Perspectives

“Paris is a museum,” said the Paris-based filmmaker I’d been chatting with over beers.

Look beyond the monuments, museums, tourist traps, and other obvious must-sees and there’s vibrant everyday life. It may be a museum, but the people behind the scenes are fascinating to watch. It’s all about choosing your perspective.

Le Petit Parisien

The Perfect Travel Camera

Let’s get this out of the way: There is no one, perfect travel camera. There’s only the best camera that works for you. Or in this case, the one that works best for me. First, some history.

I’ve shot with SLRs and DSLRs for about 40 years. In 2010 I traveled to the UK with a bag of Nikon bodies and lenses. I was shooting for a client, but I also carried that gear as I walked around London on my own. The images were good; the experience was miserable.

Three years later I was packing for a trip to Paris and looked at my big bag of gear. I remembered lugging it around for two weeks. Instead, I packed my Ricoh GR and two spare batteries.

The Ricoh GR, if you’re not familiar with it, is a wonder camera. For some people. It has an APS-C sensor (the same size you’ll find in many DSLRs), and a range of features that allow users to focus on making great images. The lens is a fixed 28 mm f2.8 (35mm equivalent) that encourages getting closer to subjects. It also fits in a pocket. And that’s all I carried for a week and a half in Paris. You can see a few of the results below.

Since then, I’ve flirted with other cameras. My Fuji X100T often travels with me (and is a much better camera in marginal light), but I keep gravitating back to the Ricoh GR that’s been in my collection for five years. Here’s why:

  • It’s small and lightweight. The advantages of this are obvious.
  • That lens. It’s better than a camera at this price point has any right to be–sharp, with little fall off or softening at the edges.
  • Snap focus. If you’re familiar with zone focusing, this is essentially the same thing. When walking around I leave the focus point set at 1.5 meters (and aperture at f5.6); when I’m ready to snap a street pic the camera is already focused. There’s no lag. If I need to change the focus point I can simply press the AFL button on the back and it autofocuses.
  • Superb JPEGs. The internal processor is excellent, and I don’t have to deal with large RAW files. The resolution is high enough to print high quality 11″x14″s.
  • Custom settings. I have three custom settings that are changed on the top dial: Street color, street black and white, and square format black and white. I can switch between them quickly and without a lot of thought.
  • It’s unobtrusive. People around me often don’t notice it, and don’t have the same reaction to it that they would have to a larger, more “serious” camera.
  • It’s relatively inexpensive. I carry mine on my bike, and in situations where it might get beaten up. But it’s not so expensive that I worry about it. That way I can stick to the first maxim of cameras: The best camera is the one you have with you.

The GR has always been a cult camera, so much so that Ricoh periodically sighs (as much as a corporation can) and admits that there are enough photographers in love with the GR that it deserves an upgrade. The latest version is similar to mine, other than the addition of WiFi connectivity. But, there’s a Ricoh GRIII due early 2019 that’s going to be smaller and have a higher resolution sensor. The perfect camera, for me, might become more perfect.

Somme 1916

During our recent trip to France our son, Eli, and I were discussing our shared interest in visiting WWI monuments. That led, in turn, to a day trip to the area north of Amiens, where the Battle of the Somme took place. I asked my friend Murray, who recently wrote about notable books about the Great War, for advice on things to see. These are my impressions, shared with him, and with you.

Murray,

I can’t get that Fussell quote you shared out of my mind:

“The idea of mass graves seems to pertain especially to the twentieth century. There are 2500 British war cemeteries in France and Belgium. The sophisticated observer of the rows of headstones will do well to suspect that very often the bodies below are buried in mass graves with the headstones disposed in rows to convey the illusion that each soldier has his individual space.”

The conflict along the Somme River in 1916 appears, to this lay historian, a savage lesson in what happens when tactics fail to keep pace with exponential growth of the killing power of armaments. Eli and I walked through the trenches at the Newfoundland Memorial in Beaumont-Hamel; at some distance we could make out the high point where German machine guns were sited. The Danger Tree–and there’s an understated name–sat in the middle of no man’s land, marking one of the deadliest places on the battlefield. 

July 1, 1916 at 8:45 a.m. the Newfoundland Regiment’s 22 officers and 758 soldiers climbed out of their rear position trenches and moved (ran, walked, marched?) toward the German machine guns that looked down on them. Within half an hour only 110 of them, none of them officers, were left alive. Only 68 made roll call the following day.

