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Posts Tagged ‘solitude’

Now more than ever, I enjoy cooking, especially in the colder months: hearty soups, crumbly scones, buttery scrambled eggs (with endless cups of tea). Last July, though, I moved into a studio apartment during an unusually hot Boston summer. After weeks of takeout, stovetop huevos rancheros and ready meals from Trader Joe’s, I needed some new kitchen inspiration.

Enter Cooking Solo, Klancy Miller’s brilliant, colorful cookbook about not only feeding yourself, but enjoying it. I’ve made her risotto, her lemon pancakes, her spicy coconut-sweet potato soup… the list goes on. But more than her recipes, I love Miller’s approach: she insists, as a longtime single person, that investing the time and effort to feed oneself well is worth it. As a recent divorcée, I need that reminder on the regular.

My success with Miller’s recipes inspired me to flip back through some perennial favorites, like Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life. I bake Wizenberg’s Scottish scones at least twice a month, but recently made her ratatouille for the first (and second, and third) time in years. Like Wizenberg, when I am dining alone on something that delicious, “I lick my knife until it sparkles, because there’s no one there to catch me.”

For a broader perspective on solo cooking, I turn to Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, an eclectic essay collection edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler. Inspired by Laurie Colwin’s eponymous essay (which kicks off the anthology), these pieces, some with recipes, recount the delightful, the depressing and the quirkily indulgent aspects of setting a solo table. Many of the contributors recall solitary meals (or seasons) with deep fondness, even nostalgia. Cooking for one can feel like a depressing prospect, but these books help remind me that there’s a wealth of flavor, adventure and–yes–true sustenance to be found at a table for one.

I originally wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness, where it ran at the end of March. I submitted it before the virus hit, but it’s more applicable in some ways now than ever.  

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west village window nyc pink olive

A few weeks ago, the hubs had a three-day work training that took place over a weekend. We had just moved, and our new apartment was a wilderness of boxes. Rather than spend the weekend alone, digging out, I did the logical thing: I hopped a train to New York City.

I love New York at any time of year, and I’d been there by myself once before, on a dreamy solo trip last fall. This time, I booked a room in the West Village, where I’d spent a little time but never stayed. And although the city (and I) sweltered in a heat wave all weekend, it was fantastic.

larchmont front door west village nyc

I stayed at the Larchmont Hotel on West 11th, which I heard about on Joanna’s blog (and later from Anne). The rooms are tiny, but clean and comfortable, with a certain spare charm. (Plus: air-conditioning!) And it’s super affordable.

Although I’ve done a fair bit of traveling on my own, it somehow still feels like a radical act: leaving my regular life for a few days of pure, solitary pleasure. For three days, I ate and wandered and did exactly what I wanted.

bryant park nyc nypl view

I bought a last-minute ticket to Matilda on Friday night. I ate my lunch in Bryant Park (above) nearly every day. I popped into the New York Public Library‘s main branch, also above, to see the exhibit on my favorite rapping Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton, and to say hello to Pooh and his friends.

I went to five bookstores. I went with my college friend Mary Kate to see our friend Jeremy act and sing in his New York theatrical debut. I walked and walked and walked. (And drank quarts of hibiscus iced tea, to counteract the stifling heat.)

hibiscus iced tea journal

“New York meant much more than New York,” Julia Cameron writes in The Sound of Paper. “It meant sophistication, taste, freedom and accomplishment.” New York means all those things to me, and it also means a chance to explore neighborhoods and streets I find endlessly fascinating.

I have some New York favorites now: the bookish glories of the Strand; the elegant and charming Upper West Side; the twisting streets of the Village, packed with boutiques and restaurants galore. I love a ramble through the urban wildness of Central Park, and I love popping into the nearest library branch. (This time, the Jefferson Market Library was just around the corner.)

jefferson market library tower nypl nyc

I love the way New York is always surprising, teeming with life and change, thrumming with ambition and hustle. And I love the pockets of quiet and peace, the carefully tended flower boxes, the occasional empty street. New York is all possibility, and I love stepping into its current for a few days, becoming a part of the bustle and verve.

