Go Away With … Anka Muhlstein

By Jae-Ha Kim
Tribune Content Agency
April 18, 2017

Born in Paris, New York-based author Anka Muhlstein has written biographies of James Mayer de Rothschild, Robert Chevalier de la Salle and Queen Victoria. Winner of the Academie Francaise and the Goncourt Prize for Biography, she and her husband, Louis Begley, co-authored “Venice for Lovers.” In her latest book — “The Pen and the Brush: How Passion for Art Shaped Nineteenth-Century French Novels” (Other Press, $18.95) — Muhlstein take readers into the world of an elite artistic community that included Proust, Cezanne and Balzac.

Q. What are your memories of leaving France?

A. My first trip was running away from France ahead of the German invasion. I don’t remember much about the trip through Spain and Portugal and the long zigzag crossing of the Atlantic, but I do remember the feeling of safety when I landed in New York.

Q. What is your favorite vacation destination?

A. The East End of Long Island. Take a long walk on the beach. The roads are packed with crawling cars and the beaches are gloriously free of crowds. The trails in the woods are long, lovely and provide unexpected and delightful encounters with fawns, deer and wild orchids.

Q. Have you traveled to a place that stood out so much that you felt compelled to incorporate it into your work?

A. Yes, Canada and more particularly the region around Quebec and the great lakes. I was taken by the immensity of the land, the scarcity of the population and began thinking of the first Europeans who explored the area. This led me to write a biography of La Salle who walked down — he sometimes did hop in a canoe — from Quebec to the Gulf of Mexico and back! Quebec City is a dream city for historians: French Canadians are very meticulous about keeping their archives in good order and one can often follow the whole history of a 17th-century house.

Q. Where are your favorite weekend getaways?

A. I would rather roam and discover the beauties of Central Park — though never on parade days — than head to the airport. We just got a French bulldog. One of the many consequences of this happy development is that we spend a lot of time walking in the Ramble, a bird paradise. I never cease to marvel at the design of the park. The Ramble reminds me of Venice. You lose your way all the time and always end up in Piazza San Marco. Same thing in the Ramble. The lake and the lovely Bow Bridge are never far.

Q. Where is the most romantic destination?

A. At the risk of not being very original, I would say Venice, but Paris and Vienna would be close competitors. And why not New York, on Memorial Day weekend? You have the city to yourself!

Q. If you’ve ever gone away for the holidays, which was the best trip?

A. My husband and I took a trip to Brazil — more precisely to a small island in the middle of the Amazon, a stretch of the river where the acidic water chases away the mosquitoes! We spent a few nights in a tiny hotel. During the days, under the tutelage of an eagle-eyed guide, we hopped in a canoe and as it was high water, we could glide into the jungle and circle the huge trees. It certainly beats traipsing a path. Monkeys were trapezing above us, snakes hugged the trunks, parrots came in all shapes and colors. And thanks to the guide, we spotted the alligators sunk along the shores. As night began to fall, necklaces of red eyes seemed to follow us. There were so many fish in the river that the kids literally picked them up. Some were so big that we were fed fish chops at dinner!

Q. When you go away, what are some of your must-have items?

A. An iPad. I am so glad I don’t have to lug a bag full of books, which I did for many years. I am always terrified of being stuck without a good book.

Q. What kind of research do you do before you go away on a trip?

A. I am ashamed to say I don’t do any research. I always believed guidebooks are useful on the spot, but if I read ahead of time, I generally forget. I need to see. In China, I often followed surreptitiously a museum guide if what I overheard seemed interesting, but mostly I manage on my own. My husband and I are very group averse and always travel on our own.

Q. What is your best and/or worst vacation memory?

A. The worst is being lost in miles and miles of tulips in Holland. The best is arriving by boat to Venice.

Q. What are your favorite hotels?
A. Any Ritz will do! But I do love the American Hotel in Sag Harbor, the Hotel Fenice in Venice, the Locarno in Rome, the Abbaye in Paris and the Carlyle in New York.

Q. What are your favorite cities?

A. Venice, Vienna, Dublin, Paris and, of course, New York.

Q. Where would you like to go that you have never been to before?
A. Egypt.

Q. What untapped destination should people know about?
A. Malta.

Q. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from your travels?
A. To pack light.

© 2017 JAE-HA KIM


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