Preserved trenches at Beaumont-Hamel

The Newfoundland government and the families of those who died were deeply shaken. But the overall death toll of the Battle of the Somme, 1.2 million combatants by some accounts, challenges me to put those 670 lives in proper context.

Two years ago I stood on Omaha Beach, Pont du Hoc and the cemetery at Colleville sur Mer and felt their historical weight. There’s a belief that good and evil clashed on those Normandy beaches in 1941; the neat headstones at the American cemetery tell a powerful story of noble sacrifice that changed the arc of history for the better. I expected to see something in Somme that would trigger the same sentiments.

No, the Great War was the outcome of regional squabbles and awkward alliances, and those who fought for the Commonwealth–roused by Kitchener’s appeals–were young, inexperienced and motivated by love for King and country. Their officers were arrogant and dismissive of their foe. Yet despite soldiers’ cynicism about their leaders and fate they dutifully swarmed out of their trenches to be cut down, day after day.

Farmland near the Somme River

They mostly died in fields that had been farmland until shells began falling. I stood in some of those fields on a wet, cold December Tuesday and tried to imagine how a 16 year old, brought to that place by his patriotic fervor, would have felt as he crawled out of a muddy trench and began moving toward the German lines, knowing the odds of making it through weren’t on his side. Then I walked through several of those 2,500 cemeteries Fussell wrote of, with their perfectly straight ranks of headstones masking the necessity of mass graves for those million-plus souls who died, and felt the weight of their sacrifice for a cause that was at once unnecessary and hugely consequential to the future of Europe. 

French cemetery for UK combatants, near Amiens

Murray, a side note: Eli and I made a point of visiting the field where Manfred von Richthofen crash landed his triplane after being–pick your side of the argument–shot down by Roy Brown or hit by Australian anti aircraft fire. It’s adjacent to the brickworks in Saint Colette which stood at the time of his death. There’s a metaphor in this, somewhere–arguably the most legendary combatant from among the 70 million who fought, meeting his end in a wholly unremarkable field, in a vague, contested way, witnessed only by a few. 

Saint Colette brickworks

One more thought about the Somme: It may be a trick of memory, but we’ve talked at length about Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy and how the Great War blotted out most of a generation of great writers and poets. There isn’t a museum or monument to their memory, at least to my knowledge, but there should be.

Update (12/20/19): Here is a gallery of photographs from our day at Somme.

Food Matters: Paris 2018

Following a recent trip to Paris, I have some new-to-us recommendations to add to my previous list:

  • Inexpensive and great seems like an oxymoron when it comes to Paris, but Raviolis Nord Est is on point. This hole in the wall near Les Halles offers salads and Chinese dumplings. Beth and I ate a filling, satisfying lunch for about 20 Euros. I recommend the octopus salad and pork and shrimp dumplings, fried. (1st arrondissement)
  • There’s a lot of buzz around Pink Mamma in Pigalle. They don’t take reservations, so be prepared to wait. After two hours cooling our heels with wonderful cocktails in their speakeasy (go down the stairs, then through the meat locker and a door marked “no entry”), we were led past an American woman throwing a tantrum (“I simply must eat here before leaving Paris!”) to our date with some burrata and a kilogram tomahawk ribeye. The food: excellent. The service: Warm and casual. The vibe: Way more hip than us. It made for a fun night. I’d go back. (9th arrondissement)
  • Get in line at Breihz Café. Be patient. Then enjoy savory and sweet Breton crepes. Have a mug of cider from a long list of good options. You won’t be disappointed. (3rd arrondissement, though there are also outposts in Odeon, Japan and Brittany)
  • We have it on good authority that Le Village is one of the last of the true Montmartre bars. I can’t tell you about the food, though the menu looked enticing. Instead, we had a beer (me, a Chouffe) and a cocktail (Beth, a mojito, which is in fashion) and spent a couple hours talking with a French filmmaker we met there. It’s an unpretentious place filled with locals. (18th arrondissment)
  • We liked Pizza Caratello so much we went twice. Don’t be fooled by the name–they offer much more than pizza. The first visit we started with a large serving of Burrata, then I had ravioli with figs and foie gras. The second visit I went for pizza (and more burrata to start); a Napolitana with fat anchovies and capers. Reservations aren’t necessary, though you might have a brief wait. Be patient, the food and hospitality are worth it. (18th arrondissement)
  • Huiteries Regis has been on my list for years, and I finally was able to have lunch there. Unless you love oysters, skip ahead. There’s not much else on offer. I had the menu #2: Six each of two varieties of plump oysters that taste like the sea, a glass of Sancerre and a coffee. If you do love oysters, it’s completely worth trekking to Saint Germain and waiting outside for one of the few tables. (6th arrondissement)
  • Hardware Société gives Hollybelly a run for my favorite brunch spot in Paris. It’s the Parisian outpost of a popular Melbourne restaurant. Long lines are the norm, though we lucked into getting a table right away. The coffee is sublime, and the mushrooms and poached eggs are perfect brunch fare. (18th arrondissement)
  • Overlook the sketchy neighborhood around Gare du Nord, and make a reservation at Chez Michel. It offers old school French cuisine and a deep wine list. I had fish soup with chorizo, croutons and parmesian; duck with mushrooms; and Paris Brest for desert. It’s my new standard for traditional French bistros. (10th arrondissment)

