Europe 2019: Six Stops, a Second Grader, and a Selfie

Posted on Dec 27, 2019 in Tales from the Nomadic Adventure
Europe 2019: Six Stops, a Second Grader, and a Selfie

Europe: May 9 – June 12, 2019 | Including trips to Italy, Croatia, Germany, Montenegro, Spain, and Portugal

May 9, 2019 @ 11AM: It’s almost mid-May but yet it feels more like early March. It’s gray, chilly, and damp, very much unlike this same day six years ago. That day, I was wearing layers but it wasn’t due to the weather – well at least not the weather here. That day, we sat in this same spot, on these same steps, looking out towards the city of Rome. We had arrived to the Eternal City 10 hours earlier, yet our luggage did not. Luckily, it didn’t put on a damper on the reason we sat on these famous steps six years ago at sunset with a smile.

Today, there is no sun and in a few minutes there will be a steady, cold rain under dark gray skies. Yet, we’ve come here to relive a beautiful memory and begin a short mid-May getaway from our springtime home in Valencia, Spain. Six years ago, we sat here on these ancient steps hours after arriving tired, discombobulated, and slightly annoyed. But how can you really be so annoyed when you’re sitting on the Spanish Steps in Rome at sunset, gazing out over the city, along with hundreds of people from all over the world sharing in the experience? Any annoyance on that day was soon muted when I subtly passed my (then) fiancée her engagement ring and we took the first of a few pictures to commemorate the moment.

Commemorating a moment – the true essence of a picture. It seems this aim has been usurped by insecurity, vanity, and a complete lack of situational awareness – more on that later. Right now, we need to start walking briskly through this maze of a city to head back to the Roma Termini train station before this sprinkling becomes a deluge.

We were hoping to spend four hours of our six-hour layover strolling through the old city, reliving some of the sights from our previous visits – the places we stayed, the restaurants and cafes we enjoyed, and the various narrow streets and wide piazzas we strolled holding hands – yet, today it’s too chilly, windy, and rainy. And these crowds of tour groups don’t seem to be in any rush at all to get off the streets or out of my way. I’m dodging their umbrellas at my eye level and their random stops in the middle of the street to take a picture. All the while, I’m trying to stay warm, focused, and not lose my footing on the wet, slippery stones that dot the old streets of Rome. These stones are majestic when it’s sunny but menacing when coated with rain and slick with oil.

In surprising fashion, I found myself lost a few times earlier in the day, just trying to make it from the train station to the Spanish Steps. I’m a natural navigator but Rome has me beat today. Getting lost annoys me, as does the rain, cold, gloomy skies, and this biting wind. There’s a reason I’ve decided to reside in places where the daytime temperatures are generally 70˚F (21˚C) and above. At this point, I just want a nice, warm 1€ Lavazza cappuccino from the vending machine at the train station, a cookie, and a nice, relaxing train ride back to the Fiumicino Airport. We have relived enough memories for the day and, to be honest, that’s what pictures are for anyway.

A Thousand Words

It’s shortly after 2pm on July 27, 2014, and I’m standing in front of about hundred people, many of which are family but most of whom I’ve never met. They are waiting for me to start speaking and I’m simply holding a moment in my mind from which I’ll tell a story. See, I don’t do well reciting speeches. Instead, I hold images in my mind (photos, if you will) and I try to think through the connections. From that, I simply start talking and let the energy and ideas come out seemingly without issue. Last night, on my way from the airport with my parents, my father was a bit shocked and nervous to discover that I hadn’t written anything down.

Today, the story is simple yet the topic is hard. I’ve been asked to tell a story about my grandmother who has recently passed at the age of 90. The image I hold in my mind is that of a camera…my first camera. I begin to tell the story of my grandmother’s visit to Chicago during my eighth grade year and how the camera she bought for me during that trip became an integral element of my life experiences over the next two decades.

Those that know me well know that I don’t like to take very many pictures of myself. Instead, I enjoy being lost in the moments and scenes of life, and use the camera to capture those moments to tell future stories or revive old memories. For the record, I take lots of pictures but few are perfect. They aren’t meant to be, they are simply meant to help archive a story in my mind or tell a story to others. Commemorating moments – perhaps, now a lost art in the use of personal photography.

