This is where my thoughts go.
People I've Met: Havana 2019
I am a prize fool. And my near distant future and the hope of any of comfort outside of sleeping on the hard orange plastic chairs at Jose Marti international airport is in the hands of a 17 year old girl. Daichely is the daughter of my host’s friend. When I figured out my mistake - that I had another night left in Havana with no accommodation I was coming back from the beach with only enough in my pocket to pay for exactly half of the cab ride to the airport for tomorrow. There was still a crust of salt and sand stuck to most of my body when I found the note that I needed to gather my things and be out - "and by the way you owe us 9.50 for bottled water and beer." I was mortified - add an extra layer of shame because I was also filthy - the sand pressed into my skin which made my panic shower even more breathless and time consuming. I did my best to rinse off quickly and wash the sand down the drain, wiping up the excess, with plenty still on my skin, my mind and stomach tying themselves in knots. How could I have been so stupid, so messy?. A quick exit and some quick groveling and my host says her husbans has a friend who's apartment I can stay at. I follow him through Plaza Vieja, knowing that I probably don't have enough money to pay this person. I was hoping I'd run into my old neighbor Roberto so I could ask if I can crash on his couch - here in Cuba my best bet of getting ahold of someone is hanging out at their usual haunt and hoping they happen to be around so this plan was already unsound. Up three flights of cracked staircase, knocking on two wrong doors and finally being redirected by neighbors - all the while being followed by a small gang of chihuahuas by the way - we arrive at our location. Daichely answers the door and she could be the daughter of any landlord home in nyc but thank god she’s the daughter of the one here - fortuitously just outside of Havana vieja. Brown skin girl, she moves with music in her body. From the moment I looked at her I knew she’d fight for me to stay. I saw she took pity on me in her smile. Not saintly pity more like - "this dumb american girl got herself in trouble, pobrecita" kind of pity. She immediately turned on a fan and the air conditioning and negotiated that I could find money to pay for my night there later - tomorrow even. I took to this empathy like a stray dog in a thunderstorm. Her mother shouts from the kitchen -tonight daichely!- she tells me not to worry. A teenage girl growing up in Cuba - she may never see another country, may never make enough money to own a car, on a bad whim of the police could be taken to the station and questioned for having a casual conversation with me in the street (this exact scenario had happened the night before, my friend mikan walking away grimly saying to me over his shoulder as the police walked him away “nothing ever changes in Cuba”) she’s telling me - a relatively pampered New Yorker in comfortable shoes - not to worry?? , I can see she’s made up her mind to help me. I question if I deserve this kindness. I hate myself for having things she doesn’t and might never have and accepting her hospitality. I see she has strength and resolve far beyond her years and probably mine. I tend to be stoic when it’s time to solve a problem- all the emotion hits me after. She writes down the address and shows me how to use the keys one more time - three turns to the left to open- before walking away for the night smiling in a terry cloth tube top and shorts and waving over her left shoulder. My sigh of relief is instantly accompanied by tears I can’t control and I’m glad no one is around to see. I can’t believe just how lucky that was. Tearing through all of my bag I find just enough to pay for the night and buy a pizza or ham on bread from a street vendor and and shudder with relief again that I won’t be hungry or wandering the streets tonight. That I’ll have a bed to lay in tonight. A fan even. I look through my bag for gifts to leave - a bottle of pink nail polish, some much coveted over the counter pain relief, perfume samples to thank her for this incredible act of generosity and think about how back home I have a niece her age who’s only concerns are math and how many shifts it will take serving burgers at McDonald’s she’ll have to work to pay for the dress she wants online.
(Short story based on the song Martha Tom Waits)
The old man crumpled the pale yellow paper in his twisted, arthritic hand and pushed it off the edge of the table with shame disgust. He sat in a moment of brief satisfaction before cheapening the victorious pause by dropping to his knees as if to pray and searching the dusty floor for the balled up paper. He smoothed it out carefully, his breath sharp and tangled in his chest. Seven numbers and one word - a name: Martha- scrawled our in tight, shaky handwriting. He’d finally found her and now his nerves were shot. Raw courage wasn’t going to be enough. He took the cigarette from behind his ear and lit it with a match, took two deeply satisfying puffs and threw it into a glass of water. It went out with a tss. His daughter didn’t like him to smoke and he knew all hell would break loose if she smelled even the faintest whiff of nicotine on him. He couldn’t believe he’d produced such a cautious, worrisome daughter - or that he was being regularly chastised by his own offspring.Time just takes everything from you, one thing at a time.
