In a fight, Madrid beats Barcelona. That’s my take. I’ve been to both Spanish cities twice now — I returned this week from the capital, Madrid — and conclude that Madrid is the real charmer, the metropolis of less sprawl, less dazzle, less tourists. If it has perhaps fewer bucket-list attractions — despite the marvelous Prado and its trove of Goyas and El Grecos, and Picasso’s overwhelming “Guernica” at the Reina Sofía — it compensates in sheer street-level charisma.
Madrid is about its distinct, vibrant, supremely walkable barrios, humming with old-world quirks and character. Tapas, flamenco, doggies, blue-chip ham that’s cured for years, wonderful locals, seductive atmosphere. There’s something more intimate, more personal, more special about Madrid compared to big chest-thumping Barcelona. Both are world-class — I do love my Gaudí — but I could live in Madrid.
On another high note, one of my trip’s tippy-top joys was a two-day jaunt to Bilbao, far north in hilly Basque Country. If you know Bilbao, a bustling bayside city of 350,000, it’s probably because of the famous Guggenheim art museum, which is celebrating 25 years as a ridiculously successful tourist magnet.
The Guggenheim, designed with playful splendor by architect Frank Gehry, is a shimmering shrine for modern art, from Serra and Rothko to Warhol and Bourgeois. It’s a succinctly curated spread of visual greatest hits, a tantalizing survey that’s intelligently to the point. You leave filled, not fatigued.
Naturally the Guggenheim’s star is Gehry’s woozy vessel for the art — all shiny, warped grandeur — which is not only gorgeous, but mind-boggling. How does he conjure such elaborate beauty? (Er, genius.) And how in the world was it actually built — by elves and sorcerers? It’s all so breathtaking, a fun, lavish, almost Escherian modern marvel that vaults gawkers into fits of selfie euphoria.
Used to be a small notebook and a fist-sized camera were my best friends on my travels, each jammed in a coat pocket ready to record spontaneous events. I’d take florid notes in my notebook — usually a trusty Moleskin and always in blue ink, always — and snap shots with my Panasonic Lumix, a sleek digital wonder, like a geeky shutterbug rapt with the world.
Things change. Today I carry along a MacBook Air for writing and an iPhone 12 mini for photos, and of course it’s not the same. Instead of turning my weathered notebooks into lavishly illustrated, ink-splashed scrapbooks, slathered with ticket stubs, business cards, adverts and newspaper clippings, I now find a dark place in uncrowded bars and lobbies or my hotel room to type and record the day’s impressions in the glow of the computer. It lacks all the tactile fun and creativity of the notebooks, which exude an intoxicated brio, but it’s rather utilitarian, and right to the point. I no longer need Glue Stick.
The iPhone, I hate to admit, takes equal if not better pictures than the Lumix, so I miss little there. Plus it’s far smaller cargo to tote around. Like an Altoids tin.
But it’s the notebooks, those eye-popping documents of doodling, journaling and scrap-bookery that give me pause. I miss crazily jotting in them all that I saw, heard, tasted with a right-now urgency. They pulsed. Popped.
So why don’t I still do it? Sad to say I don’t have the energy for them anymore. I’m a more sedate traveler now. The last time I brought along a Moleskin was to Paris six years ago, and I wrote almost nothing in it and collected limply a few ticket stubs and scraps to glue in it. I’ve gotten a little jaded. And, erm, older. I don’t feel the need to rip out newspaper clippings or save little street flyers and stick them to the creamy blank pages.
But I still record and retain, with passion. The laptop keeps things throbbing. On my last trip, to Italy, I produced five live reports from the airport, the hotel bar, my room and elsewhere, with photos. I blogged them, something I couldn’t do with the chicken scratch of my paper journals and all their scrappy idiosyncrasy and improvisatory punch. They were page-bound, and hitting “send” or “publish” wasn’t an option.
