Throughout my varied journeys abroad, there have been moments, not only of sheer beauty in ancient sights, intricate architecture, fascinating people, and exotic foods, but moments that protrude in my memory like a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. There are so many souls traveling that we are bound, at one point or another, to intrude, step on, crush, break, knock over, anger, poke, squish, smell or otherwise offend a fellow traveler or resident of the country in which we are visiting. The real test in our character is in how we take these occurrences in stride, learn from them, and appreciate the humor that life tosses us like a crunchy milk bone.
London has long been a favorite destination of mine starting at an early age with annual visits to England with my grandmother. I continued the tradition and visited London again during college with friends from my university. Jet lag had always gotten the best of me and being overzealous to begin my city exploration process the very next day after my arrival has had a price to pay. My two friends and I hastily purchased theater tickets to see Agatha Christie's Mousetrap at the Palladian Theater. We scored large with securing front row seats at the performance. As we watched with intrigue through the entire first two acts, we all three simultaneously began to lose consciousness as Mister Sandman took over all our motor control and we slipped into a sleep induced coma, twitching and drooling onto one another in plain view. Having slept like the dead through two solid acts, we finally awoke startled as we heard the roar of applause. The cast were taking their bows and it had been an excellent play. We were disappointed in our behavior but thought, we will read about the performance in tomorrow's papers to see how it all turned out. The London Times did in fact, have a review. It was quite the descriptive assessment of our evening. The article, printed boldly on the front page of the paper, as we had attended on opening night show, read "The play was a complete success, the performance of the actors was indeed superb, despite the sleeping Americans on the front row." Bucket list item #512 was now checked off. I had always wanted to be on the front page of a newspaper.
Eating out can sometimes pose unusual problems. While in London on another trip with my older brother, we decided to try out some ethnic restaurants, trying desperately to escape the doldrums of British culinary arts that were, unfortunately, not so appetizing during the 1990's. London has since become a gastronomic paradise and overflows with delectable cuisine. We ate a complete Italian meal near Victoria Station in a quiet, unpopulated restaurant. This should have been our first clue. Since then, my number one rule is to never enter a restaurant or café unless it is filled with people and difficult to find an empty table. Only then do we know it is inhabitable. After my Italian meal in Britain, I requested a cappuccino to top off my spaghetti carbonara. As I took my first sip, something in the foam ticked my nose. At first it seemed like the barista had added a small curl of chocolate to top off my fancy drink. How creative was this man to add my favorite sweet to a hot drink. No, it wasn't the foam, and it wasn't a tasty bit of chocolate. It was in fact, wings…insect wings, wings that were still attached to a cockroach. This was a very unpleasant moment. Never have I been served a "creepy crawly" as a garnish! I shrieked and loudly told the waiter about my discovery. He quickly offered to make me a new cup of joe. There was not even an apology. I did not leave a gratuity. I don't think I ate much the next day. I couldn't shake the feel of the tickle of those wings off my upper lip. Later in the week, we decided to avoid Italian and try a Chinese restaurant near our hotel. The food was quite good and after the main course, we quickly moved on to dessert. My brother ordered a frozen item called a Chocolate Mint Bomb. It had evidently been in a sub zero fridge for quite some time and was frozen so solidly that it was impossible to eat with a spoon. The concoction had a glossy chocolate and slippery shell on the outside and boulder-hard ice cream on the inside. In frustration, my brother took a steak knife to the bomb to crack it open and to our great surprise, it shot off his plate like a hockey puck in a Montreal Canadiens game. The dark brown flying saucer landed three tables over on an unsuspecting couple's plate, precisely centered in a saucy Peking duck. For the remainder of the week, we stuck to fish and chips.
Most of these memorable moments seem to happen during a meal. While in the Netherlands, on a daytrip to Delft, I was enjoying a warm schnitzel and latte in a sidewalk café, giving myself a much-needed break from exploring the town. I was seated underneath the famous Delft bell tower of the Oude Kerk (old church) nicknamed Oude Jan or Old John, a Gothic Protestant church in the old city center. Its most recognizable feature is a 75-meter-high brick tower that leans about two meters from the vertical. As I cut into my hot meal, the waitresses at my café began screaming in horror and people in the market below the tower all were staring up at the tower from which I had just descended. Police cars arrived and the entrance to the church was cordoned off with yellow police tape. Instinctively, I affixed my zoom lens to my camera to get a closer view. The man who had just minutes before been admiring the cityscape from the summit of the tower, who stood next to me on the highest level, was now precariously perched on the railing of the tip top with his limbs swinging wildly as he was preparing to commit suicide by plummeting to the square below. Minutes seemed like hours as we all watched and waited. The young man eventually was coaxed down, carted off in a straight jacket, market stalls reopened and all was well in the old center that day. Although upsetting to watch this, I went on to a healthy dessert after my schnitzel in celebration of life.
