal flaw resides in the fact that I am always focused on what’s coming next. But in Italy, there’s never a good time to be thinking about that kind of stuff, so I politely told my brain to fanculo off for a bit.

 

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About halfway through the ride – passed Genoa and any hopes I had of somehow running into the girl on the train from before – we crossed the border and came to a rest stop for lunch. It was here that Harman and I both had simultaneous heart attacks at the hands of Swiss price tags. Just for reference, one Swiss franc (which is separate from the euro) is about equal to one US dollar – and at the rest stop, a 12oz bottle of Coke cost nearly five francs. However, judging by their soda prices neither of us would be able to afford our own funeral, so we kindly asked the Grim Reaper for a raincheck.

Speaking of rain, a lush pastel canvas of heavy, grey clouds was beginning to fill the previously-clear sky. Before we made our way back to the bus, I had scurried off behind the rest stop to some sort of service road with literally two minutes to spare so I could take a quick picture. Then I heard a commanding siren coming from behind me in the parking lot: The FlixBus was screaming as Harman begged the driver not to leave without his easily-distracted friend. It was at that moment that I realized, even if my life depended on it, I would never be any sort of a runner. But every FlixBus driver also happens to be a chain smoker, so I was able to sneak back while Paulo ripped another Marlboro. He pointed to his watch in a kind-but-perpetually-pissed-off-as-an-Italian sort of way. I empathized and appreciated the hand gesturing, but my Grazie did me no favors.

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Then we were back on the road and at the mercy of the sprawling landscapes that dominate the country. Massive lakes and hillsides surrounded us as a mix of storm clouds and invariable sunshine began to swirl above in a graceful dance. Lofty mountain peaks filled our view in every direction and the grass was more vibrant than any I’d ever seen in my life. This, of course, is a stark contrast to the multiple highways and rail lines that tear through all of it, but you simply couldn’t beat the view from the window. No one on that bus knew which side to stare out of. 

Much like in Italy, the cottages that I assume are small homes can be seen at a mesmerizing rate far off into the alpine distance. An impenetrable blanket of fog would fall on us only to be lifted moments later, and this process would repeat itself a few more times. Rocky, impossibly high summits connected to rivers of snow sit next to evergreen forests untouched by ice. It’s like another world — and the majority of my opinion is based solely on the window seat, let alone what you may see on one of the cross-country trains, or if you were lucky enough to call that place home.

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The veins of Mother Earth are visible throughout Switzerland, and I cannot wait to explore the country more the next chance I get.

Our drive would eventually come to a halt in a small parking lot at Inseli Park near the Lucerne Culture and Congress Centre, right by the Bahnhof Luzern railway station. From there it was a peaceful thirty-minute walk through the heart of the luxurious city, all in the shadow of Mt. Pilatus; Beyond Cartier and Jaeger-LeCoultre boutiques, through a network of multiple chocolatiers, and passed the shockingly glamorous Hotel Schweizerhof Luzern. I never felt more out of place in my life.

Extreme wealth – ludicrous wealth – is quite unsettling to me. There were many times that I was ‘in another world’ while traveling last year, but nowhere felt more arrestingly enchanting than Luzern; Ostentatious and over the top is really the only way to describe it all. It was definitely interesting to be standing a few feet from $250,000 watches and invaluable diamond jewelry, but who needs any of that stuff? Maybe if I had been born into a life like that I’d be thinking differently about it, and I cannot speak on behalf of all the Swiss and everything the culture has to offer. But as it stands, a chicken sandwich – no combo – at Burger King costs $10 over there. Hard pass.

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The view from Inseli Park.

It was still a beautiful trek to our hostel, however, thanks to expectantly elegant architecture, and a network of cobblestone alleys and walkways that spider-out from the town center. Finding your way could be confusing and I, at least, found myself accidentally wandering in circles more often than not while in the Lakefront city. But despite the fact that neither of us would even be able to afford to ask for help, there were worse places to get lost in.

This feeling would quickly evaporate, however, when we checked into our booking, at the Lion Lodge Luzern, and would experience once and for all the consequences of our infatuation with last-minute planning.

