WITHOUT RESERVATIONS: THE TRAVELS OF AN INDEPENDENT WOMAN by Alice Steinbach
How Acquired: BookCrossing Bookring, begun by fizzfred
Reading Began: October 3, 2004
Completed Reading: October 21, 2004
Overall rating: Seven out of ten
Recommendation to others: Inspiring to all women with wanderlust or anyone with the desire to simply “quit real life” for a bit. A nice little memoir.
Why I chose to read this book: The author’s journey is a dream of my own. Though my destinations would differ to some extent, I long to be free from the constraints of five-day work weeks, household responsibilities, and financial insecurity. As I have not reached that point in my life, I simply live vicariously through all who have an opportunity to do so.
Further reading by this author: Educating Alice : Adventures of a Curious Woman
Other titles suggested in this book: The Journey’s Echo, a selection of travel writings, as well as The Valleys of the Assassins and The Southern Gates of Arabia: A Journey in the Hadhramaut, all by Freya Stark; Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark, by Jane Fletcher Geniesse; Here Is New York, by E.B. White; A Moveable Feast by Hemingway
Comments: There is much delight to be had in the reading of this book, but none so much as one who can relate wholeheartedly to the author. Steinbach spoke to my own desires throughout the book. I felt as if I was traveling with a friend. And she inspired me to venture out alone (once more) in some heretofore unvisited city with only a loose agenda and an eye for adventure. I felt a kinship to this author and will look forward to reading more of her travels.
My only complaint—if you can call it such—was the lack of detail in the sites she saw. Her stories focused on the emotional impact of her travels more than the actual locations. Still, there was just enough description of each city to whet my appetite, thus making me want to travel to each locale on my own and experience much of what she experienced. This book is not so much “travel writing” as it is “memoir during travel”. But it’s enchanting nonetheless.
There are also places where a woman alone can feel comfortable for lunch or dinner. Museums frequently have cafés or full-service restaurants; many are open at night. One of the most important decisions for me when planning a trip is to pick my hotel carefully. I try to find one located in a lively, friendly neighborhood, one that has cafés and food markets, sandwich shops and small family-run restaurants. I’m willing to spend a little more on such a hotel; it can make all the difference in the world to a solo traveler to feel at home in the neighborhood. In Paris, for instance, there are several small hotels on the Left Bank near St. Germain-des-Prés that have become my home-away-from-home.
It was from my mother that I had learned the guiding role nature plays in how we map out the geography of self. She was the granddaughter of a landscape gardener who worked on the grounds of a castle in Scotland. For a time, her world was one of towering trees and rose gardens, of heathered hills that stretched to the horizon, of clear water that revealed the salmon, gleaming like silver arrows just beneath the surface.
Later, my mother’s interest in the natural world was encouraged by both her parents. From her stern father she learned the botanical names and the science of nature; from her sturdy mother the pleasures of planting and digging in the earth, of being a part of nature’s cycle of life and death. But my mother’s gift for observation—the mark of a true naturalist—was her own. Chapter Three: At Sainte-Chapelle (p. 34)
Oh, God, I thought, walking from the hotel to the restaurant. Is this what I left my job and home for? To become gripped by an intense infatuation? One with no possible outcome except disappointment? The feeling depressed me.
But the truth is, it exhilarated me even more. I thought of Doris Lessing’s observation that “A woman without a man cannot meet a man, any man, of any age, without thinking, even if it’s for a half-second, ‘Perhaps this is THE man.” Chapter Three: At Sainte-Chapelle (p. 43)
To my surprise, he was eager to know what Jeanne Moreau was like. Jules and Jim, it turned out, was a favorite film of his. “She’s one of the most intelligent and charming people I’ve ever met,” I said. I told him how impressed I was with the way she expressed herself in English. “Her images were poetic. But precise in the way that poetry is. And her face… It’s endlessly fascinating.” I laughed. “She told me that at twenty she was considered “unphotogenic” and that it hurt her to read such a description. But as a woman in her fifties, she had stopped—and this is the way she put it—‘looking into the mirror that others hold up to me.’“ Chapter Three: At Sainte-Chapelle (p. 44)
But now as I approached my hotel I left behind both past and future. I was here in Paris, alive, feeling only the simple pleasure that comes from entering the moment. The night air on my bare arms, the lamps from the nearby café punching holes of light into the darkness, the elegant, veiled hats arranged in a shop window, the skies overhead changing from pale lavendar to deep violet: this is what existed for me.
In my hotel room, the bed had been prepared for sleep, its soft, cream-colored sheets neatly turned back. I opened the large French windows to let in the gentle night air and then sat down at my desk. I began to write:
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. Chapter Four: Fellow Travelers (p. 64)
I carried a cup of tea and a scone with me out onto the balcony and settled into a chair. Opening the book, I turned to the first page and read a passage written from Baghdad by Freya Stark in 1929, when she was thirty-six years old. It began:
To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasant sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure. You have no idea of what is in store for you, but you will, if you are wise and know the art of travel, let yourself go on the stream of the unknown and accept whatever comes in the spirit in which the gods may offer it. Chapter Six: The Sloane Street Club (p. 108)
But meeting people on this trip, I realized—although initially easy—required going beyond the one-sided reportorial encounter. It required revealing yourself. And it also required a willingness to not be offended when the object of your attention did not respond to you. Chapter Eight: Ladies of Small Means (p. 136)
But there was no one to please or not to please on this trip. I could be as inward or as outward as I felt; I could be an observing person or an experiencing person; I could be optimistic or skeptical. And I was learning each day that, depending on the occasion and my mood, I had in my arsenal of feelings all of these responses. Chapter Nine: Up At Oxford (p. 151)
Walking back to Radcliffe Square, I thought of something my mother used to read to me. It was a passage from a book by her favorite naturalist, Wendell Berry. In it he offers advice to those about to enter the wilderness. “Always in the big woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place, ” he wrote, “there will be, along with feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the Unknown, and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into.” Chapter Nine: Up At Oxford (p. 158)
True enough, neither of these plans amounted to a major life commitment. Still, I found myself thinking that such small steps may be all a person needs to set out on a new path. The thought cheered me, although until that moment I wasn’t aware I needed cheering.
