I’ve been gone from my home near New York City since June 2 and won’t be back from Europe until July 19; apart from two weeks with husband and friends, and 3 days with others, I’m on my own.
It’s been humbling to realize how many things and people I now rely upon to stay safe and healthy:
Without which I can’t charge all devices and keep up with English language media.
Without its instant access to all the data I need in each new-to-me place, I’m not sure how I’d survive. (Unlike many of you, I’m not using my phone 24/7 with all the cool apps available; I don’t want to spend my life, on vacation, still attached to a screen. I also fear its theft or loss and overage fees.)
Whether how many forints to the dollar or a map of the city with tremendous detail or train schedules, it’s become essential.
I hate carrying and using a cellphone but was deeply grateful for it, (and an overseas plan) when my husband, after weeks of severe stomach pain, was at the doctor’s — our shared GP. I called him to hear the diagnosis, (thankfully, nothing serious), as he was in our doctor’s office.
With a six-hour time difference, communicating can be challenging — and worrying about my sweetie was horrific.
Yes, really. I like a paper map I carry in my purse or pack. You have to quickly orient yourself, especially as a woman traveling alone, especially at night. It’s unwise to appear befuddled or lost.
Hah! So much for that….While in Berlin, I rented a bike for 8 euros for a half day. Riders there whizzed past, with little to no warning — (no friendly, “Passing on the left!” or a ringing bell?!) — and I kept jamming my very damaged right knee as I jolted and stopped the bike to avoid getting hit or falling.
Now that knee, (bone on bone), is once more swollen and painful, and I’m wearing my brace and icing it and finally, in Budapest, was able to buy anti-inflammatory meds. But it’s put a damper on a six-week trip that, de facto, requires lots of walking and stairs. Taxis are expensive!
I speak fluent French, so Paris was easy. Berlin is filled with people who speak excellent English and many words are pretty easy to figure out from context (they also offer English menus!) Hungarian and Croatian? Not so much! I felt absurdly proud in Budapest as, returning from dinner, my friends and I figured out which subway line to take, and had to change lines along the way.
Safe and Reliable Transportation
Without which, no travel!
Whether it’s a taxi, tram, subway, airplane or train, I need it to move at speed — and safely. My train journey from Budapest to Zagreb included a detour that had all of us moving into buses for a bit — track work — then transferring to a regional/commuter train for our final 20 minutes. It was handled efficiently, which was great.
I don’t use a Kindle, so have been carrying a few books.
The first — A Little Life (loved it) — got me to Berlin (left it at the hotel for a local friend); the second, an excellent biography of Angela Merkel got me through 10 days in Berlin. Now reading The Tender Bar, a memoir, with two more left.
When you’re alone, you need something to read!
I’m loving my journey and so glad I’ve taken so much time away from work.
But, I admit it, I miss my friends! Evenings are more challenging when you travel alone — I end up pretty pooped, (esp. with a sore knee), and don’t venture out very far again after a day of walking/limping.
Jose and I have been emailing a lot and have Skyped several times, to our mutual joy. Even 17 years into our marriage, I miss him terribly; we work in the same field, share many interests and normally talk to one another a lot.
I traveled alone at age of 23, for four months in Europe, and have traveled alone many times since. I do love it.
I’m 14 days into my six-week six-nation European journey, much of it solo.
A few notes, in transit:
The kindness of strangers
It’s an interesting experience, as a generally competent and independent adult, to be vulnerable, to need other people to pay attention to me when I need it — like when I got on the wrong train in Frankfurt and, re-directed by a kindly stranger, quickly de-trained.
When transport and restaurant and shop and hotel staff are helpful, even friendly, it matters so much more than when you’re at home, surrounded by the love of friends and family. I enjoy travel, and am happy to do it alone, but rudeness and indifference can sting without the emotional supports of the familiar.
I was enjoying a leisurely breakfast in a crowded corner cafe of Berlin’s Ku’damm, a major street, and a spot surely full of tourists like me — when I noticed a police motorbike speeding down the sidewalk opposite.
It was nothing serious, but it could have been.
This trip, I’m spending more time than ever before paying attention to my surroundings and how the people around me are behaving. Without my protective, savvy husband — (a former White House Press corps photographer who spent eight years watching the Secret Service protect the President and his family) — it’s all up to me.
Situational awareness matters now.
The humility of needing translation
I speak French, so Paris was easy. I don’t speak a word of German, (or Hungarian or Croatian or Italian.) Nor do I use apps or carry a pocket dictionary. It is humbling to rely on others’ knowledge, and their willingness to use it to help me.
I was at a gym here in Berlin trying to explain something, when a young man, clearly on his way to the office, stepped in: “Do you need help translating?”
I did. And was so grateful!
People may share tables here, and expect to do so. North Americans are more accustomed to lot of physical room, in public and in private.
I love this crazy painting in my Berlin hotel, lobby, Hotel Savoy
Your memory isn’t my memory
Everyone has their favorite (or not!) memories of the places they’ve been and I’m constantly told to Do this! See that! by well-meaning friends.
But your memory of each place is shaped, as mine are, by many variables: who you were with, how old you were, your budget and tastes, the time of day and year, the weather, even the strength of your currency, in that moment.
We also may enjoy wholly different things!
I like to wander. I’m just not a box-ticking type of tourist, rushing to every must-see or trying every must-do.
One of my loveliest afternoons happened by walking a side street, slowly, and discovering one of Germany’s major auction houses, housed in a gorgeous architect-designed building from the late 1800s. I had a great chat with the woman at their front desk, a former Lufthansa flight attendant who got married — in all places — on Staten Island, New York.
That’s not an experience I could have planned, nor offered by any blog or guidebook.
Sitting still is key
Travel is, for all its many pleasures, tiring. Your feet get sore and tired from walking. Your arms and shoulders get weary from dragging a backpack or suitcase. You get hungry and thirsty.
You need to think, to make notes, to just stare into the sky for a while.
You have chosen to stop working — and also just need to rest.
