On being a good photographer (or maybe just on taking lots of pictures)

I was recently in Girona on my way from Murcia towards Berlin.

Girona is a really pretty city, at least what I saw in the 17 or so hours I was there. Much friendlier than Barcelona and much less scary to walk around at night.

I wandered between the old old houses and shops, admiring the art nouveau balconies and door handles, stopping ever few hundred metres to take photos of things people probably mostly ignore. Missing bricks, the compass worked into the street, the street signs and the people on the traffic lights.

I visited the ancient Arabic baths and tried to visit the cathedral (but decided the entrance fee was unjustified). I was on my way to the remains of the tall wall that originally enclosed the city when I met Amanda.

I didn’t know she was called Amanda and I wasn’t out to meet anyone. Especially someone as glamorous as Amanda. I wanted to know how to get onto the wall and she was the only person around to ask. If there’d been anyone else I would have asked them instead.

“I think there’s a staircase along here next to the tower, let’s go and find out.”

She set off and I followed at a distance, leaving her some space – space it turned out she wasn’t really all that interested in.

***

“Do you think you could take a picture of me?”

She’d been fighting her phone for a while, trying to find a way to fit herself, the wall and the cathedral onto one photo.

“Yeah, sure, if you show me how your phone works..”

She handed it over (“Just press here”) and started posing, adjusting her hair and sunglasses, shuffling her position, arranging and rearranging herself, letting the sun dance on her face and make her earrings sparkle – obviously this is something she’s used to doing.

Click.

“Hey, give me your bag and your water bottle – they don’t need to be in the picture, and I’ll move my bag out of the way too. There.”

Click click click.

“The wind keeps messing my hair up..”

“I think if you turn just a bit more to the left.. Perfect.. Hold that…”

Click. Click. Click click click.

“Here, have a look to see if you’re happy with them. I can take more if you don’t like them.” I hand her phone back.

“Wow! You took loads! Thank you! I love this one, and this one. And this one’s good with the cathedral – you’re a really good photographer. Thank you so much!” She smiled as she flicked through the pictures. “Can you take another one of me in close up? From over there..”

Click. Click click. Shuffle. Rearrange. Click.

“There you go.”

“Thanks ever so much. That’s brilliant. Thank you!” she gushes. “Most people just take one and don’t check if you have your eyes shut or if you’re smiling. They don’t even make sure that the scenery fits on the photo. You’re lucky if they don’t cut part of your head off..” She paused. “Do you want me to take some of you?”

*panic* “Uh…” My mind races. Me? No way. Why not? I can’t. Just because you don’t usually. You can’t always hide behind the camera.. Ugh. “Ok. Go ahead. Please.”

My phone beeps as I hand it over – less than 10% battery life left. I hope it lasts until I’ve found my way back to the station. I hope there are plugs on the train. I hope I’m there in time to catch the train. I hope..

Click.

I stop thinking about the rest of the journey for a minute and try and act a fraction as cool as Amanda while she takes pictures. I think I need more practice at this posing lark.

Then it’s over (“Is that ok? Want any more?” “No, that’s more than enough, I have to get back to the station..”). I jump down off the wall, get my phone back, pick up my bags, start to leave.

Halfway down the steps I remember the other lady who’d been sitting by herself and who’d watched us taking pictures of each other for a few seconds before turning back to stare across the city. I go back up to the platform and ask her if she wants her photo taken too. She looks up, shy, and tells me she was going to take a selfie, but if I’m offering.. She stops mid-sentence, reminding me more of myself than of Amanda. I put down my bags and take her phone. She looks like she feels even more awkward than me as she balances on the wall, hugging her knees. I take a couple of pictures and ask her if she wants to move along the wall a bit – the sun’s behind her and I can only take pictures of her silhouette. She laughs, moves, resettles. “Better?” “Much.”

Click click. Click. Click click click.

I move too, trying to get her and the cathedral and the wall and the clouds onto a picture without anything getting in the way of anything else.

“This is like a proper photo shoot!”

I doubt it but we laugh anyway. She’s finally relaxed enough to sit naturally.

Click. Click.

Click.

