Monday, February 15, 2010

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Yangtze River Valley Tradition

Reed Sandals, July 2009.
Shot outside an old house in the Yangtze River Valley in CheXi, Hubei Province, China.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

suggestions for a lively October 25 (thinking ahead):

Find a chocolate festival. Preferably in Europe (you know, if you're there). Walk around. See the sights. Maybe sample some chocolate.

Perugia, Italy. Chocolate Festival. October, 2008.
One of the charming things about Italy is that each little town has a unique personality. Everyday practices, from what sort of food people eat to more seasonal customs, such as when festivals blow through town or the details of religious processions, find their roots deep in history. Witnessing these in a smaller community opens a different country than many visitors encounter when experience "Rome," (though this, undeniably, is Italy too).

Monday, October 19, 2009

Haitian girl learning to walk

Haitian girl. Ile-a-Vache, Haiti, 2007
Reality in one of the poorest corners of Haiti: if you are born with a physical disability your parents likely won't be able to care for you. Abandoned by her parents, this little girl is in the loving care of a nun (Sr. Flora) who runs an orphanage for the severely disabled. One day she may be able to walk on her own.

My reasoning to post this photograph now was quite purposeful. One of the most frequent Google searches that drives people to my blog is evidently, "Haitian girls." I don't know the motivation behind these searches but I lived long enough in Haiti not to ask. Still, one can hope, the searches are well intentioned.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Francesa, sea breeze child

Bald Head Island, North Carolina, 2007
It's been pouring and unseasonably cold in DC for the last few days. This photograph is like a breath of fresh, warm air. I need one! So I thought I'd share it with you too.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

website update & fix

I noticed a lot of traffic to my blog was coming through my website (relatively speaking) so I finished some of the updates I have been meaning to make to it. However, I realized after posting the changes that some of the links on the "menu" need to be fixed and that there are some compatibility issues with Windows operating systems. I am working on these! Sorry for the trouble...

And, by the way, if you have feed back on anything, do not hesitate to contact me.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Andalucía to lose your heart

Door.* Barrio Albycín, Granada, Spain, 2009

In 2004, with minimal knowledge of Spanish, a carry-on bag and a small digital camera, I moved to Granada, Spain... and fell in love. Passion, mystery, effervescence, and sensuality intoxicated me, drew me in. I departed in tears a couple of months later with a copy of Cervantes short stories open in my lap (perhaps reading "La Gitana;" my Spanish had come a long way), determined to dedicate entire courses to learning about (Islamic) Spain during my last year of college.

In retrospect, I attribute part of my ability to engross myself in life in Granada, Summer 2004 to leaving technology and related trappings behind. As any shutter-bug will tell you, photographing life often means not taking part in it; and (painfully) I'd left my SLR behind that summer. Additionally, living alone with out a computer, Internet, television means you get out there. Meet people. It changes the rules of the game (back to the way they were). That one summer, I pretended - I lived - as though I were a "granadina." And - gasp - I learned Spanish really quickly.

Did I mention, too, that I fell in love with the place? That I learned every little pretty nook and best deal tapas place? That I had my favorite bars, cafes, churches, walks... and some good friends too. And I was there for about 8 weeks.

Sometimes your memory plays tricks. But to my delight, when I returned in 2009, even in the drearier winter months, my memories of beloved Andalucía proved true. On this most recent visit, I brought my camera. So finally I can share more about one of my favorite places.

*The door pictured is very typical of the Arab neighborhood that sits on a hill faces the famous Alhambra: the Barrio Albycín. The barrio itself is as magnificent in many ways as the old Moorish castle: beautiful to explore by day, mysterious to walk by night (with a friend). It's filled with wonderful charms around every corner, like this door: Doesn't it make you wonder what's inside? The metal workmanship - intricate and very typical of the southern Spanish region - at once seems to welcome the onlooker and yet firmly prohibits you from coming farther. It is just one of many subtle tributes to the coalescing Islamic and Christian cultures of southern Spain. Note, too, the green trim around the door as it contrasts with the bright Andalusian reds of the brick.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Tourism in China: Wish you were here!