Christ, he really could use a smoke right now. He looked at the phone. Martha. The movement of his heart in his chest was impossible to ignore. It had been so long -Jesus, it’d been YEARS- but still it would break his heart if she treated him like a stranger - or worse like an acquaintance. They were so close, they were right up under each other’s skin until they weren’t. Young man’s hubris, the question of what was out there, a legacy wishing to be made. They’d fallen apart. His eyes stung when he thought of the wasted years. He’d loved his wife plenty but you never get back that feeling of someone loving you before you were ever fully yourself. Loving the raw undried earth of you - loving you for just your blood And bones and thé belief in what you could be, what you might become. The kind of love that looks at a poor man with nothing and sees a king in the making. That love made you believe in yourself. You wouldn’t be where you are now without it, but you left it behind once you started to believe in the things it saw in you.
He paced. The floor creaked. Dust mingled in the shaft of light coming through the window. The telephone was sitting in that shaft of light, it looked almost holy. Maybe he should pray? Nah it’s been so long, he wondered if God was even taking his calls anymore and then chuckled at himself at the thought. Back to the task at hand. What if she didn’t answer? What then? Would he keep calling? What if she never answered? They were in what polite people trying to soften the blow of aging call “their sunset years”. A list of all the quietly terrifying reasons why she might not answer raced through his mind. Then the more horrifying thought that she may be perfectly fine and still not answer - even worse.
In his youth he was foolishly unafraid of anything. « you live every day and you die just once! » he’d joke with before diving headfirst into the next adventure. « It gives me heart palpitations when you say things like that. » he’d never admit it out loud but he loved that she worried about him. It made him feel important and dangerous - the way men were supposed to feel according to all the movies he’d seen and books he’d read. Martha had used words like « impetuous and capricious « to describe him. Said being with him was like being at the bottom of the ocean - beautiful, full of life....dangerous. Jesus she was smart. Why hadn’t he seen it? Well... he did. He saw it. It’s not like he didn’t notice. But she had grown familiar. He was stupid enough to believe that was a bad thing. He was middle aged by the time he realized how much he searched for her in all the wrong places - in the perfumed sheets of other women, in the bottom of his nightcap, in the daydreams he’d had on his lunch breaks. She’d never left. Of course by then there was his wife and child that stopped him. That’s an old story now. He was an old man now, alone aside from his daughter’s infrequent but dramatic visits. He picked up the phone with a trembling hand. God it was so beautiful back then. He began to dial. Christ, he needed a drink but it wouldn’t mix with his heart pills. It was ringing. His withered old heart threatened to cut its way clean out of his chest. A long pause. Someone had picked up. He became frustratingly aware of his breath. It was her. It all came back bursting open like springtime at the sound of her “hello”. Three more times “hello? Hello?? Hello is anybody there?”. He caught his breath and cleared his throat. “Hello....Martha?”. A long, stale silence. God, there was a long, screaming lifetime in that silence. And then, like a rose opening up all at once her voice came through the other end “.....Tom? .....Is it you?”. His eyes filled with tears and his leathery hand gripped the phone tighter. He sighed deeply - “Yes Martha. Yes it’s me.”
"What do you need to Know about Japan? Deep deep waters...the first time I came here it was like - It was a transformative experience It was a powerful and violent experience like taking acid for the first time. I often compare the experience of the first time going to Japan, going to Tokyo as being what Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend must have felt the week that Jimi Hendrix came to town." - Anthony Bourdain
Chapter I: On A Dime
It took me 2 long days to get from my 3 bedroom in Queens to Shibuya crossing. A 7 hour flight followed by a missed connecting flight, an overnight in Seattle that turned into dumplings with old friends, an 11-hour flight to Narita and 2.5 hours of being lost on the train until finally, finally - I was hugging my friend on the busy platform of Shibuya station. My relief, however, was clouded by one little annoying thought nagging at the back of my mind - that this, the only person I knew in all of Japan- my translator and host for my trip - would only be with me for another day and a half. "Yeah so....my internship didn't offer me a job and I have to leave the country on Monday." was the response I got to my excited/exhausted "I'm an hour outside of Narita" text I'd sent from between the snack cart and a sleeping woman. He told me he'd leave me his house keys and that he was sure I would figure it out and I'd be fine. Of course, I indulged in 5 minutes of "crazy time" on the plane where I came up with every scenario wherein I would NOT be fine just to get it out of my system while the fussy woman in a neck pillow in the seat next to me slept on my shoulder. Lucky her! So calm and carefree sleeping on a plane-stranger while I'm inventing in my head that I'll be mistaken for a loitering homeless person while wandering the streets because I'm lost and my phone is dead and I look dried out and seedy from the plane. After my mind had exhausted itself with my mania I had a profound moment of clarity. I told myself that I would simply have to say yes to everything that came to me on this trip because I would otherwise be resisting and fighting the trip, setting myself up for frustration and discomfort (which is how I ended up saying yes to a 20-minute interview for some popular Japanese television show where they asked questions almost exclusively about my teeth.)
