Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman

( 10 )


This funny and tender book combines three of Alice Steinbach’s greatest passions: learning, traveling, and writing. After chronicling her European journey of self-discovery in Without Reservations, this Pulitzer Prize—winning columnist for the Baltimore Sun quit her job and left home again. This time she roamed the world, taking lessons and courses in such things as French cooking in Paris, Border collie training in Scotland, traditional Japanese arts in Kyoto, and architecture and art in Havana. With warmth and ...

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This funny and tender book combines three of Alice Steinbach’s greatest passions: learning, traveling, and writing. After chronicling her European journey of self-discovery in Without Reservations, this Pulitzer Prize—winning columnist for the Baltimore Sun quit her job and left home again. This time she roamed the world, taking lessons and courses in such things as French cooking in Paris, Border collie training in Scotland, traditional Japanese arts in Kyoto, and architecture and art in Havana. With warmth and wit, Steinbach guides us through the pleasures and perils of discovering how to be a student again. She also learns the true value of this second chance at educating herself: the opportunity to connect with and learn from the people she meets along the way.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Highly recommended . . . The beauty of [Steinbach’s] narrative . . . lies in her luminous descriptions. . . . But it is her perceptive looks into the lives and minds and hearts of the people she meets through her studies that bring her settings to life and make this collection of essays truly engaging.”
–Library Journal

“Steinbach makes such a life look highly desirable. . . . Her stories are powerfully seductive to anyone who’s ever been tempted to get up and go, following interests wherever they may lead.”
Publishers Weekly

“A delicious experience . . . This book will entertain, educate and perhaps inspire readers to make their own journeys.”
-–San Francisco Chronicle

"I loved Educating Alice....Alice Steinbach may visit some of the world's most popular tourist cities but she does not follow the ordinary tourist route. Oh no! Down the back alleys Alice Steinbach goes, slipping through side doors and riding on employees-only elevators; dropping huge, slippery salmon on the floor of the Ritz Escoffier Ecole de Gastronomie Francaise and charming retired geishas into showing her their prized kimonos, wrapped in rice paper and stowed in boxes in the attic. Ms. Steinbach must be who Henry James imagined when he advised novelists to try to become 'one upon whom nothing is lost.'"
Sarah Pritchard, author of Crackpots: A Novel

“In these uncertain times, the smart thing to do is stay home and read Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman. Alice Steinbach has more fun than anybody, whether chasing sheep in Scotland, or taking cooking lessons at the Ritz in Paris, or swinging to a salsa beat in a down-at-the-heel cafe in Havanna, or taking a writing course in Prague, or studying landscape architecture in Provence, etc. etc. etc.—- Alice’s etceteras are limitless, and what all of us, surely, have always wanted to do ourselves. What is more, no matter what she does or who she sees or how hilarious the encounter, she is a lady to her toes."
Jane Geniesse, author of Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark

“A brisk and companionate tour of the Paris Ritz, ancient streets of Kyoto, the Scottish Highlands, inner Prague and Renaissance Florence, in search of the secrets of French cooking, Japanese dance, sheepherding, writing and painting. Alice Steinbach’s travel memoir serves up, in savory detail, the tricks and ingredients of these trades, even as she reveals steps in the intimate dance of an epistolary romance of her own.”
Jean McGarry, Chair of the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars

Publishers Weekly
Steinbach had so much fun running off to Europe to find herself, as recounted in her first book (Without Reservations), she decided to quit her job writing for the Baltimore Sun and devote herself to similar educational adventures. Following the advice of Japanese poet Basho ("To learn of the pine, go to the pine"), Steinbach takes off again and recounts eight endeavors, including studying French cooking in Paris, attending a Jane Austen convention in England and meeting geishas in Kyoto. She captures the uniqueness of each setting, aided by a sharply curious sensibility she claims stems as much from her childhood admiration for Nancy Drew as from her reportorial training. That spirit of openness also enables her to strike up many spontaneous conversations easily, frequently launching other discoveries. A search for a bonsai garden in Florence, for example, winds up becoming a tour of several palaces normally closed to the public, which leads to an old priest's tale of rescuing priceless paintings from a flood. Yet for all Steinbach's attention to others, her account remains resolutely personal, as her experiences unleash bittersweet childhood memories, and an ambiguously romantic relationship with a Japanese gentleman is never far from her thoughts. Her stories are powerfully seductive to anyone who's ever been tempted to get up and go, following interests wherever they may lead. Even during the occasional setbacks, from language barriers to confusing geographies, Steinbach makes such a life look highly desirable. Agent, Gail Ross. (On sale Apr. 6) Forecast: Steinbach's book could be a reading group favorite. The publisher plans to advertise and target literary and women's interest Web sites and book clubs. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Steinbach, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, took a leave of absence from the Baltimore Sun six years ago to travel around the world; the result of those travels was her previous book, Without Reservations. After publication, she quit her job and set out around the world again, this time as a self-proclaimed "informal student." Her lessons included studying French cooking at the Ritz in Paris, traditional Japanese arts in Kyoto, gardening in Provence, Border-collie training in Scotland, and art and architecture in Havana. Here she gives us the details of her studies and her accomplishments, occasionally reminding us that it is often the experience of learning that teaches us the most. The beauty of her narrative, however, lies in her luminous descriptions. She can brilliantly sketch a street scene or landscape or cafe, but it is her perceptive looks into the lives and minds and hearts of the people she meets through her studies that bring her settings to life and make this collection of essays truly engaging. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/03.]-Rita Simmons, Sterling Heights P.L., MI Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A rangy gathering of travel pieces without airs. Winner of a Pulitzer Prize for her feature writing at the Baltimore Sun, Steinbach (Without Reservations, 2000) claims modest intentions. "I wanted to study things that interested me in places that I found interesting," she writes, to "offer a story about what I set out to learn and what I came back knowing." The writer doesn't expect her journeys to be travail-free, but she does like to travel in a measure of comfort, so her experiences need to be engaging enough to convince the next editor to finance her next freelance fancy. And they are: Steinbach is either a good faker, or she's having the time of her life. She has serendipity on her side, too; she might be flummoxed in looking for a bonsai garden off a medieval street in Florence, but then she stumbles upon a rare opportunity to enter a private palazzo, which was "like opening a plain cardboard box and finding a Faberge egg inside." The author observes the architecture of Havana, takes a writing workshop in the Czech Republic, learns the Wakayagi style of dance in Kyoto, and studies French cooking at the Ritz, but these adventures often simply provide backgrounds for the people she meets; Steinbach has the humility to know a guide worth listening to. She basks in simple delights: "I bought a huge cup of pistachio gelato and sat eating it in the dappled shade." Readers will admire her optimism (she carried a tube of 32 SPF sunscreen on a visit to Scotland) and enjoy her goofy humor as she describes rams-"the Scottish ones, not the Los Angeles ones"-stirring at the sight of her red windbreaker, while she walks slowly, "hoping that the color red did not have the same effect on rams as itdoes on bulls in Pamplona."A light, travel-going pleasure. (Line drawings throughout)Agent: Gail Ross/Gail Ross Literary Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812973600
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/12/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 412,345
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.66 (d)

Meet the Author

Alice Steinbach

ALICE STEINBACH, whose work at the Baltimore Sun was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing, has been a freelance writer since 1999. Currently a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow, she has taught journalism and writing at Princeton University, Washington and Lee University, and Loyola College. She lives in Baltimore.

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    1. Hometown:
      Baltimore, Maryland
    1. Education:
      University of London, England

Read an Excerpt

Cookin' at the Ritz

A light snow was falling as I left my hotel and hurried across the narrow rue Cambon to the employees entrance of the Hotel Ritz. It surprised me that I had learned only two days earlier that such a door even existed. How, I wondered, in all my years of exploring the streets and passages of Paris had I missed it? After all, back doors were a major interest of mine. And so were side doors and courtyards hidden behind green gates and anything else that concealed the private Paris from me. Once, I spent two years writing letters and making phone calls before being allowed to visit the mysterious Maison de Verre, a house on the Left Bank designed in the late 1920s by the French architect Pierre Chareau. Compared to that heroic effort, gaining entrance to the back door of the Hotel Ritz was a snap: I had simply enrolled as a culinary student in the Ritz Escoffier École de Gastronomie Française.

