Thursday, 19 November 2015

We'll Always Have Paris ©

During my three and a half years in Paris, whenever I'd have spare time at the weekend I'd take my camera and walk the streets for hours taking photos. I'd upload them to Facebook, partly as a diary to document my time in Paris, and partly to show off my adopted city. I called the album Dando Vueltas en Paris (wandering in Paris) from a line in a Shakira song. I liked the way it described my meanderings through the city.

I started with the Eiffel Tower. As the world's most visited monument, it is possibly the world's most photographed as well. Not bad for a steel eyesore with an initial shelf life of 20 years! And yet despite the thousands upon thousands of photos of the Eiffel Tower, I love its variability. Just last week I caught an unexpected glimpse of the Tower in full view as I made my way to the modern art museum. I'd never seen it from this angle and I was as excited as I was the very first time I saw it. The vantage point, time of year, weather, time of day and skyline can all paint a very different picture of the Grande Dame, which may be the secret of its endless fascination.

I moved on to Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur and the Louvre. Followed by the parks: Tuileries, Monceau, Buttes Chaumont... take your pick. Next to catch my attention were the Métro stations. The Art Deco Abbesses is my particular favourite but I'm always excited to leave the Métro at the futuristic copper Arts et Métiers on line 3, the elegant Cité or the funky wordsearch-style Concorde on line 12. I love the changing seasons, especially springtime when blossom fills the trees and the air turns warm. People watching is always compelling. And the beauty of the city can catch you off-guard when you least expect it. After the rain, the pavements and trees shine bright, facades glow in the setting sun and quayside lamps glitter in the waters of the Seine. The city is best after dark. The Eiffel Tower lights up and sparkles on the hour in celebration. This is the City of Lights after all.

There are many cities I love but none is so effortlessly enchanting as Paris. It is difficult to find a space in this city without its charm. Maybe it's the péripherique that contains it within a confined and easily manageable space. Maybe its the residents, in continued awe of their city. Maybe its the storied past made famous in film and literature. Paris may be a capital but it doesn't feel like London, New York or Berlin. It's smaller and its arrondissements cultivate a village feel. I always felt safe in Paris. It is always bright, always bustling even late into the night. During my time in the city, I didn't hesitate to walk on my own at night or go for a run before bed. Many of the photos in Dando Vueltas en Paris were taken at night.

This week I have grieved for my adopted city. A place that I am proud to call my second home. A place filled with great friends and cherished memories. I moved back to the UK last year but I still feel Parisian when I walk its streets. I still feel I belong there. Paris may change now and last week's events will become part of its history, darkness in the light. But Paris is still Paris. We'll always have Paris.

Some of my favourite photos of Paris from Dando Vueltas en Paris:

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Friday, 31 July 2015

Tales from Argentina: Buenos Aires ©

As the tip of the sun creeps over the horizon, a sprawling checkerboard of life rises from slumber. Porteños open their doors and the city of good airs rushes in; a heady mix of heat and danger. The hands of the clock do their rounds and the sun rises in the sky – an orange flame, searing the vivid band of colours in La Boca, as notes of Tango melt into the heat and dancers float forwards. A tale unfurls: sagas of lovers lost and desires unfulfilled. The whisper of the good airs lingers in your midst as you dodge cracks and golden lamp-posts – opulence blending with struggle in a hauntingly beautiful melancholy. Proud Porteños parade the glittering streets of Palermo, commanding attention, while the sweeping white of Puerto Madero bridge lures us deeper into our tale of Tango. Evening creeps forward and rush-hour traffic careers down the pulsing artery of Avenida 9 de Julio at the heart of the city. Dusk approaches and the flame edges west, as the bell tolls in the Recoleta Cemetery and the Casa Rosada burns blood red in the evening light. The sun has called time on Buenos Aires but the night is young. The good airs reverberate with the hum of traffic, pulsing club beats and myriad tales hidden beyond walls and eyes. And all the while, the haunting tones of the Tango rise into the city, melting into the cracks and fusing with the hearts and minds of its people. And we watch in mesmerised silence as the dance glides to its conclusion, scenting the air with intrigue and loss.