Still, I can’t abandon the idea of a physical journal for one’s travels. If done right, with raging curiosity and a magpie’s eye for minutiae, the books make marvelous keepsakes and souvenirs, stuffed with facts and ephemera, a living gallery of the journey. They’re also a great repository for the names and emails of people you meet along the way.
Scribbling in bars and cafes frequently draws the attention of fellow travelers, who approach and ask what you’re up to. There you are, channeling the absinthe-tippling artists and philosophers of fin de siècle Europe say, or today’s hoary Brooklyn hipsters. It’s an art form, and it’s the best thing you’ll bring back from your trip. Swear.
I about had a stroke scaling the steep medieval alleyways of my ‘hood in Porto, Portugal, last week, fuming at yet another of life’s inconveniences — precipitous hills! The humanity! — while clutching my chest and wiping my brow.
It was the same in Lisbon’s Alfama area, the capital city’s coolest, oldest, most mazy residential neighborhood, cut through with endless perpendicular hills and narrow passages. I am either desperately out of shape or the Portuguese are sadomasochists. (The former, decidedly.)
These are not complaints. These — crippling strokes, premature heart attacks — are symptoms of the kind of euphoria travel so uniquely delivers, and what I experienced during a week split between Portugal’s two largest cities, Porto and Lisbon. Considering strokes and such, you could say the trip was to die for. I was smitten the entire time.
I’ve been to much of the continent and Portugal reverberates with a different European tang that’s refreshingly, truly Old World. The people are amazing. And, except among many hacking, shriveled taxi drivers, English magically appears whenever you need it. It’s a country of nuance and contrast, urbanity and tradition. And with crazy luck, gorgeous January weather of cobalt skies and 60-degree days, everyday.
Both cities exude singular flavors. Sight-wise, there’s much to see but not an excess. That’s why walking tours are outstanding, taking you deep to reveal the nooks, the crannies, the crooks, the grannies (seriously: old women pop their heads out of two-story windows and chirp, “Bon dia!”). These are pleasant places, vibrant and laidback, and, with their fabled trams/trolleys, rolling hills and postcard waterfronts, redolent of classic San Francisco, my old stomping ground.
My brother asked if I missed a museum-centric city, à la Paris, but I did not. I do weary of so many museums in other cities that can, occasionally, feel like obligations. These cities are all street, with street art, graffiti, cathedrals, tavern after tavern (wifi — what’s that?), earthy food, multitudinous alcohol (Port, wine, Ginjinha!), ankle-twisting cobblestone, claustrophobic side streets, vertiginous hills and slopes, all of it intoxicating.
The streets are brilliantly bad for driving — lots of cobblestone in rattletrap cars with Model T shock absorbers. Sometimes I thought we’d been in an accident, but it was just a thump in the road. Rides are a steal: Uber lifts ran me $3 on average, with taxis still a bargain at twice the price.
Four days in Lisbon, then a three-hour train north to Porto, which resides languidly in pastel colors on the picturesque Douro River. My boutique hotel, a little alleyway charmer, was smack near the water, where it’s clotted with touristy action, even in January, but not too much. Like the guy with the explosive man bun juggling for tips. I got, but did not finish, a fish bowl of sangria, on the water, in the sun and breeze, while a hippie juggled in the distance.
In both cities the women are dark and lovely and the old men are raisin-faced, unshaven, bent over, sweater-clad, with baggy pants and newsboy caps — exactly how I hope to turn out. One day I had two female servers who possessed hairier arms than mine. As a man of Portuguese heritage, I almost cried with respect and admiration. They put my Aunt Silvia to shame, never mind my Uncle Johnny.
The Portuguese language is enchanting, musical, soft around the edges, like cookie dough. It has notes of Spanish, Italian and Russian, dappled with flower petals. It’s fragrant, easy on the ears and I know all of four words of it.
I found these twin cities fresh, novel, relaxed, uncrowded, winsome. Really, from the fine hotels to the affable people, authentic atmosphere to gushing hospitality, legendary history to rapturous food, Portugal is in my travel pantheon. It’s real Old World material. Humble but proud, and never pushy or arrogant. And always something beautiful.