Most of my favorite memories are of sitting still for a while, even an hour at a time (!), watching the light shift and the people walking by, possibly sipping a pot of tea or a prosecco.
There’s never enough champagne!
Taking photos is my greatest joy
I started my career as a photographer, so I love finding images to treasure and frame for our home. My husband gave me a gorgeous little Leica for my birthday and I’m making very good use of it!
Everything is visually interesting to me: light, shadows, foliage, the patterns on a bike or a dress.
I’m fascinated by how different my hotel’s street in Berlin — Fasanenstrasse — looks at all hours — the sky is light at 3:45 a.m. (!) and at 7:10 a.m. I suddenly noticed sharp sunlight briefly illuminating a fantastic stone carving in a doorway.
Routine still matters
I found a gym in Berlin, took a spin class, lifted weights — and sweated happily. At home in New York, I’m at the gym two to three times every week and I miss it. I need to stay in shape.
Routine — although deadening when never broken — is also a little soothing when everything else around you is new.
That little white bear in the very back? He’s along for the ride!
So does comfort
Yes, I travel with a very old, very small, very beloved stuffed bear.
And I’m fine with that.
Acquisition versus disposal
I rarely shop for anything at home beyond gas and groceries, and find much of what I really crave too expensive — and that which I can easily afford unappealing.
So I love to shop when I travel.
But I offload as I go; every post office sells stiff cardboard boxes and plastic packing. I spent 38 euros ($42) this week in Berlin to mail three packages home, things I do want later but don’t need to want to drag around at the moment.
I’m on an airplane today, for the first time in almost a year, the last time also headed back to the city where I grew up and lived for 25 years, Toronto, a 90-minute flight from New York.
Last June I flew up for only three days, (a splurge we couldn’t really afford), to attend the wedding reception of a dear old friend, marrying at 70. It was an elegant crowd, many of the guests sporting a tiny white enamel flower lapel pin — a signal to the cognoscenti that they had won the Order of Canada.
This time I’m heading north to renew my passport and to take a badly needed break from work, from the U.S. and from the daily stress of life under a President whose behavior leaves me, at this point, adjectivally challenged.
I don’t really miss Toronto as a city. Housing is very expensive and often not of great quality. Winters are long, cold and gray (or grey, as Canadians spell it.) Traffic is now monstrous.
But I do miss my dear friends, people I’ve known since summer camp and high school and university and my first newspaper job. I’ve stayed in close touch with them and can’t wait to see them again.
I’m also planning an extensive — six week — trip to Europe, beginning in early June to celebrate my birthday (again!) in Paris with my husband and some friends who live there and some friends who’ll come over from London to share our rented apartment. (I’ll be blowing through some savings. Gulp!)
I’ll have one week there with Jose, who then flies home to photo edit a major golf tournament in Wisconsin. We’ve been to Paris together several times, usually staying in a rented apartment on the Ile St. Louis, (this time in the Marais.)
I know the city well, having been many times and having lived there for eight months on a journalism fellowship.
Then I’ll head off solo to wander, something I’ve done many times before.
I know people in various parts of the world, so that even new-to-me places like Berlin contain people I’m eager to finally meet, like this blogger and two Twitter pals, one of them an archeologist.
From Berlin, I’ll head to Budapest to meet up with my best friend from university and one of her grown daughters.
I’m also looking forward to visiting and writing about Korda Studios, near Budapest, one of the largest sound stages in Europe — where The Martian was filmed.
One of the fun things about being a journalist is that I sometimes find great stories to write about while traveling, and can then deduct some of my travel costs while working there as legitimate business expenses.
After Budapest…not sure yet!
I’ll finish up that trip with a visit to my friend C in London, who writes the fab blog Small Dog Syndrome. We share passions for several things, including beauty products, great food and vintage clothes. We had a blast the last time roaming Bermondsey Market and a few flea markets.
Another friend has moved there, so I’ll have another playmate; it’s a real luxury to travel and to re-connect with pals abroad.
In 2016, I only left home for six days’ vacation; three in D.C. and three in Toronto, all in June — not enough for me, having so far been to 38 countries, 38 American states and most of Canada.
I love to savor the familiarity of beloved old haunts and the excitement of making new discoveries.
Are you heading out into the world on an adventure this year?
I know one reason travel moves me emotionally, and why I so enjoy it, is that — 99 percent of the time — it has rewarded my (cautious) trust in the kindness of strangers with what I hoped for. Not robbery or rape or someone out to do me harm, but someone funny and generous and smart who is willing to open their heart and home to me.
Ironically, I’ve only become a crime victim — twice in Canadian cities (break-in, assault) and twice here in suburban New York (auto theft, fraud) — when supposedly safely “at home.”
Many people fear venturing beyond their safe and familiar world, certain that terror and mayhem will ensue.
Not for me and not for my mother, who traveled the world alone in her 40s.
Not for the many women I know who have ventured forth to places like Uganda and Haiti and Nicaragua, alone or with company, for work or for pleasure.
Not for for my many colleagues, male and female, working worldwide in journalism, who often have to rely on local interpreters and fixers and drivers, any one of whom might, in fact, prove to be a kidnaper. Using your smarts, network and instincts, you learn to be discerning.
Not for my young friend, 22-year-old recent Harvard graduate Devi Lockwood, now traveling the globe alone on a post-grad fellowship studying climate change, spending her year surrounded by strangers very, very far away from her Connecticut home; her blog is here.
Here’s a tiny excerpt from her journey:
Sharon retrieves an orange, plastic dreidel from the inside the pocket of her sweater. “With a dreidel, like in life, you have no control. You have to enter into the mystery and take your chances.”
I can’t help but smile at the gesture, the tears of upstairs now dried on my cheeks. Sharon closes her eyes for a moment to bless the object before she passes it into my hands. It is small but larger than itself. She could not have known that orange is my favorite color. I press the object into my own pocket.
