Europe on Film

I haven’t done much traveling over the past few years since, like most people, the pandemic completely transformed my day-to-day life and for a long time going overseas was just not in the equation. Other than a brief visit to the Bahamas in January 2020 just before the Covid outbreak, my last time leaving the continental U.S. was in June 2019. However, after multiple vaccine doses, travel restrictions easing up, and my own apprehensions about getting back on a plane decreasing, I finally had a chance to do some jet-setting at the end of March.

The opportunity came as part of a work-related conference in Brussels which bumped up against some pre-planned vacation time, and so I made a multi-week trip out of the whole thing. After the conference, I headed to Berlin to visit a friend and then stopped in Glasgow on the way back home to do some coworking with my pal and colleague, Clicky Steve. Airport chaos aside, it was a great reminder of why I love remote work.

I’ve been to Brussels once before in 2017 and I’m just realizing now that I didn’t publish any photos at the time save one or two on Instagram. At that point I was shooting primarily with a Fujifilm X-T1, struggling to take good photos with a couple of random lenses, and wishing I owned a Leica instead. Since then, a Leica M 240 has indeed become my go-to camera, but I was also gifted my first film camera this past holiday season. Specifically, a Minolta SR-T 102 with a Rokkor 50mm f/1.4 lens.

This particular version was manufactured between the early to mid 1970’s making my model about 50 yeas old. Despite being a Japanese-made camera that was popular with consumers when it was first released, you can easily find models in near mint condition on eBay for under US$50 owing to the fact that it was so mass produced. That’s not to say the quality of the camera is “cheap” by any means—the one I have has held up for 50 years after all—but there is something liberating about using a camera that is so easily replaced; not something I can say about my Leica, unfortunately, which does impact how I use it.

So, equipped with my new, durable camera and a roll of black and white Kodak 400 TMAX film, I was off to Europe! First stop: Brussels.

Brussels was as lovely during this second visit as it was the first, though my time was a bit more limited. During both instances I felt as though I only just began scratching the surface before I needed to leave, so I’m looking forward to going back again at some point to explore the city properly.

And then just like that—two flight cancellations and one delay later—I was in Berlin. This was my first time in Germany which I was super excited about. I always love visiting new places, but also during the pandemic I began learning German again (a language I had previously studied for a couple of semesters in college) and this was my first chance to be surrounded by native speakers.

One week isn’t enough time to fully explore a city as layered and unique as Berlin. I still have a list of things I want to do whenever I get back over there, but it definitely left an impression. In some ways it actually reminds me a lot of Brooklyn, but comparisons like that don’t really do either city justice.

Whether it was because I was catching up with a friend or trying to use my new German skills whenever possible, I feel like I had my camera to my eye a lot less frequently during this trip. Or maybe I’m just out of practice. Either way, most of the photos I took were during bursts of sightseeing with Emily—my friend, host, and new-ish Berlin resident.

Before visiting, I only had a passing familiarity with the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe mostly from news articles, or from discussions I’d heard about what constitutes appropriate behavior in and around the memorial. Walking through it myself was a deeply personal experience as I’m sure it is for anyone with some connection to the Holocaust and the surrounding history.

One can’t really escape the feeling of walking amongst headstones that are larger than life, and somehow even the noise of the city seems to disappear the deeper into the center of the memorial you venture. The pathways are narrow enough and the stones are tall enough that you don’t have a sense of how many other people may be around, and it almost gives the impression you’re there all alone. The result is that it’s a bit odd when you first encounter another visitor given how solemn the atmosphere is.

My initial instinct was that I didn’t want to make eye contact with anyone who I passed by so that we could each just remain in our own thoughts and experiences. But then it occurred to me that by design the memorial is intended as a public space and where better to remain open to connecting with strangers we might otherwise dismiss?

With that in mind, as I was making my way out of the memorial I caught the eyes of a few different folks on their way in, and I nodded slightly to each of them with respect. They each nodded back.

Visiting the Berlin Wall was another somewhat surreal experience in a very different way. Not much of the structure remains, but the largest intact section is known as the East Side Gallery and is completely covered with commissioned murals.

The artwork—all of which makes commentary on the wall and what it stood for—brings an additional element as you aren’t just staring at a blank concrete slab. Having said that, simply placing my hand on the wall was pretty powerful given the lore surrounding it that anyone who is my age grew up with.

Beyond the sightseeing, most of my time was spent in the neighborhoods of Neukölln and Kreuzberg, trying restaurants, having picnics in the insane amount of parks, and discovering some cool bars. My friend Steve had turned me onto one particular rooftop bar from when he had visited in the past. A placed called Klunkerkranich which happened to be about a 20 minute walk from where I was staying.

Figuring out exactly how to get there is a little trickier as it’s located in a parking garage above a shopping center with an intentional absence of signage. The garage itself was practically void of cars when we arrived, so it seemed obvious that the two other people in the elevator on the way up were also prospective patrons hoping we knew where we were going. Eventually we all stumbled onto the place and the elevated view of Berlin was the best I had seen so far.

Photo credit: Emily Leshner

On my final day we met up with some other friends and expats in Mauer Park, and it felt like most everyone in the city had also decided to show up. It was a Sunday which means there was a massive flea market and a food market in the park, as well as an enormous crowd at the outdoor Karaoke spot known as the Bearpit.

Because I was so sparing with my camera during the week I actually only ran out of film just as the sun was setting during that final day at Mauer Park which felt pretty fitting. I tucked my camera back into my bag, used the last of my Euros for some currywurst at the food market, and went back home to pack for my trip to Glasgow the following day.

Originally I had planned to pick up a new roll of film and gets some shots of Glasgow as well. But in keeping with the theme of the trip so far I was more focused on catching up with folks I hadn’t seen in years and just relishing in the experience of being out and about again after so long.

Hopefully we get back to a point where this is just the norm and I can go back to relentlessly shoving my camera in everybody’s face. In the meantime, I’ve already reloaded the Minolta with my first roll of color film which I’ll be playing around with in New York until my next trip.

3 thoughts on “Europe on Film

  1. David! Love your words and photographs. Where did you get them developed? Who does that anymore!? Back in the 70’s I briefly studied photography and learned to use a darkroom. I actually had a darkroom in the house in the late 70’s. Anyway, your grandfather is looking down and smiling.

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