Home is a state of mind. I’ve never lived in Lisbon but everytime I go there I feel like I belong.
Maybe it’s the light. There’s a special quality to the light of this city. The way it gently embraces everything. The lightness and openness it creates. I miss waiting for sunrise somewhere in Alfama, as the locals slowly start going about their day around me.
Maybe it’s the people. From my first visit, I felt this easiness of relating to people on the street. Like going back to the place where I was born and wandering around. Nobody would know me after all this time, but I would still feel at home. Strangely enough, I feel the same here.
Or maybe it’s the narrow back streets of old Lisbon. The calm joy of a summer afternoon, when everything seems deserted but, if you stop and listen, you will hear the humming of life all around.
Paris wasn’t love at first sight for me. There was something about it a bit too imperial and well-to-do for my taste. I felt it was lacking humility.
But I learned to love its silences, shadows, and hidden beauty during long walks. Without the usual tourist crowds, this subtle beauty of abandonment and ruin became even more visible.
Abandonment and decay reveal the vulnerability of things, just as they reveal the vulnerability of people. I don’t take any pleasure in seeing the pain that comes from vulnerability, but there is something honest and raw in showing your wrinkles and bruises.
I am in downtown Lisbon. It’s not a photo trip and I don’t have much time. But I have the camera with me. I turn a corner and there’s this amazing back side of a building, with old water downpipes going across the run-down facade. I stop for a second.
Then I see this girl at the window. Her profile is drawn perfectly against the darkness of the room behind her. She’s lighting a cigarette and talking on the phone. I quickly take two photos before she disappears.
It’s only later, when I look at these shots on a monitor, that I see her expression. She’s neither happy, nor too sad. She’s inside her own story. Maybe she’s in a call with her boyfriend. Or maybe it’s her estranged mom. Among all these people carelessly walking by, she’s alone within the bubble of her own life.
With photos – as with many other things in life – we usually try to plan in advance and prepare for the “right” moment. When that moment arrives, we are there, ready to capture what happens. Then we disengage and wait for the next moment. And then the next.
This selective focus has the obvious advantage of building structure and order into an otherwise chaotic stream of stimuli. But it can also make us overlook the potential of everything that happens in between. The potential of all those moments in between what we prepare for and pay attention to.
The in-between is simply a reflection of life, fluid and continuous. Life happening, irrespective of how we decide to categorize it, fragment it, or distinguish between what we think is relevant and what’s not.
That day in Lisbon, there was no planning or preparation. The photo was a spontaneous reaction to what was happening there and then. There’s nothing wrong with planning, but sometimes the most interesting stuff happens outside our carefully-laid plans.
Capturing a bit more of this fluid continuum of life means training ourselves into staying open. Staying awake. Staying flexible. Not hardening too much into our own expectations, concepts, or plans.
Accepting that the plans we make are merely organized intentions.
Acknowledging that value and beauty often travel incognito and that it takes a trained eye to recognize them.
Relaxing in the knowledge that there’s much we cannot control.
Looking at the world with the eye of the absolute beginner.
Being present and working with the situation as it is, not as you have wanted it to be.
Our obsession with high points robs us of the quiet, continuous flow of interesting stuff happening around us.
The photos are slowly turning to black and white before my eyes. It’s a cold and windy January. I’ve made it so far.
It’s not until we isolate that we realize how much we depend on the others, and how much we are connected to the rest of life.
Some activities are obviously social simply because we cannot do them on our own. But even apparently individual activities, such as taking a coffee in the neighborhood coffeeshop, or taking a solo daytrip to get away from it all, depend on many others. They depend on employees, public services, infrastructure and, often, on the kindness of strangers.
As there are so many things we used to do and cannot do anymore, I guess it’s a good time to ask ourselves what are the things we could go without.
And what are the things we really need, the ones we couldn’t or wouldn’t want to live without.
Imagine a place where you feel completely at ease. Where you feel alive. Where you can be yourself – including that part of yourself that you ignored for so long.
Is that place your home? Your back garden? Your secret childhood place by the river? That cozy table in your favorite coffee shop? A remote place deep in the wild?
Each of us may have more than one such place. For me, one of them is hidden somewhere in Transylvania, the place beyond the forests.
