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The importance of risk and failure

A few events happened recently that pushed me to verbalize what intrinsically fuels my fire and why I make choices that I make.

Last weekend I attended Copenhagen Girls Gathering, which is an annual women-only parkour training and jam event run by Street Movement traceuses, Eva Kold Graversen and Teresa Victoria Høy. At the end of the first day (saturday), we were finishing up with a freestyle jam session at one of Copenhagen spots, which also happened to have been used during ADAPT Level 2 course earlier in the year. [ADAPT is a parkour instruction certification course, read more about it here: http://www.adaptqualifications.com]. So while everyone spread out to find their own challenges or routines to work on, Teresa pointed out a jump to me that was offered as one of the challenges at the ADAPT course. Not mindblowingly massive at all, the proposed cat-leap from the concrete wall on the outer side of the railings to the base of the lamppost, some maybe 3 meters off the ground, looked just awkward at first glance. One would have to place their dominant landing foot precisely more or less in the middle of the pole as to avoid slipping off of it entirely, followed by the other foot just slightly below, and still more or less to the middle. The hands would then follow a plot second behind and grab and hang onto the 2-2.5cm deep flat base around the lamppost. Being a rock-climber, I had very little concern about the hand “hold” (mainly just how slippery it might be – with no way of checking it beforehand). Feet, on the flip side, were raising the “what if..” questions. Perched on the railing with my feet on the take-off side of the wall, I’ve pondered about the jump for a few minutes, leaned forward as far as I could, to get the feel for the landing, got off without jumping and did other movement around the place. I came back to it some 10-15 minutes later, got myself on the take off spot again, and decided to go for it.

Now, I don’t think this is only found in parkour, I firmly believe this should be in everything, in each everyday thought when you do have to make a decision, however big or small it may be. Once you’ve made the decision, once you’ve told yourself you’re going to do something (or not), this is it. Then you do it. There is no turning back. If you keep straying away from this, it evolves quite quickly into the habit of lying to yourself. Why you make the decisions that you make, is a whole different story, but once you’re there, that’s it.

So why did I decide to jump?
In parkour (and other disciplines that imply a great share of risk of physical damage) one learns to face mental challenges as much – if not more – as physical ones. Physical side is often simpler, easier to break down to phases and steps and foreseeable and measurable results. While you can apply a similar algorithm to mental work as well, it proves to be a lot trickier and by far more individual than physical progression. Various fears pair up with physical limitations, and there you are, standing at the take off, questioning yourself if the movement is really out of your physical range at the moment, or if it’s the fear that is painting it impossible.

Fear. I find it thrilling. Ever since I started practicing parkour, I have been spending a drastically increased amount confronting my fears. Small ones, big ones, weird, common, unreasonable, etc. The more I was conversing with myself about them, the more evident the mental training became, the more aware it made me of how it affects my movement and my decision-making. I learned -actually no, scratch that,- I think I just realized one day that I love situations in which there is a need to confront fear. I really do. Not trying to sound all badass or unusual or whatever else. I honestly love getting to face my fears, because this is how I expand my limits. This is how I get deeper into my gut and get to work on the very core and the very important traits, that are at the foundation of my personality and myself as a human being. This is how I grow to understand – to a greater extent – others, their actions, and the effects of fear a little better each time I have to deal with it myself.

So back to the question – why did I go for that cat-leap? In most cases when I first look at and consider a movement or a jump, it’s almost like the fairly famous rule of the first few seconds of looking at a stranger (when subconsciously your mind makes a decision whether you’d do them or not; very quick – yay or nay). Within the first few seconds, I can typically tell if I can make it or not. If it’s a “yes”, other factors start being considered: take off, landing, height, distance, power, surroundings, stability of both take off and landing, energy levels, etc etc. It all usually goes pretty quickly: check – check – no-check -… When I first looked at the cat-leap, my immediate reaction was: definitely doable. Concern? I don’t have all that many cat-leaps to lampposts or poles, so I don’t have a measurable background of foot placement in this particular jump. With it being 3 meters off the ground….well. However, I am well aware that my body has been training to be precise in whatever movement it needs to undertake, so my reasoning was that it should be able to coordinate the positioning of itself upon landing. I even considered a bail out plan since it was fairly high for a shorty like myself, which was to show that pole some advanced koala love if my hands slip.

