The euphoria of traveling alone

This was a mistake: I once told a female friend to go ahead and meet me in Tokyo when I went some time ago. She was excited. Then I wrote in a blog that she shouldn’t be too excited because I need my space, that I, huh-hum, walk the Earth alone. This did not go over well. This was unmannerly. And dumb. Whatever. It was true.

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Louvre, Paris, 2015

Decidedly, defiantly, I am an incorrigible solo traveler. Occasionally I’ve traveled to Europe or somewhere in the States with a gal pal, but 99-percent of the time I’m a one-man production. Two weeks in Japan. Three weeks in India. Two weeks in Turkey. Ten days in Paris. Do I get lonely? Rarely. Embracing solitude and deflecting loneliness is an art form, and, done right, it’s invigorating.

Last fall, I wrote here about loneliness vs. solitude: “My own skin doesn’t fit well. Which means comfort among others doesn’t come easy. Traveling, I love to read in cafes, scribble in journals in bars, roam streets, cathedrals and cemeteries alone, without the nattering of companions. I move to my own beat …”

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So I am gladdened by the new book “Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude” by journalist Stephanie Rosenbloom. Not only are the four cities she explores — Paris, Istanbul, Florence, New York — some of my absolute favorites, but her experiment in solitary travel is of course immensely attractive.

Despite spending undue verbiage defending solitude — feebly citing scientists, psychologists and philosophers who rail against the social stigma of aloneness, as if it’s some zany pathology — Rosenbloom says that solo travel is surging, and, a fine reporter, she provides the stats.

In a time when everything is socially entwined and extravagantly networked, the hunger for alone time is greater than ever, be it a solo trip to a movie or a solo trip to Morocco. I habitually go the movies alone, just as I unfailingly globe-trot untethered. As Rosenbloom learns, such excursions are steeped in rare splendors, from the placidity of eating alone and truly savoring a meal to the transformative power of focusing on the present moment.

“Alone, there’s no need for an itinerary,” she writes. “Walk, and the day arranges itself.” One can be “curious, improvisational, open to serendipity.”

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Blue Mosque, Istanbul, 2008

As when I spontaneously tooled through the fairy-tale hills of Cappadocia, Turkey, on a rented Vespa, or stumbled upon the ritual slaughter of sacred rams in a mosque abattoir in Istanbul, or visited an orphanage for critically ill children in Siem Reap, Cambodia, or, most harrowing, got myself detained by Hezbollah goons in South Beirut. And of course there are countless cordial encounters and forged friendships among fellow travelers and locals that organically blossom, and often last.

Rosenbloom had a plan: visit Paris in springtime, Istanbul in summer, Florence in autumn and New York, her hometown, in winter. Except for New York, she was only in each city for up to one week. Her aim was to peel back the delights of traveling alone in exemplary locations, ones awash in food, architecture and art, revealing how fine it can be to be unhurried, “accountable to no one,” exhilaratingly free.

The upshot is part vivid travelogue and vague memoir, filigreed reportage and free-floating opinion. “Alone Time” doesn’t provide the stunning personal epiphanies and life-altering experiences of Elizabeth Gilbert’s classic “Eat, Pray, Love” (nor the luxurious prose). It’s more a practical guide, a how-to on solo travel, including an epilogue, “Tips and Tools for Going It Alone.” (Though I had to roll my eyes at a few sections, like this one: “How to Be Alone in a Museum” — really?) She offers some gauzy instructions, like how “to be open to wonder,” which, actually, is much easier than you think.

Rosenbloom, diehard journalist, is wed to her sources, so that her rigorous apologia for eating alone comes with too many testimonials from psychologists and the like, bogging down what modest narrative thrust there is. I wanted to blurt out: “Eating aloneJust do it! It’s entirely fine and easy and acceptable. You don’t need a sheaf of Ph.D studies to validate this primal pleasure.”

For this introvert, whose two favorite cities happen to be Paris and Istanbul, “Alone Time” is a mild affirmation that my travel habits might have universal appeal, something I kind of already believed. Solitude -— not loneliness, which must be fended off —  is a source of power and creativity, great assets while on the road.

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East River, New York City, 2010

As I wrote last fall: “In solitude one reaps energy from oneself. You create your own space on your own terms, with your own powers, cultivating your mind, with the option of joining the wide world at anytime. Great freedom defines solitude. It’s the incubator of creativity and art. It’s the locus of self-communion.”

Rosenbloom, who began her physical journey and spiritual awakening in the City of Lights, sums up with characteristic pragmatism and admirable ambition: “My aim wasn’t to master Paris. It was to master myself: to learn how a little alone time can change your life — in any city.” And there she nails it.