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Monday, 27 July 2015

A Weekend in April ©

The guitar strumming began and my new friends broke into song. Effortless but chord-perfect they picked their way through a repertoire that ran the full gamut from the Beatles to local folk. The impromptu gig was punctuated with banter and wit; conversation was lively and thought-provoking; songs alternated between deeply familiar and wholly foreign. One struck a particular chord and has never left me; an intangible reminder of that strange and unexpected encounter.

I’d met my new friends just a few hours earlier in a local steak joint. Friendly and undaunted by the gauche timidity of my teenage self, they accepted me readily and easily. I can still picture the strip lights of the restaurant rendering hiding impossible. Everything seemed new and exciting, and though there was nothing unusual about the place, I struggled to take it all in. It was no wonder then that, a few hours later, in the living room of a strange house, I should feel such a thrill. Who were these strange new friends? And why were they interested in me? Questions traded with discovery and the hours melted away. The night ended in the hour before dawn as I learned the Cumbia dance, feeling uncoordinated and embarrassed; exposed and exhilarated.  Heading back to the hotel room, everything looked the same as before; everything was as we had left it. And yet something had changed; I’d had a glimpse of strange new territory and something had shifted.

The next day we headed to a gathering with our new friends. En route, they took a detour to a pretty lakeside region in the mountains. Autumn leaves were falling but the sun was brilliant in the bright blue sky. They led the way and we chatted like the best of friends. The truth is that I barely knew these people – but they were interested; they were generous; they had depth and joie de vivre. 

A few hours later we arrived at the gathering where large groups of strangers clustered in the garden. Their insouciant body language hinted at people among good friends. And yet there were so many of them: thirty or forty easily. I found myself alone and wished I could have stayed with my new friends in the mountains of Carlos Paz. As I brooded, a girl made her way over, and picking my way through the exchange in broken Spanish, I was once again struck by interest, warmth and sincerity. I confided in her about my concerns for the trip; my fear of meeting new people; and my reluctance to break away from the old. “All experiences are good experiences in the end,” she told me. “Even a bad experience is eventually a good experience. It’s always better to have had the experience than to have not had the experience.” Her words were so profound for me in that moment that I have never forgotten them, even 11 years on. I don’t know her name and I have no recollection of her face but her gentle encouragement has always stayed with me.

As night fell, the clusters of groups formed one large circle and a fire was lit at its centre. My new friends picked up their guitars and began to strum. In a group of well over thirty Argentines, I was saluted and welcomed as they began Hey Jude. The music continued as the sky faded from pink to indigo, and indigo to black. As the numbers dwindled, stars peppered the sky and the warm air turned sharp with cold – we were in the mountains of Córdoba after all, and winter was on the horizon. I had journeyed 8000 miles to be here and yet these kind, special people felt like very old friends. The weekend too felt strangely familiar as though it had dusted the cobwebs off a part of me so long-neglected, I had forgotten it existed.

As I boarded the coach and took the 12-hour journey back to Mendoza, I had time enough to reflect. And I think it’s then that I realised that home is a feeling not a place, and that I may have found mine in Argentina.

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Friday, 30 January 2015

Los Angeles: City of Angels? ©

Rising up on the California coast, the metropolis of LA stretches for miles. Concrete and glass unfurl into the hazy distance, interspersed with pockets of mesmerising beauty and glamour. Epicentre of all things showbiz, LA’s reputation precedes it: home of Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Malibu; location of endless film and TV productions; magnet for the beautiful, the famous and the very rich.  Less a city than one big movie set, less a population than a posse of aspiring actors and singers, there’s nothing quite like LA. But far from being a living embodiment of the American Dream, the dark side of the city is never far from view—and the gulf between those that have made it and those that have not seems wider than ever.

Hovering above LA, my first glimpse of the legendary city was row after row of houses and the aquamarine of the ubiquitous southern California swimming pool. The landscape was a dull yellow, the sky overcast. As we pulled into the city proper, we saw dusty side streets and cracked paving slabs. Scrawny palm trees soared upwards to greet high-rise flats. A stroll to Hollywood boulevard revealed a strip of neon lights, retro diners and street vendors selling their wares. The Walk of Fame stretched the length of the road with Marilyn Monroe plonked unceremoniously outside the local McDonald’s. Homeless people roamed aimlessly. There was a seedy undercurrent; a flip side; a harsh reality.