It takes an interesting blend of courage, resilience, stamina, self-confidence, and the humility to know and respect local customs of dress and behavior to trust yourself amongst strangers. You need self-reliance and gumption. You need to know how to read a map, (apps don’t always do the trick), and manage in metric and Celsius and other languages.
And — of course — you don’t have to any sort of exotic foreign travel to have this experience. Try a neighborhood in your city you’ve never visited!
I’m in awe at my freshmen writing students’ bravery as so many of them have come from very distant parts of the world, and the U.S., to live, work and study among strangers. I’ve had students from Rome, France, Guam, Hawaii, Mississippi; Canadian college students, in distinct contrast, tend to attend their local universities (partly because there are many fewer of them to choose from and the quality is generally very high.)
You need, in my favorite French verb, to se debrouiller — figure shit out.
My blog posts about how to travel alone as a woman continue to be my best-read.
I’ve finally realized why this sort of unexpected kindness matters so much to me and why it touches me so deeply. Sometimes I’m so thankful it seems overdone, but it’s heartfelt.
I come from a family with plenty of money but one with little time or aptitude for emotional attentiveness. I left my mother’s care at 14 and my father’s home at 19, so have long been accustomed to fending for myself.
As an only child for decades, (step-siblings came later), I simply had to rely on the kindness of strangers in many instances because my own family was nowhere to be found — off traveling the world, long before the Internet or cell phones. Even when they lived nearby, I couldn’t rely on them for emotional or financial support and never, once, had the option of “moving home” back into their houses.
So I discovered that people I had never met before could overwhelm me with their kindness and generosity.
— Gudrun, the wife of a sporting goods executive living in Barcelona, who was then a stringer for Reuters. She welcomed me into her home, left me alone while they went out to dinner, and immediately trusted me. As I did with them. She later let me stay again and even lent me her weekend home.
— Tala, who, hearing we were planning to visit Paris at Christmas, immediately offered us her apartment there.
— Gillian, who invited me to her suburban home there and cooked a lovely meal.
— The young Portuguese couple I met on a train as they headed home to Lisbon to marry. They invited me into their apartment for that week and I ended up becoming their wedding photographer.
It’s instructive to see, also, how sometimes the people with the least to offer materially are so open.
When I visited Nicaragua for work in March 2014 with WaterAid, the second-poorest Western Hemisphere nation after Haiti, I was struck by how genuinely welcoming people were. Yes, we were introduced by locals they know and respect, but I expected little beyond civility. Warmth and genuine connection were a joy, whether in Miskitu through a translator or Spanish, which I speak.
I sat one afternoon, lazing in the blistering heat on a shady verandah chatting with a woman. Marly, a little girl of five, came and sat with me, and let me braid her hair, a sort of easy intimacy I can’t imagine any American child allowing with a stranger, or their fearful parents allowing.
Here’s a sobering/sad New York Times story about Lenore Skenazy, a former colleague of mine at the New York Daily News, who has become (!?) an expert in telling terrified Americans that it’s OK to let their children play outside alone:
A second result is the Free Range Kids Project and a 13-part series, starting Thursday on Discovery Life Channel, called “World’s Worst Mom.” In it, Ms. Skenazy intervenes to rescue bubble-wrapped kids from their overprotective parents by guiding the children safely through a sequence of once-forbidden activities and showing their anxious parents how well the children perform and how proud they are of what they accomplished.
The term “helicopter parents” applies to far more than those who hover relentlessly over their children’s academic and musical development. As depicted in the first episode of the series, it applies to 10-year-old Sam’s very loving mother who wouldn’t let him ride a bike (“she’s afraid I’ll fall and get hurt”), cut up his own meat (“Mom thinks I’ll cut my fingers off”), or play “rough sports” like skating. The plea from a stressed-out, thwarted Sam: “I just want to do things by myself.”
In an interview, Ms. Skenazy said, “Having been brainwashed by all the stories we hear, there’s a prevailing fear that any time you’re not directly supervising your child, you’re putting the child in danger.” The widespread publicity now given to crimes has created an exaggerated fear of the dangers children face if left to navigate and play on their own.
I’m simply sad for these children and the cringing, world-fearing adults they might become.
How will they successfully navigate the many steps toward full economic and emotional independence?
The only way to discover the potential kindness of strangers is to allow for its very real possibility.
A month away from home, from work, from normal life — I will very much miss Europe and my friends there.
It’s not just being away from the tedium of home life or a long break from the grinding pace of work, but savoring a culture that more deeply values the things I care most about — not money or work or power, but food, beauty, intelligence, conversation, friends and family.
I need to flee the United States a few times a year; a native Canadian who moved to the U.S. in 1989, I’m burned out on its stalled and vicious partisan politics, growing income inequality and fervent attention to pop culture.
One of the reasons I’ve stayed freelance — which costs me income but allows me time — is to take as much time off as my budget allows. The world is too large and filled with adventures for me to sit still in one place for very long; some places I’m eager to get to in the next few years include Morocco, Turkey and Greece. (I’ve been to 39 countries so far.)
Why so long a break?
We were loaned a free Paris apartment for two weeks, which made it affordable given the cost of Christmas-boosted airfares. I stayed with friends in London for the next week, so the only housing cost was $1,200 for the rental of a large studio apartment for my final 8 nights; (hotels on the same street are charging about $190/night for a small single room, about $1,400/week.)
Plus meals, shopping, trainfare to/from London, transfers, taxis/subway.
I hadn’t crossed the Atlantic in five years on my last visit to Paris where, as we did here, we had rented an apartment, also on the Ile St. Louis, the small, quiet island in the middle of the Seine, and settled in for two weeks.
My definition of luxury is not owning a shiny new car or huge house, (and have never owned either one), but the time to really get to know another place for a while.
To sloooooooooow down and savor where I am.
I ate lunch in a favorite restaurant across the street from our 2009 apartment and bought a dress from a favorite shop in the Marais.
It’s a luxury to reconnect with the familiar in a foreign country.