When I finish speaking after about 10 minutes of weaving through two decades of mental photographic memories, I’m not sure of the exact words that flowed from my lips. It doesn’t matter. I know the story that I told and I could tell it a hundred times over. By the smiles on the faces of those sitting in front of me, I sense that it made a lasting impact. The subtle proof that a picture – mental or otherwise – is worth a thousand words.

Last Minute Message in Montenegro

It’s late April two weeks before our rainy morning in Rome. I receive an email from an elementary school back in my hometown of Chicago. It’s from a parent leader at the school where one of my closest friend’s daughters attends. I’ve been waiting on this email for months and I’ll continue to wait on its supplemental contents. This time I’ve been asked not just to take pictures but also to give a glimpse of life in another part of the world.

My friend’s daughter’s second grade class has drawn and cut out images in their likeness (or at least the likeness by which a second grader can manifest of themselves). I should be receiving an envelope in the next 10 days with the “flat selfie” of a randomly selected second grade pen pal (Myles), who will tell me about himself by answering a few questions on an accompanying questionnaire. Yet, when we close the door to our apartment 14 days later before the sun rises on the morning of our flight to Rome, the envelope still has not arrived.

I was really hoping to take the selfie along to take pictures while in Rome and eventually in Dubrovnik, Croatia – our springtime getaway destination. But alas, international postal delivery is not on our side. Instead, I send a text a message to my friend (Candice) delivering the discouraging news prior to boarding our flight to Rome. She always seems to find a way to make things happen.

I’ve had my cappuccino and cookie, and we’re high above the Adriatic Sea slowly descending into a place I’ve never been before but within a country in which I’ve resided for two weeks of my life. Above the clouds, it’s sunny and clear…completely unlike what we are about to experience arriving into Dubrovnik. The clouds are thick, dark, and bumpy. I can see shades of the towering Dinaric Alps on my left, the rough sea below my feet, and my hands have a tinge of perspiration.

I’m not usually tense when landing on commercial flights but as a pilot there are certain sensations that trigger reflexes in my mind that communicate to the senses that something is a little off. It doesn’t help that I don’t know the terrain and everything that seems perilous keeps getting closer and closer. The plane bounces and drops, and I see rocks, cliffs, mountains, and edges of the sea. Usually landings are moments when things become slower and slower, and yet now everything is getting faster and faster, and closer and closer.

We barely break through the clouds when I see the landing lights of the runway and just a few seconds later we touch down (hard) and break (fast). We made it in the midst of an approaching storm, one that will greet us on our 30-minute bus ride into town; in ironically, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

Just two days later, we are crossing country borders on a bus. The storm that greeted us passed in the first 24 hours but another is approaching tomorrow. We decide it’s best to use the gap to venture off to Kotor, Montenegro, as I’ve heard it’s beautiful beyond words. They couldn’t have been any more right. Though this bus is weaving fast around these two-lane bends in the Kotor Bay, the views are unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my life. There is no place I’ve been that I can even use to say, “it looks like…” It’s simply breathtaking and the pictures I take to capture it at breakneck speed aren’t perfect but they are memorable.

We arrive into Kotor 30 minutes or so later than expected, compressing our brief 5-hour daytrip visit into a little more than 4 hours. We immediately head for lunch and consume, perhaps, the largest hamburger I’ve ever hoisted into my mouth. Next, we set off to explore this tiny old town, which resembles nearly every other old town along this eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea. Though the scenery outside of the town is unique and unforgettable, once you’re within the walls of the old city, you would be hard pressed to tell if you’re in Dubrovnik, Split, Trogir, Supetar, or Makarska. As my friend, Vanessa is known for saying, “All look same.” So much so that, we often find ourselves navigating around Kotor as if we were in Dubrovnik, where we’d spent the last couple of days prior to this random daytrip.

