Her in late fifties, divorced and with two grown sons, journalist Alice Steinbach decided to take a sabbatical from her work in Washington, DC and spend a few months travelling alone in Europe. Her aim was to rediscover her independence (having spent years defining herself in relation to others) and she recorded her experiences in this lovely memoir, Without Reservations.
Steinbach did not explore much of Europe but instead focuses on a few specific areas – Paris, London, Oxford, and various locations in Italy – all of which, I think we can agree, would be lovely place to spend any amount of time.
Though she sets out on her own, Steinbach seems to spend very little of her travel time alone. In Paris, she falls in love with a Japanese businessman whom she is able to reconnect with throughout her time in Europe. In Milan, she meets the most engaging of her travel companions, a young American woman on her way to her fiancé in Florence. In London, she falls in with loud, outgoing and obscenely wealthy Australians. Even on a day trip into the Cotswolds she manages to find someone to spend the afternoon with.
This way of travel is utterly foreign to me and, though I would frankly find these constant connections a bit hellish, I cannot help but admire the ease with which Steinbach attracts new friends (even if the friendships only last the day). She is a true journalist, unable to resist a chance for conversation, the opportunity of hearing someone’s life story, and so she spends more time recording the details of these encounters than she does describing the places she visits. In this way, this is not quite the travel memoir it at first appears to be: Steinbach is a wonderful writer and a fabulous observer of people, but not places.
Mostly, Steinbach reflects on her life so far and her family. The focus of her thoughts is generally on how her routine, busy life in Washington differs from what she really wants in life, what it is that makes her happy and excites her. A lot of time is also spent remembering her grandmother and pondering how her father’s early death affected her personality.
For me, this introspection could, at times, grate. Steinbach is very intelligent but also very romantic and very earnest. Some of her fantasies had me rolling my eyes and I am still not sure I can forgive her for her almost complete lack of a sense of humour. She is very enthusiastic and optimistic and that should be endearing but I found her continued earnestness almost embarrassing. The combined lack of humour and determined, almost aggressive focus on self-discovery don’t mare the book but do clearly signal the author’s nationality.
I have read this before, shortly after it was first published in 2000, and will doubtless read it again one day. Steinbach only published three books before she died in 2012 – two travel memoirs and a book of personal essays – but she was a beautiful writer, clear and concise, and I look forward to reading her other books.