In my final week in Paris, I dithered…should I rush around seeing museums, shop the sales and/or sleep late and lounge around my rental apartment, which is large and comfortable? (I did all of them.)
I also joined in the Unity March, the largest in France’s history, thrilled that I was here for it.
One very powerful memory I’m bringing home to New York?
How vivid and present, even today in 2015, war still is in Paris.
Every street, it seems, has a plaque — often with a bunch of flowers attached to it — honoring Resistance heroes of WWII, their bravery now many decades past. Many schools, heartbreakingly, have a large plaque by their front door numbering how many of their children were taken away by the Nazis.
And there are at least four concurrent exhibitions in Paris devoted to aspects of WWII and WWI, from the Liberation of Paris (an astounding show) to one exploring collaboration with the Nazis. Having watched a 31-minute film there, from 1944, of the liberation, I’ll never again see Paris the same way — its lovely streets then filled with dead bodies and burning tanks, barricaded with trees and sewer gratings, women being dragged into the street for public shaving of their heads for collaborating with the Nazis.
A few things I’ve realized in my time away:
— Social capital can replace financial capital
Jose and I do OK for New York, but so much of it disappears in taxes, retirement savings and life in a costly place. So we’re very fortunate to have generous friends around the world who lend us and/or welcome us into their homes. I spent a week with Cadence and Jeff in London in their flat, whose total square footage is about 300 sf, the size of our living room and dining room at home. I don’t know how we managed it, but we did! While I’ve been here, Jose welcomed our young friend from Chicago, Alex, for a week and introduced him to several important new mentors and our friend Molly, from Arizona, has spent many happy nights on our sofa.
What goes around comes around, even globally!
— Travel can be tiring
Exploring big, busy cities on a budget, (i.e. taxis are a rare treat), means hours of walking and many subway stairs. I get tired and dehydrated and needed a coffee or a glass of wine to just rest.
You also have to pay attention to danger, from subway pickpockets to forgetting your address or house entry code.
— I missed my husband!
My best friend. My confidant. My sweetie. He was here for a week. I’ve missed his company and laughter terribly and we Skyped a few times.
— Routines serve a useful purpose
At home in New York, I normally take a jazz dance class every Monday and Friday morning and go for an hour’s brisk walk in the woods with my friend Pam on Wednesday mornings. Every weekend I read three newspapers, in print. I enjoy my little routines; as a full-time freelancer with no regular schedule, they ground me.
— But it felt so good to get away from them
I usually watch the nightly news at 6:30, but also hate how U.S.-centric and sentimental it is. In my time away, my only news sources were Twitter and the occasional newspaper — I didn’t turn on the TV once, didn’t miss it a bit and read three non-fiction books instead.
I’ve also loved spending 90% of my time in the real world and not glued to social media on the computer. I really loved not driving a car for an entire month; we live in the suburbs and I spend my NY life behind the wheel, tracking the price of gas. Tedious! A city vacation meant lots of walking, buses, trains and cabs. Healthier and much more fun.
— Less is plenty
I wore the same few clothes for a month, doing laundry once a week and it was eye-opening to see how little I really need.
Same for food. I bought fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese, soup and yogurt; that plus a fresh baguette every two days supplied my cheap/delicious breakfasts and light suppers at home.
— Experiences beat stuff
— riding the Ferris wheel high above Les Tuileries on a warm and sunny Christmas Day in Paris
— staying in a 15th century country inn in England, eating short ribs by the fire
— meeting a snappy young British journo I follow on Twitter who took me to a secret members-only club above a Soho restaurant. The room was dim, had two small dogs snoozing in lined wooden boxes and fragrant hyacinths on every table. Heaven!
— a cup of tea at the Ritz in London and the (!) $30 cocktails Cadence, Jeff and I shared in its spectacular Art Deco bar. Worth it!
— spending a cold gray Sunday afternoon in a hammam, a Paris spa with a Middle Eastern flavor
— We are who we are, no matter where in the world our body is
At home, I need a lot of sleep, minimally 8 to 10 hours a night. Just because there are a gazillion things to do and see while visiting Europe, I didn’t force myself to do asmuchashumanlypossible. I now have a painful arthritic left knee, so by day’s end I really needed to rest.
My final week in Paris I took long, lazy mornings listening to music, reading, eating breakfast, then headed out around noon for a big French lunch, (cheaper than dinner), errands and explorations.
— Cosy beats grand/ambitious, at least some of the time
It was so nice to come “home” to our rented flats and settle in for the evening with a glass of wine and my new favorite radio station, TSFjazz; check it out online! Our Christmas dinner was roast chicken at home at the kitchen table and it was perfect. On a rainy, windy day in Paris, I was almost at the museum door, but was just exhausted. I said the hell with it, cabbed home and instead of being a dutiful/weary tourist took a nap and did laundry. Much happier choice!
— Solitude is relaxing
My life in New York requires chasing people down for work and/or payment, teaching two college classes, maintaining a happy marriage — and paying close attention to everyone’s emotional state. Whew! Raised as an only child, I savor quiet time alone, at home or out in the world exploring on my own. It recharges me.
My independence is a muscle. It needs exercise!
— But social media has been a godsend
So many blogging blind dates!
In Paris, Mallory, Catherine and Juliet — all followers of this blog, once virtual strangers now friends — invited me to meet; Catherine en francais. I also met Gillian and Ruth, fellow American writers my age. In London, I met Josh and in Paris my oldest friend from my Toronto childhood, also visiting. I had a busier social life while alone overseas than I ever do at home.
— I’m increasingly ready to leave the U.S. and its brutally industrial work culture
One of my hosts’s many books is “La Seduction”, by New York Times journalist Elaine Sciolino, who sums up my feelings well:
“The French are proud masters of le plaisir; [pleasure], for their own gratification and as a useful tool to seduce others. They have created and perfected pleasurable ways to pass the time: perfumes to sniff, gardens to wander in, wines to drink, objects of beauty to observe, conversations to carry on. They give themselves permission to fulfill a need for pleasure and and leisure that America’s hard-working, supercapitalist, abstinent culture often does not allow.”