Now here I was, on a snowy morning in February, about to enter the hotel not as an outsider but as an insider, a thrilling prospect. After all, I told myself, anyone willing and able to pay seven hundred dollars a pop to stay overnight could walk through the Ritz's imposing place Vendôme entrance. But only those carrying an employee's identification card were allowed through the back door on rue Cambon. Still, as eager as I was to begin what seemed an adventure, the truth is I was nervous about what to expect on the other side of the door. A French security officer who would turn me away? A snooty chef who would laugh at my limited French vocabulary? Classmates who would criticize my chopping and dicing techniques? A sudden, humiliating announcement from the schools Directeur that, for undisclosed reasons, he had revoked my student status?

It was in this Kafkaesque frame of mind that I pushed open the plain unmarked door and stepped into a small vestibule. A security guard sitting in a small room behind a counter stood up and carefully gave me the once-over. Immediately his stern appraising demeanor made me think of my root canal dentist.

"Bonjour," I said with fake nonchalance, holding out my photo ID in such a way that my thumb covered any evidence of a very bad haircut. He nodded and reached for the card. I watched as he looked at it and frowned. Was it my bad haircut that offended? "Is something wrong?" I asked. His response was to look at my face and then at the photo, comparing the two. He repeated this twice. Face-then-photo. Face-then-photo. Just as I started to explain that I'd drastically altered my hairstyle-for the better-since the photo was taken, a buzzer went off. A clicking sound followed as the gate to the long basement corridor unlocked and, with a wave of his hand, the guard motioned me through.

So this was it, then, the moment when I became a part of the venerable Hotel Ritz. After descending a flight of stairs, I looked down a corridor so long I couldn't see the end of it. What I could see, however, was a small army of employees engaged in a whirlwind of activity. Fascinated, I watched as men in crisp white uniforms picked up crates containing hundreds of bottles of Evian water and florists pushed carts filled with lavish arrangements of lilies, tulips, and irises. As I moved deeper into the corridor I saw workmen carting off worn pieces of Persian rugs and cabinetmakers moving a hand-painted Chinese chest marked "For repair." Service staff carrying covered silver breakfast trays entered and exited the service elevator. Some of the employees nodded to me in a collegial way as they passed by. I nodded back, trying to conceal my excitement at witnessing all the daily routines necessary to run a world-class hotel.

I continued on through the long corridor, past the sparkling white tile and stainless-steel kitchen classrooms of the cooking school, to the locker rooms where students changed into their uniforms. After a few minutes of struggling with the key, I unlocked the door on the right marked "Women." When I opened it a blast of hot, steamy air hit me; it smelled like the warm dampness I breathed as a child when changing clothes in the locker room of the YWCA pool.

Inside the small, L-shaped room there were thirty-five bright blue lockers, a few narrow benches, and an adjoining space with a toilet, a shower stall, two sinks, and a mirror. On a small table in the corner someone had left a hair comb and a large roll of Tums-a bad omen, perhaps, to find in the locker room of a cooking school. After locating the locker assigned to me-Number 210-I opened it and saw hanging inside the uniform I'd been fitted for on the previous day. The room was empty so I began to undress quickly, hoping to finish suiting up before my classmates arrived. Call me insecure, but I preferred not to meet my colleagues for the first time wearing only my underwear.