I looked some other way just to erase all the unnecessary visual information from psyching myself out, turned around, gave myself a few seconds to get the feel for it, brushed away the “maybe”s, focused on committing to it, looked at landing for feet, for hands, and took off.

It’s interesting how the speed of approaching the goal or landing changes from the excruciatingly slow when you’re considering the jump, to extremely fast when you actually jump. It’s just the take off and the landing. I imagine that’s what traveling at the speed of light might feel like – just the start and the finish. The landing was surprisingly perfect: my hands had a great grip on top of the base, my right foot stuck to the post like glue, left one a bit below, perfectly matched. Two more times ahead, I climbed up the wall, feeling excitement and leftover adrenaline rush. Took my time focusing on foot placement and hand grab, and went for it again. Perfect landing again.

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For the third go, we decided to film it (it was a technically challenging jump, and I’m not going to lie to you, I was proud of making it). I’ve put my feet on the take off wall again, and heard from the cameraman that the battery is on its last breath so I’ll have to do it quick. So I jumped. My first landing foot slipped just right after my hands grabbed the base, the second one followed in the same direction, essentially twisting my body sideways, and down I went. Koala plan obviously didn’t work out, but landing on my feet, or at least one of them first, my body knew to figure out, absorbing the rest of the impact in the soft of the butt, unfolding into a full lying on the back position. I got up feeling generally unhurt, aside from the landing toe that felt sprained/overextended. Slightly angry at myself for making this mistake of letting anything else dictate when my jump is to happen, I got back up onto the wall. I couldn’t just walk away after this failure. I knew I could stick it, with proper focus, and I needed that proof once again for myself, even more so after the failure. If I can stick it after the failure, with an injured foot, I definitely have this jump. I don’t think I’d exaggerate if I say that at that moment it was probably the most important thing to me. Reason being, failures result from various triggers, ranging from over-confidence to lack of confidence to lack of focus to miscalculation of physical abilities, etc. When I can pinpoint the reason of my failure, I can judge if this is something I can deal with/rule out on the spot or if it will take a longer time to conquer. In this particular case I knew exactly what caused it. I’ve let outside circumstance dictate when I need to jump, and didn’t allow myself to focus. Hence, I already knew that with enough focusing time I can definitely make the jump. It was paramount to attempt it properly again right after the failure, so as to not allow the erroneous information to overwrite the proper and positive input.

the fail-and-go clip (click)

I am not trying to make it a fit-for-all rule that everyone should attempt the same jump/movement/obstacle again right after the failure. As I have outlined above, it is very conditional on the type of your failure, and when it occurred, and how. It is very dependent on your personality as well. It takes careful consideration and inquiring within yourself to be able to know if you have it within yourself to do it right after or if this battle should be postponed. I have walked away from jumps, and from failures, before, to come back later and break them again. But sometimes you’ve got exactly the fire to do it right after.

When I got back on the other side of the railings getting ready jump again, Teresa asked if I was sure I wanted to do it. “Yes”. Not because she was there, not because there was a camera on, not because a couple of other girls were sitting there watching, not because I need to prove to someone else I can still do it, but because at that particular moment I had not a shadow of a doubt I’ll make it if I allow myself to focus. When I landed it for the fourth time, the only imperfection was that I that I didn’t hang in that landing position for a long time. I stuck it and quickly removed my right foot because oh yes it hurt to do it again.

In the span of a few days after this fail-and-go happened, I’ve experienced a few various reactions ranging from “cool” to “fool”. It raised questions like “maybe you were not ready for that jump?” and “why do you take this risk?” and alike. Valid questions. And the ones I had asked and answered to myself BEFORE I made the decision. I hope I have answered the ready/not ready part of the question earlier, and if I myself had any leftover doubt that I wasn’t ready for that jump, it definitely vanished upon sticking it after the failure.

Now, on to risk. Really, why take it?
Some take risk because they like the rush, others just shrug their shoulders in acceptance of being part of life, part of what they do. There are some that don’t really think about it, but generally those tend to generally not think at all, so we’ll skip this category (exception being Oliver Thorpe, but he is an alien so he doesn’t count).
There are of course other reasons.

To me, risk is an intrinsic part of what I chose to do. It’s just part of the whole deal, period.
Also, if you took the risk away and made it all about being aways safe, to me, that takes part of the challenge and part of the fun out of it.
So, partly, I do fit in both of those categories above.

