Monday, 25 November 2013

Aboard the Bernina Express ©

Shortly after the announcement that we would soon be crossing the famous Landwasser viaduct, I dived across the train and hung out the open window as we rushed over the spindly bridge towards the opening in the mountainside. The wind roared in my face and I felt quite the intrepid explorer as I snapped the scarlet carriages curling their way across the tracks. It was Friday afternoon and my friend and I were travelling towards Poschiavo, a small Italian-speaking town in the farther reaches of the Graubunden canton. Starting out in Basel, we had already passed through Zurich but it was the enigmatic face of Switzerland that was beckoning this time. Lakes lined the tracks and the Alps reared up in the distance cradling tiny villages miles from civilisation as the little red train crept on.
World-famous, the Bernina Express route is a Unesco World Heritage site and the stunning viaduct is, quite literally, one of the high points of this magnificent journey. Passing at high-altitude through forestland, snow-capped mountains and stretches of icy blue water, this is considered by some to be the number one train route in the world. Connecting Chur with Torino in Italy, the four and a half-hour trip is best enjoyed through the enormous curved windows of the panoramic carriages stretching up into the roofs of the trains, affording unbroken views of the surrounding landscape. Red as a London bus, the Bernina Express is an incongruous sight at the heart of such unspoilt beauty but as its carriages twist and turn, coiling across the land, it is clear that it works with rather than against the natural splendour.

It was a crisp Saturday afternoon in early November but snow blanketed the earth and the sky hung low in matching white. Our train stopped for five minutes at an isolated station where we spied a wood cabin overlooking the tracks. So removed from civilisation was the scene, it was easy to let my imagination run wild as I pictured the occupant of the cabin clad in fur battling four-legged beasts and other mystical creations in a Game of Thrones-style spectacle. Shortly afterwards, the shocking emerald green waters of the lake caused quite a stir among passengers who scurried about the carriage, noses and cameras pressed up against the glass, gaping in wonder.

I’ve long loved trains. Their far-flung destinations kindle in me the spirit of adventure and the old worldy glamour of the Orient Express and other luxury trains hint at sophistication and utter relaxation. The Bernina Express was high up on my holiday wishlist and it didn’t disappoint. Relaxation, however, is impossible if you’re anything like me and apt to leap up with your camera at the slightest provocation. It’s also very expensive and although the elongated windows of the panoramic carriages are undeniably impressive, the standard carriages are much cheaper with essentially the same view (if you ignore the disgruntled sighs of your fellow passengers, you might even pull the windows down at strategic moments).

Built over 100 years ago, the Bernina Express route is an incredible feat scaling mountains and gently bringing us face to face with the authenticity of this beautiful but isolated part of the world. In the age of stress, a trip into nothingness aboard the little red train is the perfect remedy.

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Saturday, 14 September 2013

Shutterbug ©

I’ve got really into photography over the past couple of years. I remember looking at the photos of some Facebook friends and being amazed at the quality and professionalism. Some of these photos weren’t even photos to me but works of art. I believe that good photography really can stir up emotions as the photographer decides what they wish to evoke and little things like the lighting, the people caught “accidentally” in the background and the tone of the photo all contribute to the end result. When I compared my own uninspired photos to theirs, they seemed a million miles away but then a close friend of mine started “One a Day”: an album of everyday objects and scenes with the intention of seeing the magic in the ordinary and unleashing latent creativity. I loved the concept and began one of my own and it didn’t take long before I became accustomed to seeing everyday life through my own personal lens.

Since then, I have changed camera several times, moved away from Auto mode into myriad and sometimes baffling settings and begun to take much more of interest in photography as a hobby. I have also become passionate about the very act of photo taking and I often find myself rushing impatiently towards the scene of a photograph, anxious to get started. Through a combination of intelligent cameras, diligence and the inspiring photos of others, I have begun to take photos that I feel proud of and am continually amazed what our cameras are capable of if we really use them to their full potential.

