Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Joys of Flying Solo

Sheep in Shottery, England

One early Saturday morning in England a few years ago a train full of soccer hooligans (er . . . fans) and I were making our way from Birmingham to Manchester. The young man two rows in front of me clearly had begun his drinking long before I had even awaken that morning. Thankfully there were enough others in the train car almost equally inebriated who welcomed and encouraged his arm draped around their shoulders as he stumbled from seat to seat rambling on about the upcoming contest. Glancing around the car I saw a few families with children that could serve as a refuge if he decided I should become his new best friend because of my proximity. When we reached our destination a long 90 minutes later, he and all his cohorts stumbled off toward the stadium while I peacefully rolled my suitcase in the opposite direction to my hotel.

None of their antics were going to disrupt my mood because the day before I had stood on the same stone kitchen floor that William Shakespeare had crawled as a child in Stratford-upon-Avon. And I had walked, perhaps, along the same path he had strolled many times to reach the next village over, Shottery, where his future wife Anne Hathaway lived. I watched hummingbirds flit in the gardens that had existed in some form since the 15th century while I chatted with a couple from New Zealand and communed with the sheep grazing in the field across the road like they had done for centuries, I’m sure.

The garden at the family home of Anne Hathaway, wife of William Shakespeare

When women friends (never men) hear that I like to travel alone, these situations are exactly what they worry about when they cluck “How brave” or “Isn’t it dangerous to do that? -- as if I were backpacking through Zimbabwe instead of simply riding Britain’s National Rail line or driving to Tennessee for a couple of days to wander through Iris City Gardens or walking the 10 kilometer path from Oberwolfach to Wolfach in Germany or strolling down Lower Broadway in Nashville at 2 a.m., taking pictures of the crowds and the neon and ducking into the clubs hoping to hear Music City’s next big star. Right after those responses comes the predictable, “Aren’t you lonely doing that?” But I’m up for hitting the road alone at the drop of a hat.

Some Nashville neon on Lower Broadway

I’d have to agree to some extent. Solo travel is a brave thing. It’s not just a matter of updating your AAA membership to prepare for car trouble. It requires you to spend large expanses of time with only yourself as company. With a multitude of electronic communication devices at our fingertips, the temptation to take everyone you know along for the ride looms big. We’ve become a culture conditioned to always reach out and touch someone. But real solo travel challenges you to leave it all behind. If you can do that, you open yourself up to the freedom, serendipity, and world without compromise that you can’t get when traveling with others or when staying home.

Few things are more valuable than a good traveling partner. I’m lucky. I didn’t have to look far because I married mine. Brad and I started traveling right away with our honeymoon in the UK. We arrived with a single night’s hotel reservation (courtesy of my new father-in-law) and the advice from both friends and family to “eat ethnic” in London. With a rented car and a book about castles in England and Wales that I bought at a tourist office on our second day in town, we were off on our first of many adventures. Traveling with someone else -- no matter how compatible, though – makes it so much tougher to indulge your own whims or give full attention to what matters most to you. Striking out on your own gives you things you can’t find when you travel with a partner like a matched set of luggage.

It wasn’t until my third trip to London – alone – that I finally got to stand in the upper garret of the Gough Square house that had belonged to my word hero, Samuel Johnson. Absent anxiety about boring any travel companions or meeting someone else’s agenda, I could give my morning over to standing in the practically empty third floor dictionary war room, imagining Dr. Johnson’s amanuenses scurrying around with note cards filled with etymologies and examples for all the definitions to appear in the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language. I could spend an unhurried hour talking with the young woman who took the tickets and worked the gift shop about the monumental feat accomplished within these walls and the astounding visitors, such as Edmund Burke, who sat in these rooms, regaled with tales by Dr. Johnson before they retired to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese across the Square for a good meal (where I also devoured a shepherd’s pie in one of the tiny stone-walled rooms of the cellar while reading a collection of his essays from The Rambler I had just bought).

Two weeks ago I made a pilgrimage through the maze of aisles that is Powell’s Books in Portland, OR. I wandered until my feet gave out, gripping in my arm my Holy Grail, M.F.K Fisher’s Long Ago in France: The Years in Dijon. Yes, I could have gone on line last spring and ordered it off of Amazon before I actually traveled to Dijon, but the thrill of used books has always been in the hunt. Before departing, I batted around dinner ideas with two men standing at the information desk, hoping for someplace that served comfort food but was particularly “Portland.” I wanted to luxuriate in a meal that was exactly what I wanted, no compromise. I left Powell’s with four books and four dinner recommendations, plus breakfast options thrown in for good measure. And on my way to the metro train I stopped at one of the gazillion food carts that line the downtown sidewalks of Portland. Just for the novelty of it and because I was on my own schedule I ate two shredded beef soft tacos as a late afternoon snack, juice running down my wrist and up my sleeve and eyes tearing from the green sauce the vendor had assured me was his “mild” kind. Later that evening I sat at the bar of The Screen Door with my plate of greens, mashed potatoes, and a strong contender for the best fried chicken in the country, stuffing myself and chatting with the bartender until I waddled back to my car ninety minutes later (eager to return another time for their biscuits and gravy breakfast and their berry cobbler for dessert).