In two days I went from knowing one person in Japan and staying with my friend in the suburbs of Tokyo to knowing five and staying with a new friend in the middle of Shinjuku. Funny how close you can get to a stranger over a quick drink and a hot meal. My most memorable experience was traveling outside of the city to have hot pot at a friend of a new friend's house. Although his friend is loud, boisterous, a little raunchy and and has very American tastes in music and entertainment, our host is the exact opposite. He is quiet, good-natured and straight-faced, and from what I've had translated to me - a quick and acerbic wit. He speaks no English. He doesn't care that I don't speak Japanese. He calls me over by my name and speaks to me pointedly and intensely while everyone else is roaring with laughter at his insistence and translating for us as I just smile and nod - afraid anything else would be impolite.
"He wants to know where you learned to use chopsticks. Now he wants to know if you have a boyfriend or a husband. He says he can learn to be funny if you'd like that. He wants to know if you're okay with older men - he's 23". The overlap of Japanese and English and laughter, which is, of course, universal, was persistent in this group. "I just picked it up over time. I'm single. I like funny men. Tell him that doesn't make any sense and that I'm 28." He pointed to himself and happily repeated "Japanese Boyfriend?" until I nodded along. This is always what I've called "real life" - moments of connection, visceral experiences - food, laughter, flirtation. Being invited into someone's space. Making the unfamiliar feel like a bit of home.
Soon I was able to navigate the train systems of Tokyo without panic. I sat down to Chanko Nabe served by retired sumos while tapes of their glory days played on a tv on the wall and received a nod of approval after clearing my plate. I wandered the streets and parks on my own, occasionally being stopped by other foreigners, happy to see another stranger traversing a strange land. Even when we don't speak we are reinvigorated by the sight of eachother. If they can I can.
By my last night in Tokyo I was comfortable enough to go with my new friends to Golden Gai - a dense cluster of tiny bars - usually with room for no more than 5 or 6 people. We piled into a wood-paneled bar that played nothing but David Bowie and served bratwurst with your drinks. Just us, the businessman, and his hipster friend. Reminded me of "All Along The Watchtower" - the joker and the thief - both already red-faced and drunk. The hipster guy leaned across my friend to speak to me in Japanese. By NowI knew enough to greet him convincingly enough that he continued before my friend stopped him. "Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you like Japanese Gentleman?" he asked me, dissolving into laughter with his friend at each question. My friends, in an attempt to help me out, jumped in and informed him that I had a boyfriend in Japan. He only got more intrigued and excited, widening his eyes and grinning - "you have a Japanese boyfriend??? You don't speak Japanese?? He doesn't speak English?? So its just BODY LANGUAGE??" everyone fell into stomach tightening fits of laughter. No matter where you go some interactions will always be the same. Past that everyone was too drunk to translate much for me but by that point you kind of know where everything is going. People talk about their jobs, their families, their likes and dislikes, music, sex, what they wish things were like, trash talk their friends that are in the room and then laugh and hug them, call their wives ogres and nags and then drunkenly show you lovely pictures of them and go home to them just like they do every night. You go to any bar anywhere and a least one of these conversations is happening. And that's what I love - the common threads.
I time traveled the next day 13 hours back into the past and slept for 12 hours to find that even after I lived what felt like a lifetime of crisis, confusion, bad language skills, uprooting, getting lost, desperate translations, and the unfamiliar - everything was exactly as I'd left it. There's something about knowing you can return to have your fill of the same that makes you more hungry for the other, no matter how scary and uncomfortable. You do it to know you can. You do it to gain perspective, to fall in love again with the world, to remind yourself there is life beyond the end of your own desk or dinner table. You do it to feel alive again.