Beep! My phone is still in the process of dying, reminding me that I have a train to catch. I hand her phone back and say I have to go. She thanks me and goes back to her original position, looks across the city, looks at the pictures I’ve taken. Smiles.

I catch up with Amanda at the bottom of the tower, she’s been waiting for me. She wants me to take more photos of her along the next section of the wall.

We align clouds, walls, towers, roofs, trees as we make our way towards the end of the wall, sharing fragments of our lives – and the current moment – with each other. It appears we’re not so different after all, our reasons for being in Girona, our opinion of Barcelona, our travel plans for the next few days. Not identical, but similar enough to feel more than coincidental. The realisation that there’s a person under all that make-up is a surprise. Especially a person I can relate to. I am always surprised by this; in my mind at least, I still associate heavily made up people with the “cool” girls in my class at school. The ones who would rather do anything than talk to me and risk losing their coolness. The ones I had less than nothing in common with. The ones I still ‘see’ despite the years and miles between us.

At the end of the wall she thanks me again, profusely, for all the photos I took along the way, telling me again that I’m a great photographer. She ignore my protests that I just take lots of pictures and occasionally some work well, and instead wishes me a good time travelling. She insists we take a selfie together. One each. To remember.

Together. Me and Amanda. The laid back, perfectly made up, glamorous Amanda from Brazil, with her pearl earrings and flowing hair, who wouldn’t look out of place in a magazine or on one of those huge roadside posters advertising sunglasses or perfume, and me. In one picture. On purpose. Despite my messy bun and crumpled skirt and bag lady luggage. My word.

One day, I decide, I will lose some of my shallowness. Some of my prejudice. And maybe, maybe also some of my reluctance to talk to [makeup wearing] strangers.

***

This is me, sitting at the top of a tower on Girona’s city wall in November, taken by Amanda from Brazil:

On lacking expectation

I cycled to work this morning. It rained half the way there. The first half. Only the first half I suppose. I wasn’t expecting it to stop but it did.

***

After work, I had a plan to get a couple of trains to a distant part of town to try on a ski-helmet and pick up a pair of skis. After that I was going to get a train back and go and pick up the mattress.

***

I originally planned to leave my bike at work and swap it for the skis and possibly the helmet before cycling home. When I looked at the map and the local transport app at lunchtime, I discovered that I wouldn’t be home in time for the mattress if I relied on the buses to take me from A to B and B to C. I decided to take my bike and cycle from the station to the helmet, then to the skis and push the bike to the next station where a direct train would bring me to within 10 minutes of my flat.

***

Did anyone else notice the parts where I said plan and claimed it as my own?

Did all the alarm bells start ringing?

Did you feel the words “uh-oh” forming, ready to be released at a moment’s notice?

Did you see the chaos building up in the distance like the storm currently waiting to attack Berlin?

No? I didn’t either. I ran straight into it headlong.

I didn’t expect anything. But it expected me. I must be good company, or at least a regular visitor…

***

We had a fire alarm at work after lunch and before I could write my plan down.

Afterwards, I tried to get my work done so I could leave on time.

I almost did, too.

***

It wasn’t raining when I left my workshop so I packed my waterproof overskirt away in my panier.

It started raining just as I got outside the building. I don’t like being wet if it’s a cold kind of wet, and I especially dislike cycling in wet jeans, so I stopped and unpacked it.

I wasn’t expecting to spend time getting dressed once I’d left.

I didn’t expect the lift to be full when I got to the station so that I needed to wait for it to come up a second time.

I didn’t expect to miss the first train on my list of 3.

I didn’t expect the lifts at the second station to only go up when the train I needed to catch was a floor lower than the one I started on.

I didn’t expect the second lift, a lift I crossed a road especially to reach, to bring me back to the middle floor.

I didn’t remember my bike being so heavy when I decided to carry it down and up the next stairs I encountered.

I wasn’t aware that one station name in Berlin can actually mean 3 separate stations for the 3 types of train, and that they can be several hundred metres away from each other.

I didn’t appreciate having to visit each one of them to realise it.

I didn’t remember that the third train I wanted to catch only left once an hour.

