Book review: Without reservations, by Alice Steinbach

Portrait photo of Alice Steinbach next to the front cover of her book 'Without reservations - travels of an independent woman'

One winter’s day, Alice Steinbach decided to ‘temporarily jump ship’ from her comfortable life in Baltimore.

A working single mum, Alice didn’t think she’d ever have the chance to follow the dream that many of us have at some time or another: to leave behind our everyday routine and responsibilities and go on a voyage of discovery. No commitments, no schedule, just the freedom to wander wherever takes our fancy.

Then one day, she heard a voice inside her demanding that she say “yes” to life instead of “no”. After that, the momentum was unstoppable.

Why do it?

Alice had reached a point in life when her two sons had left home and she was continuing her successful career as a journalist for the Baltimore Sun newspaper. Life was good, but a little predictable – and she was keen to rediscover her old self.

“Over the years… I had fallen into the habit 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.”

Fortunately, Alice’s boss agreed to her proposed 9-month sabbatical, which she planned to spend in Europe.

Paris, first stop on Alice Steinbach's travels in her book 'Without reservations'

First stop: PARIS

Alice is an admirer of Janet Flanner, whose writings about her life in Paris were serialised in the New York Times between 1925 and 1975. Although she’s excited about following Janet, Alice does experience that ‘hang on – what on EARTH am I doing?’ moment when she first lands in the city. Haven’t we all felt that?!

Basing herself in a small hotel on the Left Bank, Alice soon becomes absorbed in Parisian life, discovering neighbourhoods and people-watching in cafés. In order to avoid the temptation to squander her newly schedule-free days, she starts out by planning activities to keep herself busy. Gradually, however, she becomes more relaxed about her itinerary – and comfortable with spontaneity.

” …a lesson I hoped to learn in the months ahead: how to stop rushing from place to place, always looking ahead to the next thing while the moment in front of me slipped away unnoticed.”

Artistic heroes

Alice is thrilled to walk in the footsteps of writers and artists she esteems, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir and Voltaire, who frequented cafés such as Flore and Les deux magots. Stopping by in these hallowed places for a coffee or apéritif, she chats to people and gets to know some lively and interesting characters.

One of them, a Japanese visitor to the city called Naohiro, ends up becoming a close friend and soulmate. Clearly attracted to him, Alice falls in love. From this moment forward, Naohiro pops teasingly in and out of the story as Alice continues her travels. The reader is left wondering what to make of this relationship, and what the future holds for it.

LONDON

After 3 months in Paris, Alice moves on to London. She has chosen to return to Chelsea, the neighbourhood in which she lived as a young married mother 25 years earlier. Rediscovering her old haunts, which evoke a mix of happy and poignant memories, forms a major part of the narrative in these chapters. In fact, the more I progress through the book, I realise that this is what it’s really all about: Alice trying to come to terms with her past, particularly its more difficult moments.

Sloane Gardens, London, where author Alice Steinbach once lived.
Alice had lived at 15 Sloane Gardens, Chelsea, as a young married mother

One of those memories is of her father, who was killed in the second world war. Alice recalls the day of the fateful knock on the door of her home in Baltimore, when the terrible news was delivered to the family. In the years that followed, she struggled to fill the gap in her life and to keep the memory of her father’s face from fading.

Museum discoveries

So when Alice visits London’s Imperial War Museum to view an exhibition of letters exchanged between wartime sweethearts, she feels a deep emotional empathy for the writers. She reflects on how memories of the war linger strongly in Britain and ponders whether any event since has brought people together in the same way. My own parents said the same thing about the war – that despite its horrors, they had never known a time when friendship and camaraderie were stronger.

Through some new, fun-loving female friends, Alice discovers Sissinghurst Castle (home of diplomat Harold Nicolson and garden designer Vita Sackville-West) and the work of travel writer Freya Stark. Freya becomes Alice’s new muse, a constant reference for practical and timely advice for her travels. When things go wrong or plans go awry, Alice can always find a reassuring quote from Freya to put her back on track.

Exterior view of Sissinghurst Castle, England
Sissinghurst Castle

A visit to the Museum of Garden History leads Alice to discover another inspirational woman: Gertrude Jeckyll, an influential horticulturalist and garden designer of the Arts & Crafts movement. After reading about Gertrude’s work, her love for her cats and her philosophy of ‘simple truth and honesty’, Alice decides she is very much a woman after her own heart. She decides to follow Gertrude’s example and make the search for simplicity her goal from this point forward.

