I spent the weekend finishing an essay about a time last year that I spent traveling alone in Argentina.
There’s almost nothing more empowering than realizing that you are capable of it, especially as a woman. It’s not because it proves that you can speak a language well, or that you’re brave for trying new things, or that you’re particularly worldly. It’s because when you can do things by yourself, without relying on other people to keep you company (or even just to show up), you learn that you can really do anything at all. It frees you from boredom and loneliness.
(Man, the above paragraph bored even me.)
You teach yourself how to eat alone, and how to drink alone, and how to fill empty time not with distractions, but with meaningful experiences—long walks, museums, writing, observing, reading, taking photographs, thinking.
Ordinarily, when you return home from a vacation, the vacation is over because you’ve returned to your habitual life. But the comfort is that you can always fall back on your solitude.
Being alone becomes an “other” space in which you can exist. And suddenly, that space can be found anywhere, like a parallel world. Like you can open a magic door, and suddenly, you’re somewhere foreign again.
I was pretty moved this weekend looking at the pictures Ruth Orkin, an American photographer in the middle of the 20th century, took of Ninalee Craig, a young woman she encountered when they were both traveling alone in Florence.
It was 1951. Ruth, 29-years-old, was on her way back from an assignment in Israel for Life Magazine. Ninalee, then known as “Jinx Allen,” was a painter who had quit her job in New York, and was traveling around Europe for six months on $1-a-day budget.
They were both beautiful, and young, and accustomed to traveling alone. Jinx through Europe. Ruth first across America, and then across the world. (At the age of 17, Ruth had hopped on her bike, and rode her way cross-country alone, from her home in Los Angeles to New York, with dreams, later fulfilled, of becoming a photojournalist.)
They met at the hotel on the Arno where they were both staying. Over breakfast, they spoke about what it was like to tour alone as women. The next morning, they went out on the streets, Ruth with her camera, and Jinx, six-feet-tall, with her killer sandals. They staged their experiences—which they both agreed were wonderful—as a diary in pictures. They caused quit a commotion.
If you’re a woman, and you’ve ever traveled alone, then you’ll immediately recognize yourself in the resulting photographs.
Reading and thinking in a public square.
Getting lost on public transportation.
The unwarranted “you look like you need a man because you’re eating alone” approach that you respond to by pretending you don’t speak the language.
The slow, meandering walks, a little boring, around public monuments with a guidebook in hand.
The ugly parts of the city in which you sometimes stop traffic, not seductively, but just because you can’t find anywhere sensible to cross the road.
The magazines you buy at exorbitant prices because you’re a little lonely, and you want some reminders of home.
The power of using feminine charms to get help from men.
And the way that getting heckled on the street, rather than making you feel demeaned, actually makes you feel, well, kind of beautiful.
“Men who see the picture always ask me: Was I frightened? Did I need to be protected? Was I upset?” Jinx, now 83-years-old, recently reminisced. “They always have a manly concern for me. Women, on the other hand, look at that picture, and the ones who have become my friends will laugh and say, ‘Isn’t it wonderful? Aren’t the Italians wonderful? … They make you feel appreciated!’”
God, it can feel so good to be a woman.
For you, Ruth. For becoming one of the most well-known female photographers of the 20th century before your untimely death from cancer in 1985.
And for you, Jinx. For returning home to New York to write advertising copy, only to marry an Italian widower, who took you back to Milan. For divorcing him, and marrying a Canadian man, who took you to Toronto. For saying, as an octagenarian: “My life has been wonderful. I’m ready for more.”
For the two of you, traveling alone, in a manner that must have seemed alien to most of the people who knew you. For being brave. For being strange. For exploring the moon. For female friendship. For being empowered, rather than afraid, of your considerable beauty and charms. For being role models of how I’d love to live my own life, if only I’m so lucky. For you, Ruth Orkin and Ninalee Craig, you’re my Icons of the week.