The uniform was formidable. First, I removed the sturdy closed-toe shoes students were advised to wear and stepped out of my khaki pants. Then I pulled on a pair of heavy cotton houndstooth-check trousers. My sweater came off next. It was replaced by a starched white double-breasted chef's jacket with double rows of buttons and the name of the school embroidered in blue on the left. Then came the napkin-like neckerchief that had to be tied in a very specific way. Next, I wrapped a starched white apron around my waist, tied it in front, and then tucked a thick white side towel under the apron string on my left side. By this time I was perspiring heavily.

Finally it was time to don the flat, starched white hat worn by students. I approached the hat with some trepidation. I still had not gotten over the humiliation of being told by the sympathetic French laundress who fitted me that I would require a very large hat. "A size 21," she said sadly. "There is no larger." Also I had no idea of how to wear this hat. Pushed back on my head like a beanie with hair showing? Or pulled down over my forehead, just above the eyebrows? Either way, it was not a becoming look. I decided to wear it in the more severe position: very low on my forehead, almost to my eyebrows, with all my hair covered. Somehow, it seemed more professional that way.

I looked at my watch; it had taken twenty minutes to suit up. I made a brief detour to the mirror and stopped to stare at myself. The person staring back, the one who was supposed to resemble a culinary student, looked in fact like a Red Army nurse, circa World War II. Actually I sort of liked the look. I fancied myself as looking very much like the Hemingway heroine in A Farewell to Arms, despite the fact she wasn't Russian and the story had nothing to do with World War II.

To complete the uniform I pinned on the nametag which, I had been warned at my fitting, "should in all cases be worn every day."

With half an hour to kill I headed for the employees' cafeteria, where I was entitled to eat at a student discount. The pretty, softly lit room was almost empty, so I sat down with a cup of latte and studied the dishes we would prepare over the next four and a half hours: sole fillets with a mandarin sauce; boeuf Bourguignon, waffle potatoes, souffléed potatoes, chocolate and orange mousse. We would also learn to prepare meat glaze and demi-glace. I flipped the pages containing the recipes, trying to familiarize myself with the conversion of measurements and weights from the European metric system into its American equivalent, a daunting task. Added to that was the further hurdle presented by having the course conducted in French with simultaneous translation into English. Between the foreign metric conversion and the foreign language translation, I saw the potential for big mistakes.

Indeed I had spent the night before worrying about whether I would measure up to the standards of the Ritz Escoffier Cooking School. After all it had been more than twenty years since I'd studied classic French cooking and almost as long since I'd cooked at that level. So, to be on the safe side, I had enrolled in a course listed in the school's brochure as designed for the "beginner to intermediate student." Still, the name alone-The César Ritz Course,-named after the hotel's founder-was intimidating to someone who grew up in a Scottish household where Grandmother dragged out the Wee Scottish Cookbook when company was coming and a fancy dish like steak pie or leek soup was called for.

I worried too about meeting my nine classmates, all of whom had started the six-week course together, beginning in Week One. I, on the other hand-having neither the time nor money for the full course-chose the option of starting halfway through the course in Week Four. What this meant, of course, was that I was the New Girl in Class, subject to all the disadvantages accruing to such an identity.

Kitchens are dangerous places. Within minutes of beginning our classroom work, two students caught on fire. Or to be more precise, their long side towels caught on fire. Real chefs, it turned out, don't use potholders. When something hot has to be handled they use their sturdy side towels. Which is exactly what Bruce and Paulina were doing-removing a huge stainless-steel pot of fish stock from the gas burner-when flames erupted. The blaze was put out quickly and no one seemed concerned. Except me.

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation With Alice Steinbach
author of

Tell us what got you started writing EDUCATING ALICE. How is it different from your first book, Without Reservations?

Although I didn't know it until after I'd written it, the first book, Without Reservations, was the story of a woman in transition, a woman who was trying to figure out what the next step in her life should be and how to take it. That woman, of course, was me. Although I sensed something stirring inside me, it took the trip and the writing of the book to confirm that I needed to move on in my career and personal life. The new book, Educating Alice, is about the same woman but this time she's taken quite a few steps away from the old life: left her job at a newspaper where she worked for 20 years, switched from daily journalism to writing books and discovered she enjoys the semi-nomadic life.