OXFORD

Next, Alice heads off to join a course on the history of the English Village, to be held at Brasenose College, Oxford. As well as looking forward with ‘adolescent optimism’ to spending time at this venerable seat of learning, she is excited about visiting the Ashmolean Museum, the Bodleian Library and pretty Cotswold villages. Such is her positivity that it leads her to admit that, at times, she fears that her optimistic nature might, in fact, be an act. To learn that a Pulitzer prize-winning author like Alice could suffer from imposter syndrome is rather reassuring for me!

Front view of Brasenose College Oxford from HIgh Street
Photo courtesy of Brasenose College

A roller-coaster of emotions

Exploring the residential neighbourhoods of Oxford, cat-lover Alice suddenly experiences a wave of homesickness after spotting a woman returning home and being greeted by her affectionate moggie. But Oxford will also deliver an unexpected and welcome dose of more positive emotions: joy and euphoria.

This happens courtesy of an unlikely character called Barry who persuades Alice to join in with an evening of ballroom dancing. Despite her reluctance and lack of confidence, Barry turns out to be an amazing teacher – and Alice ends up having the best time.

The evening leads her to deduce that there are two groups of people: fun-seekers and complainers. The former approach each day willing to ride whatever wave comes along, just for the experience – whereas the latter only ride a wave if it’s to their liking. Otherwise, they complain that things are not what they expected. Inevitably, this leads the reader to ponder which group they fall into! Somewhat guiltily, I suspect that as I grow older I am becoming more of a complainer. Perhaps, like Alice, I need to get out on that dance floor.

Another valued lesson adopted by Alice from one of her Oxford teachers is to ‘turn every mishap into an adventure.’ She will need to draw upon this wisdom, and that of Freya, when she travels to Italy.

ITALY

After a brief reunion with Naohiro in London, Alice moves on to her next destination: Milan. Her description of the chaos she encounters at Malpensa Airport makes me laugh out loud. Especially when it dawns on her that the Italian she learned 25 years ago – for an opera appreciation class – is of limited usefulness for everyday life!

The historic centre of Milan at dusk, with the Duomo lit up
Alice’s first stop in Milan – the Duomo and historic centre

This reminds me of a wonderful moment in Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel The enchanted April, when the snobbish widow Mrs Fisher declares her own command of the language to be ‘the Italian of Dante’, whereas fellow traveller Lady Caroline ‘speaks the kind of Italian that cooks understand.’ Such a devastating put-down!

Milan

Despite the inauspicious start, Alice ends up enjoying Milan. She loves the trams, which remind her of the streetcars of her childhood, and she befriends a girl who ends up pretending to be her daughter after an amusing misunderstanding. The young woman, Carolyn, is preparing for her forthcoming wedding in Florence. Alice feels a tinge of envy for Carolyn having her whole life ahead of her. Like dealing with the past, fear of the future is another constant theme of this book – in particular, the uncertainty of old age.

Group tour

After her brief stay in Milan, Alice joins a group tour which will take her to Verona, Venice, Tuscany, Umbria, the Amalfi Coast and Rome. Much of the narrative of this section of the book is about her tour companions – the interesting characters who become her friends, and the dynamics of the group in general. But there are noteworthy travel tips too. Alice describes the dramatic beauty of the Amalfi coast and its pretty whitewashed towns. Although she finds them a little too perfect, and prefers the industrial realism of Milan, she does fall in love with the medieval village of Ravello.

View of the medieval town of Ravello, Italy, with the sea in the background
Ravello – photo courtesy of Lloyd’s Baia Hotel

Rome

Alice is somewhat less taken with Rome, where she experiences a scary incident when threatened by two men in a quiet street. She draws upon the sage advice of Freya and other heroines to help her put it into perspective, but finds it hard to find a place in her heart for Rome after this. In the end, it takes a dramatic storm in the middle of the night, viewed from the Spanish Steps, to persuade Alice that the city can offer her something to remember.

Tuscany and the Veneto

After exploring Siena and more of Tuscany with new friend Hal, Alice catches up with Naohiro for a romantic couple of days in Venice. Her time in Italy is coming to an end, and it seems fitting that one of her last visits is to Asolo, where Freya Stark lived and ended her days. Alice is enchanted with the beautiful town, which was also home to Robert Browning. He even has a street named after him.

The village of Asolo in the Veneto region of Italy
Asolo

As Alice departs misty, rainy Venice on her way home to Baltimore, she remembers other rains during her trip – “… streaming down the Spanish Steps. Blowing beneath the awning of a café in Paris. Sweeping through the piazza in Siena. Splashing against the shop windows along Sloane Street.” These rains, she decides, will be her enduring memories.

Themes of the book

This is a deeply thoughtful book that is as much about the past, and Alice trying to find ways to deal with it, as it is about her present and future. Throughout her travels, experiences and places trigger the memory an event or person from her childhood. There are frequent recollections of her frugal Scottish grandmother, her parents, her brother and her home city.