I really didn’t like having to retrace my steps to get an alternative train from a station I’d already fought my way out of.

***

I didn’t check the map closely enough to know that the street I was looking for, started with one name and ended with a different one.

I didn’t realise that I cycled right past it without noticing.

I wasn’t paying enough attention as I started enjoying cycling along a straight cycle path without rain.

I wasn’t ready for the dark when the street lights stopped.

I wasn’t expecting my bike’s front light to be weaker than the wind-up torch I took on a night walk in 6th form.

I didn’t want to stop on the side of a busy but dark road with nothing but the dim glow of a fading dynamo to show where I was in order to check the map again.

I trusted Google when it recommended an alternative route from my current position when I finally felt safe enough to check.

I didn’t know, when I set out down the “dead end – pedestrian access only” road, that it would lead me into the middle of a very muddy field.

I didn’t know you could switch between the directions mode and the map mode without retyping the street name.

I didn’t know, once I was in a particularly boggy patch of field, whether it would be quicker to turn round and go back, or to carry on squelching.

I couldn’t imagine that I could be so scared of things that go bump (or knatterknatterknatter) in the dark.

I wasn’t expecting the torch on my phone to be so good.

I didn’t know in advance that I would rather cycle unnecessarily far by road, just to avoid a couple of hundred metres along a dark path through a woods

I didn’t know, when I set out from work, that I would arrive at the helmet man’s house later with the bicycle than I would have done without it.

I didn’t know, from the picture and the description, that the helmet would be just a smidgen too small.

I also didn’t know from the brief phone calls we’d had, that the seller would be so gracious about letting me traipse mud all through his immaculate house. “Relax! It’s all tiled and washable – it gets muddy every time I come in from working in the garden :)”

I didn’t know it would take me more than twice the time Google suggested to cycle across to the ski lady’s house.

I didn’t know that the skis would be so sharp that they’d take the paint off my handlebars when I rested them there.

I didn’t know that I would have such a problem steering when I got the skis into a stable position.

I couldn’t guess that the wind would pick up and join the pouring rain to slow down my attempts to get to the station while pushing my bike and balancing a pair of skis.

***

I didn’t expect to have to ask someone how to get into the train station.

I didn’t count on missing the last direct train of the evening and having to take three other indirect trains instead.

I didn’t think my phone battery would go down so fast, but I also didn’t think the last few percent would last all the way home.

I wasn’t expecting anyone to talk to me on the train, and when they did, I wasn’t expecting them to say, “don’t take this the wrong way, but I’ve got a wife and a kid waiting for me” as we got out at the same station.

***

I didn’t expect to get home more than 7 hours and 22km after leaving work, 3 hours later than I wanted to pick up the mattress.

***

Despite everything, I still feel it was a successful day..

One on which I feel I definitely earned my sleep.

***

Talking of sleep…I wasn’t planning on sleeping on the floor again tonight, but then, life always seems to have more in store for me than I could ever imagine.

(And I wasn’t expecting the neighbour to phone and apologize, but he did – assuming the mattress man is understanding enough not to sell the mattress to someone else tomorrow, we’re all set to pick it up in the evening 🙂 – wheee!)

On the joys of living in a small town

There was a festival in my town today. A whole street full of small market stalls in celebration of local root vegetables (!!). The butcher sold special sausages and other people sold various other things. I had a hot one when I arrived, and planned to buy a packet of raw sausages to take home, once I’d been round the rest of the market stalls. By the time I got back to the butcher’s stall, I was out of money. When I asked whether they’d continue selling them during the next week the saleslady said they’d freeze and sell whatever was left after the market, but wouldn’t be making any more until next year. Then she asked where I lived. I told her and she wrote a number on the back of a business card and handed it to me. The butcher is apparently based a couple of towns away, but the saleslady’s mother lives on my street. She’ll leave a packet here when she packs up, and I should phone her to arrange a collection time…

..Where else would that happen??

On why I think life is more like a pinball machine than a roller coaster

Choice.
Decisions. 
Ability to choose. 
At least some things. 
Sometimes.