 

Hiking to Heaven, Pt. 4

As the train slowed into the Riomaggiore station Harman and I were met with a sudden wave of energy and inspiration. This was it. We’d made it this far, so we might as well make the final village as memorable as possible. But to the best of my memory, when we first arrived I felt more a sense of slight disappointment than anything. The sun was getting low and the faded paint of the cliffside just wasn’t as vibrant as I had anticipated. To my knowledge, there isn’t a dedicated place to get a landscape view of the village itself like the one in Manarola unless you happen to find yourself on a boat just outside of the harbour, and if there is we didn’t find it. And we left our boat back at the hostel.

Riomaggiore was just as crowded as the other villages, albeit with the waves of tourists beginning to leave almost as fast as the daylight. When we began walking around, everything just kind of felt slow, as if we had just missed something or had shown up after the parade and were now left to help sweep up the confetti. I couldn’t quite put a name on it, but something about it all just felt empty. Even I was beginning to have enough of my overly-romantic view of things that day; Melodrama can be exhausting, what can I say. As Rebecca Solnit once wrote, “Disenchantment is the blessing of becoming yourself,” so maybe I was a little bit over myself – whoever I thought that was in the first place, or whomever I was trying to be.

But still, we walked on in hopes of finding one last bit of enchantment on the Ligurian Coast. Luckily, all that was standing between us and what we were searching for was a flight of about 500 winding concrete steps, the ones that aren’t evenly spaced apart, either.

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I don’t remember how we found the steps and I don’t remember where they began, we were simply wandering around when we noticed we happened to be going up. We came to multiple points where you can break off and meander through the homes of the people who live there, or take a stroll through some shops and backyard gardens. But once you began your ascent you couldn’t help but be both intimidated and fueled by the sight of a few hundred steps at what feels like a 75-degree angle. After about ten minutes of continuous climbing, you finally reach an unassuming road/cutback that leads you deeper into that part of the village. Through heaving breaths, I smiled, turning around to see the beautiful landscape behind us. Monte Everest! But my excitement was only temporary as it is a false summit, and there were still about half of the steps (all of which looked even steeper than the last) standing between us and one of the most spectacular views we’d find on our entire trip. So we huffed and we puffed and we carried on, slowly. Very slowly.

The steps continue to wind and curve high into the atmosphere, weaving you through the lives of those people who didn’t mind (or even enjoyed) the trek. Whether the people who live there own cars or just never left the house, or if they are just used to the hike up & down as a part of their daily world is beyond me. But the walk certainly expelled any thought other than some variation of just lower your head, you’re almost there from my mind. Maybe part of even the most difficult of journies was just finding your way home, no matter how many steps there were to take.

But with our hearts nearly pounding out of our chests like some cheesy 90’s cartoon animation and with the sweat in our shirts penetrating the bags on our backs, we reached the top and were deposited somewhere along the side of a long, winding road, right into an aptly placed vantage point to watch the sun descend over the sea. On the other side of the street was a local cemetery decorated with an abundance of red, yellow, and purple flowers adorning each of the countless headstones. To me, it resembled something of a mausoleum, because there is another staircase that runs to the uppermost floor of the structure. Not a bad place to end up, I guess.

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At the vantage point, there is another set of staircases that loops down and into the various vineyards and farmland belonging to the surrounding homes. Running directly alongside the staircase is something of walled garden which, if you aren’t especially afraid of heights, you can walk out onto for a truly one-of-a-kind image. Sitting atop the walled garden with my feet dangling some thirty feet above the stone and dirt of Italy, the sun began taking its final bow for the evening, a curtain of orange clouds slowly dropping down to cover the stage.

By that point in our trip, our week-or-so in Europe had begun to feel like whiplash. We couldn’t decide where to look or where to go, we began to get distracted by the possibility of a hundred other plans and places within our proximity, and most of all, at least from my perspective, it was all beginning to feel a bit overpowering. Not just our ‘new country every few days’ thing, but the fact that the sun was nearly setting on that trip of ours, itself – the one that we had planned for months and each dreamed about for years.

But sitting in the veil of the setting Riomagiorre sun, still spectacularly out of breath and on the edge of absolute exhaustion, I struggled to feel anything other than a sense of clarity. Nothing else mattered, maybe nothing else would ever matter after sitting there, I thought, or maybe everything after that would matter just a little bit more than usual. But only time would reveal that answer to me, and only if I took the necessary steps, myself.