Capter II: Keep The Quiet Out
One of the first things I noticed about Shibuya crossing- made famous by Sofia Coppola's cult classic film Lost In Translation - wasn't the 40 foot tall LED screens, robot restaurants, or the crush of foot traffic - it was the unexpected quiet. Not a car horn, not an excited shriek of recognition between friends, no couples in heated debate. Just the continuous low hum of murmuring conversations and the quiet swish of tires over smooth asphalt. Incredibly still - eerie to my New York sensibility. I ask my friend if it's always this quiet."yes, that's kind of a weird thing about Tokyo - sometimes it just gets really silent."
I am, well I can be, a fairly solitary kind of person. An observer by nature, I find a little pride in my ability to sit back and enjoy life going by without trying to tamper with it too much. I like that I can enjoy a movie, dinner, a long sit at a crowded bar in my own company. But in Tokyo, I felt distinctly lonely. The heavy quiet of the backstreets, the societal agreement against small talk, loudness, general chaos, fidgeting, leg crossing, PDA, excessive physical and eye contact made me realize just how western my brand of solitude truly is. I know how to be alone when there's a chance at quick conversations amongst strangers, passing glances, a quick smile or joke. That kind of alone, to me, feels full of opportunity. But this was a new brand of silence I didn't know how to prepare for. In the times that I was on my own and away from the new friends I had made under my unique circumstances the only people I talked to most of the time were convenience store clerks and baristas and although there was a language barrier, I found myself grateful for their gracious but fleeting attention. I felt, at times, like a ghost wandering through a strange utopia - everything so organized, so safe, so clean, efficient, polite, removed, a tinge of neatly packaged anxiety underscoring everything.
There is a word in Japanese -"hikikomori" - which describes those who, for varying reasons, would rather carry out an isolated existance - specifically those who have not shown interest in socializing for at least a year. In an article for National Geographic, photographer Maika Elan observed “there are always two sides that oppose one another. It is both modern and traditional, bustling and very lonely. Restaurants and bars are always full, but if you pay close attention, most are packed with customers eating alone. And in the streets, no matter the hour, you find exhausted office employees.” That took some getting used to. In fact, many times when I was alone, members of Japan's expat community would catch eyes with me and insist that I add them on social media and reach out. "It's very lonely here" they would tell me. They knew the quiet I knew. And they avoided it too.
As rich and stimulating and beautiful as I found it there, it was also all too easy to go full days without talking or making eye contact. Rushing through the crowds of Harajuku or through the serenity of Ueno park, eyes focused downwards at the spotlessly clean street, or over the heads of strangers - fixed on the sloping roofs of faraway shrines or the cadmium-yellow leaves of ginko trees in the distance. That time in my own head, did though, give me a new perception of personal space.
All of the thoughts that go unsorted in my day to day life because of constant overstimulation came flowing out all at once. I fought that quiet for a long time, anxious to be alone in this new and profound way. I listened to headphones, chatted incessantly to my acquaintances, tuned into every little automated voice - though I couldn't understand what they were saying. In the west, we don't have a concept of what the Japanese call "fuinki" - - a presence, something special, the mood, the atmosphere. Here silence can mean just as much as speaking, and dedication to a peaceful atmosphere is universally understood. The emphasis is on a quiet existence and social discretion that simply does not exist in the west. I felt like my head was wrapped in gauze for the first couple of days, somehow numb but hyper-aware of myself. I don't remember when it was exactly - I think sitting on a bench at Jingu Gaien - that I heard the quiet for the first time. By that I mean, the first time I let it in and I didn't feel lonely or overwhelmed, the first time I wasn't begging my phone to light up with a notification to distract me from my solitude. And I understood.
I chose to shoot Japan in a way that reflects the "aspect to aspect" style of storytelling that is popular in manga/anime that is meant to give the reader a sense of the environment. I showed these to a friend from Japan and he said they made him feel "gentle and nostalgic". High Praise.