I’ve come to loathe Americans’ fetish for “productivity” and self-denial. Pleasure and leisure are seen there with the same sort of suspicion as a felony offense. I hate that and always have.
Jose and I hope to retire to France, even part-time. Every visit back there confirms why…and I loved this recent post by Chelsea Fuss, a stylist from Portland, Oregon who sold all her things and has been on the road ever since, alone.
Does your trip have a point?It seems like you are aimlessly wandering around?
Seeing the world enlightens me. This trip was about facing the nagging wanderlust that had been bugging me for years and getting back to gardening, hence the farm stays. I have a blurry picture of what it is I want to do at the end of this and am figuring it out along the way. I’ve told myself it’s ok not to be overly ambitious right now. I keep busy with work, creative projects, and soaking up my environment but it’s definitely a slower pace than I lived at home and I think that’s ok for me right now. Slowly but surely this vision is getting clearer. I have days when I feel like I am going backwards and I should be climbing the career ladder, but that’s usually when I am comparing myself to other people. For me, this is right, right now.
By now, I may be the only woman who hasn’t yet read “Wild” the best-seller by Cheryl Strayed about her hike of the Pacific Northwest Trail alone; the film, starring Reese Witherspoon, was recently released.
Granted, men, too, sometimes seek out extreme environments in response to psychic wounds, in life as well as in literature. But for them, the wound is optional; men are free to undertake an adventure without needing trauma (or anything else) to legitimize it. By contrast, a woman’s decision to detach herself from conventional society always requires justification. Women can, of course, go out exploring for pleasure or work or intellectual curiosity or the good of humanity or just for the hell of it — but we can’t count to ten before someone asks if we miss our family, or accuses us of abandoning our domestic obligations.
I’ll soon be alone in Europe for several weeks, the first time I’ve been there alone in a long time. I’m excited. I love my husband, our home, the college students I teach, but to live untethered! Even for a while…
My mother, now sadly confined to a small room in a nursing home, spent years traveling the world alone — from Afghanistan to India to Peru to the South Pacific. Freed from the need to work for a living or own property, with only one (grown) child and no husband or partner, the world was literally hers for the taking.
She taught me, by example, to behave appropriately when in other cultures (I wore long skirts in Tunisia and a wedding ring in Istanbul); to manage frugally; to tuck a chair beneath the door handle in a dicey hotel.
It’s a life-changing experience for a girl or woman to travel alone — and yes, I’m very aware, this is a real privilege — having the money to do so, the mobility to do so safely, the freedom from family responsibilities and/or even paid vacation from your job, something Americans still (!) have no legal right to.
(As a full-time freelancer, I make this sort of time off a major priority above any other sort of spending and can take as much time, as often as I want, as I and my business can afford.)
Some women are eager to travel, and some prefer the ease, freedom and solitude of doing it alone. (Others find the notion terrifying and don’t even eat out or go to a movie by themselves when living in their own country.)
I traveled alone for four months when I was 22, after graduating from university. I flew from my home in Toronto into Lisbon in March, spent a few weeks traveling through Evora and Beja, then crossed into Spain at Huelva, meeting a gorgeous young British man standing on the train platform. We spent two weeks on the road together in Spain before I went on to Venice and Florence alone, then back to France, Spain and Lisbon for my return flight.
The kind one can only have — and allow for — when alone:
The Frenchman who met me aboard a ferry back from Ibiza who invited me back to his family’s apartment for a few days.
The German journalist in Barcelona who lent me her weekend home in Sitges.
The young Portuguese couple heading home to Lisbon who — yes, really — invited me into their Lisbon apartment the week of their wedding and asked me to photograph it. (I did.)
Or consider Isabella Bird or Gertrude Bell or Nellie Bly…brave women of much earlier generations who ventured into the world.
It is deeply freeing (in many places, not all!) for a woman to wander, and to wander alone.
Women, in many places, are inevitably bound by social conventions; in some countries, if you’re out in public without a husband, child or parent, you’re considered fair game for sexual approaches, or worse.
But we’re so often judged as valuable solely by our tireless service to others — the woman who wanders off alone is often derided as selfish.
The best-read posts on Broadside include this, this, this — which all discuss the value of travel alone as a woman.
Some people have an absolute horror of solitude. Too scared to go anywhere by themselves, they refuse to travel without a companion or go to a movie alone or sit in a restaurant without the reassuring comfort of someone across the table.
I don’t get it.
I know a few people who loathe being by themselves for any length of time, but I wonder why that is…if you’re healthy and solvent — as being alone when you’re really sick and/or broke is nasty –what’s the worst that can happen?
I’ve traveled far and wide alone, and am perfectly happy to spend time doing things solo, whether sitting at a bar, dining in a fine restaurant, attending a cultural event.
Maybe it’s because I grew up an only child and spent a fair bit of time on my own, reading, drawing, playing with toys. Maybe it’s a hold-over from years of shared space with too many strangers at boarding school and summer camp.
I like my space! I enjoy quiet solitude.
I lived alone ages 19 to 22 (then with a boyfriend), then ages 26 to 30 (then with my first husband), then alone for seven more years after my divorce.
Was I lonely? Sure, sometimes. I got weary of eating dinner while reading a magazine and having to leave my home for company.
But if you really can’t tolerate being by yourself, what does that say about the quality of your own company?
I work alone all day and, most days, speak only to people I am interviewing by phone or, occasionally, to clients or editors. It’s a little monastic, I admit, but I guess I’ve grown to enjoy it and even prefer it. I hate being interrupted. I lose focus.
Journalism, too, is really a business for loners. We rarely work in teams, usually off on our own stories.
Here’s a recent blog post about restaurants where you can sit at a long, shared table with strangers — in NYC, Vancouver, Portland, Oregon and others.
How do you feel about spending time alone?
Do you savor and enjoy it — or dread and avoid it?
My hotel room in Flagstaff at the Hotel Monte Vista, completed in 1927.
