All posts by columbiahillen

Columbia, nickname ‘Coco,’ is a small-town girl from the mountains of Transylvania, where, she recalls, “autumns were a splash of splendid color but winters were so cold and bare my memories of them are all in black and white.” At a young age, she would steal her father's brushes and oils but couldn’t advance much beyond painting her own face, hands and the back of the living-room sofa, so she turned to words instead, graduating in journalism and launching her own national newspaper in Bucharest, Romania, while still in her -mid-20s. After 15 years in the media management field, Columbia moved to Donegal, a rural, rustic region in the remote northwest of Ireland. Since then, she has been torturing family, friends and her dog, Siog (Gaelige for ‘fairy’), under the pretext of practicing her photography skills. With Donegal replete with lakes, islands, rivers and mountains and lying as it does on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, it is no surprise that Columbia has a particular love of capturing diverse landscapes and seascapes. And because when she wants to relax she cooks, she has become rather difficult company for a dinner out as, if she does not analyses the dishes, she photographs them.

Birds do it

Growing up in communist Romania we never had Valentine’s Day. We had Dragobete and Martisor and it never really meant a shopping spree – it wasn’t too much one can shop for, even chocolate was something one dreamed of and rarely tasted.

As a recovering shopaholic though, I would still take any opportunity to visit the shops, but I wonder whether we are not missing the point. Isn’t Valentine’s Day a celebration of love in all its most romantic form? But, you might ask, what is romantic? Is it a candlelight dinner, is it that piece of jewelry or the holiday in the sun? Does romantic mean we need to put our hands in our pockets to prove that we love our soul mate?

Valentine's Day in Paris
Valentine’s Day in Paris

I don’t find it that easy to define what romantic means for me, but again, maybe that’s what it’s all about – the thought we put in redefining ‘romantic’ each year. Remembering at least one day that we are blessed with the ability to love. All we have to do is learn how to express it. And we continually change, so the meaning changes with us.

It’s funny sometimes how we show our love by offering exactly the kind of gift we would like to receive. And many times we don’t even realize it and inevitably are disappointed that we don’t get the reaction we expect.

Buy maybe that’s why is so complicated to be romantic, because it means leaving yourself out of the equation, keeping only the love you have for the other and then start discovering who your soul mate is and what they really want.

In the metro-boulot-dodo world we live in, how many of us ‘have the time’ to do that? Or how many of us have the courage to go on a search like that? You never know what we might find… And will we like it?

And that’s where every commercial venue comes to ‘rescue,’ at this time of year, from restaurants to travel agencies to jewelry shops and, of course, flower shops. So much, that if I presume for a moment that we still live in a pagan society, I guess Valentine is a pagan saint of commercial venues – that’s where many of us might go to pay our homage when this Friday comes.

Or we might just try to simply find out what romantic is all about.

Birds do it… surely so can we.


Where there is a will…

Imbolc came draped in a white coat of snow, the first of this year, as if Brigid, the Celtic fire Goddess wanted to give us a last instant perspective or simply bless the dormant seeds in the ground.

The snow was gone completely by morning, swept away by Southern winds. They brought with them a myriad of questions. Those thoughts dressed in ‘beginning of a new year’ kind of clothes.

They come like tiny speckles of dust and they set on one’s mind, so you don’t even realize when you feel heavy with a layer as hard as rock.

Nature showing us the way
Nature showing us the way

And with the hopes of spring upon you, you start digging out old ideas and new ones, airing the soil and weeding away, preparing for the oaks that will grow out of your will, to make this year a significant one.

I always loved oaks. No wonder the Celts respected them so much and all their major ceremonies conducted by the Druids took place under an old oak. There is a certain comfort one feels near it, a sort of ‘everything is going to be fine’ energy.

So digging away in my mind’s garden while sorting through photographs, I recalled the strong sensation of invincibility I experienced when I came upon this majestic oak tree growing out of a rock. It almost symbolizes the whole island of Corsica – a magic land of scents and vistas on top of a rock in the sea. Could there be a better illustration of determination?