Onto the slideshow, continued in the next blog post …
As I mentioned in a recent photo-centric post, I love taking pictures of kids I meet in my world travels. That’s because, I wrote, “They’re eager, giddy and attention-hungry, all the while laughing and bursting with curiosity, asking questions (‘Where you from?’) and grabbing at the camera with often sticky hands.”
I’ve taken plenty of pictures of Istanbul’s children, a panoply of poses, pouts and play.
Sometimes they’re happy, eager subjects:
Sometimes they’re playful:
Sometimes they’re artfully posed:
And sometimes they’re fledgling rebels, with a wee message for the dope with a camera:
This rapscallion is my kind of kid. There I am, popping my head out of my second-floor hotel room, presumptuously pointing the camera, and getting what I deserve — a little birdie telling me to go fly away, to take a flying f***. Brilliant.
Confessions of a caveman: I’ve only been using my iPhone as a full-fledged camera for the past five years. Moreover: I’ve only had a mobile phone since 2010. Before that: strictly land lines. Living in the Pleistocene epoch is terrifically underrated.
I never thought I’d need a cell phone (raucous laughter), especially one with a camera. Since 2006, I’ve owned a perfectly snazzy, distressingly pricey digital camera, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2, acquired for my world travels.
With its professional Leica lens — as thick and round as a small stack of poker chips, not one of those budget pinholes — the camera separates itself from most Best Buy point-and-shoots. It also boasts manual capabilities, a 4x optical zoom, 10.2 megapixels and a 16:9 widescreen, among other visual gymnastics. It fits in my palm. It’s a good camera.
On a whim, I recently took the Lumix out of storage — that’s how resoundingly my iPhone camera had dethroned the fancier shooter: it was in storage. I had an itch to take more pro-grade photos and reacquaint myself with my trusty travel companion and its battery of bells and whistles.
Before I knew it, I was the greedy shutterbug I once was, seeking beauty and the bizarre, fascinating faces, stunning architecture, and getting in the crouch-and-shoot stance demanded of dogs and children.
First, I made portraiture of Cubby, a study in nappy nobility:
The cat, sleek and skittish, was next:
Outside I snapped this, whose boldface signage is probably telling me something:
Now some iPhone shots, taken in Tokyo, Paris and Istanbul:
OK, so the little Queen of Hearts-sized iPhone appears to beat the pants off the Lumix in this demonstration. And my phone is ancient — a good five years old, perhaps a model 7. But the comparison isn’t quite fair. I’ve walked about six blocks over a few days with the Lumix taking pictures, while I traveled many years and thousands of miles with the iPhone, capturing exotic, iconic locations. Of course I have a similar stash of fine Lumix photos snapped in Japan, India, Texas and beyond, like these shots taken in Nepal, Beirut and Turkey, respectively:
There’s really no contest. Both contraptions take quality pictures. I prefer the Lumix as my main device — it feels like a real camera, for one. iPhones do not. They feel like Kit Kats. I find them unwieldy, tricky to aim, and the shoot button elusive and unreliable. Still, they produce knockout shots that get increasingly superior with each new model. And they handily fit in your pants pockets.
The Lumix, comparatively, is a Land Rover to the iPhone’s Prius. But it’s not all that bulky. Like I said, I can grasp it in one palm and jam it in a coat pocket like a pack of cigarettes. It’s eminently portable.
I’ll keep using both shooters for different occasions, the iPhone when I’m traveling ultra-light, the Lumix when I have more room and want more pictorial effects. Not sure which one wins, but it appears the race between cameras is the very picture of a photo finish.
Look at that, I think, watching citizens on the street interviewed on the nightly news. So composed, so poised, so extemporaneously eloquent, fluid and alive, all with a thrusting camera and flood lights in their makeup-free faces, knowing this is a one-shot performance for the big TV show, posterity even. How do they do it?
