The Great Big Europe Trip of 2005
Updated: Apr 12
I thought it would be a good idea to summarize the time I spent five months traveling around Western Europe, seeing as how these days I'm using a lot of the photos I captured on that trip. It's hard not to use them because there are so many of them (around 9,000 or so), and also because most of them were taken with the intent of documenting how surfaces age. As a result, I have a pool of thousands of photographs that feature surfaces and objects with varying levels of wear, distress, and patina. One thing I do with some of these photos is donate them to the Creative Commons in a number of ways and under a couple of different licenses. Some I make Public Domain, releasing all rights completely. Others are under an Attribution or CCBY license, which means they can be used for anything in any way (including commercially), but require credit being given, aka attribution. You can find these contributions on Flickr, on Wikimedia Commons, and on Pexels.
In 2004, I had an idea for a book, a photographic reference book that demonstrates how surfaces show the effects of time. I even had a name for it - "The Source of Distress." A good name I still think, only challenged by the equally good "Things Fall Apart" (already taken by Chinua Achebe). Part of the inspiration for this book came from Judy Juracek's series of large format books called "Surfaces." As you may know, I've been working as a scenic artist and painter in Vancouver for over twenty years, and so I had seen first hand how useful and popular these books were. Add to that potential applications in 3D animation and my own personal deep love of "breakdown" (using paint to make a surface look aged), and I figured I was really on to something.
My maternal grandfather, Garfield Dixon, had passed away in 2004, leaving me, my brother, and our mom a not insignificant inheritance, about $100,000 each for Sean and me. I decided I was going to use a portion of that money to invest in this book idea. I bought a pretty good but not great digital camera - an Olympus C-8080 8MP - and a portable CD burner that accepted a number of different photo card formats (Roadstor). Then I started making plans to tour Europe for an extended period of time.
This was a highly charged time for me. I had just ended my second marriage, fallen hard for a young woman (Lisa) who is still with me today two kids later, and moved into a room in a shared house near the scene shop where I worked. It didn't take long for Lisa to move in with me (in fact, almost immediately), and so it is within this context that plans were hatched. Lisa had a good job doing, coincidentally, scenic paint work for a downtown historical attraction that would have been silly to walk away from, so it was decided that she would stay in the house and keep working, taking two weeks off to fly over and join me in Portugal. There's actually a lot more to unpack around that decision, but for the sake of narrative focus I will leave that discussion for another day. Suffice it to say that, in retrospect, I wish we had extended her time on the trip at the expense of my own time.
Because of some years making weird electronic music and participating online in a couple of musician bulletin boards, I knew a few people living in Europe whom I could call on for a place to stay for a few days. I also had some family living in England that could be worked into the schedule. A long shot was that one of my housemates in the shared house had a friend living in France that I could call on. Finally, I had been emailing with a Belgian pilot named Henk who was an avid urban explorer and photographer willing to give me some tips and tricks. I came up with a rough itinerary that was fairly close to my actual route. Here's how it ended up turning out, from June 2 to October 30, 2005, with notable event/s from each country:
I was moved to tears when visiting the interior of St Paul's Cathedral; majestic architecture overload. Of course, this was very shortly after being dislocated in time by the most severe jet lag I have ever experienced. I literally did not know what day it was that first night when I woke up in the wee hours. And it took a long time to find out because I had no cell phone. Completely surreal.
I spent an amazing week staying with the family of a musician I knew through online electronic music - David Macreadie, aka Master Kush. They lived in Ayr, a working class town on the west coast. David and I visited Brodick Castle on the Isle of Arran, featuring a long afternoon in a Bavarian garden hut with single malt and endless hash.
My time in Mousehole, Cornwall was punctuated by an intense three days when I experienced a sudden ear infection flare up, was treated by Dr. Neil Armstrong, and recovered amazingly quickly. No charge for the consult, and just the regular price for the antibiotics. Thumbs up.
On the negative side, a young, drunken Spaniard pissed on my bunk at the hostel in Utrecht. The above pic was taken during a "cooling off" stamp around the city at dawn. On the positive side, I got to meet skoop, another electronic musician I knew from online, and spend a couple of days with him and his partner Marjolein. Kittens were involved.
One of my goals was to do some urban exploration on the trip, and thanks to Henk the Belgian pilot I got inside three major abandoned sites: a military hospital in Antwerp, a part of which was a graduate-studies art school called HISK; Fort de la Chartreuse, a military base in Liege; and Hasard de Cheratte, an old coal mine near Liege. Each of these infiltrations has an unusual aspect or strange event that occurred. Typical.
Lots of choices for notability in France. My camera got stolen (stupidity on my part) in an internet cafe in Toulouse. I walked from Sarlat-la-Canéda in the Dordogne to La Roque-Gageac and part of the way back again, creating a foot blister like a shell-less egg. The friend-of-our-housemate connection worked out, so I stayed for about five days with Martin, a guitarist with two bands in Toulouse. The stolen camera was replaced in Toulouse by a Canon PowerShot G6 7.1 MP, btw.
Walking the hilly streets of Granada both during the day and at night rank very high as some of the best city strolling during the trip. My wandering the stairs-and-back-street riddled slope from the Alhambra down to the Old Town at sunset and after verged on magical, or at least peak experience. A Spanish cowboy strolled by at one point playing flashy traditional tunes on an acoustic guitar, for pete's sake!