I’m now considering a photography course to get to grips with the technical side of my DSLR and start taking people photos, something I’ve always shied away from before due to the trial and error approach I usually adopt. Trial and error is, however, a great way of finding out what works and what doesn’t. Here are some of the most useful things I have picked up over the past couple of years:

1)   How good is your camera? I’ve laughed with some friends over the past couple of weeks discussing how horrendous we’ve looked in certain people’s photos. We’ve all been there. We’re tagged on Facebook, we click with trepidation and are greeted with a less-than-flattering picture from a night out where we thought we looked nice.  Fear no more. It’s not you – it’s the camera! Good cameras have settings that are designed to flatter rather than deform, and they’re not even particularly expensive. I swear by my little Canon Ixus that I purchased a few years ago for around £120 on Amazon.

2)   The settings are crucial. Even inexpensive cameras take excellent photos these days but the Auto setting is only ever going to take what’s in front of you in the cold light of day with nothing to highlight or soften. Explore the settings, however, and you will be surprised at the difference it makes. My Ixus has a brilliant setting where you can highlight or accent one colour and turn the rest of the photo to black and white; this was a great feature to have when photographing London buses or New York cabs. The miniature setting which softens is also great for taking the edge off of a harsh scene. Other settings include black and white, super vivid and nighttime.

3)   Is it straight? It sounds basic but when I look a lot of my worst photos, they’re completely wonky which distracts the person viewing the picture. If you have a flash camera or photo editing software, this can be edited afterwards but either way, before publishing a photo, check how straight it is.

4)   In the same vein, when you look through your lens, what does the scene look like? Is there a dustbin or some other eyesore on the edge of your photo? Has someone hijacked it? Is a huge expanse of grey sky or concrete visible in the photo? If so, zoom, wait until the scene is clear, re-focus and take it again!

5)   Photo editing software may sound like a cheat and maybe it is but it’s amazing what a difference it makes to photos and in all honesty, how likely is it that professional photographers send a photo to a client without fiddling with it beforehand? There is always something that can be corrected and since I’ve started using iPhoto I’ve had a lot of fun altering the colours and changing the tone and feel of my photos. Again, I don’t really know what I’m doing and it’s all trial and error but it is an excellent tool.

These days with fantastic phone cameras, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and the like, everyone is documenting their lives and people are taking much more of an interest in photography. While Instagram has its critics, I think anything that encourages people to experiment with their creativity is great and I’m sure many an amateur photographer will turn professional thanks to their exposure on social media.

Happy clicking shutterbugs!

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Saturday, 24 August 2013

365 Days ©

365 days in the year,
Most pass by in a seamless blur.
But not all.
Some stand out like ships on the horizon,
Nearing the shore.
Birthdays and anniversaries
And the day you met.
The day you left.

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Thursday, 25 July 2013

A Midsummer Night's Dream ©

In Scandinavia, life feels different. The sky hangs low and there's a feeling of isolation and separation from the rest of the world. Streets and parks are peaceful, absent the masses of people crowding the more southern reaches of Europe, and for once, you can actually hear yourself think.

Iceland had been an ethereal place, reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings with its lush green landscapes and gushing waterfalls. Its capital Reykjavik, situated on the water, was serene and atmospheric, the midnight sun serving as a reminder of our proximity to the arctic circle. So when I read Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, I became entranced with the idea of eerily beautiful Swedish landscapes and began to take more of an interest in the country. A few years later, I was boarding a plane headed for Stockholm, guidebook in hand and a whole load of expectations in my head. I needn't have worried: Stockholm is just about the most wonderful and unique capital city that I have ever visited, where poised and beautiful Aryans roam or cycle the streets, navigating the many bridges linking the 14 islands of the archipelago.

One third water, one third greenery and one third city, nature is woven into everyday life here and many Swedes bear surnames inspired by the great outdoors (Millennium hero Mikael Blomkvist's surname translates as flower-branch). This fundamental connection to nature may go some way to explaining the Swedes' inherent happiness; and perched on a city bench one evening last week, watching the glistening and gently swirling waters with the breeze rustling through the trees, my own preoccupations seemed a million miles away. I couldn't imagine a more lovely place to live.

Picture a world where the summer sun lingers into the late evening, before returning in the dead of night to cast its warm rays over the city below. City-dwellers rise, bathed in the morning light, as the waters around them shimmer with an iridescent purple. Yachts, boats and liners wend their way through the waterways ferrying natives to their summer houses or leading tourists into a white-knuckle ride of an adventure, cruising the archipelago at breakneck speed. The pastel hues of the older city buildings gently line the banks as the tourists arrive in Gamla Stan to watch the changing of the guard before wandering the shady alleys and taking refuge from the midday sun inside the ornate Storkyrkan cathedral. Squares pepper the island where impromptu performances from local artists entertain the throngs of people lining the streets.