When I travel alone my camera, a book, and my small Moleskine notebook with Parker T-ball Jotter pen are my best companions. The straight, open highway gives my brain time and space to unfurl. I have the opportunity to be brave and talk to strangers I meet (even if I discover two minutes later that they must have left their medications at home) or to walk into restaurants and ask for a table for one. Traveling solo is a chance to briefly enter the world free of expectations from anyone around you and pursue whatever interests you for as long as you like. You experience a certain kind of empowerment when rolling your suitcase down rue des Abbesses alone in Paris’s Montmartre arrondissement, joining the morning crowd as they descend into the bowels of the Metropolitan line, changing at the Madeleine stop to line 14 and arriving at Gare de Lyon to catch a train back to Dijon. You can even feel it when you get off the highway and by-pass all the chain restaurants to eat the Sunday buffet at Saathoff’s Café on the town square in Greenup, IL (“Village of Porches”). I recommend the fried zucchini. Traveling alone – even if just for an overnight jaunt – can clear the mind, calm the nerves, and center you a bit on what is important to you.

Sunday lunch menu at Saathoff's Café in Greenup, IL

I have a travel wish list with goals big and small. I want to meander along the Quilt Garden tour in northern Indiana. I want to hit the giant weekend flea markets along the highways between St. Louis and Atlanta. I want to retrace the Burgundy Canal route Brad and I took, but at one third the pace so I can exit the trail to explore any road or village that catches my eye and take photos of every maison du canal écluse I pass. And before I pass from this earth I must gain the courage to drive in the UK because there are so many places to see that even British Rail doesn’t go. Having a travel partner who wants all of these things, too, can make the journey twice as memorable. But not having one is never a good excuse not to put on my walking shoes and go.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Suits Me to a Thé

Street Theater, Place Francois Rude - Dijon
I’ve been home a little over a month. I’ve been sick with jet lag and a bad cold. I’ve had a cavity filled, then a root canal. I’ve been to Little Rock and back, Indianapolis and back, Atlanta and back, and Nashville and back. I took the dogs for a long-overdue grooming and went to a neighborhood meeting on rat control (yes, even in the best neighborhoods). I sent my daughter off for another year of college and fixed the brakes on my car. I’ve cleaned out my closet and dealt with the same house insurance issue I thought I had resolved before we left for France. I even set up a Facebook page.

Somewhere in the distant haze of memory, however, I remember sitting at a café watching French life roll by in front of me at a leisurely pace. While over there I missed my bed. I missed Mexican food and spacious, clean public toilets. I missed The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I missed my dogs. But the thing that I long for now that I’m home is the café life over there. It defines the culture. It is not just something the French do -- it’s an essential feature of their being.

America is currently overrun with coffee shops and cafés where the under (or over)-caffeinated stake out a claim for an afternoon or an entire day. They order a cup of something dark and the size of a thermos bottle, flip on their computers, and disappear into the Ethernet. They take the concept “internet café” literally. The Wall Street journal reported that some café owners are, pushing back, trying to change what Americans have started to treat as a Constitutional right – “life, liberty, and the pursuit of free wi-fi with my latte” – because they are losing money. Within a mile of my home I can identify almost a dozen coffee shops or cafés, places where people are inclined to set up their nomadic office and stay for awhile, sipping expensive coffees or refilling their cups with hot water and re-dipping their tea bags until all they get is weak, flavored hot water. But they have no idea what real café life is like.

In Dijon The only place I saw that combined food and wi-fi was the McDo’s (McDonald’s), hot spot for the young French and a magnet for 18-20-year old American males passing through this town for whatever reasons. “Internet cafés” were small storefronts where I made copies or downloaded and printed directions, never any place I wanted to linger. At true French cafés, however people sit; they do not work. They use it as a respite from the busy-ness of life rather than bring it with them.

I loved my mornings at a certain salon de thé at Place François Rude, especially on market day. As cafés go in Dijon, it’s a large one. It can seat almost a hundred people inside at its round café tables. But usually that part was empty because the action is outside except in the coldest season. The tables crowd each other, with barely six inches between them, so as many patrons as possible fit under the awnings and scattered umbrellas placed to protect them from the sun (or in the case of the summer of ’09, the rain). While the inside remains empty, the outside tables are packed by 10 a.m. with locals after a morning of shopping for the day’s bread and vegetables at the market in Les Halles. Tourists (cameras and passport wallets draped around their necks) grab a seat to consult their guidebooks and get their bearings before heading off for another museum. I slide in behind a table not yet cleared by the harried-but-efficient waitress. I order what is a pure delight, a cause to leave your bed in the morning and face the world. It’s a simple order of thé vert (green tea), but the care with which it arrives entices me to savor it until time to move on for lunch.

