Love and life in Syria

When I visited Damascus a decade ago, I observed many times similar scenes of a comparatively free private life, despite the regime’s strong grip on politics and society. This is now unimaginable in Syria. What was gained in the 1960s/70s, is now seemingly lost. We should, however, not forget that this region has its own humanity and should not be reduced to a mere theatre of war as portrayed in the daily news. Just like the Balkans, it will eventually overcome the civil war and rebuild itself. We just cannot see this at the moment, since virtually all imagery currently coming from the Middle East is marked by pictures of war, suffering and destruction.

See more photographs on my Instagram feed.

Vanishing memories

It is more than ten years ago that I visited Damascus, a short side-trip after a conference in Amman. Recently, I went again through my overflowing hard disk with photographs taken since I could hold a camera (although I still have hundreds of Kodachrome slides and black and white negatives in their original analog formats), and found the stack of images from that four-day visit, most of which have never seen a social network from the inside. One is right above this paragraph.

Instagram, with its terrible rigueur of forcing perfectly framed landscape or portrait photographs into artificial squares (not the natural habitat of most pictures, except perhaps those of the fashion photography élite, who often work in medium format – check out Richard Avedon), was never my medium of choice. However, over time it has become clear that even the very well-established picture-takers have fallen for the overpowering popularity of the service: Magnum and VII Agencies are represented, as are the New Yorker and the New York Times picture blog. From Bruce Gilden to Chris Anderson, Ed Kashi to David Alan Harvey, high-profile photographers have hopped on the bandwagon, and now IG also offers other formats. So no reason anymore for me to limit myself to posting iPhone snaps, pushed hard through various filters to make them more trippy.

More complicated is the uploading of “normal” photos to IG. Since the service is mainly catering to mobile shooters, it doesn’t make it exactly easy to regular-camera-holders to share their work. There is no free plug-in for Lightroom, so the workflow involves a lot of resizing, exporting, copying and re-importing. What one doesn’t do for some social media presence.

To come back to my first paragraph, I decided that I would – after some due warning embedded in a few images posted to IG – post my visual memories of Damascus, a place that represented the wonderfully authentic Middle East at the time, which is now in the process of disappearing into the violent quagmire that is the Iraqi-Syrian civil war. Whatever the underlying political context, I am afraid the Middle East I was able to visit in parts – not enough – since the 1990s, is a thing of the past. You can follow these pictures on Instagram itself but I will also add some of them – without too much text – on these pages over the next days.

Bearings and how to find them (part 2)

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Where was I? Ah yes, the scents of LA’s streets and disorientation in general and in detail.

To better find my way around, I started using imaginary names for streets so I could better remember them. A fun game once you start it because there is just no end to the many permutations often strange-sounding names could end up with. Let’s take Hilgard Ave., just up from the UCLA in Westwood, leading up to Sunset Blvd. I couldn’t remember that one for the life of myself, so I turned it into Hildegard Ave. (R.I.P. Hildegard Knef, the only Hildegard I know of). Much better. And why not, given the many Germans that have put their mark on California – a story in itself, which is better read here.

From this point, no holds were barred. Unremarkable Mildred Ave. in Culver West turned into Mildew Ave., the Dashew Centre into nutty Cashew Central, Lincoln Ave. to Lockdown Ave. (had to drive around it several times on account of some police crime action), and Woodruff Ave. – where I once ended up by mistake, heavens knows why – became Dandruff Blvd., as a form of cheap revenge.

And then there was the parking ticket. Now, it is quite difficult to get a parking ticket on a motorbike in LA because parking is generally free for motorbikes. But not everywhere as I found out to my detriment. First, I didn’t park my scooter in the prescribed out-of-the-way UCLA multi-level park dungeon but on a car space. BIG mistake, which nearly set me back 50 dollars in fines (I got off after some pleading with the uni’s central parking fine admin office (this does indeed exist, since UCLA functions a bit like a small town).

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Next stop: Hollywood, right off the Chinese Theatre. I was so lucky to find a space there, right behind a large SUV in an empty mini-slot, where I could stand the Enfield in a diagonal position. It was all beautiful until I found a little piece of paper fluttering under the tachometer, after some star-hunting on the Boulevard and an excellent showing of Kubrick’s “Shining” in the Chinese. That was a whopping 90 dollars fine (they call it a parking citation), and no way getting out of that one. However, I managed to wriggle out of the extra 15 dollars they wanted from me because the rental service hadn’t bothered with a proper number plate. Seems a lot of Angelitos are driving around without correct number plates.