Here are a few of the things I realized while away for two weeks:
I need to spend time alone
I work alone all day every day. How could I possibly need more solitude? What am I — a hermit manquee? But I also live in an apartment building filled with neighbors I have known for decades, work with dozens of editors and fellow writers and spend a tremendous amount of time and emotional energy, every day, interacting with the world, often doing my best to find, woo, please and keep paying clients for my writing.
It wears me out!
Few things are as nourishing as total, profound silence: no beeps, buzzes, cars, kids, pets. A silence so thick your ears feel blanketed. Step below the rim of the Grand Canyon onto one of the trails and just sit still for minutes, even an hour, surrounded by milennia, in silence.
Being in nature/the outdoor world is deeply and profoundly healing
I can’t explain why this is so deeply affecting to me, but it is. On this trip I saw: rabbits, deer, elk, ravens, condors, road-runners, jays, robins, lizards of several sizes, squirrels, chipmunks. I did not (whew) see a rattlesnake or mountain lion, both common in parts of Arizona.
I read no newspapers, watched no TV, did not listen to the radio for five days. No access to the internet unless I paid for it. When, in fact, so much “news” is not new at all and is often telling me something stressful, distressing and/or something over which I have absolutely no control.
It is wearying to listen as much as I do, try to process it and make sense of it, whether the latest tornado devastating Oklahoma or the riots in Istanbul.
I spend much of my time processing/refining/producing, and most of my time is spent staring at a screen or tapping a keyboard. Ca suffit! I was thrilled when I “lost” the bit of my cellphone charge cord that plugs into the wall — giving me days of being truly out of touch. (Turned out it was buried in my duffel bag the whole time.)
Vanity is a time-suck!
In my tiny hotel room in Flagstaff, I dropped my Sephora brush, shattering the mirror. So much for worrying about my looks! A week without makeup, perfume, even deodorant — bliss! (I may be an 1860s rural bachelor in disguise.)
In dismay, I watched young women at the Grand Canyon showers flat-ironing their hair, applying mascara and generally fussing way too much about their appearance. You’re camping!
Traveling alone is key
I really like being out on the road by myself. I like relating to strangers as me — not “the wife of” or “the writer for” — and just roaming about spontaneously. I read maps, on paper, old-school. I like having to figure shit out on the fly, alone. I just love to travel, and it’s a great luxury to do exactly what I want, when and where and how I choose.
My husband is a protective sort of guy, forever worrying about me. If he’d seen some of the paths I was walking on…oy.
The Grand Canyon is missing (!) 1.5 billion years of geological time — called The Great Unconformity — which does rather put one’s own life into perspective
My brain shuts down trying to fathom a thousand years. Now, try a million. Now, a billion.
To walk across rocks and touch fossils 270 million years old is a terrific/sobering reminder how utterly insignificant we are, and what a blink we each represent in time.
I like learning new stuff
I love to learn new things — how old a cotton-tail is when it abandons its babies (three months, I was told); or how to avoid a mountain lion or what to do when you see/hear a rattlesnake. Or how to pitch a tent (and re-fold it. Hah.) All too often, at home, everything I learn is work/income-related. I am very very bad at hobbies. Travel, de facto, forces you onto a learning curve, especially solo and somewhat rugged travel.
It’s good to remember, and use, a bunch of stuff I already know
As a new friend said — competence! I bought 40 feet of cord at a hardware store and a small, sharp knife, with no plan but a sense I’d need both. And I did — to string up a tarp over my tent, to attach to my glasses frames so they could not fly off while horse-back riding through the desert. To attach all those ropes meant making figure-eight knots and clove hitches, stuff I learned as a kid and used as a sailor.
Horseback riding meant remembering (ouch!) how to trot, how to guide a horse, how to not fall off and how to mount and dismount.
It’s great to leave the husband behind once in a while
It’s great to miss him — and be missed!
Most people are rushing-around-in-an-insane-non-stop-noise-producing frenzy. WTF?!
Tell me, please, the point of going somewhere as mind-blowing as the Grand Canyon, then never, once, not for a second, shutting the hell up and appreciating its beauty and mystery — in silence. Not sketching or drawing (which takes time and contemplation), but quickquickquick snapping tons of pix. It was exhausting listening to them all shouting at their unruly children or barking instructions at one another in French/German/Japanese.
It made me want to put Xanax in the damn water supply. Good God, people. Can you just sit still for 10 minutes?
Doing less, more slowly, is not a sign of weakness or defeat
This was a first. Sigh.
This week — June 6 — I hit yet another birthday and, for the first time, feel (ugh) a little bit my age. The last trip I made to the Grand Canyon I was 39, had just fenced sabre at nationals in Salt Lake City and had thighs of steel with stamina to match. I hiked four hours down and eight back up to the rim.
This time? Not so much.
With my left foot injured, walking a lot seemed unappealing. The altitude — 7,071 feet at the spot where I watched one sunset — left me a little breathless when ascending a steep trail.
So I just said the hell with it, something that would have been impossible for me to admit a few years ago. I watched everyone biking and hiking and striding with great purpose and intensity — and yawned. I sketched and took photos and sat still. I walked the rim, and did only one 1.1 mile walk on flat ground, albeit at noon, which was way too hot.
Pretty fucking geriatric!
Whatever. I had a great time.
There are some amazing women out there!
I’ve so enjoyed some of the women I’ve met in Arizona, from the nurse and doctor who treated my foot injury to the 27-year-old esthetician/ barrel racer who drives 18 hours one way with her horses and dogs and young son from her home in Wyoming to her childhood home in Tucson.
Talk about a skill set…
Then there were the two lady park rangers, in Stetsons with badges, patrolling the desert on horseback. What a neat job!
I miss being around women whose highest priority is not being thin/rich/powerful (New York) but being strong/cool/competent and fun. I like a woman in spurs! Maybe, one day, I’ll be one as well.