Most importantly, however, risk is my limit-expansion test. There is reasonable risk and unreasonable risk. If I am looking at a 10-meter long jump while I am only capable of covering 2-meter distance, the risk is about 500% and doing this jump is stupid. Usually this thought doesn’t take nearly as long as it took me to type it. Usually I don’t believe this even has enough time to form into a thought even. Reasonable risk comes hand in hand with movement that is within your physical range, but also presents technical or mental challenge. Sometimes one can build a progression to getting closer to completing such movement thus minimizing the risk (with the placebo effect being in full effect as and added bonus, naturally) simply because confidence boosts performance. First day science. Sometimes, such progression is rather difficult or plain impossible. In which case, my reasoning weighs in the repercussions from such risks versus gains. In this moment if I still decide to go for it, I fully accept the potential risks, and then focus on the challenge itself.
To illustrate with the cat-leap, I knew there was a possibility of hitting the ground, and I was willing to take a potential sprain. Of course, there is always a tiny chance of limping or crawling away rather than walking, but then again, tripping over a rug on top of the stairs or twisting ankle at a dance party usually has a higher probability rate. What doing the cat-leap gave me was really worth it: new horizons, limits expanded, one more tough mental battle won. I do not regret the sprained toe, even though it’s not allowing me to train fully right now. It’s the price I knew I might have to pay, so I am cool with it. I am taking my time to work on more arm strength, core, and weighted squats meanwhile.

Not to mention that it gave me the time to write about this experience. I hope that you have gained something from it.

Last but not the least this occurrence made me reminiscence a little about meeting Yann, one of the original Yamakasi, when we went on a trip to France with my parkour speciality from Gerlev Idrætshøjskole in Denmark. Yann had a strikingly different approach to coaching than what we were/are used to, I don’t even think I’d go as far as calling it coaching, rather an introduction to the training style. Which is, in Yann’s own words, is fueled by fire. I remember a lot of moving around really fast, and overcoming obstacles at great speed and with more power than we were used to. Or at least he was trying to infect us with this lust, hunger, thirst for powerful, speedy moves. Other times he would tell you to do a movement you’ve never done before, and a big one at that, without looking at the landing, with him spotting. I got the feel that most people were quite stunned and intimidated by this style, understandably so, but there was something about it that I could completely relate to. That fire, that propels you to go forward, to break the limits, to break free.

This being said, control your fire, train smart, and bon courage!

Happy moving!

Copenhagen :: Part 3 ::

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Copenhagen :: Part 2 ::

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Copenhagen :: Part 1 :: Nyhavn and Christiania

Easter in Denmark means school is officially closed and majority of school population is gone to celebrate the four days off with family and friends. Left are a handful of Chinese students, Icelandic bunch, one UK national, and myself. Which to me logically translates into a trip to Copenhagen since the city is only an hour away by train.

Finding a host in Copenhagen was as easy as joining a photo group on Facebook (because this is where my plea for a crash space found a response).  Lightly packed backpack (relatively speaking, because photo gear), trusty two-wheeled steed, and on my way I was.

Copenhagen train station reminded me a lot of Philadelphia’s own.  Perhaps because of the proximity of water, bridges, and old buildings, although, undoubtedly, Copenhagen’s “old” has a very different definition than that of Philadelphia.  As I was pedaling farther along one of the main streets toward my destination, some parts of it started to resemble the older areas of Moscow and Saint Petersburg.  If you check out some of the photos I took on my trip to Russia last year, I think you might agree.

The layout of the city seemed pretty straightforward and logical, so I got to my destination in no time, despite my host’s prior reassurances that it’s SO FAR (8km) and there is a HUGE HILL (=speed bump in New England talk).  I also passed by a lake full of swans, seagulls, ducks, ducklings, and other birds which identification would have probably taken longer than a glance from a bike.  In a way it reminded me of the lake in Madison, WI, which we had circled around on city share bikes with Nick, Ben, and Sally, during our time off from the parkour fest.

But enough of words, please look at the photographs below. I will try to offer commentary when I feel it’s necessary.

Nyhavn (read: Newport)

Nyhavn

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Christiania. Now, this is something interesting. You can read more about it here on Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freetown_Christiania

but to sum up, it’s a self-proclaimed autonomous neighbourhood within Copenhagen with ambitions of becoming completely independent, best described by one of the pictures below which informs a visitor upon exiting Christiania, that “you are now entering the EU”, presuming that the EU laws do not apply in Christiania. More specifically, the ones pertaining to marijuana consumption and sale.

