It’s hot and crowded on the Piazza San Marco in Venice, but through the lens of your 3 by 5 inch iphone screen, the sun and tourists are just players in your photographic imitation of grandeur. Your boyfriend - let’s call him Billy – wanders off toward the Grand Canal but you remain still amid the shuffle, poised to grab a slice of the visual feast. A bird catches flight. You snap the photo, put a filter on it, and think how pretty your lives are.
But before you can send it to Instagram your moment of beauty dissolves into cliché: between you and the Basilica, a herd of tourists hold up their smartphones. They snap at the birds, they snap at the buildings and with their faces planted to their screens, they silently populate the interweb with a stream of filtered photos no more or less special than yours.
Which is to say that it’s hard these days not to associate the multitude of romanticized digital memories with our tech-centered culture of documentation. Yet it’s worth remembering that we’re not the first in history to divert our attention from the present moment to the encapsulated, digestible beauty of the Picturesque. That filtered and vignetted instagram photo, if remarkably contemporary, is an expression of an enduring desire to frame the visual world with the goal of making it pleasant to look at. It’s an expression of an enduring desire to capture experience, affecting as it is elusive, into a vision that’s worthy of our idealism.
Long before we applied filters to our moments there was the Claude Glass. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the pocket-size mirror rose to popularity its capacity to imitate the glow and gradation of a Baroque-era painting. Its darkened glass lowered the color key of a given land or street ‘scape, accentuating prominent features and playing down specifics while its rounded and convex form would create a vignette. In the time it takes today to snap a photo of a sun-lit canal, yesterday’s romantics could transport the “mellow tinge” of French painter Claude Lorraine’s sun-swept and utterly self-contained masterpieces to a city or pastureland of their own.
In the summer of 2013, I wrote two columns of non-fiction articles for Nowheremag.com. For Nowhereland, I unearthed stories that took place in airports and airplanes. For Pack It, I wrote about travel products. Below are some of my favorites.
Nowhereland: The Zen of Sir Alfred
For eighteen years, Mehran Katrimi Nasseri, who called himself Sir Alfred Mehran, occupied his corner of Terminal One in Charles de Gaulle Airport with a Zen-like resignation to the quiet trappings of routine. It’s been said that if he wasn’t reading from books on politics, he could be seen sitting, staring, on his red bench between a mound of cargo boxes, his mustache impeccably trimmed and his gaze steadied beneath a heavy brow, watching travelers rush to and from their final destinations.
Evidence says Mehran could have left the Paris airport if he wanted to. Several years after he arrived in 1988, a prominent Parisian lawyer argued his case, ultimately awarding him identity documents and the right to travel. But then Mehran refused to leave, although it’s unclear why. Confusing as the bureaucracy of his situation was, evidence points to the fact that Mehran was also becoming more and more comfortable with this life in nowhereland, where he was free to spend his days as he pleased. He accepted meals and occasionally money in exchange for his tale—an increasingly tangled tapestry of details from his past that he was known to string together through the narratives of reporters who’d written about him (he kept the articles in his cargo boxes). By the time Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal was released some sixteen years later, his life in the airport had become more than an identity. His predicament was also his fame.
Mehran’s journey to the red airport bench began around 1972 after the death of his physician father, when it was revealed to him that he was the illegitimate child of a Scottish nurse. Chastised by his family, Mehran left home for a university in England where he soon became involved in political protests, an endeavor that ultimately saw him banned from returning to his home country.
Eventually Mehran was awarded refugee status by the UN yet he claimed he never received the papers. What did happen to the papers became irrelevant the longer Mehran stayed in Charles de Gaulle, which he left in 2006 only due to an unspecified illness. What began in the hands of airport bureaucracy ended in legend—one of a man seemingly at ease with the sterilized, transitory pace of airport life. You could hardly call it a layover.
Nowhereland: New York v. Wild
The quack of geese echo through the marshland air of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, but they do little to silence the chug of boats and trains across the river in New York City. Look across the water and you can see the skyline of Queens. Look up, and if you don’t see a bird you’re likely to see a plane, taking off from JFK Airport or LaGuardia just a few miles away. Where the city has nature and man divided, in the sky both have free reign. Without paths and borders, birds and man collide – literally – flying into each other at high velocity a few times each year. We’re still not sure who’s winning.
It was in 2004 that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) began to exterminate geese from the New York Metro Area in response to bird strikes by aircraft, which had damaged planes at LaGuardia nine times in the five years prior. Although most collisions don’t force emergency landings, they do have the potential to dent fuselages, shatter windshields and ruin engines. In January 2009, just three miles into a New York flight bound for Charlotte, NC, a flock of geese hit the plane and forced Capt. Chesley Sullenberger to land the vessel on the Hudson River. In the year that followed, 1,276 geese were removed from the city.
Turtles have also been known to wander from the Jamaica Bay into the domain of airplanes, but their removal from the tarmacs have paled in comparison to the smotherings of eggs and the gassings that have taken place in the removal of geese, who are often targeted in the early summer months, when they lay sedentary in the local New York City parks. As recent as this July, geese were rounded up into crates at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge to be euthanized and shipped to meat pantries. To some, this is a necessary measure to ensure air passenger safety and prevent future strikes. To others, it seems cruel to kill birds with no intention in leaving the sky they have occupied since long before they were joined by the hum of the plane engine.