What we’re really looking for when we travel

“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” — Robert Louis Stevenson

“I read; I travel; I become.” — Derek Walcott

Someone recently suggested to me that my many travels aren’t journeys to see the world and immerse myself in the new, novel and astonishing but to escape from life, to bolt from my existential predicament with its quotidian contours and smothering banality. 

Well, duh.

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Rather than take umbrage at this reductive hypothesis, I embraced its glaring self-evidence. But it is only half-right. Escape from routine and workaday doldrums is part of the algebra of travel for most of us, but the other part about immersion in the new, novel and astonishing is undeniably, irrefutably the most important piece of the equation. That unquenchable thirst for fresh, unpredictable experience, from culture to cuisine, people to history, is absolutely paramount. To say otherwise is preposterous.

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After all, you can’t actually escape yourself or your life just because you’re standing woozily before the Taj Mahal or whizzing happily on a moto-bike through the maniacal streets of Saigon. “Wherever you go, you take yourself with you,” author Neil Gaiman said. You can’t not pack you. You view the world through the lens — smudged, rosy, cracked — of your own inescapable mind.

Yet there’s another way to look at the urge to trot the globe, and it goes like this: “We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.” That dimly cryptic maxim has no author, just the copout “anonymous,” but it’s deep nonetheless. It’s saying travel is life itself, that to travel is to truly live. I know I’m at my most alive, most stimulated traveling, when unfamiliar vistas and uncharted ways of seeing and surviving crack open like great gifts. I look, I learn, I marvel. Smitten here, flummoxed there, I gulp it all down.

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Contrarily there’s journalist Janet Malcolm, who finds travel a lesser version of daily living, “a low-key emotional experience, a pallid affair in comparison with ordinary life. (Our homes) are where the action is; they are where the riches of experience are distributed.” (A celebrity in her profession, Malcolm has an incredible job, and she presumably enjoys a highly satisfactory family and social life in very nice accommodations. I’m just saying.)  

Real life will inevitably beetle its way into our journeys. We are not immune from the humdrummeries of being human just because we’re sipping sangria in Sevilla or snorkeling in Thailand. More often than not, we are pulled back into normal existence while trekking and must deal with the minutiae and mundanities of getting by. Currency hassles, airport irritants, sore feet, crappy service, taxi ripoffs, unvarnished boredom — life is a greedy intruder. 

Some germane questions: Does travel satisfy the urge to fill something, or to shed something? Ponder.

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I finish with this besotted soundbite from illustrious world-traveler Pico Iyer, who defines wanderlust far better than I can: 

“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again — to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.” 

Travel as enchantment. There you have it.

(Photos by Chris at Gnashing.)

In art museums, when are selfies ever cool?

An article I just read triggered a deep-seated pet peeve of mine. It’s not about how super it is that summer’s almost here, which really gets my goat, because I loathe summer. And it’s not about the astonishing nincompoopery going on in Washington right now. 

It’s more important than all that. It’s about patrons taking selfies in the world’s greatest museums, standing like glassy-eyed dolts before masterpieces by Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Rembrandt and Caravaggio, all the while blocking the paintings for others as they stage strenuous fake smiles at their cell phones without actually studying the monumental artworks hanging mere feet away. Pose, smile, snap, leave.

Recently at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam I was looking forward to truly absorbing Rembrandt’s grand, justly famous “Night Watch.” It had been years since I’d seen it in the flesh, and this time I read up on it, prepared for a more immersive, enlightened viewing. 

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Mobs of viewers before Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” this month in Amsterdam.

Not a chance. The painting is quite gigantic and still, when I got to it, a crush of phone-wielding zombies were cluttering up the view. I jostled and elbowed, to no avail. Details I wanted to drink in, such as the fuzzy little self-portrait of Rembrandt peeking out from between two watchmen, had to be quickly glanced before some dunderhead, camera in fist, bumped me away. 

Cell phones and those mortifying selfie sticks abounded, with people actually pointing cameras at themselves, plastering on gargoyle grins and snapping themselves in front of a masterwork they couldn’t care less about except for how it will look on Instagram. Can you imagine how those shots turned out? The mind reels. The stomach turns. 

A few sublime Vermeers prominently adorn the Rijksmuseum, but if you want to see them, really see them, wait until the Selfie Squadron gets its fix. Watch as it rushes up to gentle tableaus of sun-splashed domestic life, framing and snapping pictures, then summarily rushing to the next painting, like it’s a contest, some kind of desperate relay.