A trip to Mulholland Drive, Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive promised to reveal glitzy LA so we hopped onto a tour bus and off we went. Up a few shady side streets and across a few intersections and we were suddenly looking up at the current abode of Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes. Nestled in the rocky mountainside, their futuristic home was all glass and curving roofs, just high enough to frustrate prying eyes. We circled the hairpin bends of the mythical road with Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’ blasting through my head as we passed surprisingly normal homes belonging to the LA glitterati.

Up ahead we pulled into Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive. Gone were the cracked pavements, gone were the withered palm trees. This is the flip side of the coin. Glittering cars sat in the shadow of palatial homes, each more stunning than the last. They lined the roadside in every colour of the rainbow with no apparent security and seemingly normal inhabitants. Except that their neighbours were Hugh Hefner and his bunnies reclining beyond the high-rise walls of the mythical mansion, and the address read Rodeo Drive. How’s that for street cred’?

Further along the road, we trundled into the Rodeo Drive made famous in Pretty Woman. Shiny boutiques lined the roadside and tourists took pictures as a handful of white-clad women marched out of Gucci bearing bags. The Beverly Wilshire Hotel reared up ahead. Flags the size of football fields hung above the opening and striped canopies decorated the windows. Doormen stood to attention. Ferraris and Aston Martins rolled past. But the surrounding streets and boutiques were strangely quiet, absent the frenetic buzz of Hollywood.

Anxious to enjoy the ‘complete’ LA experience, we made our way to the famous Sprinkles Cupcakes shop, ducking in and out of boutiques and keeping our eyes peeled for A-listers. Sure enough, no sooner had we parked ourselves outside Sprinkles than Kendall Jenner of Kardashian fame stepped out of a blacked-out 4x4 and a posse of photographers lunged towards her—and us as it eventually turned out. After much chasing, ducking and diving, Jenner was papped in her white-denim ensemble with myself and my friend sitting proud in the background. An appearance in the Daily Mail sidebar of shame—you couldn’t make this stuff up!

Our next stop was Santa Monica and it couldn’t come fast enough. As we pulled onto the quaint-sounding Ocean Drive, I was instantly smitten. Our hotel was a charming Art-Deco building facing a line of palm trees and the Pacific. Clutching our cameras, we excitedly made our way down to the beach. I’m not a swimmer or a sunbather but I love the sea. There’s nothing like the rhythmic sound of the waves and the water stretching out into nothingness. As it happened, the sunset that night was spectacular. Our time in Santa Monica moved at a slow pace as we adapted to the small-town feel of the place. Days were spent strolling the palm-lined streets and the boardwalk, checking out the shops, and eating and drinking—the food here is great.

We had pencilled in Venice for our penultimate day. I don’t know what I was expecting but the name put me in mind of the elegance and style of its Italian counterpart. Not so. LA Venice is edgy and grungy. Colourful—and often beautiful—graffiti decorates the walls, the smell of marijuana laces the air and skateboarders fly past. At Muscle Beach, body-conscious LA rears its head once more as the city’s men and women exercise in the open-air. You can’t help but wonder if they’re auditioning in their heads, hopeful of getting their big break from a passing movie producer. The sense that you’re on a live movie set never quite leaves you in LA, but that’s the beauty of it. The rest of the day was spent enjoying a glorious brunch at Joe’s on Abbot Kinney and the subsequent purchase of an insanely overpriced Swedish cuddly toy in my mimosa-fuelled haze.

The sunset on Venice Beach that night was pink-, purple- and orange-streaked magic and the highlight of a fascinating trip.

My impression of LA before this trip was glamour, money, fame, luxury and a healthy dose of plastic surgery. And LA is all of those things. But from my (limited) perspective, LA did not appear a cohesive whole, but rather, a collection of jagged pieces that didn’t quite fit together. There was a sense of empty spaces between parts, symbolic of the huge divide in the city.

It is, however, a fascinating glimpse into a fading era and the beginnings of Hollywood, before fame-hungry cast its shadow. It’s an envy-inducing idea of the way the other half live. And it is, essentially, a very beautiful place that averages 329 days of sun per year. And if I had US citizenship, I’d move to Santa Monica tomorrow.

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