***

As much as I hate to admit it, I quite like Ronan Keating’s “Life is a roller coaster” song. I don’t agree with him though. I think it’s more like a pinball machine.

***

Until a couple of weeks ago, I’d only ever played pinball on the computer, or on a board so old it actually had pins (=nails) in.

Then I went to a national pinball convention. I lost track of how many different machines I played on/with, but it was “many”.

I even had a go at the “classic” tournament. Classic because it features older machines. I wasn’t very good, but I also wasn’t the very worst (by quite a long way), so I was chuffed, considering that it was my very tournament on my very first day of practise.

Anyway.

On a roller coaster, you get into your seat at the beginning and “just have to ride it” until you get off at the other end. You have absolutely no control over what happens in between. Okay, you can control some of your reaction. You can probably choose to scream or throw your hands in the air or close your eyes….or not. You probably can’t choose whether or not to throw up afterwards. You certainly can’t choose the direction or when to stop or change speed.

Pinball is different.

Granted, there is a lot of chance involved, (pinball machines were even banned in the past because they were considered purely based on luck), and there are things you can’t control, like what the bumpers do when you hit them, what lights up when you go past, what the noises sound like, how many points you get for various sequences.

On the other hand, because you control the flippers, there’s also a lot of input potential. You have to choose to do something with that potential, and it helps to have the skill to achieve the desired effect (like getting the ball to go up the ramp or into one of the holes), but it’s there. If you don’t do anything, the ball does its thing briefly, then falls through the gap between the flippers and you die.
If you do manage to catch/hit the ball, you prolong that life. That gives you the next chance and the next and the next.

Sometimes, reaching a certain number of points, or activating certain areas creates something like a safety net. Even if you would normally die, you don’t, you get a new ball instead and can carry on playing. Even if you don’t achieve those bonus lives, you still have 2 further chances, or 4 depending on the machine. You can aim for things, learn what happens if you hit and if you miss. Sometimes you aim for the ramp and land in a hole. Sometimes landing in the hole is bad, sometimes it takes you to a different level where you unlock new possibilities. Sometimes you can die on that level, sometimes it catapults you back onto the first level with new energy and extra points, lives or abilities. Sometimes, regardless of skill and determination, the ball will suddenly take up nosediving and head down between the flippers without any warning, and with no chance to stop it.

Occasionally you get into a ‘Dauerschleife’, a routine of going round and round and round the same route: Flipper, bumper, bumper, light, flipper, bumper, bumper, light. To get out, you have to change something. Anything. Different angle, different strength, different timing. Sometimes that’s risky, sometimes it just feels risky. Sometimes the new ‘route’ is chaotic, sometimes it leads to a new Dauerschleife, sometimes it’s not exactly chaotic, but is continuously changing. That’s the most common. Change.

Occasionally, doing the same thing twice results in different outcomes, depending on what you did previously.

Occasionally you get bonus balls to be played at the same time, each whizzing round the board on its own mission, forcing you to split your concentration or risk losing both.

Talking of missions, some boards have a story line, a list of things to do, or collect, or hit. Some are less structured, preferring to offer differing musical notes, like a bell tower, or multiple colours – a kaleidoscope* of rainbow lights.

If you watch other people playing, you see an array of different styles and attitudes. Some tighten their muscles, stand gripping the edges of the machine, hoping somehow they can influence the course of the ball, or the reaction of the bumpers, with their tension. Others are relaxed, hardly concentrating, at least not noticeably. Some players laugh with the players next to them, some ignore everything around them. Some try to rock the machine, nudging it just enough to minimally change the angles of the board, the bumpers, the rebound, and steer the ball where they want it to go. Ohers go crazy, yelling and screaming and whooping and jumping…or kicking the machine.

In the end, no matter how you play, every ball ends up back in the box. Some live short intensive lives, some live long boring lives. The rest lead their lives somewhere in between. 

Every player dies eventually. Some just live longer, or more happily, or more excitingly than others.

***

I figure life is more like a pinball machine than a roller coaster. What do you think? What would you compare life to instead?

*collide-oscope?