As some of you may know, a hurricane is due to hit the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. sometime this morning. I’m giving a speech Tuesday evening at 7:00 pm in Minneapolis, Minnesota so Friday night, Jose suggested I jump on a train to make sure I actually got there in time, as all of New York’s public transit was being shut down, and flights were sure to be canceled. By Sunday evening — as I was almost at my destination on Amtrak — the wait time to speak to a customer service rep for Delta airlines was between seven and ten hours…
I bought a $227 one-way ticket (with nowhere to sleep but sitting up in my chair) and hoped for the best.
So, here I am, writing this from my Minneapolis hotel room, and here’s my story…
I left from Croton-Harmon, the Amtrak station about 15 minutes drive north of our home, to get to Albany, a two-hour journey, where I changed trains for the 15 hour trip to Chicago. I initially boarded the Ethan Allen Express, named for a Vermont hero.
The Hudson Valley, where I begin this trip, is one of the prettiest places in the United States, its trees now a blast of red, yellow, orange, brown and crimson — all likely to disappear after the hurricane blows through this week. The train tracks hug the eastern shore of the Hudson River, speeding (a relative word — crawling, compared to a TGV) past 18th. century towns and landmarks like West Point, the military academy. We passed Our Lady of Restoration Chapel, built in 1840 facing the river, where I was married (the first time) in May 1992.
The car is filled with students. A young girl is busy rolling cigarettes on her notebook, carefully adding filters. The girl behind her is knitting a gray scarf. Two young men behind me discuss their friends.
“She married a prince of some foreign country! That’s crazy. She’ll never have to work and someday she’ll be a queen.”
The train for Chicago, the Lake Shore Limited, leaves Albany at 7:05 p.m. and I settle into my aisle seat, a large woman in the window seat whose bum will press up against mine (and vice versa) for the next 15 hours, even though we don’t speak. The train is packed, and I can hear many people saying they, too, are fleeing Hurricane Sandy and whatever havoc it might wreak.
I sit in the lounge car, now that it’s dark, and watch a DVD on my laptop, Frozen River, an excellent 2008 feature film about two desperately poor women who smuggle illegal immigrants in their car trunk across the St. Lawrence between the U.S. and Canada. It’s an apt choice because at Syracuse, two hours north of Albany (and 1.5 hours south of the Canadian border) immigration officials climb aboard and check some people’s identification. I overhear them say they are removing someone with all their luggage.
In the lounge car, a bearded young Aussie in a black hoodie is yammering on to a pretty young Hispanic girl who, with great pride, tells him she passed an employer’s drug test by using her mother’s urine.
We all sleep in whatever position we can manage within our seats, but no one bothers to pull the dark blue curtains so the brilliant orange lights of the passing landscape keep flickering through the glass. My soft challis scarf makes a perfect eye-shade wrapped around my head and my wool cape is long enough to make a warm blanket and small pillow.
I fall asleep at 1:00 a.m. but am awake at 4:00 as we stop in Cleveland, Ohio. A man three rows ahead of me is reading his laptop, the screen blindingly bright in the darkness.
The train crosses northern New York, a narrow sliver of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and into Illinois. A man got on in Albany struggling to carry a huge ice chest filled with food, as well as his rolling suitcase, black fabric covered with pink flamingos, so full he cannot zip it closed. He looks poor and scrawny and tired, like many of the passengers. This is the America that will vote in a week for their new President.
Who will they choose?
This is a whole other America, one I rare see in my affluent suburban bubble near Manhattan, where a devastating moment is your kid not getting into Harvard or Yale.
At sunrise, around 7:00 a.m., we straggle to the lounge car for coffee and tea. One woman’s hair (like mine) is squashed and crimped from behind — bedhead.
I sip my tea and eat my pain au chocolat that Jose packed for me, and watch the sun gilding the shorn cornfields of Indiana, a vegetative high and tight. It seeps across the pick-up trucks and barns and silos and quiet farmhouses. Cows and horses stand in their paddocks, waiting for the day to begin.
We barrel through this quiet landscape, timeless, lovely, calm.
I have a four hour layover, from 9:45 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. until my train leaves for Minneapolis, (its final destination is Seattle). I buy a locker (using a scanner that takes my fingerprint! for $12) and stuff my things into it. I buy my three usual weekend newspapers, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Financial Times, and head out into the sunshine.
Right outside the train station is the Chicago River, crossed by a number of bridges. This is the view from the Adams Street bridge.
I was in Chicago in November 2011 for the first time, so I know where I am and where to go, which I consider such a luxury — feeling at home in a place far away. I head toward Lake Michigan to find a spot for breakfast, to settle in and read my newspapers.
But first, I want to say hello to my history, and head a few blocks over to State Street, to this white tower, built in 1912, developed by my great grandfather Louis M. Stumer. The architects, Holabird and Roche, did many of the city’s grandest buildings. I love having a personal connection to this great city and a building that still stands at its heart.
I settle in for breakfast at the Corner Bakery, and pick up a sandwich for the rest of my journey, another 8.5 hours further west to Minneapolis.
I board the Empire Builder, a two-storey train I last took from here in August 2002, (heading to Vancouver, Canada to see my mother through brain surgery) that goes all the way west through another half-dozen enormous states, to Seattle, where its final miles of track are mere feet from the Pacific Ocean. (I was then in Dayton, Ohio researching my first book, about women and guns, when the surgeon told me to get there as fast as I could. Last-minute airfares are so costly, I went by bus and train.)
This time I’m seated beside a woman who is a retired archeologist, whose late husband was an astronomer whose experiments rode inside two space missions. She did work in Michoacan, a state in Mexico I’ve also visited and knows Santa Fe, NM well, where my husband was born, so we have lots to discuss.
But I soon withdraw into music on my laptop and an empty two-chair spot, to sleep as much as I can. I listen to Briton John Renbourn’s acoustic guitar and Canadian singer Sarah McLachlan, — gentle, meditative — both a perfect soundtrack as the sun sets over the fields of Wisconsin. We stand still — waiting, every time for a freight train ahead of us — as the fading light paints a stand of white birch trees to our right a soft pink.