Huangguoshu Waterfall, Guizhou Provice, China

At first, this photograph is about two things: aesthetics and a darn good back story. The massive waterfall (largest in Asia) in the background contrasts dramatically with the antics happening in the foreground. This combined with the vibrant colors really draw the observer into the scene (click the photo to see a larger version). Too, at a cursory glance, these folks seem like part of a show. But upon closer inspection (check out the man's pressed trousers and glasses), it's clear they are probably someone's grandparents - tourists! - horsing around in rent-able traditional garb.

Most importantly, (and this is why it's one of my favorites photographs) this photograph reveals some interesting characteristics about China that in the face of tire-tariffs and a weak dollar (well, even before that, let's face it) we neglect. It hints at a natural grandeur and beauty impossible to to imagine. At the same time, it expresses something intimate: a silly element to an older couple's sense of humor. I would venture to say I experienced this sort of refreshing joviality in my interactions with people throughout the country - this willingness to act goofy or make jokes at the expense of one's self for a laugh.

Importantly, the photo also gives a peep the thriving internal market for tourism, which includes path-side vendors who rent period costumes in which tourists can be photographed. (In addition to Ming-style grannies, I saw silk-robed teens and all manner of anachronistic ridiculousness... all over the place). However, in July on a Friday, hundreds of Chinese visited this waterfall; I didn't see any Westerners. China, despite its welcome capitalist market and vast offerings in the trade world (sure, it'll take our $ for investment and manufacturing) has yet to really profit from basic tourism. Yes, despite the Beijing Olympics.

The proof is in the pudding (no, not in a statistic put out by the People's Republic): try to find a postcard in Shanghai. I dare you. (And this with the World Expo 2010 coming up). All I'm saying is that someone's missing out...

**To read about my visit to Guizhou, see Wild Wild West of China. To check out links for tourism in Guizhou, go to China Tourist Maps and click GuiZhou. To be wowed by China's nature offering, check out BBC's documentary "Wild China" (awesome) at Amazon.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Divine Tuscan Hilltop Family Chaos

“You…” she points at her watch “pasta…” she points at the boiling pot of water containing the pasta “seis.” She smiles gently at me. “Ok?” “Ok,” I respond. Holding up six fingers, “Ho capito.” I understand. And I mark the time on my watch, determined to get this right. Then the marchesa bursts through the kitchen door, with her arms in the air, saying in Italian and Hungarian “Oh, carinail cafe. My coffee.”

She places herself at the unfinished kitchen island and pops a slender cigarette in her mouth. The cloth-covered stuffed tomatoes offer a brief distraction before she lights her cigarette and tastes from her demitasse. She heaves a sigh, welcoming the respite from two hours of cooking in the now sweltering but deliciously aromatic kitchen.

Then the piccolo principe - only two, blond, with round eyes of blue - wakes up. His mother comes in to fetch him. And the marchese, his Nono, follows suit. The family hovers about this child, and not without cause, for he charms the way he says “O, Dio,” and “O, Mama,” corks wine bottles, makes up little songs, and laughs easily and often. Nono and Nona both tend to his afternoon snack, and the soft-spoken Hungarian cousin to a meat dish. The whole scene distracts me completely and I forget the time for the pasta.

Suddenly, bubbling from the stove reminds the marchesa and she cries, “The pasta!” Her cousin turns, looks at me guiltily. I say “culpa mia, culpa mia,” immediately, which is really quite a shame since the marchesa had just been singing my praises about what a help I was. Oops. I smile shyly and look at the cousin. She looks back at me, smiles and shrugs. The marchesa grumbles and resumes other kitchen activities, ignoring the pasta fiasco. Her cousin begins to dress the slightly soggy noodles with a poppy-seed paste, lemon zest and sugar. “Ok,” she whispers, smiling. “Ok.” And hands me a bow-tie for tasting. Ok, indeed. Just fine.

