A brief winter reverie

A crisp Sunday morning and gaggles of children hoot, holler and gambol outside. It is the sound of chaos. (And, to these gentle ears, terror.) 

Temperatures are far higher than the last couple of freezing days. At 47 degrees, the sky is a glowing gray, sun struggling to burn through the haze. A fine winter day.

The children are out at last, released from the arctic prison imposed by the polar vortex, or whatever hit us with only a whisper of snow, for which we’re grateful. Snow is lovely, until it’s a big brown Slurpee. 

It will hit 60 later this week, an unwelcome augur of springtime. I’m all about the 40s and 50s. I have plans to go to Florence, Italy, in one week and the forecast says low 50s and I couldn’t be happier. I can see you frowning, and I don’t care.

But spring is a’coming. I had a dream last night that colorful leaves — red! green! yellow! — were blossoming on naked winter branches. A dream? More of a nightmare. 

So save for the one-day dusting, there’s been no snow this season. The children above — those huggable hellions — have been deprived of sledding and hurling balls and making snowmen, however virtuosically deformed the creatures invariably turn out.

It’s been a mostly mellow winter, a zigzag of 20s to 60s, so heat lovers and outliers like me can split the difference. That rotund rodent Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow a few days ago, ergo we are promised — blessed with — six more weeks of winter, they say.

Hang tight. All this brisk glory will soon be usurped by sun and sweat and pollen and long days and children screeching outside and the warbling tune of the ice cream truck and picnics and baseball and tank tops and flip-flops and other fashion misdemeanors. It’s going to be a massacre. For now, I’ll do what I can: just chill with the chill.

A flaneur in Florence

The frivolities in my life are legion, but travel isn’t one of them, despite how trivial a far-flung journey might seem — or ultimately be. (Most trips soar. Some sink.) 

In three weeks I head to Florence, Italy. Though I’ve been there twice, the last visit was in the Paleolithic Age. I wanted something mellow, somewhat familiar, distinctly European, with lots of marble, museums, manicotti, and mustaches on both men and women.

The city is a cornucopia of artistic abundance: Michelangelo’s David; Donatello’s bittier David; the Uffizi, that Renaissance eruption of Botticelli to da Vinci; Ghiberti’s bronze doors; Brunelleschi’s dome; the locals’ luxuriant facial hair.

I was last in Italy in March 2022, ferrying between Rome and Naples, the latter a bracing revelation, rough-hewn and bristling with a singular urban snap. As novelties go — serpentine side streets, graffiti, killer Neapolitan pizza — it sort of kicked Rome’s ass. In July I swanned to beautiful Buenos Aires. In October, magical Madrid.

Florence seemed like a good middle-ground — encrusted in a glorious past but not overly exotic; grand but not overwhelmingly vast. It’s not like going to jostling Taipei, say, or sunbaked Algeria, which I hear is majestic. Yet Forbes did name Florence the most beautiful city in the world in 2010.

No, this would be a week luxuriating in western art, architecture, food, drink, scenery, inhaling the rarefied air of undiluted enchantment. I imagine me a self-styled flaneur, strolling the cobblestones, gilded walking stick in one hand, tipping my top hat to passersby with the other. And then I snap out of it and pinch the bridge of my nose.

Florence is not massive. So I’m making at least one day trip to Central Tuscany, namely Siena and San Gimignano, medieval towns cluttered with Gothic architecture and honeycombed with history. The region is also a wellspring of Chianti, and tippling some of the red elixir from the source is essential.

I have made five restaurant reservations in Florence, from a traditional trattoria to a Michelin-star bistro. I will eat pasta and pizza and exist — and subsist — a bit like Stanley Tucci, without the bald pate and skinny chinos (but with the dashing scarf). I might also employ a larger vocabulary of superlatives than just, “This is so good” when I taste something delicious.