Not all my indelible moments have occurred while eating. I must say that Venice is one of my top ten favorite cities in the world and the photography in that city is intriguing and always gives me a head rush. On a trip to Venice a couple of years ago, I decided to concentrate on gondola and gondolier shots. I found that by standing close to the bridges, I could get a very appealing perspective of the gondoliers as they passed beneath me and emerged from an old stone bridge. I had captured a first shot of one such gondolier as he began passing through a bridge, and decided to sprint quickly to the opposite side of the bridge to catch a shot of him coming out. In my haste, I knocked over a blind man who had just started ascending the bridge steps. His name was Giovanni and I apologized profusely. Giovanni had fallen down the stairs dragging his white stick behind him clicking on every stone step as he descended. I didn't realize I had such brute force in my step. A shop owner who knew him came to his immediate aid and the man was unharmed. I got my incredible photos from that bridge, but never do I look at those photos without thinking of Giovanni.
On another trip, while in the gorgeous old city of Granada, Spain, I recall a homeless man sitting on the ground with a couple of lovely dogs listening to Madonna's "Material Girl" on his portable stereo. He was dressed in a pair of formerly cream-colored shorts and sporting flip-flops that had been sewn together innumerable times. I had thought that I was dressed casually. He had written boldly in large letters on his cardboard sign, "Please give generously. I accept the following", as he proceeded to list the various forms of potential donations to his livelihood such as cash, gift cards, weed, clothing, favorite foods, mobile devices, first generation Ipads, and dog biscuits. He offered me a taco. I politely declined. Even homelessness, it seems, has evolved as a true profession.
One spring, I decided it was time to visit Amsterdam to witness the place where the world's most treasured bulb plants are harvested for the rest of us gardeners to enjoy. I was wandering aimlessly along Amsterdam's sunny canals photographing the old stone bridges and rows of gables houses when I noticed a sign atop a drinking establishment called the "Banana Bar". Oddly enough, I had heard of this place from a former colleague who had visited Amsterdam with friends for a bachelor party. He had told me of the things that happen inside the Banana Bar, unmentionable things. I am still going to mention them here however. Story has it that bananas are placed inside a woman's private areas for men to enjoy their desserts. Naturally, condiments such as whipped cream are applied along with gooey syrups and such. My face: those of you who know me are already picturing it and those of you who don’t, well…use your imagination. Their menu also featured a various assortment of other drugs listed directly under the "Appetizers" section. The Red Light district looks strangely normal during the day, although I was met with hostile faces when the prostitutes spied my big camera. From what I have learned, the women of that district often work regular day jobs, like mortgage broker, proctologist, or dental hygienist, and don't want to be photographed doing their night jobs. Before I left the Red Light District, I decided to have lunch in what seemed like a very pleasant sandwich shop. As I said before, most of my memorable moments have occurred during the course of a meal. I began to relax at a table as I perused a menu. The petite blond waitress strutted over to my table and asked what I would like to eat. I ordered a cheeseburger and salad. Then I watched her as she walked away. She reached into her deep apron pocket, took out a pouch of white powder, placed it on the bar, and began snorting lines of cocaine. No wonder she was so thin. No restaurant food for her. I then noticed that she didn't wash her hands afterwards and was handling dishes to bring to my table. I knew that drugs are legal in Amsterdam, but thought I would find a different café in another part of town, someplace where dishes didn't come with a light powdering. I told her I had forgotten that there was someplace else I had to be, made my excuses and left. It was a bit awkward since I had already ordered my meal, so I decided to act a bit demented as if I had recently suffered brain trauma, and she seemed less offended by my sudden departure.
One would never imagine that the sheer act of photographing fresh produce would incite vitriolic rage, but in Lisbon, Portugal it can. I was zooming in close with a macro lens on a stack of very red, glossy peppers at one of the largest, most diverse markets in town. So deep was I in my creative zone, that I did not hear the shrill screaming of a large boned woman in a red apron behind the counter in rapid Portuguese. I looked up to see her wielding a meat cleaver aimed at my camera. She came running after me, apparently quite upset that I had photographed her peppers, artichokes and eggplants. Boy those Portuguese! They have a different word for everything! I fled the scene as fast I was able, ran up a flight of stairs and hid behind a large pallet of raw fish. Simple childhood games like hide and seek can certainly come in handy in adulthood. She searched fervently for her perpetrator for several minutes before retreating back to her station at the cutting board. I never quite understood the cause of her rage. Perhaps she had a personal relationship with each and every vegetable, and she felt that they would be exploited in an unknown art gallery or internet site. I'm still not certain. The moral here is: if you photograph vegetables in a foreign market, do it surreptitiously or not at all.
As Samuel Johnson once said, "The use of travel is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking of how things may be, to see them as they are". Yes, travel trauma can occur anywhere and it often does. It stalks, lurks and waits for the unexpected traveler. I have concluded that it is actually nature's way of making you look like your passport photo.