Our time in Portugal together carries a lot of significance and emotional resonance for Lisa and me. Alex was conceived there, for one thing, in a kind-of-planned way; we decided to go without birth control and accept it happily if she did get pregnant. Fortunately, Lisa wasn't much of a drinker, so that didn't factor in much. The week in Lagos is among the best weeks of my life - so much fun! An answer to the question, "Why the Algarve?" at any rate.
I spent a few days back in Barcelona after Portugal while I arranged for an overnight ferry to Italy. Notable for being my third visit to Barcelona, promoting it to a level of comfortable familiarity that is a cool thing for a European city to be. The same with London and Amsterdam.
It was in Rome for the first time that I found out Lisa was pregnant, an exhilarating experience that took some time to come to grips with. At the exact same time, I was dealing with peak weirdness, when a pathologically drunken hostel owner drank himself into the hospital and gave me the keys to his empty hostel where I stayed alone for three days. The episode is exhaustively documented over two blog posts here and here, including photos and some Google Earth stuff.
Rounded out, of course, by a return to London to fly home. That return to London was via a Ryan Air flight from Rome to Heathrow, a flight I missed by half an hour because I read my itinerary wrong. It only cost me 70 Euros to reschedule a flight later that day, which was no big deal. The same cannot be said for the group of young, unwashed Germans in the I-missed-my-flight line ahead of me, whose spokesperson was reduced to incredulous weeping when she learned the next flight to their bit of Germany wasn't for three days. "How are we supposed to live?! We have no money!!" I counted my blessings.
Completism requires me to provide this link to my Livejournal at the time. Even better, there is a fairly large collection of pics from this trip at my Flickr page.
By the time I arrived in Naples, one of the very last stops on the trip, I was ready to get back home. We had a baby on the way, which meant making plans. We couldn't continue with the shared house, clearly. I was missing Lisa terribly by then, too. Throughout, really, and particularly in Paris, but by Naples that feeling of incompleteness was especially acute. I'm fortunate that Naples, of all places, was there to take those feelings and try to hit them with a car after trying to sell them a carton of cigarettes with a rock in it.
Let's talk about Naples, and how it compares to the other large, touristy cities I had visited in Italy. Also, what it has to offer, because Naples is a connection point to a number of great places to visit, such as Pompeii and the Island of Ischia.
Cities like Florence and Venice rely so heavily on tourism that a real effort is made to groom everything and create tourism experiences. The people who live and work there are very accommodating and obliging, generally, but I got the sense that often there was a love/hate dynamic at play. Love the dollars, hate that the place you live in is swamped with all these fucking tourists. I felt that way, and I was one of those tourists! So I understand that - it's a cliché it's so obvious. But Naples has more of a hate/hate vibe going on, a brutally honest "Fuck you" that will happily take your money (sometimes without your permission) but doesn't care
about your tourism experience. I found that refreshing, even invigorating; at the time, it suited my mood very well. At one point, I described Naples as being like Bladerunner but just with Italians. On market days, the streets are awash with people and stall-level commerce, with trash levels slowly building to a crescendo on the day after the markets, when some piazzas are calf-deep in boxes, plastic, and retail debris. When you cross the road, the cars speed up and change direction to make you hustle. They even have a word for a particular type of robbery using a scooter - "scippatori." A little research on the fly has produced this interesting article - "Naples: Capital City of Pickpockets"
Nobody assaulted me or robbed me while I was there, but I did get verbally challenged once for taking pictures of garbage. I didn't look like a typical target, though, which I think helped. By then I was fairly road-beaten in appearance, and my bag looked unusual with a very hefty strap that I wore cross-wise on my shoulder. Plus I was a relatively fit man in my late 30s. My experience would likely have been very different if I was an older woman with a strappy purse hanging street-side on one shoulder.
The blessing, though, is the light tourist activity that results from all of this. There are tourists there, of course, but they stick close to their hotels and the historic centre by the water and don't stray out into the city proper. I strayed out a lot, and absolutely loved it. Add to that the ability to hop on a train and be in Pompeii in less than two hours, or take a ferry to an island like Capri or Ischia, and Naples becomes a very attractive place to visit. I highly recommend this bike tour of the city on YouTube - you really get a feel for the place.
When I got back, we shifted quickly into getting-ready-for-baby mode, including birthing and natal care classes and finding a place to live. We ended up renting a large portion of a large five bedroom on Mary Ave:
The rent was more than we could afford, but we planned on covering that by renting out two rooms in the house. That's a whole different story, though, for another time.
"The Source of Distress" never came to fruition, although I did work on it for a time. The demands of work and parenting proved sufficiently distracting to pull me away from the project. Also, and very significantly in retrospect, it was about this time that my creative flame began to diminish. Very slowly and gradually at first, then more rapidly about five or six years later. It's pretty obvious to me now that booze played the central role in that, a conjecture supported by the fact that giving up the booze resulted in this crazy creative renaissance I am currently surfing. I can't help but wonder where I would be creatively if I had dealt with the drinking earlier. Ah well, as we say in the Program, "We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it."
What I like very much is that I get to put these photos from that trip to good use after all. They are endless fodder for the image deconstruction techniques I use to make original abstract digital art that is then used to make patterns for products (e.g., here and here), and it gives me a great sense of obligation-fulfilled to donate some of my best to the Commons; after all, I dip from that well a lot. It's only fair.