Along with the cheer came a surge of optimism. It was a totally unearned optimism, mysterious in its source but real nonetheless. Then, in what I guessed was a sly trick of association, I thought of E.B. White’s observation that “once in everyone’s life there is apt to be a period when he is fully awake, instead of half-asleep.”
I started walking. When I approached the corner, I wondered: should I turn right? Or left? Then I realized it really didn’t matter. Either way, something new—perhaps a tiny adventure—awaited my arrival. Chapter Twelve: Mother of the Bride (p. 210)
But as I lay in bed in Venice, thinking about the people I’d met on this trip and the challenges and excitement that each day brought, I heard no ticking clock. Instead I thought about how I had surprised myself this year by jumping in to reshape my life before life stepped in to reshape it for me. And, I reasoned, if I could reinvent myself once, I could do it more than once. Chapter Thirteen: We Open In Venice (p. 219)
Don’t do this to yourself, I thought. Don’t spend your last minutes in Italy worrying about the future. So I did what I’d done so many times while traveling: I spent a few minutes with Freya. I leafed to a passage that had to do with reaching one’s destination. She wrote it from Persia:
“This is a great moment, when you see, however distant, the goal of your wandering. The thing which has been living in your imagination suddenly becomes a part of the tangible world. It matters not how many ranges, rivers or parching dusty ways may lie between you; it is yours now for ever.” Chapter Sixteen: Past Perfect (p. 277)
Places of Interest:
We agreed to meet later at Tan Dinh, a Vietnamese restaurant that served, [Naohiro] said, some of the best food in Paris. Although I’d never eaten at Tan Dinh, I knew of the restaurant. It was near my hotel on the rue de Verneuil, an old and captivating street I’d discovered the day I arrived here. I walked there often, using it as a shortcut to the Orsay Museum or just to enjoy its charm. A narrow street of small shops, a few fine restaurants, and old but expensive apartments hidden behind large wooden gates, it captured the Paris I loved best. Chapter Three: At Sainte-Chapelle (p. 41)
As I turned onto Lambeth Street [in London] and the Imperial War Museum came into view, I thought of the building’s origins. A large, architecturally elegant structure set in the middle of a park, the museum had once been a hospital for the insane. It was the last site of the notorious Bethlem Hospital for the Insane. Or Bedlam, as it came to be known. From insane asylum to museum. The building’s current name struck me as the perfect metaphor for the insanity of our time: war.
On my first visit to the Imperial War Museum I had been surprised to see that, despite its dated name, the museum’s approach to keeping alive the horror and sacrifice of the two world wars was quite modern. On the lower level of the building one could participate in a striking re-creation of what it was like to live through the London Blitz, from the warning sirens to walking through the smoky rubble after a raid. There was also a re-creation of what trench warfare was like in World War I. After seeing it I began to understand, for the first time, the horror of life in the trenches. Chapter Seven: Love Letters (p. 114)
I was particularly drawn to a neighborhood called the Brera. Once the center of Milan’s bohemian life, the Brera now combined an art student ambience with unique shops and galleries catering to the upscale shopper. Bookshops, bars, boutiques, and restaurants of every kind and price dotted its meandering cobblestone streets. Chapter Twelve: Mother of the Bride (p. 199)
As we drove, Hal explained that [Tuscan town] San Gimignano, once known as San Gimignano of the Fine Towers, had a savage past, one that included fighting and plunder by barbarians, and terrible plagues. At the end of the eleventh century, seventy-six towers were built, from which San Gimignano’s great families could wage war.
The shapes, silhouetted against the sky, struck me as mysterious, almost ominous. If I squinted, they resembled giant warriors standing guard over the town. “Those are the thirteen remaining towers of San Gimignano,” Hal said. “The most that are left, I think, in any of the hill towns.”
As we approached the walls surrounding the town, my excitement grew. I was attracted to the dark history that lay inside these ramparts, just as I had been drawn to the medieval pageantry of the parade in Siena. Why this was so, I wasn’t sure. But the minute I entered the walled city, where no cars are permitted, a little thrill of pleasure passed through me. Chapter Fifteen: Jane Eyre in Siena (p. 256)
Suddenly, the Villa Barbaro [outside Venice] appeared through the car window. None of the photographs of the villa had prepared me for the real thing. Set on a slope, the graceful building stood at the end of a long gravel pathway surrounded by manicured lawns. The perfect symmetry of its long arcaded façade and pillared entrances, so pure and simple, made the villa one of the most beautiful structures I had ever seen.
Inside the villa we climbed to the top of a staircase and were met by a young woman leaning through an open door. She was dressed in a green silk gown, her blond hair pulled back from her fresh-scrubbed, cherubic face. It took me a second to realize I was seeing not a real woman but one of Veronese’s witty trompe l’oeil frescoes. We were in fact surrounded by such painted women: courtiers dressed in taffeta peered down from a balcony; women flirted from behind fans; naughty winged Cupids teased a love-struck woman. Chapter Sixteen: Past Perfect (p. 273)