Madrid and Traveling Alone

On the 2nd of March, I took a plane to Madrid. One of my favorite singers, Dodie, was going on a tour around Europe in late February/early March 2019. Although she unfortunately didn’t include Portugal in the tour, there was a date in Madrid, to which I’d never been. It was the first time that I traveled out of country by myself. I didn’t take anyone with me, and I wasn’t meeting anyone there. I was completely alone. It was something I had wanted to do for a long time, and it felt like a personal achievement to finally put it in practice.

I admit that traveling to a neighboring country, where you understand basically 95% of what people say because of similar languages, where you understand the culture, and where you’re just going to spend one night is not that big of an adventure. But for me, a quite cautious and nervous girl, it was the perfect first step to acquaint myself with the concept of traveling alone, and feel more secure when planning a bigger solo adventure somewhere in the future.

The first day

Since I work Friday nights and the cheapest flight on Saturday morning departed at 6 am, I slept for maybe two and a half hours (the half hour was on the plane). Very tired but extremely excited, I took the metro when arriving and exited near Parque de El Retiro, a huge and beautiful park.

I had decided not to see any museums, as I only had two days to see the city and I wanted to walk around the streets as much as possible. But in the middle of the El Retiro park I found the Velázquez Palace, which was showing Dierk Schmidt’s work, a small but very interesting exhibit. And right next to it is the Crystal Palace, which was holding an even smaller but beautiful exhibit called Invisibles. The entrance was free in both and I spent maybe 30 minutes in both of them combined. Although I believe you should strive to make the most of the little time you have during a weekend trip, going with your instincts and deviating from the plan can give you some happy little surprises. I’m very glad I gave these a chance instead of writing off all museums due to a “lack of time”.

After lunch, I went on an improvised solo tour through some of the Plazas that several people and travel blogs had told me to see: Plaza de Cibeles, Puerta del Sol, Plaza Mayor, and a few others. These parts of the city were absolutely crowded with tourists. In some of the most famous places, it was hard even to walk around. After a while, I decided to stop following Google Maps and walked around with no clear direction. That’s when I started to run into empty streets and plazas with more locals than tourists – I started feeling like I was actually in Madrid.

I don’t want to go into much detail about the concert, but I feel like I should say it was wonderful and I’m not ashamed to admit I even shed a tear or two… or ten. After the concert, I enjoyed a beer and some calamares at the bar right below the hostel while still reeling from the wonderful glee that only listening to some of your favorite songs on a live performance can bring. Due to the lack of sleep, though, my brain quickly started begging for some rest, and it didn’t take long for me to go to my room and collapse.

The second day

As I’d seen most of the north part of the center the day before, I went south this time. After spending almost an hour just to get through a small part of the El Rastro flea market, I visited Puerta de Toledo and Puente de Toledo. Heading back north, I quickly checked out the Santa Maria a Real de Almudena Cathedral and the Royal Palace. The line to get in the palace was huge, and I didn’t feel like spending the whole day there, so I decided just to see it from the outside.

After eating the small sandwich I called lunch while sitting in front of the palace, I went on my merry way to see Plaza de Oriente, Plaza del Callao, the Sabatini Gardens, Plaza de España, and then headed to Parque del Oeste to check out the Temple of Debod.

Parque del Oeste was another wonderful park, full of people relaxing in the sun and having some drinks. I had previously thought that I would keep walking around for a couple more hours after seeing this park, but I was extremely tired and the thought of walking for just one more minute gave me psychological cramps. Instead, I laid down in the grass and enjoyed the warm winter sun for the time I had left before I had to leave to the airport.

I found Madrid to be a colorful city, full of life and movement. What I enjoyed the most (beside the concert, of course) were the parks I visited and how they were completely brimming with all kinds of different people. People of all ages taking a stroll, riding bikes, jogging, roller skating, drinking cheap sangria, reading, sleeping, having picnics, playing sports, and, of course, tourists like me carrying a camera and looking everywhere around them.

Now, reflecting on the experience of traveling alone, I did learn a few things: 1) it’s surprisingly much more tiresome; and 2) it’s incredibly stupid to forget to bring a book.