“Beyond the green swelling hills of the Mittel Land rose mighty slopes of forest up to the lofty steeps of the Carpathians themselves. Right and left of us they towered, with the afternoon sun falling full upon them and bringing out all the glorious colours of this beautiful range, deep blue and purple in the shadows of the peaks, green and brown where grass and rock mingled, and an endless perspective of jagged rock and pointed crags, till these were themselves lost in the distance, where the snowy peaks rose grandly. Here and there seemed mighty rifts in the mountains, through which, as the sun began to sink, we saw now and again the white gleam of falling water.”
This is how Jonathan, Bram Stoker’s protagonist, describes his voyage through Transylvania as he approaches Count Dracula’s castle.
Stoker’s description sounds flattering, but for me it is painfully clear it’s written by somebody who hasn’t actually been there and does not have any personal connection to the place. It is like a cheap painting of an imagined exotic landscape. Bright colors, clear waters, and snow-capped mountain peaks. Of course, for him the landscape was just a makeshift background for his vampire story.
For me it’s different. It is not a postcard. It’s a permanent mark, a solid ground, a wound, a reason for hope, a concentrated solution of life, bitter-sweet. It’s something I always carry in me.
It’s lying in the sun, listening to the distant sound of the sheep bells as the animals move slowly, eating their way through the high planes.
Taking time among free-range horses, waiting for them to trust me and get closer. Petting their neck and watching the vapour of their breath in the crisp morning air.
Taking a break after a long climb through the dense pine forest, to enjoy the view that suddenly opens in front of me. From up here, I can visually retrace my steps through the wild river valley below me.
Standing at the entrance of a cave, feeling the cold breath of the inside of the mountain. Watching the vapors of the ice-cold river as it disappears into the darkness. This river doesn’t look like much, but it has managed to slowly carve its way through hard rock.
Here at the entrance, facing the darkness of the cave, I feel my heart beating faster. Everything is raw and untamed, like this river being furiously sucked inside the mountain. All my senses are awake and I feel fully alive.
What overwhelms me is not the intensity of emotions, the excitement, the adrenaline. It’s the feeling of being completely present with everything that happens, and accepting it.
It’s like standing in front of my own darkness and finally being able to say that I accept everything as it is.
Late November. The weather seems to have sucked the color out of everything. I’m living among shades of grey. But I dream in color.
I wander across Miradouro de Santa Lucia, the terrace overlooking Alfama and the Tagus river. Where street players and singers gathered every evening. Where I’ve waited for sunrise. Where I’ve stood silently at night, listening to a song together with other passers-by. A moment of connection created by a human voice and a guitar.
Then I continue on to Portas do Sol, the larger square from which numerous streets branch out downwards, to the river, or upwards, to Castle Sao Jorge.
There’s a small coffee shop, right here on the corner. They open really early and they serve coffee and pastel de nata. They only speak Portuguese but we understand each other in the universal language of people in need of caffeine.
The few other clients are locals taking a few minutes on their way to work. I am the only outsider here, sipping my coffee outside while the owner is still cleaning up and arranging the tables. But I feel like being where I should be.
The sun has risen right in front of me. I have this whole morning ahead, like drinking spring water with your bare hands, like virgin snow on the mountain. Everything can still happen. I’ve lost so much and I’ve lost myself so much, but here at this small table with its cheap tablecloth I feel like everything is still possible.
“Obrigado”, I say to the coffee shop owner. I continue in English, telling him how much I loved the pastel. He’s nodding and smiling. He doesn’t have a clue what I’m saying but understands it’s a compliment.
I go off the main road into narrow back streets that zigzag uphill. Beco de Maldonado, Rua dos Cegos, Calçada do Menino Deus… It’s like going back in time. I could imagine myself walking these streets 30 or 50 years ago. Nothing would need to change to account for the passage of time.
There’s nobody outside but the houses are alive. There are voices inside, there are noises of people cooking, cleaning, just going about their normal lives. The first fallen leaves of late summer are blown away by the breeze.
There’s something in me that would like to cling to this moment, that would like to stay frozen in this snapshot like a fly caught in amber. I’ve always had a hard time letting go of things that I love. Accepting that they come and go.
But right here, surrounded by pigeons flapping their wings in the sun, I just leave things be and I let go.
The train won’t be on time. It won’t arrive ever again.
Its ghost is chasing through the woods. The vegetation is slowly taken over.
I’m standing here as the sun goes down and this incredibly warm light washes over me. In the background, everything lits up like a giant bonfire.
I discovered these abandoned train tracks somewhere on the border between Belgium and The Netherlands. Most probably, they were used to transport coal from Limburg towards the nearby industrial cities. This former mining area is now a national park.