I had a lot more fun driving around on two wheels in LA. This includes:

  • nearly ending up on the freeway (prohibited for Vespa drivers) after taking a wrong turn – had to push the bike back on the sidewalk (yes, LA has sidewalks, no matter what you’ve read about this car-crazed city)
  • driving around by night after some party or late-night movie, and passing several times some obvious crime scenes, with police cars swarming around
  • repeatedly, having really fun conversations with strangers who would stop next to me (both motorbikes and cars) or cross the road at a red light in front of me (pedestrians – yes, there are pedestrians in LA, no matter what…) and ask me things like: what is the horse-power of your ride; top speed; how fast off the mark; where did you buy it; and: is it really a vintage (in the case of the Enfield).

All in all, it was worth it. Apart from the one time when I tried to turn right a bit too close to the curve and fell into a ditch (a small ditch – the asphalt had crumbled near the sidewalk), I never had any issue exploring LA on two wheels, and really don’t regret having had the idea. In fact, even the ditch experience had a positive side-effect, namely that I found out how friendly Angelitos really are – when I had to get up and stand the Vespa back on its wheels (it didn’t even have a scratch), several people rolled down their windows and asked if I was alright and whether I needed any help. Even though the lights had already turned to green. Quite wonderful.

Perhaps the only regret I have is that it was much too cumbersome to explore the entire city on a bike. The city is so large that every ride took forever and since the freeways were barred for me, it would have taken me nearly two hours just to drive to Downtown. So I didn’t see as much as would have liked to. Oh well, next time.

The first part of this post can be found here.

Bearings and how to find them

Golly! While browsing through my blog posts, I discovered that (a) I haven’t posted anything since mid-2014 (shame on me), and (b) a draft article that I wanted to post as a follow-up to my scary scooter moments in LA.

Should I throw it away? Should I post it anyway, with more than a year’s delay? Blogging is such a time-consuming affair but every PR person tells you that you should keep it up regularly and be always up-to-date. I am such a PR person. Still, I can’t abide by my own rules.

Well, I decided to post it. My draft wasn’t finished so I had to come up with a few memories to conclude the story, like those movie-makers who have to replace an actor deceased in the middle of the shooting with a stuntman or, nowadays, a digital copy. I mark the transition with [2015]. And here goes!

Week 3. In the meantime, I have spent a whole weekend driving a rented motorbike to get some more experience driving around LA, so I am starting to get the hang of it. As long as I don’t stray too far from the areas that I know. Because here’s the catch: my biggest challenge is orientation. I couldn’t find my bearings if you paid me for it. At least not at first. Or at second.

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The Royal Enfield I rented in LA for a weekend.

Landmarks are no use to me. In the first week, I found myself turning regularly left where I was supposed to go right, simply acting on the fact that I spotted what I believed was a landmark – a café bar called “The Bean Factory.” Except that it was the wrong landmark. What I had remembered was a parking lot with a big sign on it saying “Angry Bear Corner” or something. How I managed to mix these up, I don’t know.

But this is a thing of the past. By now, I know not to turn left at the Beans but at the Bear. I remember the “dips” in the road (probably earthquake damage) where I need to brake and learned that the [2015] right-turn to the UCLA was coming up when I passed the smell of the dry cleaners of Sepulveda Bd. Because this is the thing when you’re driving around a city on a two-wheeler – there are all these scents in the air. Others on my daily route to uni were:

  • the spicy scents emanating from the Mexican restaurant, day and night, on the corner Washington Bd. to Sepulveda
  • the horrid fumes of burning asphalt below the Santa Monica Freeway crossing with Sepulveda, from the never-ending road works on that spot (which regularly gave me the edge over car drivers as I would weave my work through 2 miles of traffic to the front of the queue), and
  • the delicious scent of coffee wafting in the air when I approached the Bean café, accompanied by the welcome sights of the “Persian Square” (on Westwood Boulevard between Wilshire and Pico), with its saffron-ice cream parlours and advertisements in Farsi for Iranian lawyer services.

And then I would arrive at my destination. Sometimes.

Hang on, there are some more notes from this 2014 post, so I’ll write about these in part 2.