I definitely wasn’t expecting 1), but it made perfect sense after I thought about it. First, because when you’re walking with someone, it’s normal to have a tendency to walk more slowly than when you walk alone. After two hours of walking slowly, you’ll be less tired than after two hours of walking fast.

Second, when you walk with friends, you talk. Maybe not all the time, but mostly you’ll be engaged in conversation, whether about what you’re seeing or something entirely unrelated to the city you’re visiting. And talking distracts you. This means that when visiting a new city alone you are perhaps more attentive to your surroundings, but it also means that you are more attentive to your feet/legs/back pain after walking for hours.

Moreover, when traveling with other people, there’s a tendency to have more breaks – not only will you take a break when you want to, but also when they want to, and both combined will happen more often than the breaks you take alone. Especially if you are stupid like me and forget to bring something to entertain you in those breaks, which brings me to number 2).

Since I was only going to have two days to see the most of Madrid, I never once considered the possibility that I would need something to kill time – more time was what I thought I’d be needing. I forgot to account for the time I would spend resting because my feet were killing me. Using google maps to guide me basically 80% of the time (because my spatial orientation is complete crap), my phone ran out of battery quite fast, so there was no reddit or instagram or other phone apps available.

Being entertained by your own thoughts is perfectly fine for a while, but after a whole day you start to crave some external stimulus. People watching is fun, but you eventually grow tired of it, especially when 99% of people you see are tourists doing the exact same things as you were just doing. Taking pictures is obviously wonderful, but it doesn’t help much if you bring a film camera with just two rolls of film because you’re on a budget.

Resting at Parque del Oriente during the last hours of the last day was when I felt the peak of my frustration for not taking a book with me. I can mumble some “Portuñol” (a kind of mix between Portuguese and Spanish that both Portuguese and Spanish people mostly understand) and understand enough Spanish to get by. However, reading a book in Spanish is asking too much of my brain, especially during such a tiring couple of days. And, while it makes perfect sense, I could only find books in Spanish in the two bookstores and one book fair that I visited. Next time, there will be no question – a pocket sized book will definitely be the first think I pack.

Overall, I am extremely happy with this little trip. It was close enough to home to make me feel safe, and far enough to make me feel like I wasn’t home. It was quick enough as to not feel lonely, and long enough to visit everything I’d wanted. The center of Madrid can easily be seen in two days, as long as you don’t spend hours inside museums (which I admit I usually do in my travels). I feel like I have learned quite a bit about traveling by myself, and I plan on using this knowledge for my next solo adventure – which I’m already planning!

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Little wooden mannequin experiment

I recently organized a creative evening with my friends. It’s when I bust out my forgotten-during-the-rest-of-the-year art supplies and gather friends in my living room with clay, watercolors, brushes, crayons, colored pencils, gouaches, and different types of paper, and just spend an afternoon/evening having fun. None of us are artists, or even paint/draw/sculpt as a hobby. We just like to have fun together, and being creative is a wonderful way to have fun every once in a while. I wish it was a more regular thing, but unfortunately our schedules are rarely compatible.

For this last one, which was during the Christmas season, I decided to buy one of those little wooden mannequins that help artists draw human figures. It’s relatively cheap and I wanted to give our non-artist-selves a little bit of artistic inspiration. Studying the mannequin while trying to draw it, though, gave me a few ideas for a sort of photography project.

I won’t go into much detail, as it’s still basically just a vague idea in my head, but I’m thinking of starting a photography project that involves that little wooden mannequin. I am, however, still very much in the newbie-part of shooting film photography. So, I decided to take some “test” shots. I basically did a small “photoshoot” with the mannequin while trying different lights, different angles, different poses, and different aperture and shutter speed settings. It helped me to understand what I could do with the mannequin and everything around it in order to better plan my project and eventually put it into practice.

It was a wonderfully useful shoot and I did end up with a few photographs that I like, so I’ve decided to share them in this tiny little space on the web. You can see the few photos I liked best from that experiment here. In this post, I can give you a sneak peak of a “shameless selfie” with my mannequin.

I do want to name this mannequin. As you can probably tell, with Zoe and Sophie, I enjoy naming objects. What do you think I should name him? It’s a him, by the way. If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them!

First black & white roll

Some time ago, I decided to try shooting a black and white film roll for the first time. I must say, it was extremely difficult. Not the mechanical part of it, of course, as the type of film will affect nothing of the process of focusing and pressing the shutter. The terribly difficult part is trying to not see colors.