Lunch…check. Ice cream and coffee…check. Beer…check. We hit all the basics and while waiting to pay the bill at the bar, I check my phone. Bingo! Candice always finds a way. Lo and behold, she had emailed me a scanned version of the flat selfie from my second grade pen pal. Perfect timing. Now if I can only find a place to print it out before we leave Montenegro.

I know this must appear a bit strange – a grown, black man holding up a 6-inch cutout of a crayoned, “colored” kid and taking random pictures. Little does this concern me, as I have just a few precious minutes to snap a few photos with this flat selfie in this little known corner of the world. We arrived 30 minutes late to Kotor and with just 30 minutes to go, I am able to start to make my impact. Myles and his classmates have just begun an epic 4-week, 6-country trip around Europe that which only pictures can provide.

Showtime in Dubrovnik

I would argue that way humans communicate fundamentally began to change around 2009. It wasn’t due to a single event but a culmination of events that seemed to exponentially increase the slope of the change. First, there was the advent of smart phones, complete with access to the web in a more functional manner and cameras. Then came the rise of social media and, with it, the fundamental flip from “we” to “me.”

Prior to these events, you could argue that when the average person took pictures, they were generally of a place, moment, or a smattering of pictures of themselves with or without friends. However, I doubt few wasted entire rolls of film taking endless selfies of themselves. In addition to be physically difficult to do, those were also the days of developing film at film shops. Few wanted their local clerks to see them in unflattering poses, or worse, provide shots that might be copied and shared among the clerk’s friends for laughs after-hours.

Once things became digital and easily shared through a simple click of a mobile app button, we no longer cared how many shots we took, how, or where. Mixed with an age of marketing that is all about maximizing individual desires and experiences, you get an environment ripe for vanity mixed with a healthy dose of insecurity. Then came the Instagram filters and “better” ways to present ourselves to the world. Now every picture could be touched up prior to posting and we could show the world our “best” (albeit, unrealistic) self. The mad dash to post and share incomplete and unrealistic versions of self soon became the norm, such that now it is totally normal for people to sit in cafes or walk the streets taking tens of selfies without any regard for those around them. It’s almost as if reality doesn’t exist except in the digital sense, where everyone seems to be competing for constant, instant attention.

I see this play out within the old walls of Dubrovnik. The city is absolutely gorgeous, rain or shine. You can find beauty everywhere if you simply look up to embrace it. Yet, so many in this tourist mecca seem to be head down on their phones (scrolling and swiping), standing in areas where it would seem obvious that others need to walk or pass, or taking over areas of beauty with their selfie sticks in tow taking tens of seemingly the same picture just with different fake facial expressions or slightly different flicks of their hair. What happened to the days of a visiting a place to experience the culture or see the sites, rather than simply taking a picture and leaving before even reading the signs about the site?

I shouldn’t be too surprised. Apparently, Games of Thrones was filmed here and since then, the place has become overrun with tourists. They have descended on the front lawn of this majestic town and trampled all over it taking pictures of each corner (hundreds of times) simply to say they have been there. They all want to take the same photos in the same spots, creating gridlock in these narrow, old walkways and creating angst in the hoards of those waiting their turn for their moment in the spotlight.

There’s nothing more ironic than watching people stand in line to take a picture at a coveted spot, heads down in their phones (again, scrolling and swiping for that next dopamine hit) while waiting impatiently for their turn. They grow visibly annoyed by the minute and completely disconnected from the world and beauty around them. Then, it’s “showtime” and they take the stage, complete with their own fake smile and one million poses, simply to capture their “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” moment before their smile turns angst (once again) as they immediately inspect the photos before trudging off to their next destination – heads down in their phones, yet again, to do nothing more than filter, post, like, and repeat.

Kotor was breathtaking and Dubrovnik is jaw-dropping. There aren’t many places in the world where I have felt such a rush of sensations simply from the walking along a random street in either town. There is beauty all around in both parts. But I often wonder how many people leave feeling overwhelmed by the beauty of these spectacular destinations versus inundated with more pictures of themselves than of the places they travel.