More NYC photos and stories to come.

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central park yellow flowers nyc

On a Wednesday morning earlier this month, I boarded a train from Boston to New York City. My husband was headed to a work conference in Texas, and I had decided to take a solo adventure while he was away.

When I told people about my plans, their initial response was always the same: “By yourself?”

My mother was doubtful, my sister surprised, my friend Abigail wistful. “You’re so brave,” she said. I’m fairly certain they all expected me to be nervous about spending three days in the city alone. But I could hardly keep the glee out of my voice.

I’m an introvert by nature, a small-town girl by upbringing and heritage. I’m the granddaughter, on both sides, of farmers who raised cattle and alfalfa hay on quiet green acres bordered by forests. I’m a West Texan, and I admit to loving the solitude and freedom of those wide open spaces: long gray ribbons of highway stretching to the horizon, the silhouettes of tall pump jacks and mesquite scrub against so much sky.

sunset sky west texas

I’ve come to cherish a different kind of solitude in recent years, though: the experience of being alone in a city.

I’m back at the Art House America blog today, sharing my love of being alone in the big city. Please join me over there to read the rest of my essay.

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texas capitol austin tx

I recently flew down to Austin for a work conference. Translation: I found the perfect excuse to visit my home state after an absurdly long, bitter winter.

The conference was interesting and informative, but what I really loved – and, let’s be honest, the reason I went – was the chance to spend three days basking in the sunshine, wandering downtown Austin, and eating as much Tex-Mex food as possible.

austin mural waterloo records

I’d only been in town an hour or so when my friend Adam and his wife Maggie picked me up and took me to dinner at El Alma, a hip little Tex-Mex restaurant with a beautiful patio, delicious queso fundido and savory enfrijoladas. Adam and I have been friends since eighth grade, but we hadn’t seen each other for several years. There were a lot of stories to tell, a lot of talk about work and travel and where our lives have taken us (and some serious hometown gossip) to cram into a couple of hours. I left sated, both with spicy salsa and rich conversation.

The next night, Alyssa took me out for Oaxacan food at the charming El Naranjo, where we feasted on fresh guacamole, a trio of spicy salsas, and rich, velvety mole dishes.

chicken mole el naranjo

We talked for hours about travel and family, writing and books, and we shared a melt-in-your-mouth almond flan for dessert. (No photos of the flan, as it disappeared too quickly.) Alyssa and I tweet back and forth regularly, and I reviewed her lovely memoir for Shelf Awareness, but this was the first time we’d met in person.

After two full days of conferencing and networking (which included meeting Marisa, a blog friend and Austin native who was also at the conference), I was “all out of extrovert,” to quote my friend Camille. My third night in town was entirely solitary, and it was glorious.

I changed from my buttoned-up conference clothes into a casual tee and skirt, then meandered down Congress Ave. to a little shopping area on West 2nd. Most of the shops were too pricey for me, but I loved wandering in and out, soaking up the sunshine (it was sandal weather all week long).

mosaic butterfly austin tx

I did find a gorgeous pair of earrings at Csilla on Congress, and I bought a couple of gourmet treats at Con’Olio. (Blackberry ginger balsamic vinegar. Someone is speaking my love language.)

waterloo records austin tx

It’s a long walk from West 2nd to my favorite intersection in Austin: West 6th and North Lamar, which holds the trifecta of Waterloo Records, Amy’s Ice Creams and BookPeople.

amy's ice creams interior austin tx

I had time, though, so I hiked my way up there, and browsed the racks of CDs at Waterloo (wishing my music-loving husband were with me). I eventually made my way over to BookPeople, where I wandered among the shelves for ages.

bookpeople austin tx interior

I only bought two books – a heroic act of self-restraint on my part – and I got to eavesdrop on a Q&A with Ann Brashares, author of the Traveling Pants series, which I love. (She had just done a reading from her newest book.)

wahoos-tacos

At 9:00, I realized I was starving, so I headed up the street to Wahoo’s, home of mouthwatering fish tacos and – what else? – excellent chips and salsa. (I must have eaten my weight in the latter during my trip.) The bass music was thumping and the walls are covered in surfboard and skateboard stickers, and I was the only person eating alone, but I didn’t care. Every bite was so delicious.