Me, no. Cameras are my kryptonite. I am so camera shy, from still photos to shaky video, that even in these starved, socially distanced times, I will not do FaceTime or Zoom with even my coolest pals. They know this, so they don’t try much. No. They never try.
I’m ruthless: The last time my own mother tried to FaceTime me — on my birthday — I declined her three times. After that, we had a brittle phone chat. It was a short call.
Cameras are performative devices; they make you assume an artificial skin. I personally find this embarrassing and uncomfortable, and it’s not just because I dislike seeing my own image, although I certainly do. Hammy poses, coerced smiles and theatrical displays of affection — it’s all so plastic and painful. Every time my picture is taken, I feel like I’ve sold my soul to Lucifer. And he wants a refund.
I used to be quite photogenic, if I may say so. I do not believe this anymore. And so, amid group shots in particular, I try to hide as much as possible. My resulting image is invariably spectral — that of a Native American spirit hovering with ritual solemnity in the background, very displeased with my historical lot.
I’m a wuss. Not only do I shun pictures, I dread public speaking, including toasts, and prefer to interview others instead of being interrogated.
Of many offers to be interviewed on television and radio for my last job, I made only two exceptions. I was so fumbly and fidgety when I appeared on TV that I can hardly even remember the incident, except that I hated it. Seeking a segment for “This American Life,” NPR guru Ira Glass interviewed me from New York. Naturally, I choked with nerves.
Traveling alone, I used to snap selfies for the visual record. I have a lot of those and they’re not bad. Even my distorted self-image can’t ruin all of them. But I don’t do that so much now, yet I have, in these Covid climes, surrendered to FaceTime for the occasional doctor appointment and such. I don’t like what I see. Not one bit.
So how do those regular folks on the news get so natural and comfortable and chatty, besieged by lights and cameras on live TV? I’d dash if a camera crew approached me.
If they indeed snared me, I’d gleam with flop sweat and stammer like a fourth-grader giving a book report. I’d botch the take and wind up on the cutting room floor. Then I’d shamble off, relieved, yet again, that the camera didn’t get me.
With a camera trained at butthole level, the street dogs of Istanbul bustle across the city, romp in parks, negotiate congested thoroughfares, brawl, chase cats, gambol, loiter and partake in public humping.
This is a day in the life of the Turkish city’s derelict dogs in the patient, panting documentary “Stray,” released today. The film is a quiet, lolling chronicle of both canine and human behavior — the mutual respect and tolerance is moving — done minus narration. With few dramatic accents, though alive with built-in pathos, “Stray” is almost uninflected — unvarnished life through a studiously objective lens. What is spoken comes from the pups’ playful pantomime.
I’m on good terms with the stray dogs of Istanbul, having befriended, pet and fed several during my four trips to Turkey. The hounds are plentiful in the rolling, seaside city and are protected under a no-kill, no-capture policy. Each dog is registered, one of their ears pierced with an official tag. One of my favorite canine pals wore a red tag on her floppy left ear, leading me, with a poverty of imagination, to call her Red Tag.
They get you like that, these streetwise mongrels. Locals are mostly kind to the wandering, well-behaved dogs, leaving out bones and food and, when annoyed by them, gently shooing them away from storefronts and doorways. It helps if you have a soft spot for animals. My mushy affection led me to feed and pamper the friendly hounds, which I happily photographed. More than just memories, the animals were also sweet, licky mood-enhancers, a pack of therapy pups just for me.
Here’s where to watch “Stray,” and here are some of my street-dog snapshots.
This post might better be called “Turkey’s tots and tweens,” as it’s really a mix of youths I took snapshots of as I got lost in the serpentine streets of Istanbul. In my travels kids are hands down the most fun to photograph. They’re eager, giddy and attention-hungry, all the while laughing and bursting with curiosity, asking questions (“Where you from?”) and grabbing at the camera with often sticky hands. Below are just a few of those characters, ebullience, boogers and all.
In my first semester of college, Marlon Brando blew open my bitty blinkered brain.