Reservations are still the norm, but English speaking diners will be glad to know many restaurants now offer online reservations. 

Tips: Better travel photos

No names, but I once sat through a slideshow of someone’s travels that included 300 images. About 50 in, I realized they had dumped their memory card and included every, single shot including those that were out of focus or blurred. It made for a long evening. 

When we remember our travels, we focus more on that experience than how we represent it to others. So we can gloss over too many pictures that show little or have technical problems. What’s in our minds overrides what’s on a screen.

A gilet jaune protestor at Place de Republique, during the winter 2018 protests in Paris.

So how do you level up your travel photography game? Here’s how:

  1. Start with the audience’s point of view. Remember, they may not have been there. Your photos are telling a story about the place and your experience. Let that guide you when you’re shooting and selecting photos.
  2. When shooting, find an interesting point of view. This usually means getting closer to your subject than you think you should. If you’re shooting with a camera with zoom lens, don’t use the reach of your telephoto as a crutch. Get close, then get even closer. Shoot the entire scene that’s in front of you to provide context, then focus on details that help tell a richer story.
  3. Edit. Ruthlessly. For me, this is a multistep process. First, I weed out shots with technical problems. Second, I quickly pick the frames that are worth considering. Third, I take a harder look at the first frames I’ve selected, and weed those down into a smaller set. Finally, I do some minor editing (color correction, cropping, etc.) and then take a last look at the set. Anything that doesn’t seem necessary goes into the reject pile. By the time I’m finished, fewer than 5% of the shots I took remain to be shown or published online. Often, the number is far smaller.
  4. Organize your shots. I like to present photos by theme, so they make sense to people who see them. 

What about gear? I’ll touch on that later, but for now think about process. How you work matters more than the tools you use. 


Places: Bisbee, Arizona

In my mind, Bisbee, Arizona’s center of gravity is located somewhere between the wild west days and the shutdown of the Copper Queen Mine in the ’70s. Those challenging and violent times, particularly early in the 20th century, still have a hold on the town and on my imagination. Even though Old Bisbee has rebranded itself as an arts community and tourism more or less thrives, there is tension between the visible past–decommissioned mines, and buildings that exist, other than a coat of paint, like they did 100 years ago–and the present.

Bisbee is a compact town, but you don’t walk around it so much as climb around it. Homes, which often are converted mining dorms, sit mostly on hillsides and are accessible by hundreds of sets of stairs that have been constructed throughout town. Beth and I once entertained thoughts of buying a house in Bisbee. We fell in love with a 1918 bungalow sited on a small plateau that overlooked town. Getting there required a short drive up a street with twentyish percent grades, followed by a hike up 99 stairs. We imagined watching sunsets from our plateau. We thought about climbing stairs every day. The realtor warned us about scorpions. We didn’t buy.

Bisbee is seven miles from the border with Mexico, where Naco (AZ and Mexico) straddle the fence. One afternoon we crossed into Mexico with a group of school kids on their way home from class. US residents routinely cross the border for inexpensive dental care. While waiting to reenter the US we talked with a Bisbee local about where to buy the best mango-jalapeno ice pops in Naco (Mexico). The vibe is relaxed and belies the area’s well-deserved identity as a smuggling hub. It’s a pinpoint on a desolate border. I’ve driven the International Highway, a lane and a half dirt road that follows the border fence, for mile after mile without seeing anyone. Aerostats, carrying ground radar, float overhead. There are occasional watch posts on hill sides. Flashes of light suggest binoculars are turned our way.