So as such, Christiania was akin to what I saw at Venice Beach in LA, and in Nederland, CO.  Not a lot of surprises, although definitely plenty eye candy and wonder.  Welcome to Wonderland :)

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The Danish Sky Hangs Low

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you might ask yourselves: and where is Dominic Willoughby? Wouldn’t he be the first candidate to hold one of those pages?

Well.

He was busy trying not to lose a foosball game, because if he had lost, he would have had to have to sit under the table in the common area, until someone (anyone not in the know) calls his name.  Gotta tell ya, never have I seen Dom so sweaty/horrified/excited than at that foosball table when he finally scored a point.  Not at a 20ft-high jump, not before or after a scary drop precision on a railing. At a foosball table.

After this interlude, please proceed to viewing the photos of the closest town (Slagelse), which is technically pretty much the distance from my apartment in Roxbury to the studio in Somerville, and some I took at Gerlev Academy.

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Food People

{disclaimer: please note that it is illegal – and hence you are not allowed to – use any images on this website, blog, and in the post without my explicit permission. that means yes, usage: electronically, online, in print, and any other format. thanks for understanding and showing your respect for my work and profession.}

A while  ago I landed an assignment to photograph a hefty bunch of food industry folk of Somerville for a publication.  Given that there were more than just a couple of “portraitees”, and the fact that there is little wiggle room for creativity with the traditional “food industry folk” photography (kitchen environment, arms folded, piercing gaze along with a fierce smile, with occasional grocery pick of the day laid out on a table with an oversized knife beside suggestively hinting that the subject has undeniably strong ties with the art of cooking=BOOOOORRRRRRING!), my first reaction was to reject all the abovementioned staples and portrait my subjects on a more personal level, preferably outside of kitchen life.  Isn’t it true that what they are like in their non-business mode affects their style and performance in the food business?

I am not claiming to have unveiled some deep psychological layers in their personalities – there would simply be not enough time, given the typical publication deadlines (“yesterday”) – but I hope I have managed to provide a new look onto their portrayed personalities.

1. MICHAEL LEVITON / Area Four

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Michael works out in a gym.  Big deal, you say, so do I and the next guy.  The gym, however, is a bit special. Located in Dorchester, it offers a “start-it-over” program for ex-offenders who are looking to turn themselves around.  Besides being a great alternative to getting in trouble in the streets for at-risk youth, the non-profit InnerCity Weightlifting gives ex-offenders professional development opportunities as fitness trainers. That kind of awareness and attachment to something bigger than yourself earns a lot of respect.


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2.  DIMITRA TSOURIANIS / Daddy Jone’s Bar

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Dimitra is a native Somervillian, so we casually walked around her neighborhood, only breaking our leisurely chatting for the photo ops:  on the stairs of her parents’ house, the [closed for renovations] Cross St Bridge…

Perhaps because of the fairly recent transition from an employee to an employer, Dimitra didn’t seem to have a virtual wall of unattainable star status [although her brilliant flight up through the ranks in restaurant business would provide more than enough ground for it], that a lot of restaurant owners carry along as their cross of choice (side note: a few of those that I happen to know personally for a while are blissfully devoid of it, regardless of the brightness of their hard-earned esteem; side side note: notice, that instead of an expected orthodox cross, Tsourianis is showing the heart in the photo below).  Scott Kearnan, a former Phoenix and Stuff Magazine writer, described Daddy Jones’ drinks as “innovative yet unpretentious”, and if the drinks are anything like bar owners, this fits Dimitra perfectly.

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3.  Paul Christie / Spoke Wine Bar

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Paul is someone who instantly puts you at ease.  A quality that should be a prerequisite for anyone setting off to summit the Olympus of tending bar.  Not the “yadude” type that presumptuously backslaps you into his “bros” club, but rather a knowledgeable and refined professional who you can rely on when choosing a glass of old world wine or deciding on a drink without the unnecessary know-it-all, snobbish, or snotty attitude thrown into your liquid mix.

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4.   Michael Dulock / M.F. Dulock

Michael is not just a butcher, not even just a local butcher.  He is a loyal butcher, to New England farms that make sure your meats come from humanely raised, grass-fed, and healthy animals, and to his customers, ensuring, on his end, that he maintains this solid link between the farms and your dinner table.