On the eve of a new year

Hello people 🙂 I hope all your Christmases were fantastic, and wish you a brilliant last night of 2016, whatever you choose to do with it.

I’ve just got back to Berlin and am already at the second ‘party’ of the evening so I’m going to put my phone away and be marginally sociable…

I’ll leave you with a picture of a tree we drove past this morning:

Isn’t it pretty?!

The whole world was white for most of the way across Germany

On unequal injustices

I wrote this while on holiday in January. (I will aim to make the links work soon).

***

(Trigger Warning – contains information about sex-trafficking. May also contain too-much-information about periods…)

***

I was going to write a whinging, whining, self-pitying post about how stupid and mean and unfair and generally ‘meh’ it is, to not only be someone who inflates like a balloon* for the week preceding her period, but to do so while on holiday. Not only that, but to also start said period in an apartment where toilet paper has to be collected in a bucket instead of flushed down the loo. How gross is that? Also, it’s all very well peeing behind rocks when out discovering the island, ‘perioding’ is a different story, and the island im general isn’t particularly toilet friendly – the few-and-far-between public loos here close at about half past 6.

Yeah, then I watched a documentary about European sex-trafficking and underage prostitution and girls having to choose (at around 12 years old) between,
A) staying at home, where ‘home’ means in a hovel** with an outside loo or no loos at all, probably no electricity or running water, and a high chance of unemployed, abusive, alcoholic parents, with no real perspective of improvement or a decent education or a job of their own in the future
or,
B) going out into the ‘big wide world’, where ‘big wide world’ means leaving everything you know, trusting a stranger, or a cousin, (or sometimes, in the most harrowing cases, a former close friend who’s come back to fetch you), to bring you across the border to freedom, with the promise of a good job or an education thrown in, but actually turns out to be having your trust broken, having your passport taken from you at the border and being made to ‘work’ in a bordell in the backstreets of an unnamed European town (or directly on the streets) where you are likely to be drugged up and forced to do unthinkable things with uncountable, mostly rich, men who have too much at stake to report the underage, underfed, underslept ‘staff’ in their bordell of choice. One of the bordells they’d just arrested in the documentary, looks, at least from the outside, like a typical house in an upper class housing estate. Inside, behind closed doors (and closed windows), lived a group of ’24-hour prostitutes’. 24-hour-prostitutes have to be available all day every day. No respite. Instead of informing the police, the ‘clients’ complained to the bordell, the same way they would complain about a hire car: ‘this one doesn’t meet the requirements’.
This upper class housing estate is less than 20km from where I live. It unfortunately isn’t the only one of it’s kind in the world.

***

The worst part of it, really, is that I can’t do anything about it.
I am a glassblower, not a social worker, not a politician, not a judge.
I can’t make laws, and I can’t even vote for them if someone else makes them (unless they’re made in England) because I’m English living in Germany.
I speak English and German (with a tiny bit of French and Spanish for good measure), not Romanian or any of the other East European languages most of the girls speak. Even if we shared a common language, I have no idea what I could say that would help, I don’t have any experience of living in hovels or bordells or any of the other things they’ve been subjected to in their short lives.
I can’t help them escape, can’t offer them an alternative, can’t brighten their futures.
I can’t even pay someone else to help them because I’m close to broke – I will have to talk to the bank when I get home as my account seems to have a leak, or more likely, a holiday-sized hole, in it. And then I need new glasses. And to eat. And to pay the electricity bill. And the water bill. And the phone bill. And all manner of things which I pretty much take for granted as necessary for life, but which are probably unimaginable to a Romanian 12 year old…

***

If anyone has clever, or workable, ideas or suggestions for things I could actually do (apart from pray, wish and hope) please let me know.

***

In the meantime, faced with all this information, which to misquote Stefan in this article about ‘reading rape’, “I don’t even want to have in my head”, I think I’ll stick with my holiday in an apartment with the strange loo-roll laws. Maybe I’ll still complain about them, but quietly, and in the knowledge that it could be so unbelievably much worse. And I’ll enjoy the rest.
* I have friends who were less round at 7 or 8 months pregnant..

** a real hovel, not a wantable hovel like Kate lived in.