Eventually, I felt like I was hogging the view, so I retreated carefully back along the twelve-inch wide brick wall to the base of the vantage point to give Harman some unobstructed views of his own. From one side of the road to the next, I made my way to that community cemetery/mausoleum and up the evenly-spaced steps to the top. Maybe whoever built that staircase decided to give the dead a break after making their way up the first 500.

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There are a few platforms that diverge into the different levels of the structure, but I continued to the top, from which you are met with another incredible view of the village below you. And it is here that I felt the world slow down for just a moment, for I was entirely alone in the shadow of a giant cross that was erected to watch over the entrance of the building. I am someone who has long associated himself with spirituality instead of traditional religion. Energy and intuition and instinct have always meant more to me than simple words in an old book. But whether out of ceremony or tradition or my upbringing as a half-assed Catholic, I decided to take a knee. Now I could write the thoughts that were firmly planted in my mind at that moment, but they’re not important to the story; It was a span of sixty seconds that simply granted me permission to be still, something that I struggle with on a daily basis. We had hiked to what, on some level, seemed to be a little corner of heaven.

I then made my way back to Harman and, after reviewing the time-lapse footage of the sunset on his iPhone, we descended those same inconquerable steps that would lead us back to the train station and La Spezia. Why is it that the way back always goes so much faster than the way there? We sat on the train in a web of friendly silence thanks to an almost crippling hunger and, on my end, the most paralyzing desire to pee that I have ever felt in my life.

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When we made it the hostel we were still anticipating a night in Portovenere, but unfortunately, when we found our prospective party we realized that they were all still impressively hungover from the night before. Too much cheap wine, one of them whimpered. It was about nine o’clock and the group was already going to bed, none of which remembered our names or making the plans in the first place. Harman and I, foolish for breathing in that drunken elixir; Those hollow words whispered into our ears and empty touches on each of our shoulders. But you live, learn, forget, and forgive, and at that moment we were too damn hungry to get hung up on women we’d probably never speak to again – especially ones who hadn’t bothered to remember our faces, so we began roaming around the surrounding few blocks in desperate need of anything to eat.

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It was a busy night for all the restaurants in the area, but after grabbing a glass of wine at one of the nearby bars (thanks to a complimentary drink ticket you receive upon arrival at the Manin, a nice touch) and hovering around long enough, we were somehow offered a riservato table under the awning at Il Trattico, which delivered on their reputation for outstanding pizza. It was now well past midnight, and after our quick but delicious dinner, we trekked back to the hostel reluctantly, conscious of both the weight under our eyes and the fact that it was our last night in Italy. But in truth, we both just wanted to get to bed in anticipation of the all-day FlixBus to Luzerne the following morning, and you can never say a proper goodbye if you’re too tired. So we dragged ourselves to our rooms and collapsed accordingly, dreading the alarm that was set to go off at eight a.m.

Hiking to Heaven, Pt. 3

Back on the train, we were both as exhausted as we had ever been, yet what came next was, perhaps, the part of our trip that we had been waiting for most: Manarola. I think it’s safe to assume that most people have a prior image in their minds when they think of this part of the world. A cove painted by sunlight, full of sailboats and swimmers, lovers and dreamers, all surrounded by a towering cliffside of vibrantly painted buildings that seem to have been dropped there from another world.

Leave aside the swarms of sweaty tourists, the countless storefronts hawking cheap souvenirs, and the less-than-saturated, sun-faded colors of those same buildings and you have Manarola.

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This was the village that I was most excited to visit because, after all, the photos of what you might find online in countless travel magazines are undeniably breathtaking. It looked to be another one of those places where the word worry held no meaning. And on some level, that is entirely true. But when you get off the train you are thrown right into hundreds of tourists all pining for the same food, the same tchotchkes, and that same exact picture. By this point in the day, I was beginning to feel overwhelmed by all of it, actually. The heat, the endless audible stimulation, and the pressure to take ‘x-amount’ of photos just to prove that I was actually there. But I wanted to be there while I had the chance, and not have to rely on cold pixels and chaotic journal entries just to remember what flavor gelato I ate. With all of that in mind, Harman and I continued down the main strip as we made our way to the iconic viewpoint.