When you shoot with a digital camera, you basically always shoot color and then later, in post-processing, you may see a couple of photos that you think look good in black and white. With color film you can do the same, though I’ve personally rarely tried it – and never liked the results.

While shooting black and white film, however, there is no post-processing to make it colored later (I mean, it’s possible, but much more difficult). Thus, there is extra pressure to make sure that the photo actually works in B&W. If you shoot black and white film and a photo doesn’t work in black and white, the photo doesn’t work. Period.

I imagine that, back when color film was rare, photographers would be so used to shooting in B&W that they learned how to instinctively find the shots that work in black and white. Today, I believe not a lot of people can, especially people without any training in art/design/photography, like me. We see the world in color and we’ve become so accustomed to having cameras that capture color, that it becomes incredibly hard to remind our eyes to see in black and white. At least, that’s exactly what I felt when shooting this roll.

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While I walked around town with Zoe, I kept being distracted by colors and I’d get the urge to shoot whatever it was. It took half a second, every time, to remind myself that what I was so eager to shoot wouldn’t be a good photo in B&W.

A bright red trash can against a vibrant green tree – wouldn’t work. Without the contrast created by the red and green colors, I’d just be taking a photograph of a trash can and a tree. A nun holding a pink umbrella while waiting for the crosswalk light to turn green – wouldn’t work. Without the unexpected pink contrasted with the black habit, I’d just be photographing a nun.

I’m not saying I wouldn’t have been able to take good B&W photographs of the trash can or the nun, but the reason that I was drawn to take those photos in the first place was because of the colors.  And, worst of all, every time I reminded myself that I was carrying a B&W roll, I got disappointed for missing out on those photographs. I realized I needed to train my eyes to see in B&W, to evaluate the world around me in a different way than what I’m used to.

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I’ve been told that, when shooting B&W, it’s necessary to focus on textures, rather than colors. So, I tried to visit places that I’ve considered too dull to photograph in the past. And still, most photos of those places turned out boring, because I was still having a lot of difficulty finding things that I felt would work in B&W.

I tried photographing strangers, as I thought people would be good subjects for B&W, but I forgot to remind myself that I couldn’t depend on color to make them stand out against the background. A person in a dark blue sweater against some green bushes in the shade will just look like a floating head, because the dark blue and the dark green will look very similar in B&W.

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It was hard when I was shooting, and it was hard when I got the developed photos back. I wasn’t expecting much (I knew the photos wouldn’t be good), but it was still a bit disappointing to see the results. However challenging, though, it was also a very interesting learning experience for me. After all, it’s by doing difficult things that one learns and grows. And this was definitely difficult.

I think I’ll try to practice photographing in B&W with my digital camera for a while before I try it with film again. This little hobby is not cheap, and I definitely need to train my eyes a lot more before buying more B&W rolls. If you have any tips on how to shoot B&W film, please let me know, I desperately need them!

Double Exposure

A few days ago, I decided to embark on a new little adventure. I’d seen hundreds of beautiful double exposure photos and thought, why not try this myself?

Double (or multiple) exposure is the superimposition of two (or more) images to create a single image, which can be done in-camera or in post processing. I’ve never tried to do it in post processing (except maybe once or twice in my tennage-angst-filled “emo” avatars on the online forums I frequented back in high school), but I was itching to try it in-camera with Zoe.

With film cameras, double exposures are made by exposing the same portion of film twice. From what I gathered, there are two main ways of doing this:

  1. You can take a photograph and somehow (the actual steps in this are different from camera to camera) take another photograph in the same portion of film; or
  2. You can shoot a whole roll and then rewind the whole thing to shoot it again from the beginning.

The first way gives you a little bit of an advantage, because taking the two photographs one after the other will help you understand how to frame the second one to get the most out of the first one you just took.

Yet, even after watching dozens of youtube videos and reading plenty of film photography blogs and websites with all kinds of different techniques for different types of cameras, I have yet to make any of them work. Zoe locks the shutter until the film roll is advanced, and nothing I’ve tried has made her unlock it without advancing the roll. Once, I even managed to ruin half a roll of film just trying to do this.