A tangent: Naco has also been a hub of revolutionary activity. During a short lived rebellion in 1929, where citizens of Bisbee would gather to watch the action and occasionally dodge a bullet, American aviator Patrick Murphy became the first American national to bomb US soil. While conducting freelance bombing runs for Mexican rebels, he managed to hit both sides of the border, causing mayhem and casualties until American troops eventually dropped by the local airport and disabled his plane.

The remote location, the many narrow and winding streets, the stairs that invite–or are obstacles to–exploration: Bisbee feels like a place where you can deliberately get lost. Our many trips to Bisbee included aimless wandering and searching for sites that bridge the divide between past and present: Lowell’s main street, which is a 1960’s time capsule; the Art Deco architecture of the Cochise County Courthouse; Brewery Gulch and it’s colorful houses.

We typically visit in November. Tourists are few and the weather–cold in the evenings, chilly or warm in the day–suits us. There are a few events–the annual coaster races and Bisbee 1000 Stairclimb are the big ones–that can make a visit challenging.

Downtown Bisbee
Downtown Bisbee, Tombstone Canyon Road

 

jonquil motel
Mural on the Jonquil Motel

 

bisbee art
Art abounds in Bisbee

 

Big flys in Bisbee. It’s a yearly part of the arts scene

 

Step back in time in Lowell, AZ

 

Mexico/USA border fence

 

Naco, Sonora Mexico

Eat, Drink, Stay

Shady Dell, a grouping of vintage travel trailers turned motel, gets all the press, but the location isn’t ideal. We’re partial to the Jonquil Motel; downtown is only a short walk down Tombstone Canyon Road. If you’re feeling decadent, the Letson Loft is comfortable and convenient.

For breakfast, drive to the Bisbee Breakfast Club, about ten minutes from Old Bisbee. It’s an Arizona institution. Get the Blue Wally Cakes.

Chicago hot dogs in Arizona? Yes, really. Go to Jimmy’s and fight the crowds.

The High Desert Market and Café offers smoothies, sandwiches and espresso. Some nights they have a dinner special, which we’ll typically grab to go.

Screaming Banshee for pizza and beer. Because you can’t go wrong with pizza and beer. Or margaritas and tacos, in which case you want to go to Santiago’s.

Speaking of beer, we’ve spent some afternoons in the Old Bisbee Brewing Company, where we once watched a dog take his place on a stool at the bar. “Waiting for his owner,” we were told. Apparently this was a near-daily occurrence. By the way, the beer is good and if you want a treat try the Salut. I can also recommend the chili.

 

For a fascinating look at the 1917 labor strike that blew Bisbee apart, watch Bisbee ’17. It’s currently making the rounds at theaters.

Places: Death Valley Junction

The Amargosa Opera House stands at the corner of State Line Road and California Route 127, in a place now called Death Valley Junction. In the early 1920s it was Amargosa, a company town that supported borax mining interests. A U-shaped building contained a hotel, dining room, dormitories, company offices and a community center. The opera didn’t arrive in town until later.

When I talk to people about Death Valley Junction the word opera inevitably derails the conversation. Opera, in the middle of the desert? Far away from any population center?

In 1967 a flat tire left Marta (nee Martha) Becket and her husband waiting for repairs in Death Valley Junction. Marta explored the community center, then known as Corkhill Hall, and felt it calling her. That was the beginning of cultural institution that endures to this day. Becket rented the center for $45 a month, evicted the kangaroo rats that populated it, and rebuilt it into a performance space. Audiences were sparse to non-existent, so she began to paint murals on the walls that depicted a full house. Audiences and attention followed, as well as questions about the sensibility of building an opera house in the desert.

Am I eccentric?” she asked in an interview with The New York Times in 1999. “Is it eccentric to love your work so much that you would go anywhere in the world to do it?”

Today, the Opera House draws desert pilgrims and the curious from around the world. A new structure across the street showcases Becket’s wardrobe, the motel continues to operate and gets solid reviews, and the newly reopened café serves a very good BLT. Otherwise, Death Valley Junction is a ghost town, though the scenery has its own charm.