As you approach the heart of the village, you are given a few different paths to follow the circular construction of the outlook. There’s the main trail that brings you directly to the vantage point, a second, more narrow walkway that declines into the Sea, and a third that takes you up and around the right side of the cliff through a scenic little park, which also gives you the option to peek into an old mausoleum through rusted iron gates before continuing to the viewpoint. We chose the latter and enjoyed a few unanticipated quiet moments away from the main crowd. By following this direction, you don’t really have a clear view of the cove and colorful buildings. But it gives you a chance to appreciate the fact that, once again, people have been calling this tourist destination home since as early as the 11th century.

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At some point, Harman and I got separated. This happened so many times over our three weeks that it almost like we were having a competition to see who could get distracted the most. But I began walking through the park, beyond a few memorial statues, down a flight of stone steps, and around the curved path carved into the cliff that sets the stage for one of the most famous pieces of architecture in the world.

Admittedly, the spectacle of it all is lost a bit due to countless families gawking for the exact same picture, selfie-sticks waving haphazardly, and every amateur photographer in the known universe pretentiously looking through the viewfinder as if their version of ‘the shot’ is somehow going to change the artform forever (myself included.) But all of that being said, I am happy to say that I was able to see the village in all of its unedited, unenhanced real-life glory with my own eyes. I took plenty of photos, including this panorama that I am particularly proud of (which happened to be taken with a five-year-old Nexus 6, for those of you who are curious.) Not that it hadn’t been done a million times before I arrived and will continue to be done indefinitely, but the image is mine; That moment and memory belong to me. And I feel as weightless now just writing about that day as I did when I stood there in-person.

Soon after taking the shot I turned my camera off, put my phone back into my pocket, and made good on the promise I made to myself to truly be present when it counted most. I wanted to stop and hear the silence, or the noise, or whatever the Universe had planned to offer me at the moment. The air was salty yet sweet, the water of the Italian Riviera playfully dancing with the scent of waffle cones and sour grapes. The water was at momentary peace with itself, only disturbed by the occasional fisherman making their way home for the day. The sun was still high in the sky despite the ticking of the clock, almost like it refused to begin its descent because it just couldn’t bear to go a single moment without looking at this place.

But then a pleasant Asian couple snapped me from my romantic, melodramatic haze and asked if I could take their photo. I removed their iPhone from a selfie-stick and obliged, and from multiple angles, too. No filters were needed. Almost immediately after the couple carried on their way another person asked me to take a picture for them. It was decided: I’d spend the rest of my days as a portrait photographer on the coast of the Ligurian Sea. Payments could be acceptable in the form of wine, bread, and a humble follow on my Instagram page. Grazie!

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Harman and I eventually reunited and we both just stood there, balancing an incoming attack of vicious hunger and lurking sleep deprivation while doing our best to appreciate the beauty of the world that happened to be sitting right in front of us. For all I knew, if we weren’t careful we might have been there until the next morning’s stream of tourists poured to rip us from our comatose. Walking to make sure we stayed awake, we were brought down close to the water where another rocky outcrop like that of Monterrosa was transformed into a make-shift diving spot. Only this time there weren’t any of those pesky ‘No Diving’ signs around; Only a small crowd of strangers from around the world watching from the sidelines, applauding each time one of the teenagers successfully lept from the top of the rock and landed in the Sea without too much bodily harm. Worry was foreign to us all once again.

But it was getting later than we had anticipated, so we decided to catch the train if we hoped to get to Riomaggiore in-time before running off to Portovenere later that evening. When traveling on a schedule you only get so much time to have experiences that sometimes require days to properly appreciate. It can be discouraging, yes, but it shouldn’t stop anyone entirely from still doing their best to get out into the world, even if they’ve only got a limited amount of time to do so. In some ways, it focuses your travels with this heightened sense of urgency so that you visit the places that are truly speaking to your soul.

I had wished to go to Cinque Terre – to see that iconic landscape for myself – for as long as I could remember, and I had done just that with my best friend beside me. If God happens to be real, or if there is some sort of omnipotent being out there in the Universe, my bet is that She lives in Manarola – or at least someplace just like it.

Sometimes what we want most is nothing more than an illusion we disguise as reality in order to protect us from the truth we refuse to confront. But other times our realities can still provide us with a little bit of practical magic.

Harman and I still had one village left to breathe in, the train was pulling into the station, and once again we’d be fighting for a seat. There was no time left to think too much.

There was only time left to be.