The undisputed touristic centre of the city, the old town of Gamla Stan is just a short stroll from the calming oasis of Djurgården: an extensive mass of parkland where ducks and geese waddle the banks of Lake Isbladskärret and stretches of colour fill the flowerbeds. Locals take afternoon naps while others jog the perimeter where restaurants and museums are nestled quietly among the trees. Crowds converge on the eponymous ABBA museum, a newly-opened shrine to the band, with an insightful Swedish music Hall of Fame.

The Modern Art Museum on nearby Skeppsholmen and the extraordinary temporary Jean-Paul Gaultier exhibition in the adjoining architecture museum are two of Stockholm's biggest attractions, showcasing the Swedish savoir-faire in this area. South of Djurgården, groups converge on the steep, winding roads of Södermalm as they head up towards the panoramic views of Normalm and Vasastaden. If they were to peer through binoculars they may spy groups of tourists heading to the Ice Bar to enjoy a gimmicky but amusing 45 minute club night in temperatures of -7, or locals dressed to impress, trying their luck at the uber-cool clubs of Stureplan where style is the word. In Södermalm, it's a more laid back affair as Stockholmers sit back with a drink at one of the outdoor terraces lining the clifftop. It's a weekday evening but the buzz warms the crowd as the bars hand out Ikea blankets to ward off the night breeze and the sky turns indigo on midnight.

Summer days are long in Scandinavia and Swedes fill the pavements into the early hours donning shorts and cheerful smiles. Winters in Stockholm are notoriously difficult and wandering the sun-dappled streets last week, it was difficult to imagine a place under the cover of darkness for up to 20 hours a day. If I could sum up the city in one word it would be wonderland - as for whether the same would apply in the depths of winter, i'm not so sure. But one thing is certain, Scandinavia is a place to unwind, take a sigh of relief and appreciate the amazing planet that we call home.

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Sunday, 14 July 2013

Say NO to the Kindle ©

When I was a youngster, going to the library was practically the highlight of the week. There was something so exciting for me about the colossal stacks of books stretching around the room like a labyrinth of knowledge and adventure. The possibilities were endless and I would rush around with glee, collecting books that I would later devour with relish. As I got older, libraries and bookshops would retain their appeal, offering more than just excitement and anticipation, but a certain, inexplicable comfort. To this day, I enter a room filled with books and feel warmth and promise. For the non-bookworms amongst us, this may seem bizarre, yet i’m convinced that many share this feeling. For me, the book, while simply a collection of printed pages, glued together, carries special meaning, bordering on the spiritual for my favourites. And it is for this reason that the prevalence of the Kindle has disturbed me for a while.

On the surface, the Kindle is a brilliant invention and anything that encourages reading is great news. It’s practical, enabling readers to download potentially hundreds of books to take with them on their travels, often at a lower price, and it’s instant meaning no annoying waits for the next instalment in a gripping series.  The Kindle also gives budding authors more chance of developing a readership through promotions and free, or cut-price, versions of their novels. I’ve nothing against film and music downloads and the arguments in favour are strong: so why do I still not have one?

The only answer I’ve ever really found is that, I just love books! I love the physical feeling of them in my hands; I love the musty, inviting smell of an old book and the atmosphere it creates around the story; I love having a tangible object with which to associate my favourite novels; I love the artwork covering the book and the way they effortlessly decorate a room… I don’t just love the reading but I love the book itself.

Giving someone a Kindle book as a gift would have the sentimentality of an iTunes voucher. And you can’t very well lend someone a Kindle book either. Kindle books can’t be passed down through the generations and they will never be picked up by chance. They won’t develop character in the manner of an old tome decorating a living room and thus, they will lack the staying power of an actual book which could remain on its bookshelf for generations. They can’t be picked up, flicked through or dipped into in the same way. They can’t be donated to charity shops or swapped at random in a youth hostel (Memoirs of a Geisha, one of my favourite books of all time was given to me in exchange for the Wind in the Willows in a Buenos Aires youth hostel and will always remind me of that trip). And if the Kindle one day takes over in the way of music downloads, libraries and bookshops – already in peril – will become a thing of the past. 