The waitress soon delivers a small white glazed teapot of steaming water. The teabag steeps in it, but it is no ordinary bag. It is not a paper envelope of loose tea with a string hanging limply over the edge. No, it’s a linen coat sewed around the crumbled tea leaves with a linen tail draped elegantly over the side of the pot. As my effusion reaches its peek, I disassemble the rest of my service. The simple ceramic teacup on a saucer will hold about 4 ounces of tea at a time while the rest remains warming in the pot. Nestled on the saucer are the two colorful and obligatory paper tubes of brown sugar they give because the French take their tea a little sweeter. On top of the empty cup sits a matching teabag holder – a shallow ceramic dish with a handle for resting either teabag or the daintiest of teaspoons. On top of that rests the reason for my joy – a small piece of gâteau (cake). It’s not a large offering, no more than 2 x 2. It is as golden as the tournesol flowers displayed on the florist’s sidewalk stand across the pedestrian passageway and tastes of butter and an infusion of lemon, with a lightness a step above American pound cake. But best of all, it arrives unbidden. It is there because one should have cake with tea. At other places they might offer a ginger cookie or two but the idea of this lemon cake is enough to make me want to plan a return trip to Dijon, to sit and savor, sipping a bit of tea then breaking off a crumb of my gateau while I watch the world pass in front of me and try to make everything in the scene last as long as I possibly can.

For in France that is what café life is about. I have no desire to pack up my computer and take my work with me when I go to one. French cafés invite engagement with the world. There is nothing on the internet more entertaining than a French street on market day. My senses overflow. The neighborhood boucheries have started to turn the rotisseries that will cook the succulent chickens for Dijonaisse dinners that night. The aroma of my café’s fresh ground coffee taints my sips of tea. Vendors’ stalls decorate the scene with rainbow racks of dresses, skirts, tablecloths, t-shirts, sacs and purses of all sizes and colors. Locals stroll by with their ubiquitous French dogs, stopping for a small repast at the café or chatting with a friend or browsing through the stalls. Others glide quickly in and out of the crowd on their way to work or appointments. Sidewalk buskers take up a position at a nearby carrefour (pedestrian crossroad) and start their performance, sometimes a folk guitarist treating us to some musical satire, sometimes it’s a jazz set, sometimes a lone cellist playing Bach concertos, or occasionally some street theater. As it gets closer to lunchtime, the tinkling music of the traditional European carrousel joins the sounds of the streets as the carved horses and swans dance in anticipation of their young riders starting to arrive with their parents. The sound of life swirls around.
Like the French, I sit there and watch, perfectly content to do nothing for the time being, or I read, or I make notes, my own market bag bursting with bouquets and vegetables. Occasionally a tourist, taking me for a local, might ask me for directions. One overcast morning a café regular pulled my table in closer to his so that I would have full cover under the awning as the rain began to spit. Then before he left he graciously gifted me with the bit of dark chocolate that had accompanied his espresso. I enhanced international relations among dog lovers by asking those sitting near me if I could take photos of their dogs resting under the tables. Some street vendors who inhabited this location on market day knew me as an American from the times I stopped to browse and buy at their stalls. They would call me out of my seat occasionally to help translate for an English-speaking customer as they tried to close a sale. My limited French could help supplement their limited English as the three of us did our bit to improve the global economy. I was happy to oblige.
And so on returning home I find it difficult to get into American café life. Yes, Barnes and Noble offers free wi-fi, but what’s there to see at that location but my computer screen? Do I want to sit in the new coffee shop inside my grocery story and listen to the banging of grocery carts parked ten feet away and “Wet cleanup in aisle seven” announcements all morning? The Kaldi’s coffee shop in my neighborhood welcomes dogs and is extremely busy in the early hours as parents drop off their kids at the neighborhood school and then catch up with friends at the sidewalk tables. But by ten o’clock in the morning, after the hustle and bustle, although the shop is full of customers staring at laptop monitors there is not much life, just an occasional dog walker or neighborhood mom with a baby stroller. I’m awash in a sea of cafés here, yet none of them call out to me. With no street life, with all customers burying their heads in computers, with no offering of free gâteau, I retreat to my desk in my home to write, looking out on the sidewalk that is my neighbors’ main route to Kaldi’s. I watch the seasons change. I wave to dog-walking neighbors who might look up from their cell phone call and see me in the window. And I await a return to my Dijon café and long for the world to stroll past at the pace of French life.

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