I stopped at the Royal Blue Grocery on my way back to the hotel for a teeny carton of lemon frozen yogurt, which I ate in my room, shoes kicked off and feet up. And the next day, I hopped a plane to my hometown to spend the weekend with my family (of which more soon).

Austin, it was fun. See you next time.

katie texas capitol austin tx

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Vienna memories

hofsburg-palace-vienna

Vienna was dark. And cold.

It couldn’t have been dark the whole time I was there, though I don’t remember ever seeing the sun. It was late October, when the light changes suddenly from golden to gray, and there is – also suddenly – much less of it. The only golden color came from the trees in the grounds of the Schonnbrun Palace, and from the lighted shop windows, flaring out like candles against the covering darkness.

schonbrunn-palace-park-trees

I was tired after a long solo trip from Oxford to Salzburg, where I met up with four American undergrads whom I knew only slightly. They were sweet, but their puppy-like enthusiasm soon wore on me, the quiet graduate student with a preference for low-key travel. We all shared a hostel room strewn with backpacks yawning open, clothes hanging loosely off bunk beds, late-night fits of giggles over inside jokes I didn’t quite get.

I wandered the Mirabellgarten with them, even posing for a group photo on the Do-Re-Mi steps, and I took them to the shop I knew that sold beautiful, hand-painted eggs made into Christmas ornaments. But I begged off the Sound of Music tour (I’d done it before, anyway) to sit in a cafe named after Mozart and scribble in my journal while I sipped hot chocolate. By the time we hopped a train to Vienna the next day, I was longing for some extended solitude.

We stuck together that first night and day, settling into our two-room flat, wandering around the Hofburg Palace and getting up early to tour the Schonnbrun. After lunch, we split up, agreeing to reconvene later. The others headed off – I knew not where – and I took several deep breaths, then headed off to enjoy my afternoon alone.

I wandered around the Butterfly House, then entered a spacious cafe lined with dark leather booths and filled with cigarette smoke. Patrons – mostly middle-aged men – lingered, reading folded newspapers at marble-topped tables while sipping small cups of strong coffee. I ordered a hot chocolate, stumbling over the unfamiliar German syllables, and sat there writing in my journal, sipping my drink, as long as I dared.

Later, after wandering through tangled streets, I slipped into a dark church, flickering with candlelight and echoing with the sounds of a Vespers service, just beginning. I slipped a euro coin into a collection box and lit a small tea light, breathing a prayer for my mother, who had had surgery that week, back in the States.

church candlelight vienna

When I left the church, the streets were already dark, shop windows throwing squares of light onto the pavement. Craving warmth, I ended up at another cafe, piling my shopping bags on the leather seat next to me, sipping tea and savoring both a chocolate-covered strawberry and my solitude.

Vienna is hazier than many of the cities I visited during that year in Oxford. The images are smudged around the edges, fogged by the rain that threatened and occasionally poured down from above. I don’t remember much, if any, of the history or the new German words I learned, and I don’t have clear images of entertaining incidents, or a mental map of the city in my head.

But I learned a thing or two from that grey, chilly weekend: namely, that solitude and peace can be found in the least likely places, but sometimes you have to pursue it, to ask for it. I remembered that I don’t always have to tag along with the crowd, that it’s perfectly all right to break away and do my own thing for a while, even if it means they’ll think I’m weird. (I was pretty sure this group of students already did.)

That weekend, I rediscovered the quiet joy of walking a city by myself, answerable to no one and nothing but the rhythm of my own feet pounding on unfamiliar sidewalks. And I learned one thing that did not surprise me at all: Austrian hot chocolate (Tasse Schokolade) is delicious.