 If I picture myself as a child, much of the magic of reading was linked to these labyrinths of books; I remember the covers and how they would draw me in, and stumbling upon books by accident because they were sat alongside my favourite authors on the bookshelf. Had a Kindle been placed before me, I’m not sure it would have produced the same reaction. We live in a digital world and sentimentality is a namby-pamby notion that is weak in the face of robust practicality. Yet how many of us would prefer a letter or a postcard to a Facebook message or tweet? How many of us would prefer a book with a personal message to an Amazon voucher?

The Kindle is rising – sentimental bookworms, rebel!

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Wednesday, 3 July 2013

London vs Paris & Other Cities ©

Whenever I visit a city I like to figure it out; put it into a box and describe it in a few words. On a trip to Buenos Aires I remember summing up it up as: like Paris with a bit of Spanish and Italian spirit thrown into the mix and a slice of dangerous for good measure. New York was a whirlwind of film-star magic and mesmerising chaos. And having lived in Paris for the past few years I have a real handle on the elegant, though sometimes-superficial lifeblood running through its veins. But as I wandered the streets of London last week I was stumped; I just couldn’t “figure it out”.

Scarlet double decker buses whizzed past black cabs as hoards of people shuffled shoulder to shoulder down the pavements. At Piccadilly Circus, throngs of people converged at Eros as the iconic billboards flashed in the distance. Weaving my way through the early evening crowd I moved towards my rendezvous on Shaftsbury Avenue reaching the slightly shocking conclusion that historical London was not so different from modern New York.  As Times Square throbs at the heart of NYC, the roads stretching out from Piccadilly pulse with energy and you smell the sweet scent of promise. Manic and chaotic, London and New York are mired in an endless race; Londoners and New Yorkers live life at breakneck speed lest they be left behind and swallowed up by the sea of people streaming down the avenue.

London owes something to New York then, I decided; or likely the other way round given that the history of the English capital stretches all the way back to the second century and its Londinium origins. And picturing the early days of this vast metropolis is somewhat easier than picturing an uninhabited Manhattan island. London lives and breathes history as its very streets catapult you back in time, the iconic London streetlamps casting their amber glow over the Victorian and Georgian buildings as in times gone by. Enter an old pub and witness the backdrop to a million stories: if only walls could talk. History suits London and it dons its years with pride, like a jaunty bowler hat perched on its head. It revels in its history, favouring old-style red telephone and pillar boxes long replaced by soulless glass structures elsewhere in the country; the double-decker buses recognisable the world over for their blood-red coat haven’t changed in a century. The neon crackle of Piccadilly Circus is thus somewhat more incongruous in the midst of ancient London than Times Square in adolescent NYC, but London is a city of contrasts. And while Sepia images of Trafalgar Square and Westminster may resonate more with the historical vein of the city, flashing Piccadilly and its scarlet landmarks demonstrate a certain brashness absent from other cities, particularly my current abode.

Jack Kerouac proclaimed that “Paris is a woman but London is an independent man puffing his pipe in a pub”, and for me, this short quotation sums up many of the feelings that that I struggled to name while roaming the streets of London. Paris and London should be more similar; they are both historical cities oozing with culture, attracting tourists in their droves every year. And yet London felt drastically different, with a spirit more reminiscent of New York. Paris is essentially a tranquil capital city, which is bizarre given its lack of green spaces and reputation for rudeness. Kerouac’s statement explains away the paradox however: Paris is a woman!
It makes perfect sense once you think about it. A man could never get away with covering himself in ostentatious gold but on a woman it’s breathtakingly elegant; the simple London facades are decidedly more masculine than the fancy wrought-iron balconies decorating the front of many a Parisian apartment; and while a red London bus hurtling down the Strand conjures up images of sturdy football players bombing down the left wing at Wembley, such a sight would be all wrong along Paris’ elegant tree-lined boulevards. Come to think of it, a yellow New York cab wouldn’t be quite right either. NYC is male too – of course. 

