Two Literary Mentors Offer Lessons on the Strength to Be Found in Solitude


I learned much of what I know from traveling, useful things such as how to pack or get around in strange places. Travel also has taught me about who I am and what I value.

Just about all the rest I learned from reading, which has inspired and directed my travels. It's especially gratifying when I find books that validate some of the deeper lessons I've learned on the road.

To my great joy, this happened recently when I chanced upon "The Other Wife," a short story by early 20th century French novelist Colette, and "The Lemming to the Sea," part of "The Gastronomical Me," a 1943 memoir by California food writer M.F.K. Fisher.

Both are about women eating alone in restaurants, which I take as a metaphor for women traveling and, more broadly, being alone. Both describe how women who are satisfied with solitude make men nervous and angry. And both suggest the underlying power of women who can go out alone in Bangkok or Santa Barbara.

Though their thoughts converge beguilingly in these short pieces, the two writers were otherwise strikingly different. Colette was an abused young divorcee, bisexual adventuress, music hall performer and literary enfant terrible who titillated turn-of-the-century Paris and put the intimate lives of women at the center of her stories and novels. With about 50 books to her credit, she was given the first state funeral for a woman in 1954 in France.

In "Claudine and Annie," one of Colette's early semiautobiographical novels, her soon-to-be-divorced narrator says, "I shall be the woman traveling alone, who intrigues a hotel dining room for a week, with whom schoolboys on holiday and arthritics in spas suddenly fall violently in love."

Fisher was raised in the L.A. area in the early 20th century. Graceful, gifted and movie-star beautiful, she married three times, traveled widely and intrepidly, and wrote a dozen exquisite books about food, wine and good company. Though largely an invalid before she died in 1992 in Sonoma Valley, she wrote in "Last House: Reflections, Dreams and Observations, 1943-1991," that from her chair or bed she still took "several journeys a day, and even more than that at night."

Her "Lemming to the Sea" is about a transatlantic ship crossing she took in the 1930s, in flight from a first husband to a second (artist Dillwyn Parrish, who would turn out to be the love of her life). In it, she describes how her solo, self-satisfied appearance at dinner affected people:

"More often than not, people who see me on trains and in ships, or in restaurants, feel a kind of resentment of me since I taught myself to enjoy being alone. Women are puzzled, which they hate to be, and jealous of the way I am served.... Men are puzzled too, in a more personal way. I anger them as males. I am sorry ... but if I must be alone, I refuse to be alone as if it were something weak and distasteful."

Fisher was not really alone. She found shipboard companionship in a distinguished Frenchman who followed her to Paris and Switzerland, where she let him down as easily as possible. Parrish (who is called Chexbres in the story) later complains in exasperation, "You can't do things like that to men.... That chap's suffering."

Fisher thinks the chap's suffering is related to her liberated state: "How could I say that it was because I ate in a dark, cold, miserable ship as if I enjoyed myself and drank without getting silly?"

Colette's story is more wicked and insidious, narrated by a docile young wife named Alice who lets her older husband, Marc, advise her about her weight and order for her in the seaside restaurant where they have gone for lunch. At a table nearby he sees his first wife, eating alone and unperturbed. We never learn whether she sees him, but Marc and Alice's meal--and maybe their marriage--is spoiled by her presence. "She's just difficult," he tells Alice. "You have to feel sorry for people who are never satisfied. But we're satisfied.... Aren't we, darling?"

Alice doesn't reply. She just looks at the other wife with curiosity and envy, and at her husband, wondering for the first time what more she wants from him.

There is a man-hating strain in the story. This is understandable, given the male chauvinism of the period in which Colette lived. (Her first husband, music critic Henry Gauthier-Villars, widely known as "Willy," had four of her "Claudine" novels and other early works published under his name.)

Blessed almost from birth with a greater degree of equality than Colette enjoyed, I don't need to resent men. Nor am I suggesting that women live their lives alone. But by traveling and eating in countless restaurants alone, I have tasted the power and satisfaction that come from knowing I can be alone without nervousness, fear or shame. Like Colette and Fisher, I enjoy it and am often amused by the reactions I provoke.

In Beijing several years ago, a pedicab driver taking me across Tiananmen Square wheeled around and shrieked at me in utter consternation: "Who are you? How old are you?"

Women on vacations with their husbands have looked at me with pity in scenes right out of Fisher and Colette, little suspecting that sometimes I found more to pity in them.

For women travelers, I wish sound packing and navigating skills, good companions when they want them, no pity and, most of all, the strength and joy of knowing how to venture out alone in the world.

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