Of all the factors I mentioned earlier, perhaps one that I failed to mention – access to cheap airfare – has been the most influential in this rise of backyard trampling travel. It’s much easier now for anyone around the globe to book a ticket to someone else’s backyard, stomp over all it for a few days, take their pictures, pull up the yard’s most beautiful flowers, while leaving little more than a tip to, perhaps, help maintain the yard. Travel is what connects the world, its cultures, and its people. I long for the days when it might return to be more about connection rather than personal projection. Until then, I’ll stand to the side and take my photos of the place with my flat selfie, so that I can share this amazing spot in the world with a room full of second graders back on the Southside of Chicago.

The Subtlety of an Italian Stroll

I’m sitting on steps once again but these are less well-known. It’s high noon on a beautiful, sunny Sunday in late May and I’m taking a break from a brief stroll through one of my favorite small towns in Italy – Vicenza. I spent last night out with my friend, Sara, roaming the charming streets of this often forgotten town in Veneto. Along the way, we stopped for cups of fast food pasta, half pints of beer at a local pub, drank a glass of red wine on the street below a small church courtyard and another in a cave below a restaurant, all before meeting up with her friends for a nightcap in lounge chairs under the midnight sky on a makeshift summertime beach along the river. Time in Italy always seem to be dictated by the amount of glasses you sip, the stories you tell, the laughs you exchange.

Sitting here on these steps below the less famous Basilica Palladiana, with its clock tower resembling that of the more famous Piazza San Marco in Venice, I watch the world go by. It’s something I often like to do wherever I am in the world. What is most notable here is the attention of the populace. They are focused on the tangible – the people they are with, the sites they see, and the guitar playing just a few steps to my left. Few have a mobile phone in hand, though I’m sure they all have at least one on their person. No, their attention is on the here and now, and now it’s all about enjoying a beautiful sunny day in late May. The age of most in my view is beyond the millennial and selfie generations, making it easy to notice the chasm between the various generations’ ways of experiencing life moments. In Dubrovnik, it seemed more about taking pictures to prove to the world that they were there, whereas here it seems the proof is in the power of the moment.

Just two days ago, I enjoyed dinners and midday meals with my friend, Ricardo, back in Bologna – my “Italian hometown.” Prior to our first walk through town I informed him of my selfie project and he immediately warmed to the idea. Next thing I knew, per Ricardo’s initiative, Myles was captured enjoying pasta for lunch at a sidewalk cafe (without wine of course, he’s only a second grader for god sakes), hanging out with the city’s university students in Piazza Maggiore, and taking a random, distant selfie with the local Carrabineri.

Unlike Vicenza, Bologna is more of tourist destination on the Italian circuit. That coupled with the fact that it’s also a major university town and it’s no wonder that you see more heads down and “show time” moments walking around town. Yet, it’s still Italy and though the younger generation seems to be more obsessed with self and constant, instant attention, there is still a good sense of enjoying the moment and the setting. I find myself dodging crowds here less because of their “heads down” digital attention and more because they are simply strolling and chatting with friends.

The next morning after Myles, Ricardo, and I enjoy a typical Italian breakfast (coffee and a pastry), I’m off to grab some flowers and make a mad dash to the outskirts of town to bid a quick “Ciao, bella!” to a dear friend in her time of recovery. With only an hour to exchange stories about our last 365 days apart, we are focused on the tangible – the espresso, the traditional Italian cake she baked, and each other. Anything in the digital realm can wait – it’s much less important than this hour we have together. Though we only connect the other 364 days of the year using our mobile device, it is of no importance at this time. It simply served to keep us connected when we were apart. I snap only two pictures during my quick, urban voyage to Lucia’s – simply to capture the moment and use them to tell a brief story at a later time.

Planning Be Damned

I’m aboard a plane once again. This time on my way back to Spain after my brief five days in Italy. It’s a quick flight, just 55 minutes, but each minute is precious. I have only a 45-minute layover in Frankfurt before my connecting flight back to Valencia. I don’t usually book flights with such short connecting times but the flight is with Lufthansa and I figure, worst case, I’ll get a free night in Frankfurt if I miss the connection.