And though Tucci meets up, and hams it up, with lots of local hosts, he makes it appear he is his own man, ambling the streets of Italy, the stylish flaneur (that word again), when really, of course, he’s accompanied by a small battalion of producers and technicians taping him all the way.  

If life were only like that. I travel solo most of the time, by choice. But once in a while it might be nice to have a crew of professional sycophants at your beck and call, filming you, powdering your nose, providing the background about everyone you’re about to meet and everywhere you’re about to go so you appear super smart and amply informed. 

I do what I can. I read books, watch Tucci and Bourdain, comb the net, view movies. In the end, I’m still alone, tramping about the glittering city, whose promise is assured. I think that’s pretty cool. And I think that’s quite enough.  

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.

Having a ‘Good Time’? Me too.

Finished Tommy Orange’s debut novel “There There” — terrific, explosive — and I’m now onto Amie Barrodale’s arch short stories “You Are Having a Good Time.” After just a few of these fun-size fictions, I am firmly in the book’s thrall. The title alone thrills me a little.

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I am glad I’m reading “You Are Having a Good Time,” because I am indeed having a good time. But frankly the stories are a lucky place holder for a book I’m waiting to arrive, “Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude,” by travel journalist Stephanie Rosenbloom.

The book is about her year traveling solo in Paris, Istanbul, Florence and New York — four of my favorite cities, especially the first two — and all that she loved, loathed and learned basking in that life-expanding mode of emancipated alone-hood. I’m an inveterate solo trekker enamored with the places she visits, so Rosenbloom and I might have a lot in common.

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Amie Barrodale

For now, Barrodale’s “You Are Having a Good Time” is a gratifying off-kilter kick, a spasm of spare, elusive, funny tales that are touched by mystery, an alluring unknowability. With cavalier irreverence, she throws a strobe-light on aberrant facets of the human condition.

Barrodale conjures “stories that don’t behave as you expect stories to behave,” notes the book flap. “Beautiful or Grotesque?” asks the headline on a review of the 2016 collection.

Or there’s this review headline: “Stories Exploring the Misguided, the Unrequited and the Mortified.” That review concludes: “None of these stories explain themselves willingly.”

That is true. Take “The Imp,” in which a possible ghost upends the relationship of a man and his pregnant wife. A tarot reader is involved. Or the bleakly comic “Night Report,” which follows a troubled woman to a New Age mountain retreat where she breaks down and declares, “I wish that I were dead. I’m heartbroken, and if I had a gun I would use it. … I’d shoot Eve. Thank you. I’d shoot Eve in the chest.”

Then there is “Frank Advice for Fat Women,” which opens with a dry, quizzical flourish: “A woman who was lonely and depressed should begin by getting on some medication. She should clean her house and throw away clutter. After that, Dr. Sheppard told his patients to lose weight and wear dresses.”

Her eye for detail is keen: “The restaurant was empty except for a guy at the bar. He was a little chubby. I could tell he was single because he was wearing white tube socks with black dress shoes. His jeans were too tight on him. I don’t mean that he had on skinny jeans. I mean that he had on jeans that were two sizes too small, and he was uncomfortable. He kept squirming, fooling with his phone. …  Outside, through the window, I saw an old guy stop under a tree, pull down a branch, and smell a flower.”

On love: “Being torn apart is what a relationship is. So don’t be afraid. Play the game.”

The stories groove to mercurial rhythms, and sometimes seem to bear a torch, in search of a point. They withhold facile answers and spurn tidy bows. They’re fun like that, and funny. They are dark, but giddy.

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Barrodale’s stories — this is her only book — are a cousin to the blithely jagged fiction of Ottessa Moshfegh, who’s an avowed fan. “It’s one of my favorite books,” she recently said. “Like (Michael) Ondaatje, Barrodale makes me hold my head and ask, ‘How?’”

Moshfegh shouldn’t be too envious. She’s the better writer, more probing, bolder, weirder. But Barrodale is a force, an alchemist of the odd, fabricating devilish modern tales that totter your balance and leave your mouth dry.