Limitless

My heart is warm with the friends I make,

And better friends I’ll not be knowing,

Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,

No matter where it’s going.

– Edna St. Vincent Millay

What is it about trains?  When an author, poet or screenwriter wants to make us feel an  indescribable yet tangible emotion, they need simply pen the word “train.”   Just typing it floods my mind with memories of my youth and dreams of adventures yet to come.  The mere utterance of the word or sound of one passing evokes both a childish excitement and a melancholy longing for the past which coexist in a way only those who love trains can understand.

Trains have always held a romantic place in my memory, starting in my youth as our dad would put my brother, our mom, and me on the Southern Crescent to visit our grandmother in Mississippi.  I can still see the conductor leaning out the door in his formal Southern uniform and cap yelling “all aboard for Tuscaloosa!” The smell of the diesel engine mixed with the fresh air of the South that attacked our senses as we ventured from car to car is etched in my memory.  The vastness and uniqueness of the land I will always love first appeared to me through the rectangular windows of the Crescent as strangers around me became friends.

I’ve traveled millions of miles on airplanes.  I’ve undoubtedly logged hundreds of thousands of miles in cars, many while trying to get lost on country roads where I may stumble across a subject to photograph.  Why am I not moved by those events the same way I am traveling on trains?  I find it fascinating the mode of transportation that cannot turn left or right, is bound by steel, and must deliver us from A to B along the same route each time, is the one that leads our minds to dream most?  I have no answer.  The late photographer Diane Arbus said, “A picture is a secret about a secret; the more it tells you, the less you know.”  Perhaps our fascination with trains are like photographs.

If anyone needs me this week, I’ll be in Bratislava, Slovakia, and Budapest, Hungary.  I’m taking the train.

 

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Hidden Treasure

The late photographer, Dorathea Lange once said, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people to see without a camera.”  As I wander the streets of Prague with or without mine, I try to see.  I think my camera has taught me to do it better, particularly when it’s not with me.  It’s easy to miss some of the treasures that hide throughout a city filled with so many landmarks, historic buildings, and beautiful landscapes.  I have made it my goal to find them all.

One of the things I love most about living here is that travel around the city can be slower and more deliberate.  I ride the tram.  And I look.  I walk a lot.  And I see.  It always amazes me how slowing down opens my eyes to things I’d have otherwise missed.  So often in the world these days we tend to rush from one thing to the next, with the “one” or “next”- work, school, theater, the game – defining our existence.  Life in Prague reminds me that it is often the things between “one” and “next” that make it special and valuable – conversations, discoveries, smells, sounds.  I frequently forget the “one” and “next,” but the little secretes and hidden treasures stay with me forever.

The statue above sits inside a small courtyard, just meters from Charles Bridge.  Tens of thousands of tourists walk by it every day on their way to see the bridge or from another tourist attraction.  Few, if any, have ever stopped to notice it.  The day I noticed and photographed her, I wasn’t on my way to anything.  I hadn’t come from anywhere.  I was just there, slowing looking, deliberately living.  What a nice secret to discover.

Life of a City

What defines a city?  Is it the architecture, landscape or history?  Or is it the people who live there; the descendants of prior residents and others who immigrated there for some reason or another?  As those who have seen my previous posts know, I’ve spent a significant amount of my time in Prague looking for her beautiful landscapes, buildings, and sites to reveal themselves to me in special ways.  While I love doing that, it is getting to know, even if just for a moment, her residents that truly enriches my life.   There is something revealing in talking to someone who has not only lived in, but actually “lived” a city.  I find that only through connecting with them can I really start to understand a place.

When I travel to new cities, I frequently visit flea markets.  I don’t go there for the trinkets or treasures, but for the people who want or need to sell pieces of their history.  I’ve found there is almost always a story to be told in their faces.  Last weekend, I wandered around the Kolbenova Flea Market in Prague.  It was the last day the market would ever open in that location, so it felt somewhat special.  At over 50,000 square meters, it was one of the largest such markets in Europe.  In my endeavor to find interesting subjects to photograph, it did not disappoint.

Someone once said, “There is an eternal humanity that crosses through all people, and it’s often more interesting when it’s about struggle – not about people with champagne glasses.”  I believe this to be true.  My life is always enriched when I take the time to meet and talk to people, and particularly when they are among the “lesser” class.  For me, they are the greater and higher class, because they exude humanity.  So many people today follow and are fascinated by those with “champagne glasses.”  For me, real humanity is found within those who have less.  As I wandered, I talked to numerous sellers in the market.  Because many were from an older generation, most still spoke or understood Russian.  The ones who didn’t and I still managed to communicate through hand signals and a special language that seems to exist between seller and buyer in the remote markets of the world.  In each instance, after getting to know each other, my new friends agreed to be photographed.  Most even posed for me.  The great photographer Sebastiao Salgado said that a subject must give you a portrait, you cannot take it.  I was honored when these interesting men gave me theirs.

Each time I stop to meet someone new, especially those who others ignore, I find that my life becomes infinitely more meaningful, if only for a moment.  I always walk away asking what life lessons are being imparted through these brief encounters.  If I’ve learned anything, it is that often the simplest are the greatest, the poorest are the wealthiest, and the least count most.