Planning be damned. As soon as I deplane from my arriving flight in Frankfurt, I immediately proceed to the gate counter. The attendant already has my hotel voucher and meal ticket ready to go. There is no way I am going to make the connecting flight even though we have arrived with 15 minutes to spare. I’m just glad she is holding her cool for the two minutes she explains my documents and next steps, while being berated by an angrily, crying young American female traveler who is absolutely livid that the airline will not hold a flight for several hundred other people, simply because one (she) does not have enough time to make the connection.

Rough situation abated, I spend the short evening at a random hotel in the middle of nowhere with tens of other travelers affected by the late evening delays suffered at one of the world’s busiest airports. It is not until the next morning that I realize the magic of this unplanned, chance moment. While sitting before an airport café window responding to client emails back in California, I notice a Lufthansa 747 speeding down the taxiway. This is the moment – this is why I am spending these few extra hours in Germany. I immediately ruffle through my backpack and grab Myles. He and his classmates will get to see a 747 in Germany. Once again the picture isn’t perfect, yet it captures a moment. Commemorating unique moments – a lost art in personal photography revived one random morning in Southern Germany.

The Emperor Has New Clothes

Now I’m aboard a train – the Renfe Media Distancia to be exact. I’m enroute to one of my favorite places in the world (Xátiva) and I’m taking Myles along for the journey. So far, he’s been seen in Montenegro, Croatia, Italy, and Germany, and now he looks different. His clothes have changed. The original envelope with his laminated “flat selfie” arrived 4 weeks after it was mailed, while I was in Italy. This laminated version is much easier to carry around and I have made it a point to take it everywhere I go during my last two weeks here in Spain. I want to share one of my favorite countries with Myles and his classmates back in Chicago.

Over the next two weeks, we’ll climb a mountainside to visit a castle in Xativa, take a 4-hour high-speed train down to Sevilla and visit the beautiful Plaza de España, and enjoy random walks to and through Turía Park here in Valencia. Along the way, we will stop for afternoon cortados and gelato (yes, it’s helado in Spanish but these particular ice cream shops serve Italian ice cream). How many second graders can say they have experienced a European trip like this? And never would I have imagined that I’d be offered the chance to provide such a unique experience to the younger generation.

When I decided to leave my corporate job back in 2011, I dreamed of one day starting a pop-up language camp, as a way to connect kids from different parts of the world to teach each other about their languages and culture. Though that dream has yet to materialize, I have been able to aid and inspire the younger generation through my annual flight scholarship for aspiring female pilots. Just like a picture, my dream will always be there to spark thoughts and action when right moment arises. Until then, I must say that it’s been a pretty humbling experience to share these five countries with Myles and his second grade peers. Before we depart Europe for our annual summertime stay in the Americas, we have one final stop – one final country to share.

Five Final Precious Pictures From Portugal

For all the delays that affected the start of the “flat selfie” project, in the end, it all worked out perfectly. The final date for submitting photos just happened to be our first day in Lisbon, Portugal, our sixth and final city during this late spring stretch. This is our third time in Lisbon and we know its various cobblestone curves and gentle gradients well. Less than 30 minutes after arriving to our 2-day humble stay, we head out the door to capture a few final moments with Myles in, arguably, one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals.

For the last couple of weeks in Spain and Italy, I was able to avoid the hoards of tourists but in Lisbon it is pretty much impossible. The city, albeit well-deserved, is flooded with foreigners in nearly every inch of its city center. If they aren’t stopping for random “show time” moments in the middle of the square, next to an expensive storefront, or beside one of the numerous monuments, they are streaming down to the magnificent waterfront. I’m once again dodging crowds and their selfie sticks, all while trying not to be blinded by the sun beaming off the white-stoned sidewalks that illuminate these streets.

Five final precious pictures snapped in this picturesque Portuguese capital. The final one taken in front of a spectacular blue government building surrounded by a small moat. For a moment, I ponder simply letting Myles fly out of my hand, taken by the breeze, to land softly into the current and float away with the sea. He’s seen a lot in these last 4 weeks and I have been honored to serve as his eyes to the world – a world far away from the streets of the Southside of Chicago. Instead, I decide to dispose of his likeness in a more ecologically-friendly manner, while I walk along the waterfront marinating on the final email I’ll send back his school to show my gratitude for partaking in this awe-inspiring 4-week assignment.