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5.  Maximus Thaler / The Gleaners’ Kitchen

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Maximus is a freegan and has mastered the art of dumpster-diving to the point when he could fetch the quantities of produce to cook meals large enough to call for an establishment.  In this case I believe I may have strayed away from my rule for this set of portraits, and got Maximus in his “business” environment; however, given the extra-ordinary nature of said environment, as well as the business itself, I think there is some room for bending the rules.

6.  Tim and Bronwyn Weichmann / Bronwyn

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7.  Ana Sortun and Cassie Kyriakides Piuma / Sarma

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Going into the shoot with Ana and Cassie, I felt well-prepared for exactly the 50% of it: I’ve known Ana since a few years ago, when I had worked at Sofra Bakery (a middle-east/mediterranean inspired cafe in Watertown/North Cambridge area), an offshoot of Ana’s Cambridge restaurant, Oleana.  Cassie, however, I didn’t retain a clear memory of, although chances of our previous meetings were pretty high, given the very closely-knit food community in Cambridge and Somerville.  It’s a mob, essentially, in all the best connotations possible (if you are going to try and tell me that the concept of old school “mob” has never had any romanticized, adventurous appeal to you, you may want to stop reading this blog altogether [it's not you, it's me, I swear]).  The moment Cassie walked into Oleana’s backyard, which I chose as our backdrop, my preparedness confidence level rose close to 100%.  It made total sense, that a strong, willful, determined, smart woman like Ana would team up with a very similar type of personality.

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8.  Kevin and Ryan McGuire / Pennypackers

The brothers’ kitchen venture is located directly across from Tsourianis’ Daddy Jones Bar, which I have posted about a few paragraphs above.

They met me one by one, first Kevin (the businessman), then Ryan (the operations), and almost instantly the theme for the portrait became this “brothers band album cover”.  They are unmistakably a team, and a good one at that.  In situations like this it is absolutely perfectly acceptable (and smart, ahem) to let the vibe emanating from your subjects dictate the premise of the photo.

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9.  Mike and Oana Bandar / East End Grill

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Photographing for Boston University: BU Mens Rowing Team practice

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Being a freelancer, and a photographer at that, I often under-appreciate what facets of life around me I am exposed through my assignments.  I do have a good habit to offset this oversight: whenever I get tired of repetitive editing of large batches of photos, I simply jump into another folder of what I had shot previously and had thought of posting/blogging about, but never came around because of perpetual lack of time at the peak of a season.

Having finally managed to get my head above the water and catching up on breathing, I also find it to be a rather opportune moment to catch up on those very postings of photographs I am proud of, but never had a chance to show them to anyone but my client.  In addition, I feel like enough time has passed between the select photos being published that I will not ruin anything by posting them on my personal website.

All in all it was a great assignment, originally designed to take a couple of hours at dawn, but  at the end of the day turned into a two-day pilgrimage for me (through the initiative by yours truly, not through the client’s whip).  Reason being,  I really wanted to capture that part of the journey which, like a good kicker or a launch platform, defines the course of the journey itself: the getting ready, the slight shivering from the early morning cold, the nervous laughter, the warm up, the planning of the last details…  And I also definitely wanted to be in the middle of the action when the boys are in boats, and boats are in water.  I ended up shooting at one evening practice with what I thought was a beautiful pre-sunset light, until I got to shoot another morning, when the light turned out to be just breathtaking. 

You be the judge.

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Russia 2013

Last time I visited Russia was in June 2009, as part of American independent filmmakers crew.  Once the project was done, and so was my traveling across all of Russia (we filmed in Moscow, Barnaul, Omsk region, Tyumen), I paid a visit to my family and my hometown.  My impressions about that trip remain documented here as well, and if you feel so inclined, you are welcome to look at the prequel here: http://www.pedalpowerphotography.com/blog/?m=200906  and here: http://www.pedalpowerphotography.com/blog/?m=200908.