Soon, the wind of chaos blows in again. A servant goes to bring coffee to someone. “Vai!” “Dove?” “Come?” “Con questo! Dai” “Grazie.” “Ok!” Then someone gets a new idea. Moving something... “Can’t be done that way!” “Come?” Workmen shuffle around. “Cose?” “Perque!” And then dust settles again.

Chatting resumes over what little remains to be done in the kitchen. At this point I just sit. But nothing will budge me from my spot. Perhaps they will tell me to move more tomatoes or salt something. The marchesa tells me I do not have to help in the kitchen, if there is something else I would like to do. But I say I like to. What else will I do? What I have been doing the last two weeks: reading, writing, yoga, etc.? Anyway, it makes me feel useful. And less far from my own family. “Ah,” she replies. “Yes, that’s good. But also your family must be less chaotic.”

“Oh, noooo.” I smile. And explain my part Irish, part Italian, all Catholic family, with four of us growing up, fifteen cousins and dozens of second and third cousins. Divine chaos, divine, divine chaos defines our family get-togethers. Perhaps that is the energy of good families. Chaos and love.

These are the afternoon activities of a family at a (not-quite-finished) hilltop, Tuscan villa. And here I am, a part of it all. Why am I here? The paterfamilias has enlisted me to help improve his English. This we do when he can be spared from playing with his child, talking to his wife (the most beautiful 8-month pregnant woman I have ever seen), supervising construction , rounding up friends for a jetski outing or dinner party, watering his grass, hunting, or blackberrying or… well, eating. The latter takes a great deal of time; life revolves around it, understandably, as this is bella Italia.

This afternoon for lunch, we all sat “inside” to eat. The villa, built Roman style but to gigantic scale, has two cavernous rooms with yet unfinished fireplaces and still open, stable-like doors. The breeze blows in, but the wasps – a major problem just now – do not. So there we dined on meat and tomatoes, cucumber, and fried potatoes. To finish we had fresh peaches and grapes and some leftover tart. A little coffee, too.

When the piccolo principe went for a nap, quite a tiring afternoon playing in the baby pool, chasing cats and dogs, running from wasps, rolling about with Nono and Nona, the mater and paterfamilias and the Noni relaxed for a few moments on the couches at the gigantic room’s entrance, from where one can see a nearly complete panorama of the Tuscan hills. The gentle cousin made her way to her room in search of lighter clothing for a little sun bathing.

Only a few breaths went by, and familiar chaos began again. “Where is the mattress of the guest?” “The cupboard is in the wrong place.” “I have to watch him fix the closets, O, Dio!” “Senti, amore, what are we going to eat tonight?” And within a blink I found myself seated alone with the marchese, as he finished his pipe (he had not yet been called away, though his time came within moments), chatting about language.

I like this Calabria born man, with his bright blue eyes and his great patience. Last night, some fireworks surprised us all after dinner. We watched, from above, in silence. During the grand finale, the marchese remarked, “Ah, the grand finale. Il strazia bracchi.” “The what?” I asked, wanting to know the word in Italian. He smiled, a little embarrassed, “it’s the Neapolitan for ‘grand finale.’ ‘Strazia bracchi.’ It means… ‘strazia,’ break. ‘bracchi,’ the underwear.” He laughed. “It’s slang. From Naples.”

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Into..... Civilization and the City of Lights

In just 8 or 9 relatively short hours by plane, I went from the capital of China to the capital of France. The world's fastest train carried me a whizzing 431km/h to the Shanghai airport from whence a plane zipped me to Beijing. From there, and without further adieu, another plane dropped me ahead of schedule at (the loathed) CDG airport in Paris.

Once in Paris, well, I queued for a half hour to buy a ticket of equal cost to the super-fast Maglev train for the RER train that took five times as long and was filled with gypsies and graffiti. Ah, back to civilization.

Of course, I had to transfer trains too. And with my two carry-ons and my 50-lbs rolling bag, that was no small task. As always and even with explicit directions, the RER system confounded me, as I went down the wrong platform and up again to find the right one, only to discover I couldn't go down again without going up yet again. A pleasant looking security man with a mean looking German Shepard took pity on me, or perhaps it was that my tear-swollen eyes and and the sweat rolling down my temples, and told me to follow him when I asked, in a trembling voice, (gimme a break, it was already past midnight, China time), how the (HELL) I to get down to the other platform.

