Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman

Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman

by Alice Steinbach

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Overview

"In many ways, I was an independent woman," writes Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Alice Steinbach. “For years I’d made my own choices, paid my own bills, shoveled my own snow.” But somehow she had become dependent in quite another way. “I had fallen into the habit of defining myself in terms of who I was to other people and what they expected of me.” But who was she away from the people and things that defined her? In this exquisite book, Steinbach searches for the answer to this question in some of the most beautiful and exciting places in the world: Paris, where she finds a soul mate; Oxford, where she takes a course on the English village; Milan, where she befriends a young woman about to be married. Beautifully illustrated with postcards from Steinbach’s journeys, this revealing and witty book transports you into a fascinating inner and outer journey, an unforgettable voyage of discovery.

Praise for Without Reservations:

“A rich account of one woman’s journey through Europe and into the self.”
—Us Weekly

“I loved going along with Alice Steinbach as she goes off on this rare, wonderful adventure, an escape into discovering herself and some of the truly magical places in this world.” —DOMINICK DUNNE

“More than a chronicle of the writer’s search for self-discovery, Without Reservations is a lovely travelogue.”
—Chicago Tribune

“The best books, like the best vacations, contain unexpected delights, surprises that enrich the soul as well as the senses. This is a book about love, and longing, and the passage of time. It’s about hope, and courage, and the resiliency of memory. This book is a feast. Bon appétit!
—The Des Moines Register

“Beautifully written, clear, insightful, thoughtful . . . Steinbach’s book should be taken in slowly and savored all the way.”
—St. Petersburg Times

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375758454
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/12/2002
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 195,453
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Alice Steinbach, whose work at the Baltimore Sun was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 1985, has been a freelance writer since 1999. She was appointed the 1998-1999 McGraw Professor of Writing at Princeton University and is currently a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

Hometown:

Baltimore, Maryland

Place of Birth:

Baltimore, Maryland

Education:

University of London, England

Read an Excerpt

I write this sitting in my cozy kitchen on a wintry morning, my old cat dozing beside me on the warm, hissing radiator. An ice storm passed through Baltimore last night, and I can hear the evergreen trees outside my window creaking under the weight of their glazed branches. Six years ago, on a winter's day not unlike this one, I sat at the same table and made a decision that, for me, was quite daring: I decided to take a chance and temporarily jump ship, so to speak, from the life I'd fashioned for myself.

This morning I got out a box containing some reminders of where that decision took me. Although I've been searching for a particular item, it's fun seeing whatever turns up.

Here, for instance, is the bill for the ten-dollar cappuccino I drank one morning in Venice at the Caffe Florian. And here's a program from a student production in Oxford of Much Ado About Nothing. Next comes a ticket to the Museum of Garden History in London, and the receipt for a pair of black silk pumps with four-inch heels, bought in Milan and worn once. The menu from a dinner enjoyed in the Umbrian town of Perugia follows, reminding me of how delicious the Veal Escalope with Red Chicory was that night.

Finally in a smaller box labeled PARIS, I find what I'm looking for: a postcard with a view of the city's loveliest bridge, Pont Alexandre III. Dated 9 May 1993, and sent from me to me, the postcard signals the beginning of an adventure:

Dear Alice,

It is my first morning in Paris and I have walked from my hotel on The Left Bank to the Seine. 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.
Now, from this perfect place, I begin a journey
.

The postcard is signed: Love, Alice.

It is the first of many such postcards that I would write and send home to myself as I traveled over the next several months. Or, as I affectionately came to call that interlude in my life, The Year of Living Dangerously

Most of us, I suppose, have had at one time or another the impulse to leave behind our daily routines and responsibilities and seek out, temporarily a new life. Certainly it was a fantasy that more than once had taken hold of me. At such times I daydreamed about having the freedom to travel wherever chance or fancy took me, unencumbered by schedules and obligations and too many pre-planned destinations.

But the daydream always retreated in the face of reality I was, after all, a working, single mother and my life was shaped in large measure by responsibilities toward my two sons and my work as a newspaper reporter at The Baltimore Sun.

By 1993, however, I was entering a new phase of my life, one that caused me to rethink its direction. My sons had graduated from college and were entering new adult lives of their own; one as a translator in Japan, the other as a graduate physics student in Colorado. I was happy for them, and proud too. After all, watching a child march successfully into the larger world is one of the greatest satisfactions parenthood has to offer. Still, letting go of my sons left me feeling vulnerable in a way I didn't understand. The powerful bonds between us remained; but physically the boys I had raised were gone.