"I have a deep love for the people of Cuba. Throughout a lifetime of world travel, rarely have I been to a place where I’ve witnessed so much grace, spirit, dignity, and wonderful humanity" - Peter Turnley
Chapter I: Siempre Hay Un Ojo
The first time I went to Cuba I was faced with a ton of questions - “why do you want to go there?”, “Is it even legal?”, “isn’t it dangerous?”,”what if you can’t come back?” The thread was constant and bottomless as a leaky faucet that keeps you up at night. I didn’t care. I didn’t care because I knew how few people actually knew at all what they were talking about. I supposed that there are two images of Cuba that most Americans who have never been there have; the daiquiri laden playground of Hemingway’s day - smiling locals, the Caribbean sun stinging your skin while you smoke cigars with strains of Guantanamera floating through the air. Or they think of what is known as “The Special Period” -famine, destruction, and desperation - an island of trapped, starving people - angry and questioning with no answer or catharsis. Trying to survive and waiting for the tide to turn. I looked into the eyes of my questioners and saw the mix of anxiety and desire to fill this curiosity from a safe distance, through me. You do it first. There was still no part of me that did not want to go - I was looking for an escape, running from my stagnant life in New York. I needed something to jolt me out of a depressed period. Things had dominoed - heartbreak, disappointments, being laid off, an accident that nearly destroyed my childhood home, people that called themselves friends distancing themselves because I’d lost my spark. I felt pretty disposable in those days. Thank God I went to Cuba.
I had some of the most human experiences of my life in Havana. I have seen brightly colored, gorgeous french architecture, crumbling and dilapidated, neighbors shouting to eachother from the street or windows - one happy to lend what the other needs. I’ve spoken with old men - talking to me as if I were their daughter- who have lived through the isolation and starvation, and watched their country fall into dilapidation. Saying to me with wide smiles “Alex, have you ever eaten marinated fabric? I have. There was nothing else. But look at me now - I am healthy, I am happy. I refused to quit. Here, we help each other. Do you know how healing it is to know that if you reach out there will be a hand there for you to hold? People need eachother.” You can't help but take a message like this to heart. I know the Cuba you love, I know the Cuba you fear. I have seen the best, I have seen the worst, and I love them both deeply.
I was determined to make my second trip to Cuba mean something - not just to me - but for the people there. I was so gratefully indebted. At my very worst I had come here and was surrounded by such caring grace. It had been the first time in a long time I had felt seen in a way where no one was looking for the nearest exit when I showed up. People were happy to see me. I wanted to give that back. My friends and I took art supplies - colored pencils, watercolors, paper, books, and vitamins and donated them to Cuba Libro and Muraleando, spending the day there and seeing the passion of the volunteers running each organization, talking to kids about their time there, watching them practice a play that Victor had written, going to a music lesson, and a ceramics study. I had a polaroid of us and one of the founders of Muraleando - Victor - all standing in front of the Vigin Mary statue made of cement and car parts that welcomes guests to the arts center - but he loved it and asked to keep it so I thought it was better left with him.
I still didn’t feel I’d done enough. How could I? There’s so much to do. Love is always like that - it comes with a special bitterness.The longer you look into something you truly have love for the more you'll find you want to do. The more you love it, the more you want to fix and the more you come back to it the more you'll fall in love. The cycle is inescapable. And it should be, things are always changing and there is always work to be done.
In addition to donations, I made sure I spoke to as many people as I could about their lives, what they wished, and how they were feeling. What I could do to put money into the pockets of poeple living there instead of feeding the government machine that - sure, is renovating parts of Havana, but will ultimately serve a community of foreign tourists and undoubtedly introduce the same imbalance of power between locals and visitors that the revolution had attempted to escape. I wanted my photographs this time to have more soul, so I got closer to people. I showed them my work. I spoke way more Spanish than I knew I knew and I hugged and kissed everyone I saw more than once like family. I was so happy to be back. And I'll be happy to return.
Cuba, an island you can see the edge of from the Florida keys, for many Americans, is shrouded in mystery. We know the ideas they have about it - the lush tropical playground, the brightly colored communist nation. Mojitos, smiles of beautiful women, classic cars driving through crumbling neighborhoods where your entertainers go home after they've smiled and placated you in your fantasy. The truth is much more satisfying, human, and complex, and there is no way for me to sum it up here. Just like anywhere else it is full of great minds, great talents, art, culture, important ideas and contributions. Just like a person, it should never be whittled down to assumptions or its best and worst traits to represent the whole. You have to know it for yourself. I can promise you without doubt or reservation that I’ll keep going back every year as long as I can.
Chapter II: Tocororo
"One must endure without losing tenderness" - Che Guevara
I am always amazed at the way people in Cuba keep promises so effortlessly. Today in New York it is, in my opinion, far too accepted to agree enthusiastically to plans, text excitedly for days about it, and completely disappear moments before it happens. People are used to it. In fact - people make a big deal about it if you make a big deal about it. I hate it. In Cuba you can walk up to a cab driver in the afternoon, say “meet me in this spot tomorrow at 6am” and at 6am, without any followup or additional prodding, there’s no question that he’ll be there for you. So at 6am, still dark outside, Andy was waiting for us at the end of Peña Pobre, leaning against a 1942 Chevrolet and grinning a gold toothed smile.