I have to imagine we made a mad scene, me in my hat and my three bags and him with his vicious K-9 in its studded, black leather muzzle. He chatted away in Parisian slang and I "oui-ed" along until we landed where I needed to be. One stop and many sketchy looking folk later and I found myself on Haussman Blvd at an overpriced cafe, having wine with a French screenplay writer I'd met several months before.

Paris may have lovely weather in the summertime but it sure brings out the freaks. This was all new to me... I am a Paris-by-summer-virgin (or was). As I waited for my brother, sipping a cafe and pouring over J D Salinger's short stories, I ignored the street insanity before me like a professional (as it doesn't differ much from the usual Bologna scene, to which a year of living had me quite accustomed).

When finally my brother arrived (late plane from Italy where things run less efficiently than they do in China), we had a glass of wine and a midnight, sidewalk dinner of Steak Frites and Salade Poulet. Have you ever noticed that the French like to sit like sardines, all lined up along the sidewalk, so as to best people-watch? It quite differs from the manner in which the Chinese sit grouped around the largest tables they can find (2-3 people to a 5-10 top table) in wide spaces like courtyards or parks.

The next day my littlest broski - as he likes to refer to himself in emails to me - and I did a speed version of our favorite sort of Paris visit together. Food, shopping, sightseeing, coffee, sightseeing, wine, shopping, sightseeing, food, wine, food. Oh, and chatting chatting chatting. As he was oriented in the 8th, we made our way toward the 5th and 6th to begin our day. At one point, during haircuts, I described my desire to learn to pincurl my hair and my brother pointed out that he always learns pointless girl trivia while hanging out with me. I pointed out that that was, in fact, what sisters were for. And, likewise, that he served perfectly for feeding me rich philosophical and historical trivia, thank you very much, and making me sound much more intelligent than I might otherwise. (Turns out his trivia came in very handy later during some dinner parties in Tuscany, making me sound very educated indeed).

Later in the day, I learned that Napoleon had his own entrance at the opera, big enough for him to ride in astride a horse.

In the evening, we lost ourselves in the lovely shops of the 6th and a cozy little wine shop that must have had a very different atmosphere when, centuries (years) ago, artists and philosophers sat about and sucked at their Gauloise, creating a foggy, aromatic haze in the rafters. When we finally wandered back to the apartment little broski called home temporarily, hunger had turn us both into evil versions of ourselves so that any dinner planning became impossible until we remembered the cheese and champagne we'd procured to assuage our low-blood sugar afflictions.

Somehow, later, we found ourselves seated in a fancy little place in the 5th, decor recalled the 1920s - or maybe a little earlier - with mirrors and metal molding everywhere. We feasted on snails, pate, suckling pig and roast duck. For desert we shared a creme brulee. The waiter fancied my brother a bit (lovely eyes, he told him) so after we polishing off our drinks and paying we ducked out before anyone got any ideas... The rain dampened our plans to find dancing or ride the big ferris wheel and watch the lights.

In the morning brunch was delicious but became quickly painful as the waiter took a seemingly pointless lunch break in the middle of serving our table and couldn't be budged to get our check. Clock ticking... plane to catch. When finally a taxi dropped me at Orly, I joined the already impossibly long line for my discount flight to Italy. Merci beacoup, French attitudes about serving tables. But the flight was delayed any how. So I guess I can thank French attitudes about timeliness for it not mattering in the end anyhow.

I made it to Italy, late. And it was hot when I got there. And, I should point out, it was August 1: The beginning of holidays in Europe. So let me lend some advice: if you do not speak Italian, this is not the day to land in Italy. As I rushed to make a late bus and make the last regional train going to a tiny town north of Rome, I never would have known what to do if I hadn't been able to ask quickly in Italian and understand the response. Everything was crowded and running late. Back in the developed world!

I arrived in fine form, sweating and stressed, for my first day on the job as an English teacher in the rolling coastal hills of southern Tuscany.