If I close my eyes, I can see them still, on a long-ago summer's night. Two boys, so different: one lying in bed listening to an Orioles game and bouncing a ball off the wall; the other outside in the backyard, setting up his telescope under a starry indigo sky. Holy moments, I think now of such times. Without such moments, the house felt quiet and empty

At work my life went on as before. I continued to interview interesting people as well as write a column. It was a challenging, sometimes next -to- impossible job and I was completely invested in it. My work was not only what I did but who I was.

Occasionally though, I found myself wondering: was I too invested in it? At times I felt my identity was narrowing down to one thing-being a reporter. What had happened, I wondered, to the woman who loved art and jazz and the feeling that an adventure always lurked just ahead, around some corner? I hadn't seen her in quite a while. Had she disappeared? Or had I just been too busy writing about other people's lives to pay attention to her?

There was nothing wrong with my life. I liked its order and familiarity and the idea of having a secure place in the world. Still, the image of that woman who had gone missing kept popping up. One day after reading about a photography course offered in Tuscany I thought, She would find a way to do that. I had the same reaction when I read an article offering room and board on a Scottish sheep farm that trained Border collies: ['11 bet she'd be on the phone trying to work something out. I found myself wondering if there was some way to reconnect with this missing woman. I sort of admired her.

The answer, one that arrived in bits and pieces over the next few months, surprised me.

What you need to do, a voice inside me said, is to step out and experience the world without recording it first in a reporter's notebook. After fifteen years of writing stories about other people, you need to get back into the narrative of your own life.

It made sense to me. But how to go about doing that? I thought of taking a leave of absence from my job, of traveling to an unfamiliar place where all the old labels that define me-both to myself and others-would be absent. Maybe then, somewhere along the way, I would bump into that other woman. Or, if she no longer existed, maybe such a trip could help me find out who took her place. Although the idea appealed to me, I pushed it aside as impractical, both personally and professionally

Yet I couldn't let go of the fantasy; it sprang out at odd times. In the middle of the night, I would get up and start figuring out what such a plan might cost and how to finance it. I spent hours in the bookstore travel section poring over possible destinations. At dinner, talking and laughing with friends, I would wonder about my capacity to be a woman in a strange city without an identity without friends.

Then I ran through all the reasons why I shouldn't do it. What would I do with my house? Who would take care of my cat? What if some emergency arose at home? Would my editors give me a leave? And if they did, what about the column I wrote twice a week? Would it be assigned to someone else? Suppose I got sick in some strange place? Suppose I disappeared, never to be seen again?

But something was working deep inside me and, like a tropical storm, it gathered momentum before hitting me full force with its message: you are a woman in search of an adventure, said the voice inside. Take the risk. Say "Yes" to life instead of "No. "

Still I hesitated. It was time, I thought, to get some feedback from friends. When I ran the idea by those closest to me, the response was unanimous: Go. Your children are grown and, except for your cat, you're au independent woman.

They were partly right. In many ways, I was an independent woman. For years I'd made my own choices, paid my own bills, shoveled my own snow, and had the kind of relationships-with the exception of sons and cats-that allowed for a lot of freedom on both sides.

But lately I'd come to see that no matter how much I was in charge of my finances and my time, I was quite dependent in another way Over the years I had fallen into the habit-a quite natural one, I believe-of defining myself in terms of who I was to other people and what they expected of me as mother, as daughter, as wife, as ex-wife, as reporter, as friend. For a while, at least, I wanted to stand back from these roles and see who emerged.

I arrived at the decision to take a leave of absence in January of 1993. With great anxiety I approached my editor and told him what I'd like to do. Within days I had his approval we agreed I would leave in April and return the following January I was elated. Then it hit me: I had no real plan for all the free time now available to me. Except for the first stop. In some unspoken way I'd known all along that I would begin my new life in Paris.

"Why Paris?" friends asked. "Why not?" I would reply breezily reluctant to reveal the truth. The truth was that I was pursuing a fantasy-the fantasy of living in a small hotel on the Left Bank just as my journalistic idol, Janet Flanner, had done. From 1925 to 1975, Flanner's famous "Letter from Paris" appeared in The New Yorker. The pieces, now collected in book form, still stand as small masterpieces of intelligence and style; like many writers, I studied them as a painter does Cezanne. For years I had wanted to walk, book in hand, through the streets and into the cafes Flanner described so vividly Now I was about to do it.