Each time I come back to the motherland, the excitement from the actual travel and anticipation of some magical reunion (because it would be against the very nature of any true traveler and adventurer to deny certain nostalgic lure and romantic mist present in the idea of a reunion and coming back) runs away in terror the moment I exit passport control.  Which is a progress, indicating considerable improvement of clerk-behind-counter attitude over the past few years.  Mind you, this time said attitude was given an extra challenge: apparently my four-year old photo did not provide enough resemblance to my current facial presentation, resulting in showing of both of my passports (in Russia we have one domestic passport and one international, for over-the-border wonderings), yet yielding no help from that.  Some four or more years ago, I would have expected this to cause enough grievance to the person in uniform for them to gladly turn their “concierge power syndrome” switch on and exercise their power to veto, to deny, to say ni no. And to be rude and condescending. Not this time.  The young lady in uniform actually smiled (something you don’t find as customary in Russia as you would in the U.S., more on this cultural difference here, although I must maintain that in my opinion this is typical for any big and busy city in the world: ) and eventually let me through.

Almost immediately the general unsettling feeling starts to settle in, as each atom in the air seems to carry one and only charge: anxiety.  This is something I’ve started to pick up on consciously from the beginning of this trip.  Even when nothing seems to justify or prompt said anxiety, it still instills every bit of existence of a Russian person.  Long gone is the era of hours and days long lines for kolbasa (a Soviet take on wurst (which was a good part of a typical breakfast or lunch open face sandwich along with white bread and butter); back in soviet regime – you don’t want to know what it was made of; very close to that pink paste that circulated the social media not so long ago, exemplifying how some sausages are made), milk, bread, flour, and, sure enough, vodka; of writing the number of your spot in line on the palm of your hand and taking the virtual “headshots” of people in front of you and behind, so that when you leave in order to check on your spots in other lines, often across town, and come back, not only you would know your place in line, but your neighbors-in-arms would too, and thus won’t beat you out of the line; of trading alcohol stamps for flour or bread or sugar stamps with sadly too many of drown-your-sorrows–in-vodka proponents; of bribing anyone with even minuscule amount of power being just another fact of life, like coffee-and-muffin is a fact of mornings here in the U.S.   Those days, and years, are gone.  Seemingly gone are the days of the dictatorship regime.  But hanging in the air, like a proverbial sickle and hammer, is the iron fist of dictatorship smoke.

Gasping for air after my not-so-little-anymore brother’s bear hug, I filled my lungs with whatever oxygen was available per breathing serving in the Sheremetyevo parking lot and ducked into my brother’s black Opel (a car brand that seems to be a trusted go-to option for quite a few Moscovites; somewhat like Subaru in New England, and in VT in particular).  My nose receptors got another culture-shock punch from a decent amount of air freshener.  Ok, ok, I’ll take that over smoke!…oh, never mind, that thought evaporated quickly in the smoke from my brother’s cigarette.  Let me make this clear: everyone smokes.  And by everyone i mean everyone. 10 year-olds, females, males, drivers, passengers, cops, doctors.  My brother, his girlfriend, their friends.  Alley cats and stray dogs.  And yet again,  the feeling of inescapable impending anxiety hangs over the city like the smog from all the exhaust and the cigarette smoke.  In order to survive, let alone thrive, in this city, one would have to embrace it the same way you would handle smoke.  Embrace and inhale.  That I did, but with the window open, which now or then I still am not entirely convinced helped or brought more damage from the car fumes.

On this note, traffic laws in Moscow were best summarized by my brother: “basically, as long as you don’t ram into another car, everything else is acceptable and whatever traffic laws are merely a suggestion”.  There seemed to be a pretty strict hierarchy going on in the seemingly chaotic interchanging of lanes, which looked like some strange and mysterious race with an invisible torch/baton being passed from one car to another.  More expensive cars had highest disregard for others (I am not even mentioning law here), on my presumed assumption that if a collision were to happen, even if the rich jerk were to be at fault, you’d still be in trouble, po-po or no po-po.  Another peculiar observation: one needs to begin their lane switching whilst still moving head to head with the car in the lane of your immediate desire.  Otherwise you are stuck with where you are for…I don’t know, I’d have to guess for a very long time.  Those who know me here and have had an opportunity to experience my driving (I think Meg Bilodeaux once said: “you drive like you race bikes like you talk”; I don’t know about the racing part, but people do talk fast where I come from), you can imagine what it was like in Moscow if I say I was beyond impressed with my brother’s driving.