The selfie epidemic is even uglier at the Louvre with Da Vinci’s magnetic “Mona Lisa.” 

The way many patrons “interact with the 500-year-old painting exemplifies how differently the digital generation experiences art,” says The New York Times article I read. “Most of the roughly 150 people crowded around the painting were taking photographs of the piece, or of themselves in front of it. In the presence of the ‘Mona Lisa,’ digital photography, more than looking at the actual artwork, has become the primary experience.”

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The “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre in Paris. (Photo by Pedro Fiuza.)

This disgusts me, and it probably shouldn’t. No, actually it should. And this is why:

“Imprisoned by its reputation as the most famous painting in the world, the ‘Mona Lisa’ has, to all meaningful intents and purposes, ceased to exist as an original work of art. It has become an idea — and a photo opportunity.”

Hasn’t everything been reduced to this, a crass photo opportunity? Even at Starbucks, I see people satisfying the urge to take selfies of themselves with their massive milkshakes that pass as coffee drinks, tongues hanging out or lips pursed, fingers making a peace sign. Who but the takers wants to look at these images?

It’s too easy to blame unchecked narcissism, yet that’s surely a contributing toxin. As someone who’s almost pathologically camera shy, I can’t fathom this slavering need to record oneself every 15 minutes until dizzying repetition nullifies any semblance of originality. The pictures all look the same; only the “zany” faces vary. People love to look at themselves. As the center of the universe, their self-adoration knows no bounds. It is, I think, a sickness. The camera-clicking hordes in museums reveal a kind of twisted vanity.

Think about it. Your mugging face, beaming, and in the far background, lost in the clamor, is “The Night Watch” or the “Mona Lisa.” What then? The shame.

Art exhibit’s visitors in a nude mood

The naked man looked at the clothed man, and then he looked at the naked people, and then back at the clothed man, all the time wearing a scrunched look that said, “What is this dude doing here?”

This dude (yours truly), fully dressed, was there to talk to naked people. He told the naked man this, and the naked man relaxed. But the clothed man did not relax, for he was one of only a few clothed people in an art gallery filled with naked men and women.

Twenty-one of the naked people were there in the literal, quivering flesh, and about as many were hanging on two long walls, the subjects of life-size photographs by artist George Krause.

m5x00046_9Recently at an urban art gallery, a bevy of nudists came to a nude art show. The nudists, an informal tribe of devoted clothes peel-offers, are always on the lookout for novel ways to gather, and what’s more fitting than naked people looking at naked people?

The gallery owner was happy to give the group a private viewing, and Krause, clothed but bald, came to talk about his work. Each human-size black-and-white portrait depicts an ordinary person, standing stark naked, facing the camera. His singular technique uses white light to create a smoky sfumato effect, bathing the figures in a ghostly, X-ray glow.

Naked people admired the photos’ indiscriminate honesty, and the boxy, concrete gallery echoed with the slappy patter of bare feet. Sipping cheap cabernet in plastic cups, nudists mixed casually in the shocking altogether, proud in their mammalian resplendence. They embodied all sizes and shapes, from pears to bears, though the age scale tipped to ear hair and back aches.

“Seeing the photos in the middle of a group of nudes reinforces how many different kinds of bodies there are,” said nudist Bill Morgan, whose body hair could pass for clothing in some cultures. “Running around with this group has done a lot for me in terms of accepting my own body.”

One thin woman was all bare flesh but for a yellow Livestrong bracelet, while a tall man with a round belly wore only silver-rimmed spectacles. A green, quarter-sized tattoo announced itself from a woman’s right dorsal cheek. Tan lines: oddly scarce.

The nudist group has roughly 60 members, about 40 of whom are men, says club president Steve Bosbach, diminutive and hairless as a fish. The lopsided male-to-female ratio was on full-frontal display at the private party. It was a man’s world.

There was chatter about “liberation,” “society” and the nudist “agenda,” yet a curious dearth about sexuality and the whole nakedy thing. One wondered how these people abstain from . . . looking.

“With some practice, it’s completely possible to maintain eye contact with a topless woman,” Morgan said. “You don’t stare, but you don’t avoid looking in a particular direction either.”

Morgan has a long gray ponytail and lives with his mother, who was surprised by his nuditude. She doesn’t see him naked, though her son likes to spend a few hours a day kicking back in the buff. Like his clubmates, Morgan does many things without attire, cut free from the bondage of cotton fibers. Perhaps it’s the leather seats, but one thing he has not done is drive naked.