It’s funny how nature never fails to be the parent showing us the way…. I am not afraid of ideas falling on hard rock any more – preconception, social norms and resistance to change. If the seed of an oak is contained in them, it will grow no matter what.


We underestimate the importance of questions in our life. When I met my husband twenty years ago he asked me so many questions, with the genuine curiosity of a child. And there was a certain energy flowing out from him to me, as if with each question we were adding an extra brick in building a yellow road to a relationship.

Ever since, I began to notice an invisible thread that links love to our ability to ask questions – there are so many reasons we can find not ask questions: because we would be consider indiscreet or nosy; or it is not proper to question an authority; or because we are insecure about letting ourselves be vulnerable in showing our genuine interest in something on someone. But isn’t love about opening exactly those windows of vulnerability and truth?

Most of the time, I sadly noticed, we don’t ask questions because we are not really interested or because we are afraid to get a confirmation and then be faced with that reality. And losing interest has a lot to do with losing the ability to love. Asking questions brings about the responsibility of dealing with what the answers reveal.

I believe Love loves questions and never gets tired of them, like a shower of innocence trying to contain a fire.

Someone once said that real faith is always the result of questioning. And a writer once wrote that even God appreciates a good question as it proves her existence. It would be rather impossible to have a conversation with someone whose existence you don’t acknowledge…So, have we forgotten the ability to acknowledge each other in the day-to-day rush?

No questions asked

Walking the old streets of L’Ile Rousse in Corsica some time ago, I had a lot of questions in my head I wanted to ask this lady in the window – why open only one shutter? why open only one eye to the world outside? what was her story?

But I admit that I hid behind my camera shutter and was afraid to ask her at least how she was really feeling that day, even in my broken French. I guess I was afraid I was going to really like this old lady who could open new windows in my heart or simply lead me to more questions…


This post is dedicated to the newly launched Ireland Writing Retreat in Donegal, Ireland – one of the focus in their workshops being “Developing character – ask the right questions.


I sometimes wonder whether trying to keep – moments, feelings, friends, etc – is one feature that makes us human. A certain greed in having more for tomorrow or being able to enjoy something or someone only if we know that it will be there tomorrow. And by concentrating so much energy on ways to keep, we seem to postpone the intensity of the enjoyment we would feel knowing this is all we are going to get.

Exercises in free love


This very hour, before the sun has set, before we are told we have to say good-bye. That’s when we have it all.

Are we made for such intensity or our hearts could not take so much, so we have developed a surviving mechanism of postponing. Tomorrow we’ll have a little bit more… And the day after…And we become so used with small doses until we get immune and we wonder why we cannot find love…Is love supposed to be portioned? Sliced neatly to last us a lifetime?

Or allowed in through all our pores, like the summer sun on the first day of holiday…

It’s easier said than done. I remember someone telling me once that every person in my life has a role and when that role is done, the person will move on and suddenly be out of my life.

Have I portioned my love when taking this photo? I took the shot as I longed for the feeling I imagine the children have – those summers when everything is possible and the love we feel for each other is not portioned. It’s just there.

Letting go was never my forte even though I respect the power of water in its forever changing forms.

I like to believe that nothing should be static, that relationships should change, just as we should change and discover different ways to enjoy them.

But I am still the little girl in the middle, ready to make the next step, strong enough to lift my foot off the ground but too scared to step on the horizon…. It might reveal eternity…


Somewhere up among the winding old streets of Nonza, a mountain village on the northern Corse peninsula in Corsica. I am an intruder in this moment. I have just turned the corner, had almost put my camera away but the intensity of the vigil vibes stop me and I look up.

Gargoyle of the old Corsican village
Gargoyle of the old Corsican village

Technically, I evaluate that the light is too low, I have no tripod with me, so why even try…. but then again, they say that if you want to be a photographer, take photos. And if you want to learn the rules, learn also how to break them so you can judge for yourself if it’s worth it…I don’t know if anyone said that, I just like to believe it’s true.

So I shot. I shot as I did not think, I just felt. To try to remember that lesson … And I was not thinking of the technical one. I realized I had walked the streets of the village but did not really stop. I mean stop and be so much in the now as this cat was… so concentrated upon the most important thing in the world, somewhere over the fig tree leaves, down in the valley.