He drove us two hours to the countryside, the sun rising over Havana, lighting up the spray of the waves breaking against the Malecon. My mind is quiet. Eventually the city streets made way for long stretches of palm lined highway that we shared with motorcycles, trucks full of farmers on their day to work, horse drawn carts, hitchikers, men slicing through weeds with machetes, and the occasional cow - all of this bucolic scenery contrasting with Andy’s grills and pirated copy of the latest Ariana Grande album blasting through the new speaker system jammed into the rusted out dashboard of his ship of a car. We reached Piñar Del Rio - rows of bright little houses with thick bunches of heady-smelling orange flowers spilling over the fences, dogs and chickens in the yards. People lining up to fill large plastic jugs with water from a truck. We went down a long road and at the end - a group of straight-faced cowboys. I kid you not - cowboys. Well, Gauchos. I am not, physically at least, a delicate woman. I always used to want to be the kind of petit and fragile thing that made hearts melt once they laid eyes on me but it was never me. That day, there, I was happy for my six feet and serious face because I knew it hid how chicken I felt striding up to these amused looking men giving us all an easy once-over in their denim and leather. The thing is - I grew up in the country, I’ve spent long days looking after horses, gaining the trust of animals twice my size, and spending long hours sweating and covered in mud, manure, and whatever else I picked up in a day’s work….but that was years ago and I know I’ve since gotten soft. I never felt so New York, bourgeoise and out of place. There’s a big difference in trying to fit in at work based off of status, money, and having your finger on the pulse of modern music and all that other superficial nonsense. I knew I was being judged on my perceived ability to do things that matter - work with my hands, not whine when I get dirty, pick up on animal instincts, coax life out of land, and above all have a sense of humor about all of it - I knew because I remember giving people the same look they were giving me. Funny how memories never really end.
Our guide is Juan, better known as Pupito. He brought out a dark horse with a bad attitude named Lucero - my favorite kind to ride - and we all started off through the Valle de Viñales, occasionally passing goats, dogs, and other riders. I hadn’t felt peace like that in so long.
Four hours of horseback riding did me some good I had long needed. When I first moved to New York I would go to the park every warm afternoon so I could be barefoot in the grass. My body remembers its connection to what’s real. In Viñales I saw, for the first time since I was working at a barn in Ohio every Saturday, the value of the kind of undervalued, unglamorized work we feel we have come so far from. A kind of stillness of mind that only comes through a life of simplicity - movement of the body, green air in your lungs, the sun on your back. Moments felt longer, cradled in the valley the world felt wilder and safer and faster and slower and wholly at peace.
Then we met Juan Carlos in front of a small farm house surrounded by banana trees. He smiles at Pupito and says “beautiful girls! You keep these three and give the tall one to me.” he says grinning at me. He sidles up next to me and tells me with a wink “you , know, my wife is a mullatto” and I tell him with a grin “you know, you have a type.” At his age he’s harmless. Juan-Carlos has to be somewhere in his 60s but is still clearly full of mischief and vitality. He is unmistakably capable of hard work, but has a fantastic humor and levity. Every time he catches me photographing him he smiles wide and gives a thumbs up. I love people like this, I don’t know how anyone doesn’t. He teaches us about growing tobacco, how you can get three different grades of cigar from one plant, how to roll cigars, dry coffee beans in the sun and pound the husks off and let them blow away in the wind before loading the beans into a crank operated grinder. He cuts cigars for us and dips them in honey and we all smoke for a while before riding off for lunch. I loved photographing these men over lunch. I’ve never seen men who were at the same time so obnoxiously confident and good natured. “Stay like that! You’re so good, you look just like a model” - I would say, clearly being hyperbolic just to let them allow me the photo, but then the answer would come “I know!” and I’d snort and say “never-mind, I think you’re hideous” and they’d laugh and pat me on the back. Nothing taken too seriously.
I think about that day a lot - days when I question myself, days where I think about what truly makes me feel alive my mind's wandering always brings me back here. I wonder how much this way of life will contract as time moves forward and the demands of the modern world shift further and faster than anyone doing slow and simple work can keep up with. There are a lot of things in this world that we take for granted because of our assumptions that things will remain the way we love them forever without help from us. Nothing is like that. I don't know how to end this story, but I guess that just means it isn't really over.