The four-hour journey began for Victor Alvarez Molina with a phone call. Leave Cuba, his wife warned him. Though it remains unclear what desperate circumstances were behind the call that impelled the 22-year old Havana Airport employee to flee his native country in 2002, what we know is that it wasn’t long before he had tucked himself inside the landing gear of an airplane bound for Montreal, Canada. Stowaways of his kind have about a 20 percent chance of survival, and with only a windbreaker as his carry-on, Molina was ill-prepared against the potentially fatal temperatures which would drop to as low as -55 degrees Fahrenheit after the plane took off into the stratosphere. In his hand he clutched a picture of his daughter, and in his mind’s eye a rose-colored image of Montreal, bearing the faint promise of freedom and economic opportunity. For more than four hours he prayed, hoping to survive a journey that for most ends in death.
Terrified, deprived of oxygen and becoming hypothermic, Molina cozied up to a leaky heat pipe for air. He might not make it there alive, and if he did, he also couldn’t be sure that Canada would even accept him. In 2000, a Cuban refugee like himself was sent home from France after the courts rejected his application on the grounds that he didn’t have adequate proof of oppression. The man, Roberto Viza Egües, had crept through security into an Air France storage container to escape a death threat tied to his involvement in a political dissident group called the February 24 movement. By the time he arrived in Paris, Egües had miraculously endured 14 hours of below-freezing cold and low oxygen, only to be sent back to Cuba where lived in fear of being persecuted.
Victor Alvarez Molina stumbled onto the tarmac of the Dorval Airport in Montreal, exhausted and unable to speak in his hypothermic condition. All things considered, he was extraordinarily lucky: he managed not to be crushed or to fall from the landing gear, not to freeze to death or to suffocate in the thin air. On the ground, he was treated for hypothermia, ultimately being granted refugee status by the Canadian government. Today, he works as an auto repair man, is learning French, and dreams of his wife and daughter flying north to join him in Montreal, ideally under friendlier circumstances.
Nowhereland: Wind, Sand and Stars
This story for Nowheremag.com was informed by an episode that would inspire Antoine de Saint-Exupery to write Le Petit Prince. Find his memoir here.
The pilot’s seat can be a lonely place. The desert, something else entirely. At noon the sun burns, boiling the expanse of sand that blows across the dunes and mercilessly into the faces of the two pilots, whose fallen aircraft releases a faint pipe of smoke, dissolving into the heat like a mirage. Their maps are poor and so they wander. No sign of water, no houses on the horizon that would point to civilization. They check their food supply. Two oranges, some grapes, a thermos of coffee, a handful of crackers, chocolate, a small portion of wine and a day’s ration of water. It occurs to them they may never leave. The nights are cold in the Sahara Desert.
The two pilots, Antoine de Saint-Exupery and Andre Prevot, had crashed en route to Saigon from Paris in an attempt to break the speed record for a prize of 15,000 Francs. That morning had found Saint-Exupery at the control panel navigating through clouds above cities, jungles and mountains from the first glint of dawn on December 30, 1935. Saint-Exupery delights in the freedom of life above the earth.
His joie de vivre does not escape him when he meets the desert ground, but its purpose intensifies by the hour. The golden expanse offers little consolation to he and Prevot, and so he looks inward for solace. “I was no more than a mortal strayed between the sand and stars, conscious of the single blessing of breathing. And yet I discovered myself full of dreams,” Saint-Exupery would later reflect in his memoir, Wind, Sand, and Stars. The physical world soon tightens its grip, however. Days of dehydration find Prevot and Saint-Exupery seized by nausea and hallucinations. One day, Saint-Exupery has a vision of a little prince who has come to earth from his little planet far away.
Nearing death, Saint-Exupery and Prevot see the silhouette of a figure on horseback in the distance. The figure is a Bedouin man, from Libya, and his face glows with humanity. He has come to rescue them.
“All my friends and all my enemies marched towards me in your person,” Saint-Exupery recalls. “It did not seem to me that you were rescuing me: rather did it seem that you were forgiving me. And I felt I had no enemy left in all the world.”
Pack It: Grundens Raincoats
If the fishermen of the coastal village Grundsend, Sweden, had the choice of run-of–the-mill raincoats back in 1911, surely they’d still have made their own. To combat the engulfing rainstorms in the North Sea, Carl A. Grunden, with the help of the fathers, sons, and husbands of the Scandinavian coastlines, produced oil-soaked garments known as oilskins. A process that encompassed 28 days of dipping and drying guaranteed these waterproof jackets were utterly impermeable to moisture, keeping fishermen dry in downpours, save for their own sweat.
Today, Grundens uses rubberized fabrics instead of woven canvas and coat their raingear with water-repellant PVC instead of linseed oil. After more than a century of tinkering and material upgrades, they have gained a reputation for manufacturing the finest weatherproof, professional-grade raincoats on the market. They have remained a standard among fishermen and expanded in popularity: travelers navigating wet environments like the Amazon and the Pacific Northwest have come to rely on their coats, coveralls- even backpacks. Their selection of coats vary from professional grade oil-resistant parkas, crafted with a heavy cotton twill and a high grade of PVC, to breathable, water-resistant nylon jackets for the rest of us.