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pride and prejudice soup lunch

During my (brief) post-college single period, I ate a lot of solo meals: reheated leftovers, tomato soup out of a carton, Mexican fast-food takeout. When it was the norm, I found cooking for one a bit depressing: too many dirty dishes, not enough companionship. (Then as now, I did a lot of cooking for and with the man who would become my husband, but we didn’t eat together every night.)

After five years of marriage, though, I treasure my occasional solo nights in. And I have a new favorite dish to make when I’m home alone: Amanda Hesser’s “single cuisine” eggs.

Last month, I read a witty, delicious collection of food essays, Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant. It contains Hesser’s essay (an excerpt from her memoir Cooking for Mr. Latte, which I loved) about her last night home alone as a single woman, when her fiance was off on a guys’ trip. After an unproductive writing day and an embarrassing encounter with a neighbor, Hesser escapes into a familiar ritual:

I did the only thing I knew would relax me: I went grocery shopping. […]

As I shopped, it occurred to me that the menu I was dreaming up was nothing I would ever cook for Tad or for friends. It was less structured and more self-soothing – separate entities tied together by nothing more than the fact that I liked each part. […]

I dropped a nugget of butter into a sauté pan the size of a saucer. I whisked a few eggs with a little crème fraîche and poured it into the pan. Then I began stirring it over low heat, stirring in circles and zig-zags and figure eights. The eggs warmed and turned a lemon yellow on the edges.

Hesser toasts a piece of bread in the oven, then piles the eggs onto it and drizzles them with truffle oil, elevating the dish into something far fancier than its name would suggest. She also makes a salad, and finishes her meal with a small but decadent dessert. (I heartily approve of this strategy.)

My scrambled eggs do not involve truffle oil, but I sometimes chop up a tomato and sauté it gently in the same pan as the eggs. If I have fresh basil leaves handy, I’ll scatter them over the top, and finish the whole thing with grated cheese and a few grinds of black pepper. It’s a poor woman’s omelet, or fancy scrambled eggs. It’s warm and buttery and nourishing, and a snap to clean up. It fits neatly into one pan, and it is a small, delicious way to take care of myself, especially if I’m tired from a long day at work and it’s been dark for hours and my feet are cold.

Hesser points out, elsewhere in her essay, that good single cuisine is “about taking the pains to treat yourself well.” I don’t always remember that when I eat alone (though I believe a bowl of cereal can sometimes be a form of self-care). But when I cobble together (or even reheat) a meal with the goal of caring for myself, I feel refreshed, re-energized. There’s a kind of alchemy that happens during those few solo moments in a warm kitchen, transforming a few humble ingredients into a meal of both nourishment and joy.

What do you eat when you’re home alone?

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keep calm tea

When I lived in Oxford, I did a lot of solo traveling. At least once a month, I packed a small bag or backpack and headed off to explore a new city – Galway, Vienna, Valencia, Cardiff, Paris. Often I was traveling to meet friends, but I spent a lot of time on planes, trains and buses by myself.

These days, I tend to do two kinds of flying. There’s my annual Christmas trip to Texas, with J and at least two big suitcases in tow. We usually go for a week or so, and we make our way through crowded airports filled with tired families and long security lines. Everyone is hauling winter coats and lots of luggage, and the flights are always full. I am always thrilled to spend that time with our families, but the actual airport experience is exhausting.

The other kind of flying is the kind I indulged in recently: a solo trip to West Texas to visit my family, with only a small bag and a carry-on, at a non-crowded time of the week and year. On those mornings, I feel like a character in a Nora Ephron film, rolling my snazzy red suitcase up to the security line, my chic (if heavy) tote bag slung over my shoulder. The airport – especially if the employees are in a good mood – fairly sparkles with possibility.

When I arrived at Boston Logan for my recent trip, the security line was unusually short, and a cheerful TSA worker complimented my outfit. I had time, after I put my shoes back on, to browse the tempting racks of magazines at the newsstand, and buy a snack and a bottle of water. I even had time for a chai latte before boarding (though the nice, friendly lady spelled my name “Ketty” on the cup!). And I had a whole row to myself on the flight to Dallas. I can’t remember the last time that happened.