Traffic jams held us hostage for about an hour, leaving another hour to get to my brother’s home.   Like 93-S, that part of highway is jammed regardless of time of day or year.  In between catching up and light wit ping-pong sets, I was looking out of the window, absorbing the gloomy view of mostly gray buildings and mostly gray sky.  I realize that to someone who has no value attached to those visuals, it must sound very depressing (and trust me, that it is too!), but to me it is also tender, and empowering, and in its own way, beautiful.  My whole perception of contemporary Russia and the concept of motherland is this metaphoric image of a scowling, torn, wounded beast, once beautiful and powerful, now just plain angry, with bald patches and dried blood on its fur.  A bit dramatic, but what are you going to do…

To get used to what was my city and my home for seven years, I walked, a lot, to exhaustion.  I would take breaks in coffee shops, enough to grab a cup of coffee or hot chocolate, warm up, look through the photos I have taken, and on my way I was again.  Long, wide streets, even though slightly changed in appearance, and with some businesses or facades gone or altered, narrow alleys, stretches of park alleys – all had memories to offer, that reminded me how rich in experiences my life has been, and how most of it is free of any regret; that alone is enough to reignite my love for this city, and for this country.  Yet again am I reminded that it’s not about geography of our existence, but people, experiences, and memories that we make and weave into this fabric of life.

Here are a few of the snapshots I grabbed along my walks, some with captions, some without.  I hope they help you see Russia from just another point of view.

Pushkin monument in one of the central squares in Moscow looks down upon the two clowns.

Pushkin monument in one of the central squares in Moscow looks down upon the two clowns.

Reproductions of famous artworks hanging outside of a shopping center

Reproductions of famous artworks hanging outside of a shopping center

more reproductions hanging on the outside of commercial real estate

more reproductions hanging on the outside of commercial real estate

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proof that Moscow is too, slowly but surely, giving some way to bicycling.  It’s going to be a very long and a very painful process, but I am glad to see the sprouts!

One of the pedestrian-only streets downtown Moscow

One of the pedestrian-only streets downtown Moscow

Lenin (and other historic figures) impersonators are a common find.  Makes for a very ironic and philosophical picture in modern environment

Lenin (and other historic figures) impersonators are a common find. Makes for a very ironic and philosophical picture in modern environment

Lenin and the ever-so-busy modern crowd

Lenin and the ever-so-busy modern crowd

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Fur, matryoshkas, and Soviet artifacts stand in the Red Square – just curious, do tourists still have any lust for those?

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architecture texture

architecture texture

fancy bench and a fancy trash can in one of those pedestrian-only streets

fancy bench and a fancy trash can in one of those pedestrian-only streets

architecture texture

architecture texture

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One of many many many coffee houses in Moscow (this particular one is even called the Coffee House). Coffee shops sit atop each other on every major street in Moscow, often found in clusters of two or three different ones next door to each other, with another occasional one or two across the street. Doesn’t seem like a lot of competition, however, as all of them were packed.  Prices varied between $5-6 for a small latte, which dropped to under $2 in a small town my parents moved to (3 hrs north of Moscow by commuter rail).  Of note , as well, large portion of them are open 24/7.

Snacks and coffee inside the Coffee House. Crepes with strawberry preserves and cottage cheese (equivalent of) lightly fried patties with sour cream

Snacks and coffee inside the Coffee House. Crepes with strawberry preserves and cottage cheese (equivalent of) lightly fried patties with sour cream

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first book printing factory which also is known for the first printed book in Russia.

first book printing factory which also is known for the first printed book in Russia.

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Inside of another coffee shop (Coffeemania), which also boasts prints on its walls from a very famous and a very cherished animation movie (Hedgehog in the Fog)

Inside of another coffee shop (Coffeemania), which also boasts prints on its walls from a very famous and a very cherished animation movie (Hedgehog in the Fog)

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Cemetery trash/recycling

Cemetery trash/recycling

cemetery trail

cemetery trail

You will often find some token food and alcohol next to a deceased's tomb or grave, as a ritual offering to pay respects to the memory of the deceased.  Most graves have fences, even if purely symbolic, and a make-shift table to put the offerings onto.  It is customary to visit your relatives' graves to tidy them up.

You will often find some token food and alcohol next to a deceased's tomb or grave, as a ritual offering to pay respects to the memory of the deceased. Most graves have fences, even if purely symbolic, and a make-shift table to put the offerings onto. It is customary to visit your relatives' graves to tidy them up.

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and sometimes offerings are just that

and sometimes offerings are just that

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street musician

street musician

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GOOD NIGHT!

holidays

Today I was going to finish a post on my, well, by now, not so recent trip to Russia. But then I am supposed to do so many other things that I find myself not doing.