Thus, I tried the second way: rewinding the whole roll back to the beginning and shooting again. There are also two ways to do this:

  1. You can use a permanent marker to mark the first frame edges on the film, so that you can align the roll perfectly in the second time shooting – which will make sure your first and second row of photographs are aligned with each other; or
  2. You can “freehand” it and not mark anything, letting fate do its thing and hoping for good results.

For this first little experiment, I was brave enough to try the free way. Without marking anything, I shot a whole roll. The first row of photographs were of different “background” subjects: some of my piano, plenty of trees, a few of flowers and bushes, and some of paintings and book shelves.

After rewinding the roll up to almost the end, I shot the second row, which were basically only photos of my beautiful and very patient friend who stood against her living room window to produce a silhouette.

As was predictable, because I didn’t align the roll perfectly, the shots were also unaligned, which means that each photo of the second row ended up in the middle of two photos of the first row. I knew this was a possibility, and was not in any way disappointed. In a way, this made a few of the results very interesting, as the tip of my friend’s silhouetted nose or eye would fall precisely on the black strip between two photos.

Therefore, in most of these photos there are actually three photos (or exposures). Two of the first row, each cut in half, and one of the second row. This wasn’t planned – I admit unapologetically that I didn’t plan any of these shots – but I’m really happy with the results. For a first try, at least.

One thing I tried to keep in mind was that a double exposure exposes twice – which means the film will be exposed to double the light. This is why every blog, article and video recommends that double exposure photographs be shot in lower exposure than what would normally be the ideal. I followed this guideline and overall I think it worked out okay.

The photos aren’t great in themselves. But the experience of shooting this was a wonderful little learning project for me, which makes me exuberantly happy with the results – even if they’re not actually good.

Hospital Ship Gil Eannes

In Viana do Castelo, a lovely city in Portugal, there is an extremely interesting boat-museum, the Hospital Ship Gil Eannes. I happened to stumble upon it with a friend, while visiting Viana do Castelo for other reasons. Fortunately, I was carrying Zoe.

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The ship was a hospital and support ship for the Portuguese White Fleet. Built in 1955, it provided a wide range of services such as a hospital, tug, icebreaker, mail ship and supply ship. Between 1963 and 1973, it also started to operate as a passenger and reefer ship during the periods between the codfish fishing seasons.

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After its last trip in 1973, the ship lost its functions, staying abandoned for many years and intended to be demolished for scrap. In 1997, a campaign to save the historical ship from demolition was launched and, in 1998, Gil Eannes was restored with the support of several institutions, private companies and citizens. Part of the ship was turned into a youth hostel, while the rest was restored according to the original features and became the museum.

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This was a very lucky find for us. We were in Viana for a concert and spent the night there. The next morning, we went sightseeing before going home and saw this big ship with a sign saying “Museum” and went inside just to check it out. It ended up being one of the most interesting museums I’ve visited in a while. The entrance fee is cheap, and we spent 2 hours there just looking at everything. There’s a specific path you are taken through (by following arrows) to see the engines, the captain’s quarters, the helm, the operating rooms, the sick bay, the cafeteria, and everything else. There were also a few exhibitions: photographs of the time when the ship was in function; science exhibit about sea pollution; examples of many different sailor knots; and others. It was quite a find and we left exuberantly happy with our visit.

My creative process

I was watching the Art of Photography video about self portraits and decided to try it myself, after discovering that Zoe has a timer for her shutter! Ted Forbes, who runs that channel, also talks a lot about environmental portraits, and how one can involve the environment around the person being photographed to say something more about them. I was also heavily influenced by his video on photo sequences and how a sequence of a few photos can tell a story or expand more on a concept. So, this little experiment is a kind of mixture of all those photography concepts combined.

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Self portrait(s): I guess I can call these photos a self portrait (or even each photo as its own self portrait, I guess?), as I am photographing myself in a way that I feel actually represents me (except for the foot… maybe). The fact that I barely show my face is definitely on purpose.

Environmental (self) portrait: I feel that these photos can also somewhat be considered environmental portraits, I guess, because of the way I involved my piano. Music has always been a huge part of my life, and is my absolute most beloved hobby. I still haven’t gathered the courage to share it in this little blog, because there’s an underlying feeling of incompetence that for some reason feels a bit more pronounced than in my other hobbies. Maybe one day I’ll take one hundred deep breaths and be able to press that publish button to share a bit of this hobby with you. Maybe.