Did you have any reservations about quitting your steady job at the Baltimore Sun and taking off on your trip?

Yes, I did. Quite a few. I was scared I'd never find another job that would fit me as well as being a reporter and worried that no one else might want to hire me if the book-writing enterprise turned out to be a disaster. But as scary as the idea of quitting was to me, I was more frightened by the idea of not doing it. This was my shot at trying to do something I'd dreamed of all my life. The timing was right — my sons were grown — so I took the chance. And I'm happy I did. It's clear to me now that I've chosen a career that I can sustain and that can sustain me.

How did you choose the destinations for yourtrip and the lessons you took in each country?

Although from the very beginning, the premise of my book was simple — to study things I found interesting in places that interested me — it was surprisingly difficult to narrow down my choices. I did a lot of research and subscribed to such esoteric publications as "Scottish Farm Life" and "Border Collie News." I sent away for hundreds of university brochures and talked to friends, strangers and experts on subject matter that interested me, including one of Jane Austen's descendants in Hampshire, England. Sometimes in the middle of the night I could hear the ringing of my fax machine, promising answers from some elusive group in Cuba or Prague or Kyoto. After months of this, I made my final choices. Some of the lessons were taught in organized classes, others were learning experiences where the approach was more about teaching learnable rules in an unstructured setting.

Do you have a favorite of all the places you visited?

Not really. Each one offered its own rewards and pleasures and they were all so different that I can't think of comparing one to the other. Having said that, I did enjoy studying very much the world of Jane Austen at Exeter University. I never tire of reading and re-reading Austen's novels. And when you put together a great Austen professor with 26 students who adore this writer as much as I do, what you have is a room full of kindred spirits.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced along your journey and how did you overcome them?

Actually, the biggest challenge was to adjust to the role of being a student again. Learning new things — particularly in foreign countries where the culture and sometimes the language are different — adds to the essential humility that always accompanies being a student. I coped with such challenges — sometimes more successfully than others — by keeping a sense of humor at the ready and by immersing myself in the task at hand.

Aside from the skills you took away from each lesson, what did you learn about yourself and about the world?

That I love being at home in the world, not just in my native land. The more I travel, the more I feel a sense of belonging to a larger family. It is a very reassuring way to feel in a world that is increasingly splintered and fragile. But traveling as I did, studying things that are important to different cultures, the divide narrowed.

Do you think women, more than men, tend to feel stifled in their everyday lives and seek adventure and change the way you did?

I don't think men feel less stifled than women in their day-to-day lives. The need for change during the different stages of a life is equally important to both sexes. In fact, I think in the Greek language the words "change" and "growth" are basically the same. But I do think that men, because of cultural expectations, feel less free to seek out new ways of looking at things, especially changing their work lives. But it isn't easy for either sex to take that first step away from the life they know, the one that offers security, however boring or unchallenging.

How has this experience changed you as a person and as a writer?

For one thing, I relearned to experience the world as a child does, to enter the ticking moment fully and look with fresh eyes at even the most familiar things. It is a gift, this reclaiming of the child's ability to enter fully into the experience at hand and to bring to it all your senses, intellect and emotions. And in my writing I try to do that as well.
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Reading Group Guide

1. For years Alice Steinbach was a reporter and columnist for the Baltimore Sun, but quit her job in order to take the journeys described in this book. In what ways is her background as a reporter evident in the way she writes and travels? In what ways has she managed to make a break from the habits of her former career in some of the adventures she describes in Educating Alice?

2. In the piece “Cookin at the Ritz,” Alice gives us a good sense of the seriousness with which the French take their cooking. Can you imagine an American equivalent to “Chef,” in the same profession or another one? Do you think it is part of our culture to hold teachers and professionals in such reverence, or is this a more old-world, traditional attitude?

3. In what ways did “Dancing in Kyoto” change your attitude toward Geishas? Alice writes that she would not want a daughter of hers to be a Geisha, and yet many Japanese see it as a highly desirable profession. Can you explain why they feel this way?