The train rattles along, through towns like Red Wing, Minnesota and Lacrosse, Wisconsin. Here’s a photo of the station at Columbia, Wisconsin; a few minutes later a small parade of kids came by in their Hallowe’en costumes.
As I walk the car’s narrow aisle, I see a group of women knitting the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen. “Are those…feathers?” I ask one. “Yup. It’s going to be a cowl,” she says, showing me creamy wool with gleaming feathers sticking out of it. “This ain’t your grandma’s knitting!”
I get to talking to two of the women — 38 of them belong to a passionate Minneapolis group that’s just gone to Chicago for a three-day knitting conference. Their fingers are all flying: an orange sweater, a pale pink sock, a black hat. One offers to make me a muffler, complete with feathers, if I pay for the materials. Yay!
One woman lived for years in Pakistan, and her friend has been to Afghanistan and Thailand and Pakistan. People are amazing. You never know who’s sitting beside you or behind you or in front of you — until you find out.
We stop for a brief break somewhere in the Wisconsin/Minnesota? darkness. People are eager for fresh air, a cigarette, a chance to walk around a bit.
This is a Santa Fe car parked on the tracks beside us as we took our micro-liberty.
We shuffle back in and climb the narrow stairs, as this train has two levels, including my favorite — the observation car — whose individual seats face outwards. When I did this trip in 2002, and came all the way from Seattle back to NY, it was one of the best experiences of my life.
You really can have no idea how beautiful the U.S. until it has flashed past you for days and nights on end, mile after mile after mile: farms and fields and rivers and cities and ducks on still ponds and flying geese and abandoned factories and slick college campuses and huge mansions atop hills…
I ask a conductor if Minneapolis is halfway across.
“Oh, no! That might be in Montana.”
We are late, hardly unusual for Amtrak. Americans don’t like the train much, (or, to be correct the wealthy and powerful lobbyists for the auto and airline industry do not), so the system and its cars is slow, outdated and inefficient.
We pull into Minneapolis at 11:00 p.m. Sunday night. I started my trip at 3:58 p.m. Saturday in New York.
A man with two enormous incisions, with fresh black thread sticking out of his stitches, his right hand swollen like a balloon, clutches his small, trembling reddish dog against his enormous stomach. “She doesn’t like stairs,” he tells us.
I stumble into a taxi and head for my hotel. I’ll have two full days to recover before I speak about my book, Malled, and retail, to 100+ students at the University of Minnesota.
I don’t expect to find it hard to leave, but you never know.
There are, I’ve discovered a few times, places in the world that sear your soul, where you unexpectedly feel so at home you can’t bear to leave, plotting your return even as you reluctantly pack your bags.
I rarely cry, especially not in public. But three places, (so far), left me in tears of regret and longing as departed: Corsica, northern Thailand and Ireland.
I had one week between the end of one job and the start of another. I was single and craved something absolutely amazing.
I love France and speak French and friends had raved to me for many years about this island, known for its rugged interior — and fierce desire to separate from France.
I flew from New York to Nice, Nice to Bastia and rented a mo-ped at the port, while the hotel owner in Bastia helped me plot out a five-day circle tour of La Balagne, all in the north. It still remains one of the best holidays of my entire life, (and I’ve been to 37 countries, so far.)
Imagine buzzing along empty, winding country roads in brilliant sunshine, with the maquis,the island’s thick scrubby undergrowth filled with herbs, sending its rich, delicious sun-warmed fragrance into your nostrils. Meander down a series of hairpin turns to a hotel at the ocean’s edge, so close you’ll hear the surf from your bedroom window. It’s a lovely old house from the 1850s or so. You eat dinner, alone, on the terrace at dusk.
One day it poured so heavily I couldn’t wear my glasses, (which I really do need for driving), nor did my helmet have a visor. I got a black trash bag from a restaurant to cover me, and kept on going, whizzing past 1,000-foot drop-offs into the sea. People invited me into their homes for a meal. I chatted with a handsome young mason in a bar, who gave me several CDs, still some of my favorite music ever, the polyphonal a capella group I Muvrini.
The landscape is wild, untamed, primal, timeless. When my plane took off for Nice, I cried so hard the flight attendant came to comfort me and ask what was wrong. I couldn’t even speak for grief, watching the island disappear into the clouds.
I’d found, as I did in every place that has seared my soul so deeply: beauty, peace, scent, kindness, history, adventure.
I visited in January 1994 with my husband, our new marriage already in tatters and soon to blow apart.
We’d visited Bangkok and Chang Mai, both standard tourist destinations, and decided, spur of the moment, to fly further north to Mae Hong Son, which one guidebook called the most beautiful town in Thailand. I’ve only seen one other airport — in Bastia — so rural and tiny that sheep grazed a few meters from the runways. As we walked (!) into town, the only sound was that of bells from the temple across the unpaved street.
Guesthouses, then $15 a night, ringed a lake. We rented mo-peds, (clearly, my favorite mode of transport), for a day-trip even further north to the Burmese border. Madness! The road, quite literally, was under construction, with huge machines grading the land, their quizzical drivers gazing down at us in pity and wonder.
We went with Roy, an Englishman we’d met at our guesthouse, who’d worked in developing countries delivering vaccines. When the road forked, with a sign we couldn’t read, what next? “Follow the power lines,” Roy said.
The road dust was a thick, silky red, so deep I put my feet out on both sides and used them as pontoons to steady the bike. As we pulled into town for lunch, men wearing extremely large rifles across their chest stared at us — we were now in the Golden Triangle, then the world’s largest suppliers of opium.
We ate lunch, then turned south in the golden late afternoon light, back down the insanely steep hills we’d so eagerly climbed. On one turn, (no guardrails), I got off the bike and had my husband walk it down, too terrified of flying off the road and over the treetops to my certain death. I’d already fallen and shattered the bike’s side mirror, giving me a tiny scar on the inside of my right wrist as a permanent souvenir of the day.