I See Norfolk

In 2011, after a stressful two-day job interview in Newport News, Virginia, I finally had some time to breathe while waiting at the airport to board a plane back to Toronto. Many thoughts crossed my mind that day, but only two still remain in my memory: “This is not where I wish to grow old” and “At least there’s that independent cinema in Norfolk.” When I eventually moved here, I chose to live in Norfolk, a short commute to Newport News, knowing that my relocation would be temporary. Unknown to me at the time, Norfolk is what Montreal was to me thirteen years ago: a stepping-stone towards Toronto – Montreal led me to it and Norfolk led me back to it.

When I moved here, I was taken aback by the impact that the area’s landscape had on my eyes. In Toronto, all of my senses were stimulated equally; in Norfolk, sight superimposed itself over the other senses. My eyes were seeing different things from what they were accustomed to: battleships; a naval base; men and women in military uniforms; river channels, waterways and bridge-tunnels; ports, vessels and cargo; marine and container terminals; shipyards; industrial zones; rail tracks; and mermaid sculptures (!). Adjoining land and water affirmed their interdependence in multiple and frequent ways.

Each site revealed its role within a global economic process of international trade as well as Norfolk’s military past and strategic position in times of war and disaster. Little by little, each site reinforced Norfolk’s place as a temporary abode for its frequent visitors. Bridge-tunnels and waterways facilitate vessel passage towards ports like the doors of an open house; container cranes jutting out into Norfolk’s sky lift cargo off vessels, lightening their load like helping hands that greet us at the door and take off our heavy coats, once inside; and rail tracks carry container trains to and from inspection points, tracing the familiar and well-tread corridors of their home. Atop the Elizabeth River, the USS Wisconsin Battleship sits solemnly, like a patriarch bidding farewell to the sons and daughters departing across international waters for somebody else’s home; and the Naval base constantly reminds us of Norfolk as a guest house and transportation point for those who come and go.

Pervading the landscape, these sites told a story about a place’s history, economic status, services, daily execution, and social community. These sites determined what I was now seeing, and my eyes couldn’t help but respond to the new visual experience. On days when I missed urban density, I felt disheartened by what I saw; on days when I was fueled by curiosity, I was fascinated by it. I wanted this visual and physical presence to take me – figuratively – somewhere I had never been and to change me somehow.

Norfolk moved me to pick up a camera. The act of seeing new things reinforced my belief that the countless parts of our material world tell and want to tell us something. I felt compelled to capture the stories told by the places I saw, and to do so through sight – the sense that first drew me to them. Through a single frame or arrangement of multiple frames, I delighted in freezing and telling their stories in poignant ways. Over time, the camera eye became I. Through the lens of the camera, I began to seek ways to express my vision alongside my physical surroundings. I wanted to infuse my photographs with the emotions arising from my interactions with these spaces, and to push my presence on them, just as they have on me. Vision found me in Norfolk, and I chased it. When I am without my camera, I have noticed that I now take mental photographs. When it is on me, it is my third eye, a more engaged and daring one than my other two.

Vision and views. Norfolk has enabled me to see more clearly at all levels, clarifying also my understanding of who I am and where I see myself. When I lived in Toronto, my love for the city was blind, like two young lovers who see no faults in each other. When I left Toronto, my love for it deepened and matured thanks to Norfolk, a place that forced me to see different things from a different perspective; I began to view Toronto from a healthy distance. Toronto was still the city where I wished to return, but from Norfolk, I could see its shortcomings. My view of and from Norfolk convinced me that Toronto is where my heart is and has been since I left it, and that I wish to contribute to its growth and betterment. More specially, Norfolk is the place that graciously welcomed me into its home as yet another fleeting guest, allowing me to stay until I knew and was ready to leave.

(See photo gallery for a more complete album accompanying this post and for a visual narrative of this place.)

Text and photos by Filomena Calabrese. Text edits by Agnieszka Polakowska.