Save for the jam-packed Champs Elysées and Galeries Lafayette department store (enter at your peril), Paris is free of the aggressive vibe generated by the masses of people crowding the thoroughfares of London and NYC. Paris favours brasseries over pubs; wine over beer; black over red. London tube stations are awash with colour, while Paris metro stops (save a few exceptions) often resemble hospitals with their clinical white tiles. Paris values good taste and sophistication, while London has a down to earth and jubilant core. 

So do London and Paris have anything in common? Perhaps only the fact that the millions of out-of-towners setting up home there every year make it a little harder to pinpoint the characteristics of a Londoner or Parisian. In such cosmopolitan cities as London, Paris, New York and beyond, many people are in transition meaning that the identity of the city owes as much to the bricks and mortar of the city itself as to the people.

After five days in London and many hours of contemplation, I came up with the above, much of which amounts to a superficial overview of inevitably complex and multi-faceted places. Cities are man-made – their lifeblood is humanity, and in that context, Kerouac’s conclusion that cities are people is really not so strange. And though we may try to “figure out” people, we rarely succeed, in fact we usually end up accepting them as they are, aware that a person – or a city of more than 8 million people – will always have something up their sleeve.  

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Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Enduring Love ©

In the past six months I lost my Nan and Grandad within four months of each other. The wheels were put in motion on the first day of the new football season last year; a poignant date given the position that football holds in my Liverpudlian family. Everybody woke as usual but fate was to deal a blow that day, triggering a domino effect that would reach its conclusion on 8 April this year with the passing of my Nan. Within eight months, the world had turned on its head, leaving us with some painful truths and some searching questions.

That nothing lasts forever is an unavoidable reality. Growing up with my grandparents, enjoying my Nan’s cooking – Sunday roasts, apple pies, sponge pudding – watching films and reading books with my Grandad, listening to their endless words of wisdom and passing idyllic childhood days in the country park fishing and walking along the cliffs, I never could have imagined that that would one day be lost forever. People who are with you from birth are part of the fundamental landscape of your life and a world without them is unthinkable. And yet since their passing, I have felt no lessening in the strength of their presence; I can still imagine their voices, see their smiles, remember their facial expressions and mannerisms. I can anticipate their reactions or advice for any problems I may have. This has led me to the conclusion that there are two facets to our relationships with people: their immediate physical presence, and a greater intangible presence, which lingers long after they are gone. When someone touches your life and offers something real and unwavering in a world of temporary friends and endless acquaintances, it changes who you are. That person becomes part of who you are and will stay with you forever.

When I heard that my Grandad was in the operating theatre to have surgery on a broken hip bone, it was a bolt out of the blue. When he later struggled with his rehabilitation, we doggedly insisted that he would be ok once he was home. But the twist of fate that led to his fall pulled him down a one way road and there was no turning back. Every day of our lives we play games of sliding doors; we make turnings, running into chance or brick walls. Every day of our lives we spar with fate and I look back to key encounters in my life and imagine where I would be had I dodged them by a fraction of a second. I will never know if my Grandad would still be with us had he not fallen that day. My Nan was soon to be struck down by illness and I can’t help but wonder if it was part of the Masterplan. Either way, a thousand days of nothing are sometimes just a countdown to that one day where our lives will turn 180 in a matter of minutes.

Two weeks after my Grandad entered hospital my Nan went to visit – as she did every day for four months – with their 60th wedding anniversary card: he didn’t know the day. When he died my Nan wrote to him of their “golden years”. I’ve never known a couple so steadfast. They weren’t overly affectionate but through the years they demonstrated the real meaning of love: taking the good with the bad, supporting each other through thick and thin, being comfortable in each other’s presence. When my Grandad passed away in December my Nan had plans to move on and live on elsewhere but just four months later she was gone too. Devoted couples passing within weeks or months of one another is far from rare. The University of Glasgow published a study on the subject in 2007 and found that for many, losing a beloved spouse represents losing a connection to this world – I sometimes wonder whether my Grandad’s last months triggered this reaction in my Nan but this is one question that will remain unanswered.

But despite all of the uncertainties and existential questions that arise from bereavement, one thing that I remain sure of is that comfort is there in the knowledge of enduring love.

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Wednesday, 22 May 2013

29 months of the Eiffel Tower ©

The Eiffel Tower through my eyes during my 29 months in Paris:

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