Before I even cross over Rue Gilford I can feel the warmth of the scene inside of Maison Publique, a local and revered gastropub, via the window facing the street. The duality is incredible - the the glowing invitation of the bar in front of me through glass and quiet nightfall and a 30 degree wind at my back. Regulars huddled over the bar, laughing, chefs running back and forth in their open-format kitchen, slicing charcuterie, taking kitchen torches to oysters and putting final flourishes on top of caramel pot de creme, people smiling and hugging upon arrival. It’s warm, convivial, charming, and... terrifying.
Oh my god. What did I do?! Why on God’s green earth did I do this?! Oh, that’s right, because I stayed up binge watching travel vlogs and thought “wow, I wish I was the kind of person that did stuff like that”. And now I am. Now I’m the witless American too afraid to try and order food in french and now I’m outside, freezing my fingers off outside of one of Montreal’s best restaurants. The place isn’t even intimidating, it’s lovely; it’s the idea of being in such a lovely place by myself that’s flooding me with inky anxiety. The whole reason I took this trip was to get away from everything and everyone I knew and see who I would be against a new backdrop -What I acted like, what my thoughts looked like without the white noise of outside opinions. Now here I am- New Yorker on the loose in the quaint, quiet streets of Le Plateau and all of the sudden rendered meek and scared and shy. I can ignore a man playing African drums and shouting at me about diaspora at 9am, or even skirt zealots, perverts and extremists on the regular without spilling my coffee- but being present enough to order gnocchi and spend time with my own thoughts - that’s scary.
I don’t think enough of us are actually brave enough to sit down and let our minds turn over without an end point or daily prompt. It’s hard to let the mind exhaust itself of all it’s thoughts - good, bad, ugly, indifferent, until we are left the that humming silence that monks devote their lives to and tech start up dudes and lululemon moms devote 5-10 minutes and maybe a big retreat to if they’re like, really brave. Okay, that was me being trite - in all seriousness, 5-10 minutes in a quiet mind can feel like an eternity. Sorry tech guys and lulu moms.
Hyperconnectivity is the cornerstone of modern living. But there’s a certain subtlety and serenity found in a person who doesn’t look to others for mindless chatter and unrewarding interaction just for the sake of it - just because we’re afraid of being lonely. Fact is - lonely can creep up anywhere; a dull melancholia that tugs at you between episodes of whatever you’re binge watching, when you see a happy couple kissing on the train, sometimes-most surprisingly and insultingly- when you’re surrounded by your friends at a dinner party. You don’t expect it, but there you are, feeling far away.
If I was a tough, adage-spouting boxing coach type I’d say something here like “you come into this world alone and that's how you leave it”. Well, yes, I guess that’s the truth - the truth in hard fluorescent light, but the truth nonetheless. Depending on which way you look at it, this can be one of the greatest melancholies or most profound freedoms of life.
Thats where mindlessly scrolling through our phones comes in handy but oh- wait- I don't have international service. Really is about to be just me and my food my god when’s the last time anyone did that? Probably when I was 9 but Sunday dinner was at least with family chit chat… in english. “Bonjour, t’es seul ou tu attendrai pour un autre person?” the hostess, oh god she knows, she knows I’m a midwestern NYC transplant trying to pass as Canadian - the jig is up! “Bonjour, non je suis seul. C’est possible a mange au bar?” - okay, that went well hey wow she didn't respond in french but thats because she's clearly terrible. No, Alex, unreasonable thought. Okay. Up next, the apathetic looking bartender who knows he wont have to try too hard because he’s above six foot with cornflower blue eyes and good bone structure. I hate him. I love him. My interaction with him goes similarly except this time a little more smoothly since my practice run with the hostess. Somewhere around my second glass of wine a chef shouts across the bar to me “ how’s everything?”, and I notice that I’ve crossed over from loneliness to contentment so seamlessly I didn't even notice it. It feels good not to consider anyone else’s opinion but my own when I respond with “Beyond perfect” . She retreats into the kitchen, I retreat back into myself, in my newfound contentment, both of us smiling.
One of my favorite books is “A Spot of Bother” by Mark Haddon. My copy of it is beat up and fraying from being thrown into bags and thumbed through on the train. I remember the main character, George,a stoic man whose mind was slipping out from under him musing to himself in a rare moment of clarity that “At twenty life was like wrestling an octopus. Every moment mattered. At thirty it was a walk in the country. Most of the time your mind was somewhere else. By the time you got to seventy, it was probably like watching snooker on the telly.” I remember breathing a sigh of relief that someone had finally put it into words. Well, at 25 I’m resting right between wrestling the octopus and walking in the country. Imagine that.