14 responses to “I See Norfolk

  1. wonderful reflection… wish more people would write about their experience here passing through… it’s definitely a world unto itself. 🙂


  2. Having grown up in Little Italy, NYC, I share that feeling of having an original place as the one where your heart lies. As a Catholic, I have gone so far as to have asked my pastor whether ashes might be divided and used in several places in that regard, as crazy as that sounds.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Riccardo, I am happy to hear that you share these feelings, and I think your request to spread ashes in several places is not at all crazy. On the contrary, it’s quite special to feel and know that many places make up a part of who we are. Thank you for your comment!


      • The Neighborhood: Little Italy and Aunt Vera

        By Richard J. Rinaldo

        Despite visiting such diverse places as Monaco and Madrid, Rome and Rio, and Bangkok and Berlin, no place excites and delights me more than Little Italy, New York City.

        The years may have gone by, but I still cherish this hallowed ground that housed, nourished, and maybe at times abused us as well as later generations of immigrants and their offspring. Returning is a not just a visit for leisure. It becomes a pilgrimage with sacred motive.

        My Aunt Vera was raised in a walkup apartment at 217 Mott Street along with her parents and brothers and sisters. I had been to that tenement museum on Orchard Street, to the home of the Sicilian Baldizzi family that lived there in the 1930s. It had a lot of familiarity, bathroom in the hall, a sink and bathtub in the kitchen with the gas meter. The guide, a young woman told us about the lives of the inhabitants there and how it must have been hard for them. For example, maybe once a week the water was heated for a bath for the children. In three rooms, there were as many as ten people or more. When she played a taped interview with a member of that family, it brought tears to my eyes, as if I were listening to voices of my own family.

        But, Aunt Vera, at 90, was still alive, and I wanted her to tell me about my grandmother’s apartment in 217 Mott. What came through was not hardship but happiness–how much she loved that apartment and her family that lived there. And, how we all loved our neighborhood and its extended family, the games we played, the rituals we repeated, the seasons and feasts we celebrated. It is always a wonder to go back there and listen to the whispers of the past, the music of the feasts, the barking iceman, the Gregorian chants, and your mother calling from the window. Go back and see the columns of Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral, tar beach, what we called Jersey Alley, which really isn’t an alley, Play Street, the Judson Center, St Michael’s Russian Catholic Church, the Puck building, and Puerto Rican bodegas. Remember Spaldings, stickball and meatballs, Chinese laundries and linoleum floors, pushcarts and pizza with anchovies–memories of youth, learning, loved ones and loved places. This is my sacred place.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Filomena. I think you are doing such a beautiful job conveying your perspectives with these words and images. I really loved the idea of the camera as your ‘3rd’ eye – don’t we all wish sometimes we could step outside ourselves and see something from a fresh perspective? This entry conveys your keen sense of longing for a place to belong and an awareness when that feeling is lacking. The Toronto/Norfolk juxtaposition made me think of your journey as “Flight” vs. “The Return”. Can’t wait to have you back in this country. Thanks for sharing. xoxo.


    • Thanks for engaging with the writing, Alyson! You’re right on about the longing to return to a place where I belong. Though it took me a while and required living in another country to figure it out, I am happy that, in the end, I got to the realization. Like the third eye idea, being distant from Toronto offered another perspective for making a decision.

      Thanks for reading.


  4. What a lovely reflective piece, and fitting title – given that Norfolk has made you SEE, with your eyes, with your camera, and with your intuition. And a great insight that each place you land is a stepping stone toward your What’s Next – helping you hone in and clarify your life’s path.


  5. What a beautiful reflection piece Filo! You really touched my heart from the beginning with your though, “This is not where I wish to grow old,” while also injecting a bit of dark humour, “At least there’s that independent cinema in Norfolk.” It really makes me think of how often we take what we see everyday for granted and don’t really see it until we take a step back. I really like your image of Montreal and Norfolk as stepping stones for Toronto as it makes me see Toronto as an island you are walking towards, while introducing appropriately your water, voyage theme around Norfolk. I too am very excited to have chosen Toronto to live in. It just makes me smile. I’m happy we’ll be growing old together 🙂


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