Life as Performance Art

“Want to bring the camera?” asks the instructor. …No, I do not. For starters, I’m not doing this to show other people. And even if I overcome my panic, I’d be more worried about filming than admiring the scenery. I learned that with my dad when I was a teenager: we hiked the Matterhorn and I stopped every minute to take pictures until he fumed: “Do you think all this beauty and grandeur can fit in a little square of film? Record things in your heart. It’s more important than trying to show people what you’re experiencing.” – Linda (main character) from Paolo Cuelho’s Book “Adultery”

Generally, things in life that are easy or abundant are not as meaningful. Things that make an impact, leave a lasting impression, are those that are unique or difficult. Having traveled to six countries in Europe over these last 4 weeks, I’ve been able to observe people in everyday settings and once-in-a-lifetime moments. Perhaps it is the confluence of these two separate situations via the digital realm that has begun to cloud one’s perspective on what is truly meaningful.

It seems these days that everyone is on stage and has to be ready for their “showtime” moment at all times. In the constant quest to post, like, and repeat, I often observe people in the everyday setting of supposedly enjoying a coffee with friends at a local café, turn that moment into a modeling session using the café as the backdrop and the drink as nothing more than a two sip prop. Unscripted moments in life soon become scripted, polished, and projected all to show perceived perfection. As soon as photos are posted and shared, the scrolling and swiping return, along with the anxiety about how many likes or “thumbs up” will be received for this most recent “masterpiece.” And then, the cycle begins again immediately after it has ended.

But what’s the story? What’s the message? ‘Is it simply that I’ve made it, to this place or bought this item, and it’s my duty to show the world how amazing I am?’ ‘Is it simply that I’ve seen so many other people during my dopamine-induced fits of scrolling and swiping do or acquire these things and I have to follow their lead?’

The irony regarding this period of individual-based consumerism is that it is designed to make us all believe that we are unique and different, yet in doing so, we are all following the same trends and behaviors. Followers masquerading as leaders – it sells. But it also slights.

It slights us in during our supposedly unscripted moments in life. It turns every mirror into a Snow White symbol and every camera into a bell signaling us to change into scripted behaviors that shift the focus of the moment. In that shift, we are no longer experiencing the moment for ourselves – seeing, listening, feeling, and absorbing the subtleties of life – we are simply performing. We become more consumed with our own image than that of the images around us. And we lose sight of the moments made, lessons learned, and future tales to tell.

“Record things in your heart” doesn’t necessarily mean take fewer pictures. To me, it means staying within the moment and allowing the unscripted moments in life to carve their place in your mind, deep into your soul. It’s about being present enough in everyday settings to recognize that they are all once-in-a-lifetime moments – moments to commemorate, captured for tales later to be told.

The irony of the “flat selfie” project for the second grade class is not lost on me. In a way, the name is cute and the idea interesting. Yet, I wonder about the long-term impact on this generation as they grow up with the normalized behavior of a selfie. I fear they will learn to see the camera as a bell – a director’s “action!” clapboard – rather than a magical memory collection tool. A device primarily used to polish and project a perfect self rather than one to capture and commemorate life outside of self.

Neverthless, you can’t spell the word selfish without “selfi” – leaving no surprise as to true root of the “showtime” moments we now unfortunately witness in everyday settings. The question left to ponder when looking back over a lifetime of photographed moments may be whether our collection – our individual snapshots of one thousand words – will tell a story that is predominantly selfish or selfless.

Read more Tales from the Nomadic Adventure and find out where we’ll be in the coming months.

1 Comment

  1. DJMoeMoe
    December 28, 2019

    Been a while! I loved that deep dive on observing the digital photo taking evolution and yes.. i wanna take a picture of every GOT corner in Dubrovnik and sink my teeth on that giant burger!

    Reply

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