A few years ago, as I was planning a yearlong sabbatical in Europe, it occurred to me to wonder: Just what exactly do people do when they're traveling? Sure, there's sightseeing, museums, walking tours. But what else? How do they spend all the hours?
Once my trip started, I quickly realized what they do: They think. They muse, they ponder, they let their minds wander through tangled back alleys of thought like a tourist lost amid the cobbled streets of a medieval city center. But there can't be many people whose travel-feuled meditations are as enjoyable to share as Alice Steinbach's. Her memoir, WITHOUT RESERVATIONS, is a gracefully meandering chronicle of her travels in Europe and her search for a new definition of herself.
Steinbach, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and single mother, realized one day when she was "a certain age" that she'd allowed herself to be defined exclusively in relation to others: She was a mother; a friend; a writer who made her name by focusing on the lives of other people. Once her children were grown, she writes, "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? Had I just been too busy writing about other people's lives to pay attention to her?"
To find the answer, she made a difficult but exciting decision: She would take most of a year off from the job she loved and spend the time traveling. She'd start with her lifelong dream of renting a hotel room on Paris' Left Bank, then continue through England, Scotland, and Italy. She would seek adventure and independence and, more importantly, she would try to find the girl she had once been, the girl who fearlessly tackled whatever new experience lurked around the corner.
Travel is such an apt metaphor for self-discovery that it's become a cliché. Freed from their daily routines, most people --- especially those who have spent most of their adult lives bound by deadlines and rigorous schedules --- find themselves with an awful lot of free time in which to ponder life's mysteries. It's hard to write about the sort of profound but random ideas that drift across your mind while you sit in a terrace café watching people for hours, or on a train as it rolls through one exotic landscape after another. At least it's hard to write about them very well. But Steinbach has such an appealingly fresh tone, and such a good sense of just how intimate her inner voice should be, that her leisurely explorations of her own internal landscape never sour into self-obsessed whining. She's not afraid of making herself sound foolish and she's equally forthright in her appraisals of the other people she meets, whether they're impromptu guides or fellow travelers. She's neither too cool to lose herself in the rapture of a croissant-and-coffee breakfast at a Parisian hotel nor too naïve to bring genuine insight to her descriptions of each place she visits. In short, she is --- like her beloved role model, the late writer Janet Flanner, whose essays from Paris helped inspire Steinbach's trip --- a wonderful traveling companion.
Reviewed by Becky Ohlsen, email@example.com on March 12, 2002