Steinbach's 'Without Reservations': pursuing self

May 21, 2000|By Tess Lewis | Tess Lewis,Special to the Sun

"Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman," by Alice Steinbach. Random House. 288 pages. $23.95.

Seven years ago, Alice Steinbach, a dedicated and hard-working journalist whose feature writing in The Baltimore Sun won her a Pulitzer Prize, realized that work had taken over her life. For at least 15 years, the adventurous woman she once was had taken refuge from life behind a reporter's notebook. Despite her many reservations -- what to do with her house, her cat; was her job secure -- Steinbach took a 10-month leave of absence from this paper to travel throughout Europe and to regain the freer spirit of her younger self.

"Without Reservations" is Steinbach's account of her wandering sabbatical. Before leaving, she set specific guidelines. She wanted to stay a while in each place she visited, choosing depth over breadth, and she ruled out all exotic destinations. Steinbach explains "that while part of my goal was to see if I still had the skills -- and the nerve -- to make it in a new setting, some kind of cultural connection was necessary."

And make it she does, gaining confidence and energy as she moves from Paris to London to Oxford (where she takes a course on the English village), then on to Rome, Milan and Venice. Along the way she makes many friends, falls in love, and writes herself postcards, some of which she incorporates in her story.

Steinbach's travel memoir is enthusiastic, sincere and thoughtful. However, as travel writing, it is not particularly memorable. Her descriptions of the cities she visits are familiar, if not cliched. In one of her postcards from Paris, for example, she conjures up platitudes and well-known photographic images instead of creating her own vivid picture:

"The river is silver, above it, an early morning sun the color of dull nickel burns through a gray sky, its light glancing off the ancient buildings that line the quai Voltaire. It is the Paris I have come to know from the photographs of Atget and Cartier-Bresson: a city of subtle tonalities, of platinum and silver and gray, a city of incomparable beauty."

In truth, the journey chronicled in "Without Reservations" is primarily an inner one and the settings are overshadowed by the people she encounters and her musings on identity, family, friendship and love. She evokes her deceased mother and grandmother and her two grown sons as frequently and as vividly as her many temporary traveling companions.

For all of Steinbach's openness to new experience, nothing on her trip resonates as much with her as the apparently insignificant but "holy moments" of domesticity she remembers from her sons -- and her own childhoods. In this book, Steinbach does not resemble her traveling role models Janet Flanner and Frey Stark as much as a secular Annie Dillard or an Anna Quindlen without the moralizing.

Yet even as the account of an inner journey, Steinbach's book is limited and inconclusive. Surely her journey did not end abruptly, as her book does, with her flight home. She has proven to herself that she is still open to change and adventure but says nothing of what lasting effects her travels have had upon her.

Tess Lewis' translation of Peter Handke's "Once Again to Thucydides" was published recently by New Directions. She writes essays and reviews for the American Scholar, the Hudson Review and the New Criterion. She has a master's degree in English Literature from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar.

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