I was 18 and watching the actor at a small on-campus screening of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Elia Kazan’s 1951 film of Tennessee Williams’ torrid fever dream of a play. I was mesmerized, disturbed, rattled.
Who is this guy? I wondered. What is this guy?
I had seen Brando in “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now” on VHS, but this was different. This was the young, bristling Method actor, a radical of modern performance, searing the screen with unseen naturalism — a combustible churn of physical and psychological muscle, animal charisma, brute sexuality and roiling menace.
He was a new kind of screen male. He hollered and knocked things over. He was sensitive, a raw nerve. He was scary, feral. He was gorgeous. He was hideous. He was fantastic.
This, I thought, is what college is about: revelation, learning, getting gobsmacked by the greats. All at once, in that Brando bombshell, was a liberating feast of ideas and culture. The very next day, I borrowed a Brando biography from the library. I craved more.
A curious kid at a university in a wildly diverse, culturally rich city, I gulped it all, from Hong Kong action flicks to Zippy the Pinhead comics. In a city of famed seismic activity — yes, San Francisco — Brando was one of the first icons to rock my late-teen world.
He wasn’t alone. Other cultural forces who uncorked my brain included, in no order: Beethoven; Sartre; the Marx Brothers; Shakespeare; Freud; Stanley Kubrick; the Beatles (I’d always known their music; I just didn’t know their music); Orson Welles; Buddha; Nietzsche; John Waters; Dalí; Bogart; Buñuel; Kafka; the Ramones; Fellini; Charlie Chaplin; New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael.
(Woke alert: I realize there is only one woman and, save for Buddha, exclusively white people on the list. This is just before I fell for Toni Morrison, García Márquez, Miles Davis and all the rest. As it’s the past, there’s very little I can do to remedy the situation.)
I adored my school. It was an institution that showed scant regard for sports and frats. (I sort of felt sorry for our neglected little football team, but not really.) It was the kind of liberal arts college where August Coppola — brother of Francis Ford Coppola and father of Nicolas Cage — was Dean of Creative Arts and the city newspaper’s erudite pop critic taught my History of Rock ’n’ Roll course.
Protests were big — pro-Palestine, anti-apartheid. The Red Hot Chili Peppers played the stamp-sized Student Union for five bucks a head. Director Sydney Pollack gave a seminar on filmmaking. Free movie screenings abounded. You barely needed class when almost everything around you was an education.
Take the campus library: nerdy, for sure, but a free, all-you-can-eat buffet of intellectual stimulation. There I’d watch esoteric documentaries, listen to concertos and symphonies and pore over rare books. It was all part of this teen’s great game of cultural catch-up.
And isn’t that what college is, a way to get young minds up to speed on the world, culture, history, life? It’s about my freshman geography professor dismissing the Bible as a book of fairy tales and the above rock history teacher expounding on the lush productions of Phil Spector, Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” and Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”
It’s about watching bad improv groups perform in the dorms and serving as Opinion Editor on the fiery campus newspaper. It’s about eating falafel for the first time and meeting Allen Ginsberg at a reading of “Howl” at City Lights bookstore.
College as entrée to life’s rich pageant, untrammeled exposure — that’s how I took it. There were city museums and concert halls — at 19, I got a student subscription to the San Francisco Symphony — the Haight-Ashbury, its own mad cultural-historical corridor; movie theaters like the Castro, Red Vic and Roxie; plays at ACT and the Magic Theatre. Not to mention the cultural cornucopia awaiting just over the bridge in Berkeley.
I got my first good camera as a freshman, styling myself a shutterbug about town, a wee, wannabe Weegee. I got deeper into my drums, soaking up sophisticated masters like Steve Gadd and Terry Bozzio, learning to kick things up while toning them down.
It was all about finesse, those early college days, about forging newly freed passions into a prismatic worldview that made sense to me. And it began with a revelatory sensation that was balled-up in the raw, sweaty brio of Marlon Brando.
Not for a moment has that novel feeling stopped. Once launched on the journey of discovery, you’re pretty much stuck. College lit a fuse; the explosions keep on popping.