Like showing my affection for people by buying them more stuff.

Or buying myself stuff I want, not need, because surely, the very fact of you reading this means I’ve got my bare bases covered and then some more, in order of life priorities.

Or standing in line for That One Restaurant in the Neighbourhood to get a day’s worth serving of breakfast, which will make me go spend some more money in the gym first [because I wouldn't want to be labeled "ugly" as defined by the Concise Dictionary of Corporate] and then in stores, to make sure the majority around me agree that I am close to conforming with the definition of beauty [same reference as before].

Instead, I am sitting at laundromat and typing up these thoughts. As a side note, if I were to live strictly by the letter of what I am preaching, I’d be washing my laundry in my bathtub and drying it on a clothesline; however this would directly imply tying my hands from typing this post, and I feel it’s somewhat important to speak out about these things, even if most of my minuscule readership is the choir, because the alternative is not reaching out to anyone. And to be completely honest, I am too partial to some level of comfort, which is hopefully an honest result of balancing necessity with efficiency.

Every year, when the holiday season approaches, my entire being wants to crawl into a cave away from the so-called civilization, the mass craze about shopping, buying, spending, over-cooking, over-eating, gift-competiting, etc, etc. What “holiday spirit”? This? When you walk down any street and the flashiest, the brightest, the catchiest “decorations” are SALE and BUY signs and ads? When holiday tunes are paired up with “shop shop shop shop shop” words? When after your over-abundant Thanksgiving dinner MORE THAN HALF of the food is THROWN AWAY?! Now that’s some real holiday spirit right there. Nicely done. I am not even going to talk about the roots of the actual Thanksgiving, that had NOTHING to do with this overconsumption, with turkey itself (how the poor critter got entangled into this is still a mystery to me, and if I find more information on this, I’ll update this post), because it will send me on another raging beating around the bush. It’s not even about Thanksgiving, and it’s not about Christmas. Those are just perfect excuses to indulge into what this is about. It’s about over-consumption, self-esteem (lack thereof to be exact), and unwillingness to use the gray matter.

How much is enough? The correct answer is never, as long as it has enough selling value. On this note, I am getting kind of sick of hearing about corporate greed this, corporate greed that. Takes two to tango, ya know? Selling and buying isn’t a one party transaction. As long as you are willingly participating in this transaction, you are just as responsible for its outcome. And you are participating very much willingly. Sure enough, ads, and infomercials, and whatnot are created with the single purpose to sell you stuff; sure enough a lot of information programs consumers for exactly the wanting and buying action. But let me ask you this: are you a human being with a functional brain? Can you think for yourself? I am not using the “are you cattle?” simile because I am starting to believe that in a lot of cases the comparison would do humans a disservice… If you are unable to make conscious decisions (that’s what “corporate control” means, by the way, that you are completely incompetent of making decisions for yourself), it’s about time you start training that innate ability. You won’t survive without it. Don’t take my word for it, for it’s not mine. It’s those thousands of years of human civilization, and then millions before it, that prove it.

Corporations would not be profiting that much if consumers weren’t buying. If you were not buying into the fake images and substitutes for real values; if you were not trading your own values and your core for the comfort and reassurance that you “fit” into some made-up money-making standard; if you would think at least once a day “what would I like to be remembered for?”, “what’s my life worth?”, I am sure you would like yourself much more, and that the world would become a much better place to live. For everybody, not just you, here, now, not just you who was lucky enough to be fed, healthy, with a place to live, things to do, not at war, etc.

I’d still gather with the people close to me for the holidays, don’t get me wrong. I don’t actually crawl into a deep cave. But I wholeheartedly refuse to over-do because of the holidays. Since when is it a prerequisite that you must fill your stomach with three times its volume of food in order to have a good time with your friends or family? Sounds ridiculous, right? Then why do you do it? No over-eating, no over-consuming, no over-spending. If anything, I might increase my training dosage: after all it’s winter, and it’s cold here in Boston, training keeps you warm, and training parkour is by far the best being outdoors, free, and keeping you on your toes both physically (correction, balls of your feet is more like it, but close enough) and mentally. For any holiday season I would invite you to do exactly the opposite of what has become a sad habit: switch the direction to austerity, physical and mental health. And I encourage you to indulge in training your body, mind, and spirit this season, and every day. It will make you feel better, and will make you a better person too.

Happy training!

N