But after Paris, what? I wanted to keep my plans flexible, but not so loose that I was just wandering aimlessly about. After thinking it over, I came up with two ground rules. One: I did not want to flit from place to place; I wanted to stay a while in the places I chose to visit. And two: my agenda would not include exotic locales. This allowed me to immediately rule out such places as Las Vegas and Katmandu. I reasoned 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

For the next several weeks I pieced together from clippings, articles, and guidebooks I'd collected a list of possibilities. Several places in England and Scotland were on the list. So was almost every region in Italy from the Veneto to Campania. At one point I considered spending all my time, after leaving Paris, in Italy But when I came across an article in my travel file on a course given at Oxford on the history of the English village and another on traveling by train through the Scottish Highlands, I abandoned the all-Italy plan. I also moved two of my initial "Possibilities"-Ireland and Provence-into a lesser category headed: "Possible Possibilities."

In the end I left Baltimore with a hotel booked in Paris, an apartment almost secured in London, a place reserved in the Oxford course, and a room of my own on a Scottish sheep farm. The rest, I figured, would be negotiated as opportunities presented themselves.

But even the slightest of plans can go awry. Life intruded while I was away, more than once. On my way to Scotland, word came of the sudden death of a beloved sister-in-law, and I returned to Baltimore for her funeral. Later, another urgent family matter caused a change in my plans. Life's like that, I told myself on a sad plane trip back to Italy: with awesome impersonality it ambushes us, changing our lives and the lives of those we love in an instant.

Of course, on the day I arrived in Paris to begin my leave, I knew nothing of what lay ahead, good or bad. All I knew was a feeling of utter astonishment at finding myself in a small hotel on the Left Bank of the world's most beautiful city

It was from this hotel, at the end of my first week, that I wrote the simple truth of what I had been seeking:

Last night on the way home from a concert at Sainte-0apelle, I stopped on the Pont Royal to watch the moon struggle through a cloudy night sky.

Front the bridge my eyes followed the lights of a tourist boat as it moved like a glowworm across the water Here in Paris, I have no agenda; here I can fall into step with whatever rhythm presents itself. I had forgotten bow wonderful it is to stand on a bridge and catch the scent of rain in the air I bad

forgotten bow much I need to be a part of water, wind, sky.

Reading this postcard I see myself, carefree and exhilarated, standing in the middle of the bridge, halfway between the Louvre on the Right Bank and the quai Voltaire on the left. What I see is a woman who is not thinking about observing life but experiencing it. The observations would come later, in postcards sent home.

From Milan and Siena, from tiny villages along the Amalfi Coast and small towns in the Cotswolds, from London and Oxford, the postcards were waiting for me when I returned, each one recounting like a spontaneous child the impressions of a day spent exploring the world. As I read them, I relived the days spent at Brasenose College in Oxford; the momentous meeting in Paris with Naohiro, a Japanese man who read my soul; the sunny Italian days in Sorrento; the days of self- discovery in Asolo, a village at the foot of the Dolomites.

It was not a new habit, writing postcards to myself. It had begun about fifteen years ago, while traveling alone to Bornholm, a remote island in the Baltic Sea. It was homesickness that prompted me to write that first time; the postcard served as a companion, someone with whom 1. could share my feelings.

Over the years, the postcards took on another role: they became a form of travel memoir, preserving and recapturing the feelings of certain moments during a trip. When I see such a postcard, the handwriting oddly familiar, it startles me and, like Proust's madeleine, has the power to plunge me back into the past.

Until recently I was convinced-quite smugly so-that I'd invented this form of travel writing. But about four months ago, while going through a box of papers collected from my mother's apartment after her death, I came across a postcard she'd written to herself from Dublin. The picture is a charming view of O'Connell Street and the Gresham Hotel. She writes:

We stayed here for eight days. A lovely, comfortable hotel, with Irish poetry readings in the evenings. The food was very good. And Dublin bas the loveliest zoo in all of Europe.

Tears sprang to my eyes as I read these simple words in a handwriting as familiar as my own. It is the handwriting that signed my grade-school report cards; the handwriting that scribbled out the lists I carried to the corner grocery store; the handwriting that, over the years, in countless letters, supported and encouraged me in good times and bad.

Holding the postcard in my hands, I thought of my sons and of the future. Would they someday read my postcards, I wondered, and think of me, as I do now of my mother?

If so, I hope they see me soaring like a bright kite into a big blue sky; happy and adventurous, going wherever the wind takes me.

—-Baltimore,
January 1999

Reading Group Guide

1. While relaxing at a café in Paris, Steinbach reflects, “what adds up to a life is nothing more than the accumulation of small daily moments.” What does she mean by this? Do you think it is possible to gain a greater understanding of the whole by looking, individually, at its parts? What factors in Steinbach’s life, and perhaps your own, caused her to overlook such minute, beautiful moments?