4. Alice quotes an admonition by Henry James, that a writer must be “one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” In what ways does Alice’s own writing reflect her belief in this remark? Do you think the majority of authors would subscribe to this point of view, or can you name some would probably disagree with it?

5. In The Mystery at the Old Florentine Church, Alice becomes fascinated by the story of Father Domenico’s Church. In The Unreliable Narrator, she is absorbed by the story of “Lily.” What similarities do you see in these two experiences, and what do they reveal about the way Alice travels?

6. Think about Alice’s relationship with Naohiro. Why do you think she seems to focus on it only intermittently? Do you believe she is content with it? Have you ever had a distant-yet-close relationship with someone, and do you consider overall as a positive or negative experience?

7. Most people find it lonely and sometimes frightening to travel alone. If you were given the opportunity and time to take the same trips Alice took in this book, would you go? How do you think your experiences would compare to hers?

8. After much deliberation, Alice chose the subjects she would study and the places where she would learn about them. If you had to make a comparable list of half a dozen subjects and locations for your journey, what would they be?

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Customer Reviews

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( 10 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 16, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Inspirational for those who love to experience new things

    I picked up Alice Steinbach's book "Without Reservations" in a used book store, and enjoyed it so much that I decided to see what else she had written and found this book, which is somewhat of a sequel. Her first sabbatical to travel around Europe for a year led her to the decision to take a longer sabbatical. In following her passions to travel, learn, and write, Alice describes her adventures as she travels around the world to learn new things. I love her writing style, and the way she uses a variety of techniques, to include letters to her boyfriend, to tell her story and describe her feelings about the things she is learning to do, the people she meets, the events surrounding her adventure, and the feelings from her childhood these activities evoke. As a new retiree, Alice Steinbach has inspired me to follow my passions without fear. I have recommended this book to all of my friends who love to travel.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2006

    Story of Independence

    Travel is more than seeing sites or taking tours. It is an expression of independence. This and her previous book express the development of a woman who is examining and enriching her life by exploring new experiences. Excellent memoir and a model for women who enjoy this type of adventure.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 14, 2007

    The Romantic Teenager's Guide to Travel

    I can't believe this author is a Pulitzer Prize winner. This is like the gushing girl's guide-she makes fast friends every time she even goes into a cafe & everyone is sweet and charming-not a con artist or liar to be found anywhere. Aside from that there is precious little of substance,insight or travel value.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 10, 2004

    Traveling with your grandma

    This book would only be interesting to you if you have not traveled before or want to travel with an older woman. I could only read half the book before I had to put it aside. Her writing style is 'cute', but lacking substance. The fact that she kept asking the Japanese women in Kyoto if they had ever read 'Memoirs of a Geisha' made me blush, I was so embarrassed for her. She seems like a sweet lady traveling around, and I give kudos to her for that, however it is not the adventure book I was hoping for. She complains at one point that the furniture in her hotel room didn't match and she was disappointed.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 6, 2011


    This book was very hard to get through. Esentially it is the aimless ramblings of one woman's travels to different areas of the world. I found it incredibly boring with very few redeaming points of interest. I thought it would be a thought provoking book about a woman who learned profound life lessons through her travels. I was sorely dissapointed as the author bouced throughout the timeline of her stays in various areas and didn't seem to offer anything valuable to the reader along the way. Definitely pass this one by.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 1, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Great insight

    As Alice Steinbach travels around the world, readers can get a feeling of how different each culture is. It's a book to open a little the eyes of everyone and look a little over the borders and understand that people are different, but still driven by the same emotions as ourselves.
    The links to her childhood are amazing and show how the circle of life is complete, even somewhere else.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2007

    Rebirth and Travel

    Unlike the cynic of the first review - bravo Alice. This is not just a travelogue but rebirth of personhood. As a traveller, I also enjoyed the descriptions of cities I've come to know and love. Alice is seeing the 'real' parts of these cities.

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    Posted March 4, 2013

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