Photo sequence: When I was taking these photos, I didn’t take them in the order that they ended up in this improvised photo sequence. I know that for these types of projects, a bit of planning beforehand is recommended, to understand the concept that is being explored and how to best make it work. But, when I was taking these, I was only thinking of getting a self portrait, and I took different photos in order to find the one that I felt best represented me. I thought about different feelings when taking each photo:

1BI don’t think anyone can tell, but in this first picture I am actually looking at the camera, just with my hair in front of my face. I was trying to convey the shyness I feel when thinking about showing my music to the world. Sharing one’s creation is extremely frightening, but thinking about doing it anonymously kind of subsides that horrible feeling of vulnerability.

2BWith the second picture I was trying to show the feeling of defeat when one is trying to create something and nothing seems to be working. In this case, that feeling of wanting to give up when nothing seems to sound the way you want it to.  When you try hundreds of different things and nothing feels right. It’s a constant for me. This was actually the first picture I took of these.

3BIn the third picture, I was trying to express the feeling of immersion when you are listening to music (whether your own creation or someone else’s) that feels absolutely right, that pushes all the right buttons and gives you chills. That experience of being almost inside a musical piece, almost living it while listening to it, and the absolute joy that it is when you create something that works like that for you.

4BThe last picture wasn’t supposed to be a part of this set. I took three more photographs with this concept – playing the piano with limbs other than your hands: one with my elbow, one with my knee, and one with my head. The head one was very similar to the second picture of this bunch though, and the other ones didn’t work out that well. But when I looked at them after development, I realized what I was actually trying to convey with them. When you try something enough times and it still doesn’t work… you try something different, something that you’d never even considered, that might have even sounded ridiculous before. And sometimes, it works. Sometimes, that little experiment that you did just for fun, just to take a breather from your normal way of doing things, is actually exactly what you needed, is actually exactly what finally works.

It was when looking at these photos after they came back from the lab that I realized that none of these photos felt exactly right on their own. Sure, they could work, but I feel like they work best together – for me, at least. They express my feelings about music and about myself in regards to my own music. A process that loops around being shy, wanting to give up, immersing myself, and trying different things. Of course the order varies, but I believe all these steps are part of my creative process. And so, that is what I decided to name this little experiment of a photo sequence:

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Quick note: you may notice these photos were cropped to be squares. This was done for two reasons: first, I believe that this final result of the four photos together works best if they are squares, as it makes the final picture also a square. Second, there were some objects in the left part of the frame that I didn’t notice as I was taking these with a timer, and I felt that they were too distracting.

Overall, this was definitely an extremely interesting experiment. Despite the somewhat serious tone of my text so far, I even feel like this sequence is kind of funny. In a way, it also expresses a bit of the frustration one can feel when creating something. I must admit I am quite happy with how these turned out. I will try more self portraits, more environmental portraits, and more photo sequences in the future, perhaps disconnecting them from one another. Yet, I definitely recommend you try something like this! It’s a wonderful way of figuring out how to express who you are. I must say I’m extremely glad that this is the way I decided to introduce myself for the first time here.

A day at another beach

Now that summer is ending, I thought I should reminisce about the only day that I went to the beach to do stuff that people usually do at the beach: lay around in the sun, play volleyball, go for a swim in the ocean, annoy the people around me with my incessant playing of the ukulele… wait, other people don’t do that? Weird.

I went to a beach near Lisbon (during the weekend I spent there) in Costa da Caparica and, to celebrate my first day at the beach in around 3 years (besides that other time, which was only to take pictures), I had some fun with Zoe.

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If I’m being honest, I’m not a huge fan of the beach. I don’t like being under the sun for more than an hour, as I get sunburned really easily, so I need to keep applying sunscreen or just give up and go to the shade (which I always eventually do). The sea is the only redeeming quality and even then, only if it’s calm – I don’t like big waves ever since I was “attacked” by one when I was very little. I must confess I only went to the beach because my friends were dying to go and I had gone to Lisbon to be with them, so I made an effort to try to enjoy it. I didn’t adore it, but I also didn’t hate it – the company got me through it. And my ukulele.