September 21, 2023 | Rome, Italy

The mind traveler

By |2021-01-02T13:50:42+01:00December 29th, 2020|"Notebook"|
Around the world in a mind's day.

he last 12 months have been no time for travel, with 2021 looking not much better. To avoid quarantine regulations, I have decided to opt for day-long trips I can take in a way that bypasses all regulations. Here’s how I imagine one such trip.

2 a.m. I arrive in an airport in some hot, populous location. Uniformed officials with a post-colonial look stamp my passport with a flourish. I’m bathed in warm air perfumed with unfamiliar spices and odors. Families wheeling rickety carts piled high with luggage emerge to welcoming cries from extensive familial delegations. I feel white and far from home. But this manageable tingle of discomfort — and the new perspective — is why I’ve decided to make this trip.

Despite the dead-of-night hour, the road heaves with people on foot, on bicycles and aboard brightly painted trucks. Everyone honks. This place never sleeps and life is lived on the street. My 2020 in New Hampshire has been a year of muted shades of color, smell, sound. This trip is intended to change that.

5 a.m. Muezzins call for pre-dawn prayer. The mournful minor notes remind me that I have also travelled to feel myself closer to the stream of history.

I dodge potholes and scooters to enter the cave of a bazaar.

7 a.m. Breakfast. Will it be on the terrace of the Halekulani Hotel in Honolulu? In the room of an old European hotel where the coffee comes in a dented silver pot and the butter is on ice? Maybe I’ll just go down to the bar in my old Milan building, where they’ll squeeze my orange juice and steam my milk before I even ask.

8 a.m. I’m in Paris for a day of research at the Bibliothéque Nationale. Waiting for the bus to take me there, I watch water trickle into the gutter guided by little rolls of old carpet. In the library, I arrange my pencils on the leather-covered desk and switch on my green desk lamp.

11 a.m. It’s time for a break in an Italian bar, surrounded by the clink of coffee cups and overheard office gossip. On a cold day, a warm cloud of coffee-filled air envelops as I enter. In the summer, the coffee’s perfume flows from the open door and mingles with the almost-lost scent I call vieux Europe — old Europe; diesel and cigarettes.

I’ll spend the rest of the morning back where it’s hot and populous. I dodge potholes and scooters to enter the cave of a bazaar. Saris and gilded trim glimmer in tiny booths lining the tangle of alleys. My whiteness earns discreet stares. A hurrying boy balancing a tea tray creates a human jet-stream of cardamom and sweat. In the stall of a hopeful merchant I lose track of time sorting a rainbow of shawls. The boy runs out for tea for me.

It is tempting to stay in this hot place for lunch at a sticky Formica table laden with tiny dishes of spicy things with a mango or mint drink.

But I decide on an egg salad sandwich on a dock at a Northwoods lake, where sun warms my back and my feet dangle in cool water. But wait. I have much to choose from. Maybe I’ll hike to lunch in a Dolomite blueberry field. My sweaty knapsack contains puccia — flat Alpine bread with caraway seed — and local cheese and chocolate to share with friends and family.

By now it’s well into the afternoon and I need coffee. I’ll take it in the shade of a beach cabana on the Venice Lido. I can nap briefly, lulled by the man hawking coconut coco bello, coco fresco!

I’m no good at working in the afternoon, so I’ll skip the library.

Instead, I’ll see what’s new in my favorite Milan clothes and decoration stores. I will buy some Giuseppe Coco pasta and Valobra soap at the food store across from my old home.

Still in Milan, I’ll revisit the Villa Necchi Museum. I love the humblest parts of this grand home; the room for ironing and sewing and the celadon-green back hall with its two immense blue and white Chinese vases. I’ll also wander the collections in Lahore’s museum, once curated by Rudyard Kipling’s father, which range from Indus relics to World War I machine guns.

For books, I head to London.

I’ll order a pot of tea on the terrace and watch the hawks dive for scraps in the palm-lined garden.

While there, I’ll stroll to Hampstead Heath and watch birds play the updrafts over London’s skyline. In a garden mood, I could also get a driver to take me back to Lahore and the Shalimar garden. Construction machinery rumbles outside, but inside it’s quiet among the cascading pools and musicians’ gallery.

Late afternoon also means tea. I’ll order a pot of steaming hot masala chai on the terrace of the Imperial Hotel in Delhi and watch the hawks dive for scraps in the palm-lined garden.

After tea, I’ll hop on Rome’s 64 bus. As it crosses the Tiber, the sky opens between the dome-lined horizon, colored pink.

Sunset is beautiful in the Pacific too. My day admits time travel, so I’ll watch it from a ship’s fantail, and listen to my father talk about World War II and how you can fall in love with a ship.

But I don’t want to miss an aperitivo. So I climb 164 stairs to a friend’s terrace above the twinkling lights of Portofino. My energy has flagged, so I’ll stay in Portofino for dinner on the terrace of the Hotel Splendido. Afterwards, we’ll have a nightcap in the bar and sing along and play musical trivia with pianist Vladimir.

With my last drops of strength, I could go to Berlin, where Simon Rattle conducts the Philharmonic. But it’s probably less tiring to go to Milan, where Claudio Abbado is conducting Don Giovanni at La Scala.

Either way, before going to bed, I’ll stop in Vienna for a midnight sausage with mustard from a street stand.

And then finally to cap a perfect day, I’ll sleep in New Hampshire, in my very own bed.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."