Odd… how the past makes the presence known, no matter where we travel.”

The future is also a concern for Alice. She is divorced, her sons are grown up and living their own lives, and she is heading towards the age of retirement. How to enjoy life as an older person is a genuine dilemma. She reveals her fears about women falling on hard times later in life. This feels a little strange, as Alice does not give the impression of being short of money, but the anxiety is there nevertheless.

There is also the question of love: is she now too independent and set in her ways for it, or is she still capable of sharing her life with someone else? Her newly-found soulmate Naohiro has brought chemistry and sensuality back into her life. But he is based in Tokyo. Where can this new relationship go?

Crowds sitting at outside tables at Caffe Florian, Piazza San Marco, Venice
Caffè Florian, Piazza San Marco, Venice, where Alice liked to stop for morning coffee

Friendship is another constant theme. Alice makes many friends during her journeys. In Oxford and Italy, she spends time as a member of a group. I chuckled at some of her wry, witty observations on group dynamics! I also enjoyed her descriptions of some of the eccentric characters she meets in cafés and shops.

Even though Alice reflects that many of these friendships will be temporary, she treats them as no less valuable than others – and she knows that one or two will become permanent. This certainly reflects my own experience of travel. Sometimes, those temporary friendships can be among the most cherished and memorable, because they are free from the burden of obligation.

THE OUTCOME

The book starts at the story’s end in January 1999, 6 years on from Alice’s travels. She is back at her in Baltimore, looking out upon a cold day, similar to the one on which she made her decision to leave in the first place. Is she back where she started? What did she learn? Has her life changed for the better as a result? Reading the interesting ‘interview with the author’ at the end of the book provides the answers.

One of the lessons Alice has learned is how to be brave. She says that being a journalist taught her to be a good listener and to empathise with people and their stories. But telling her own story, and opening up about her own vulnerabilities, is a different matter. Solo travel, she says, teaches you to be brave.

The Cotswold village of Burford, England
Alice visited Burford Village in the Cotswolds, England

Alice has also learned to handle ‘the long painful process of letting go of those you love’ – whether through death, or, in the case of children, growing up and leaving home. It’s not easy, but by letting go, she says, you are making room for what is to come. I definitely agree with her – this is something I have always told myself.

Alice’s travels – and writing the book – have also led to a positive career-change. She admits that she found it difficult to re-adjust back to ‘normal’ life after returning to Baltimore, eventually deciding to leave her job and become a full-time writer. Furthermore, I’ve discovered that Alice went on to undertake more solo travel and write a further book, which I’m looking forward to reading. Watch this space!

Where to stay

If Alice’s travels have tempted you to visit any of her destinations, here are some suggestions. Please note, the booking links for the Paris and Venice hotels are affiliate links. Booking via these links will cost you no extra, but will generate a small commission for us which helps keep this site going.

Hotel des Grandes Ecoles, Paris

Hotel des grandes ecoles

Behind an anonymous wooden door in the heart of the Latin Quarter of Paris, on the Left Bank of the Seine, is this gorgeous villa. You enter through a charming courtyard shaded by mature trees, which makes you feel like you’re in the country rather than in the heart of a capital city.

The rooms are tiny but beautifully furnished in traditional style, sympathetic to the building’s 18th century architecture. We loved it.

The Grandes Ecoles is one of our 18 top bucket list hotels.

Book now
Sloane Club apartments London

Sloane Club apartments

Amazingly, you can stay in Alice’s former home in Chelsea! Along with 3 neighbouring houses, no. 15 Sloane Gardens was part of a £5 million conversion into 18 elegant apartments, completed in 2014.

The apartments now belong to the Sloane Club and are beautifully decorated in a style sympathetic with the Arts & Crafts period buildings. The King’s Road and Sloane Square shops and tube station are just a couple of minutes’ walk away.

The facade of the Ruzzini Palace hotel in Venice at dusk

Ruzzini Palace Hotel

This gorgeous boutique hotel is housed in a 16th century Palazzo overlooking the Campo Santa Maria Formosa in Venice. Some of the suites at the rear have canal views.

Once the private home of an aristocratic Venetian family, the decor is elegant and opulent, with frescoed ceilings, magnificent chandeliers and plush furnishings. I spent a fabulous ‘major birthday’ break here.

More travel book reviews: Slow trains around Spain by Tom Chesshyre4 travel books on Spain by classic British authorsThe good girl’s guide to getting lost by Rachel Friedman; Penelope Green’s Italian trilogy.
If you’re interested in travel writers: 8 amazing authors and their retreats.

© Coconut Lands. This post is written in honour of Alice Steinbach, 1933-2012. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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