I’m walking up Mont-Royal. It’s a gentle, winding road up the mountain. Wet canary-yellow and and halloween-orange leaves stick to the ground and paint the sloping sides in a way both muted and brilliant. Low murmurs in french, the click-and-wizz of bike gears changing, the jangle of collars of dogs in motion, and the air is just cold enough to encourage forward motion to generate body heat.
It’s been a few days now here in a new city on my own and I can evenly say that the nerves have subsided. Attachment to expectation of other people’s reactions has left me - a luxury I rarely afford myself. French, no French, intrigue, dismissiveness, friendliness, brusqueness, I just let it all go now; I forget it as soon as I walk away. I find It’s easy to be this way when things are unfamiliar - too much of your attention is rooted in the sound of the mountain, the color of the leaves, the uniqueness of a quiet city. Back New York, my chosen home where everything has begun to become familiar I find it a little more difficult to feel this fluid. Back in Ohio, the home I was raised in its near impossible because my town is small and everyone is in each other's pockets from the time you board your first school bus. There's a perpetual haze of assumed expectations surrounding familiar places.
I don't know how much time has passed by the time I get to the top of the mountain, but I know I've listened to the same album at least twice through my headphones. Of course, the only reason to travel to such heights is to look back down at how far you've come and see how alien the ground below looks. Ive always loved looking at things from far away, being able to take away the details and just look at how still and solid and fragile everything seems at a distance. From the top of the mountain the city I've been set loose in like a nervous chicken is, in fact, looking pretty sleepy and unintimidating. Maybe I'm closer to the walk in the country than I thought.
The Feral Self
“Alex, you should try watercolors again, and take yourself seriously this time”- My friend Marcus in my college dorm room my junior year at Kent State University. I was surprised at his easy and confident appraisal of the half of a face I’d painted hastily on a paper plate that was taped to my dorm room wall. Although I rarely put his advice into practice, I’d always appreciated knowing that if I sat down and did the work that I could be an artist. It's one of those lazy thoughts that creeps up when I'm doing other things. I occasionally imagine myself surrounded by brilliant watercolors and textural acrylics - but there was always another party, another hang out, another networking opportunity where I might encounter the right handshake that would pull me out of the pit of myself and carry me up the ladder of success and deposit me at that great mythical center-of-the-universe place where all the people who are excellent with people toast to their success. I always did love thinking from time to time, though, that I had a budding talent that, when I chose to shine a light on it, might grow into something worthwhile - after I’ve conquered the social scene.
Fast forward to 5 years later and here I am sitting in the tucked away room I've rented just off of Pampineau for 27$ a night and unwrapping the new watercolor block I'd picked up before the trip - you know, just in case I was gripped by a rush of artistic genius despite my lack of practice, skill, or training. A few streaks of cobalt blue later and any hope of instant genius has subsided and I've dived into this the same way 3 year olds do- but now with the learned consciousness that if I judge too harshly what I'm doing I'll stop doing it at all - and then there will be no growth to speak of. So I delight in watching the colors spread and the paper ripple from too much water, tossing it aside and starting on another. I could never imagine myself behaving so erratically or with such singular -boarding-on-lunatic level focus and childlike brutishness in a classroom or around my peers. Even some of my most treasured and trusted friends don't know the careless animal I occasionally have to turn into. The beauty in solitude for things like this - creative ventures, bizarre relaxation habits, secret behaviors - is that it allows us the space to become the untrained version of ourself that is otherwise kept quiet for the purpose of polite interaction. Alone we can venture to our primordial instincts without a trace of self-consciousness or guilt. Back in New York that part of me is tucked away an uncomfortable amount of the time, as even the most private moments of your life are somewhat public thanks to a necessity for roommates, close transportation quarters, and endless foot traffic. You are rarely without a witness. Thank God for small getaways.
I don't break the kit out again until I'm on my way back to New York. Everyone looking out these train windows looks like an Edward Hopper painting. They’re not trying to, frankly, they can’t help it, gold shafts of sunset light cut through the windows and the moving backdrop of the Adirondacks. I can't tell you how much I love looking at people - admiring the way they move when they think no one is watching, seeing sweet and quickly passing glimpses between couples, furrowed brows over notebooks. I also can't tell you how glad I was that no one sat next to me so I could have those thoughts and - that time to paint to myself.