2. Over the course of the book, Steinbach often personifies the cities, towns, and villages she visits. “Rome and I are not lovers. We are not even friends,” she writes, when reflecting on her unpleasant experience on the Spanish Steps. When describing three towns along the Amalfi coast she comments, “If Amalfi were a man…he’d be dressed by Calvin Klein and reading Tom Clancy. Positano would wear Armani and carry a book by John Le Carré. But if Ravello were a man…he would be in chinos and a fresh white oxford shirt with no tie, buried in a book by Graham Greene.” Why do you think she chooses to describe the places she encounters in human terms? What effect does this technique have on you, the reader?

3. In her travels, Steinbach meets people from all walks of life. In one observation, she provides a fresh take on the old maxim, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” when she writes, “Paris guards her inner beauty from the casual observer. To find it one must look beyond the façades. It is true of people also, I think: their spirits exist behind their façades, beyond their words.” Who does she meet along her journey that helps to reaffirm this belief? What do these encounters teach her about herself and the world around her?

4. Steinbach constantly reflects on her own sense of adventure or lack thereof. She tries to nurture it and let it grow at its own rate, a rate that is both comfortable and exciting for her. Reminiscing about her youth she notes, “I made dangerous choices in those years, thinking myself bold and adventurous. Later I would come to understand I hadn’t been daring at all, just driven by confusion and hormones. The person capable of true daring, I knew now, possessed two admirable qualities: curiosity and courage.” Do you agree with that definition of a “daring” individual? Thinking back to all of Steinbach’s European adventures (and misadventures), do you think she fits her own bill of what it means to be “daring”?

5. Remembering an interview she once conducted with French actress Jeanne Moreau, Steinbach realizes that “Moreau’s declaration of independence from ‘looking into the mirror that others hold up to me’ was a deft description of what I was after on this trip.” Searching for the approval or acceptance of others seems to be a recurring theme in Steinbach’s book and, more importantly, a recurring theme in her daily life in America. To what extent was she able to overcome these insecurities during her travels? Do you think you would react similarly? Why or why not?

6. What role does Steinbach’s grandmother, or more correctly, the memory of her grandmother, play in her road to self-awareness? Are there people or events in your past that continue to help you understand the present, and perhaps, address the future?

7. Steinbach asks herself, “Is it possible to change your outer geography without disrupting the inner geography? The travels within yourself? Today I traveled back to my past and forward to a future shaping itself somewhere at the edge of my thoughts. But I also traveled to a place less often visited: the childlike purity of the ticking moment.” If Steinbach’s grandmother is a symbol of her past, are there characters that embody Steinbach’s immediate present? To what extent does Steinbach’s unexpected relationship with Naohiro serve as reminder of the beauty of the present? If Steinbach’s grandmother acts as a constant connection to the past, Naohiro a reminder of the present, which character, if any, is the embodiment of the future?

8. When in Venice, Steinbach imagines herself, if only for a brief moment, to be Katharine Hepburn in the film, Summertime. Observing a lounge singer in a Paris café, she asks, “Who did she imagine herself to be? Marlene Dietrich? Edith Piaf? Was that the image that sustained her when she examined the realities of her life?” At what other moments in her travels does Steinbach seem to slip into the safe world of fantasy, and at what moments does she seem to awaken herself to reality? At what times in your own life does fantasy plays an important role for you?

9. Steinbach often views the people and places she visits through the lens of literature. For instance, at the prospect of reuniting with Naohiro in Venice, she compares herself to Penelope awaiting Ulysses’ return from Troy, and often she draws parallels between her own experiences and those of a young Jane Eyre. What other literary figures does Steinbach evoke? Have you ever used the world of literature to better understand your own feelings? How do you think our interactions with literature help to shape our responses to the world around us?

10. In a postcard to herself referring to her frightening experience in Rome, Steinbach notes that Albert Camus once wrote, “what gives value to travel is fear.” Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not? Steinbach goes on to write: “a little dash of fear gives value to more than just travel. For one thing, it can teach us to be brave.” Do you think travelling alone would instill in you a sense of bravery you might otherwise not have possessed? Some might argue that it is not brave, but rather foolish to travel alone. Have ever you subscribed to this line of reasoning? If so, did Steinbach’s book convince you otherwise?

11. Without Reservations is rich with one woman’s observations, reflections, and personal philosophy. By the end of her travels, Steinbach discovers in herself a woman she thought had been lost in time or worn down by age. Her time alone, time spent encountering both old memories and new ideas, helps her re-ignite her independent spirit and reawaken her sense of fierce individuality. Did reading Steinbach’s story inspire you in the way that Freya Stark’s memoir inspired her? If you were to take such a journey, where would you go? What would you want to do? What aspects of such a journey appeal to you the most?

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