I had walked all the way up, I had seen figs and old homes and the beach below and a ruined castle, but did I take in the spirit of the place? I guess it takes a vigil for that, even a very short one, with all the awareness I could gather in myself.

So I made sure to go to the little outdoor café in the center of the village and have a Cassanis (the Corsican Pastis) and just listen and had my own kind of evening vigil…even though my French is hardly good enough to understand the complicated conversations around me, I could follow the passion in the topics due to the expressive half Italian nature of the locals. And I took in the slow-moving life under the old chestnut tree in the center of Nonza.

And I thought about gargoyles and how we have it all wrong by fearing them. They are the vigils of our souls and their beauty is far beyond the appearances…

It is how I now imagine Sutty while he is waiting for dinner every evening, here in Donegal. Sutty is the feral cat that I have been feeding for the last year and have only seen twice. He sneaks like a shadow close by the white wall of our house and I guess it is completely black (that’s why I named him Sutty).

From the table where I write now I am sure that my own gargoyle is vigil for my soul and as long as I sometimes look out the window as if looking for him, he knows I acknowledge his important presence in my life…I don’t need to see him for that.

All proceeds from 2014 from selling this photo go to ‘Jessy Dog Rescue’ project in Donegal.

Message in a bottle

The romantic in me smiled at this image when I took the photo, and started imagining a story in which some melancholic soul across the ocean put a message in this bottle and through it in, with all the hopes and desperations of a heart. And the little goose barnacles hung on to the bottle to guide it to a soul mate and here it is, at my feet – so what’s the message?

Goose barnacles clinging to a beer bottle

The journalist in me got enraged, angry with our race for such ignorance with which we treat our waters; for cheating the tiny barnacles in thinking they had found a safe log to start their lives on, raise their children and be merry.
It seems like the more advances we make to create more comforts for us as humans (like drink our beer from a bottle rather than a deer horn like our ancestors), the more uncomfortable we make all the other species. We all try to holiday on a deserted beach but I am sure the definition of deserted we are looking for is not a place deserted because it is a dump.
So many beaches are still magnificent and perfect in their wilderness or their tameness. But sadly, more and more, they bear the stamp of excuses like “lack of funds for cleaning” – why not start with NOT littering them and we’ll need no money for cleaning (but about that some other time)?
And then the philosopher in me wonders whether this is what evolution is all about. Goose barnacles adapting to live clinging on bottles and rusted metal crates and plastic containers. Maybe one day even learn how to feed on those, turn into glass or metal goose barnacles.
And how does evolution involve love in all of this process… beside the beautiful heart-shape of the barnacles, and the passion they hang on to each other…
They say true love is unconditional, and nature obviously still loves us unconditionally – we are still populating this planet. Does this give us, humans, the right to reciprocate so little?
What did these guys think when they got on board of this bottle and will they be some of the first to survive when mother nature finally says enough is enough?

All proceeds from selling this photo go to ‘Paddle the World for Clean Waters’ project

Love is…

When my husband, Sean, suggested that I put together a collection of my photographs around the theme ‘Love is…’ I started to look at my photos looking for love. Looking for love or the lack of it, in sunsets and flowers and the buildings in Paris or in the ferocity of the sea on a stormy day in Donegal. Sometimes love was so obvious in the most unexpected shots – like this one, of my dog Siog (left), who I am sure was in love with this stranger for the first time, as I had never seen her look at a dog like this.

Seize the moment

I also discovered the lack of love in some of the photos and I could almost feel the coldness in some of them, crying out for lack of it.

Worry land

I know that we have heard or read too often that love is everywhere and most often we expect to find it just among us, humans, as if love owes us. But why do we have such a hard time to find it sometimes? Is it because we are looking for it in all the wrong places? Or are we even really looking for it, further than a smile, a hug or a kiss from the other half?

So I decided that for a while, I will be looking for love when I frame my photos, be that I will focus on humans or dogs or sunsets (I am too lazy to wake up for the sunrise) or a piece of concrete. Umberto Eco once wrote that you can connect anything to anything if you only try, so is it that easy to connect with love?

To see more of my photos – Here