Air travel is less glamorous than it used to be: security is tighter, lines are longer, and the prices of everything, from checked bags to bottled water, continue to rise. But I still love walking down the terminal concourse toward my gate, pausing to scope out the week’s bestsellers at the airport bookshop or treat myself to a glossy magazine. (On my flight to Texas, I bought Yoga Journal; on the way back, I splurged on the newest InStyle.) I love glancing up at the arrival and departure monitors, which brim with the names of exotic places. Especially at a big airport like Logan, you could hop on a plane and go anywhere. The possibilities are nearly endless (as Serenity noted long ago).

After years of traveling alone regularly (if not frequently), I have a checklist of essentials: tissues, lip balm, hand sanitizer, a scarf, a water bottle, gum for takeoff and landing. I know how to pack efficiently (though I always, always bring too many books). I know my way around a number of airports, and I know where I can enjoy a last Tex-Mex meal before returning to New England (Pappasitos, in DFW Terminal A). And while my husband is an excellent travel companion, I look forward to these solo flights, where I can tailor my time in the airport to my own whims.

With the red suitcase, a yummy snack and a pile of good reading material, it can be magic.

What do you love (or not) about traveling alone?

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tea journal sunglasses

A quiet solo hour at Tealuxe. Catching up on journaling, answering a letter from my pen pal, and sipping Lady Londonderry tea (a lovely, light black tea with strawberry and lemon).

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Recently, Alyssa tweeted about how much she loves eating lunch out alone, “tucked away in quiet corner of noisy restaurant. I’m part of the world, but don’t have to talk to anyone.” There followed a brief conversation about eating (or drinking) alone in cafes or restaurants, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

thinking cup coffee shop hot chocolate scarf

I regularly spend pockets of time alone in cafes, for lunch or a quiet cup of tea or chai, with a book or my journal or simply my own thoughts for company. It feels less cloistered, less monastic, than eating lunch in my office with the door shut, and yet there’s a sheer curtain of privacy between me and the rest of the world. In bustling Boston, where I cram into the commuter train with hundreds of strangers and walk to work among dozens more, it feels deeply restorative to carve out an alcove of space for myself during the workday. I don’t like to isolate myself completely, but I do like a modicum of space to breathe, to write, to pause and enjoy.

Some days do call for total solitude, and as near silence as I can get. But on many others, I love feeling that tug, that connection to the beat of whatever city I happen to be in. I love observing what people wear, how they take their coffee (I used to be a barista, after all), what they do when they’re sitting alone waiting for their food, or how they interact with their friends. I love the diverse mix of people who come through cafes, all of them separate entities but vital ingredients in these massive tossed salads we call cities.

I take a lot of photos in cafes, mostly of my drink with a book or journal, trying to capture the quiet, restorative freedom of the moment. The writer-romantic in me also thrills at being part of a long tradition of cafe society, from the Lost Generation in Paris to the Beats with their coffeehouse poetry readings, to now, when many writers work in cafes with laptops or notebooks. Something about the background buzz, the rotating cast of characters, the smell of coffee and pastries, revs up the mind while (ideally) leaving it quiet enough to write or reflect.

valencia spain cafe tea croissant

Both Alyssa and I started going to cafes alone as college students, and we admitted to one another that it felt a little daring. An hour alone, with no one to answer to, feels secret, almost illicit in a delightful way. Alyssa added, “I used to get the same feeling riding my bike all over Boise when I was growing up. No one waiting for me anywhere.” That comment reminded me of one of my favorite, most visceral memories of my year in Oxford: riding my bike through town, the wind in my hair, bag slung over my shoulder, often heading toward something or someone, but completely free and independent for the moment. In these hours alone, we are still interacting with the world, and yet we belong to nobody but ourselves.

Do you spend time in cafes (or other public places) alone? Do you love it for these reasons, or for others?

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