Death Valley Junction
A relic of the borax mining days

 

Death Valley Junction
The garage where Marta Becket and her husband traveled to fix a flat tire

 

Death Valley Junction
The Amargosa Motel

 

Amargosa Opera House
Amargosa Opera House

 

Death Valley Junction
A brief history of Death Valley Junction

 

BMW GS
A couple following their dream. Read more at nordsuedfahrt.de

Fare wars

Christmas windows and skeptical bystanders

After a relatively slow summer for airfare sales, the last few weeks have seen competition heat up. Beth and I had a list of places we were interested in visiting this winter–Vienna, Amsterdam and Portugal were top of the list, along with Paris (no, we can’t quit that place). I kept an eye on fares, including tracking a few itineraries that fit timeframes that would work for us. We didn’t have to go anywhere at anytime, and decided that if the right opportunity showed itself we would make a decision.

That opportunity landing in my inbox a few weeks ago. Crazy low fares from Raleigh–a short drive from us–to Paris and return. We jumped on it and booked travel for our entire family.

Here’s the best part of the story: Earlier this year Beth had chosen to give up her seat on a flight to Chicago, and netted a thousand dollar travel voucher. Between that and the sale, tickets for the three of us were just over $300. Total.

I’ve seen even better deals the past week, from numerous airlines. WOW, which I’ve flown a few times, had round trips from BWI (Baltimore/Washington DC) to Paris for under $250. Super economy fares, for sure, but a few hours of less-than-stellar comfort could put you in the City of Lights during Christmas market season.

And fortunately the exchange rate with the Euro is still decent. That means our cost of traveling won’t be out of control, and we were able to book a two-bedroom apartment a block from the Metro, Beth’s favorite restaurant, and the only street in Paris for much less than a hotel. Paris for a fraction of the cost of a trip to New York, Chicago or many other US cities? Sign me up.

Pro tip: If an airline asks for volunteers to give up a seat, don’t jump at the first offer. Playing the waiting game can pay off. The offer for Beth’s seat started at $400 before landing at a much higher amount.

Practical matters: passports

Last week I started the passport renewal process. The good news: If you’re a US citizen you only have to do this every ten years. The bad: 2018 is the year of delays and higher fees.

First, the delays. If you’ve been putting off renewing or applying for a passport, get on it now. For a variety of reasons 2018 is a peak year for renewals, and the State Department has been warning that processing times will be longer than normal. If you see a trip on your horizon, don’t wait and suffer undue stress or pay fees for expedited service. And, if you’re thinking, “I’ve still got a few months before mine expires,” remember that to enter another country your passport must be valid for at least three months after the date you plan to leave the country. You don’t want to learn that at the tail end of a long, overnight flight.

Second, US passports now cost $10 more for first-time applicants. That’s not a lot of money in the scheme of things, but ten bucks is ten bucks. This means you’ll pay $110 for a passport or $140 for a passport and passport card. I sprung for the passport card because it’s REAL ID compliant; I can use it for domestic air travel, and put off updating my driver’s license to the REAL ID version. Truth be told, I’d probably spend twice the fee to avoid visiting my local driver’s license office.

To learn more about applying for or renewing a passport visit the State Department’s web site. It’s a genuinely helpful site that simplifies navigating a sometimes-confusing process. And it can point you to local events and offices where first-time applicants can start the process.

Travel’s missing ingredient

Yelp, TripAdvisor, Instagram, Google Street view and countless other always-available web sites and services have drained travel of a critical ingredient: Mystery.

How often do most of us land in a new location already knowing what we want to see, do, eat and drink? Moreover, we have strong expectations of what those experiences should be, based on a wealth of information that’s out there. In extreme cases, unrealistic expectations can lead to transient mental disorders.

I love the benefits that come with being a connected traveler. But a recent series of articles from AFAR about traveling unplugged reminded me of travel before smartphones and WiFi were ubiquitous. Traveling unplugged required flexibility and curiosity, and lacked the manic need to document every move on social media. When Beth and I traveled to Ireland many years ago we had a rental car waiting, no plans, and only a map to guide us.

We found places to stay by asking locals for advice. Over two weeks we encountered many of the same travelers again and again, so we would pause and exchange tips about places to see and things to do. The memories that have stuck with us sprang from the mystery of not knowing (sometimes literally) what we would find around the next corner. Sometimes those were dead ends, which weren’t disappointments as much as suggestions to go elsewhere.

Looking beyond those mysteries made that trip, and others, richer in a way that travel today isn’t.