“I’ve wanted to drive naked a few times after club get-togethers,” he said. “Putting the clothes back on is the hardest part.”

Visual antidotes to winter’s vicious freeze

With my love of cold weather, my fervent devotion to fall and winter, to thick jackets, chapped lips and goosebumps, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am part polar bear, part moose.

I relish the big chill. I rather enjoyed the “bomb cyclone” that recently tormented the entire East Coast. Undoubtedly, the swirling mega gusts and ravaging ice storms truly unsettled. I’m actually no fan of voluminous snowfall. Slush, mush, argh. But give me some solid 30s and 40s F and I get to bundle up, thrill with the chill and, this is critical, not sweat.

Yet things are warming up, and this week the New York area will enjoy an inhumanely balmy 60 degrees — a wee too warm, but my survivalist instincts will kick in.

It is said winter lovers are a rare breed, anomalous, daft. I ask: Why don’t more people hate summer? Baffling. I loathe the warm months. It’s a me thing. Shorts and I are on rancorous terms.

I’ve traveled wide and far in positively scorching, humid, sweat-sodden climes and I thought this quintet of watery photos from said journeys might warm up the cold-adverse reader, reminding you of the great thaw to come, soon. All too soon. Splash.

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Boy leaping into river in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
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Vietnamese kid after his plunge.
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Girl splashing in fire hydrant, summer, Brooklyn, NY.
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Boys in Istanbul, Turkey.
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Those Turkish boys, loving it.

My romance with travel — quote of the day

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Paris

“Traveling is the great true love of my life. I have always felt that to travel is worth any cost or sacrifice. I am loyal and constant in my love of travel, as I have not always been loyal and constant in my other loves. I feel about travel the way a happy new mother feels about her impossible, colicky, restless newborn baby — I just don’t care what it puts me through. Because I adore it. Because it’s mine. Because it looks exactly like me. It can barf all over me if it wants to — I just don’t care.” — Elizabeth Gilbert

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Istanbul
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Paris

Beirut: beauty, bowed, but not broken

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Luna Park, a tumbledown amusement park along Beirut’s Corniche seaside promenade. It appeared shuttered and cobwebbed, far from its heyday as a respite from the country’s civil war in the 1970s.

Beautiful but battered, regal but raw, Beirut is like a patient in recovery, with ample physical therapy ahead of it. No longer crowned the “Paris of the Middle East,” the Levantine Mediterranean city, one of the world’s oldest and a beguiling twinning of East and West, remains a tourist draw of exotic splendors and fragrant pleasures. If it bears unconcealed bruises, Beirut still, with its lush, war-torn history and an exuberant cafe and bar life, is a multilevel dazzler.

I can’t say my weeklong visit some years ago went as planned. Trouble was had. After I took a photo in a neighborhood where I was told explicitly not to take a photo, I was detained by Hezbollah goons who roughed me up a little, rifled through my bag, flipped through my books and demanded to see my “papers.” I felt like I was in East Berlin, circa 1960. I felt like I might be tortured, disappeared or beheaded. It was no joke. I came out alive, shaken and shaky for the rest of the day and night, but not enough to deter me from haunting a choice bar in one of the city’s crackling nightlife districts. Beirut knows how to party.

Would I go back? Probably not. But I’m glad I went. It’s a lovely, melancholy place, at once desolate and disarming, friendly and not a little forlorn.

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Pigeons’ Rock, or Sabah Nassar’s Rock, in the Raouche area along the Corniche.
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Lebanese Army vehicle, downtown Beirut. Its presence, imposing and unsettling, wasn’t unlike those of the grim-faced armed soldiers patrolling malls and mosques.
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One of countless bullet- and shell-riddled buildings all about the city.
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Proud produce merchant.
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Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who died in 1989, remains an icon in Hezbollah-controlled south Beirut. Taking this photo got me into a world of trouble with local authorities who were convinced I was a western spy.
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Hezbollah rocket on display in the middle of a south Beirut street.
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My (tiny) bar of choice in the ever-hopping Gemmayze district, which throbs with bars and clubs and revelers. That guy in the neon-ablaze storefront window on the far right is a DJ.
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Blasted shell of the infamous Beirut Holiday Inn. During the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-76, the hotel became a war zone in the Battle of the Hotels.
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Girl in taxi, texting.
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Delightful if pontifical Orthodox priest who gave me an earful about God, history, life.
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Ceiling of the Mohammed Al-Amin mosque in downtown Beirut.
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Prayer on the Corniche. (Luna Park Ferris wheel in far distance.)