Inspired by Alice

I first read Alice Steinbach’s Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman, nearly twenty years ago, when I turned 50. Was it a gift, or did I buy it for myself? I no longer remember. Back then, my children were teenagers, and the prospect of a year’s travels without them or my husband was an impossible dream.

In the intervening years, I have had short trips without my family (always in an organised group), and longer trips with my husband. But now I am planning three weeks’ travel in South America, partly solo, so I decided it was a good time to revisit Alice’s travels.

When she wrote, there was no internet, no blogs and no Google maps. Alice sent postcards to her home to remind herself of what she saw, who she met and what she learned along the way. She also spent a lot of time getting lost with paper maps.

Each chapter begins with a postcard summing up what she learned from the experiences described later. A journalist by profession, she had an eye for detail, a vivid imagination and an enviable ability to strike up conversations and friendships with people she met along the way. A colleague described her as “a curious extrovert”. I may be curious, but extrovert and observer of fine detail, I am not. I have much to learn from Alice, and hope that when I travel I can manage at least a degree of the easy companionships she formed so effortlessly.

It wasn’t the first time I have re-read Alice, and my book bears markings where I agree with her sentiments or, more often, seek to follow them. After accompanying her to Paris, London, Oxford and Italy, I feel I know her. I share her love for coffee, but not for cats, and my style is far more casual than her go anywhere outfit of “pale gray (sic) suit, pearls and a soft, pleated-leather Fendi handbag”, which she bought at a Paris thrift shop.

Among the people she met were Hal, a retired professor of mathematics, whose aunt had told him it was your time not your money you should spend wisely, Carolyn, a young woman to whom she became “Mom” for a few days in Milan, after a stranger mistook them for mother and daughter, and Victoria, Angela and Sarah, London residents she met by chance who nursed her through a short illness, bringing flowers, chicken soup and what she appreciated most – their stories. But the standout relationship was Naohiro, the elegant Japanese man with whom she had an affair in Paris, and who travelled to meet her several times during the year.

Of the many ideas she shared, one of my favourites is the formula she learned from Albert, a Sri Lankan student she met while doing a course on “The English village and cottage life” (surely only the extremely curious would enrol).

M=EA: Mishap=Exciting Adventure.

I think this excellent advice for all travellers, for without mishaps, travel is either dull or micromanaged.

Others include “Freedom has its dangers as well as its joys”, “The sooner we learn to get up after a fall the better off we’ll be” and “Life [is] not a test and no one [is] grading me. Except my own superego, of course.”

As she met and observed her fellow travellers, she divided them into funseekers, who are spontaneous and flexible, and complainers will only do something if it is exactly to their liking. Despite my innate caution, I know whose company I prefer.

Along the way, especially in times of anxiety, she turned to The Journey’s Echo, a selection of travel writings by Dame Freya Stark, “an extraordinary woman who travelled alone, when women simply didn’t do such things…exploring Arabia and the Middle East.” Freya had died in Asolo, Italy, aged 100, seven months before Alice arrived there. It was one of the last places Alice visited before she returned to life as a journalist in Baltimore, enjoying its “quiet pastoral setting”. The book finishes with Alice taking a last look at Venice, relishing her memories, before hurrying to catch her plane home.

We don’t know the outcome of Alice’s many new friendships – including that with her beloved Naohiro. Did they keep in touch? Did they meet again? Or were the relationships like most travellers’ – briefly intense then consigned to memory.

With the luxury of the internet, it is easy to look for answers. After closing the book, I Googled Alice wondering what she had done since the book’s publication in 2000.

I was taken aback to learn that she had died in 2012. Her obituary in the Baltimore Sun revealed more about her, confirming some characteristics I had inferred from her writing, and informing me of others that only an outsider’s eye can see.

Of course, doing the maths, it was not surprising that she was no longer alive; she had graduated from high school the year I was born. But I was shocked nonetheless, feeling the loss of a friend and role model, just as she had gained comfort and inspiration from Freya Stark. Unlike the characters of fiction who, like Peter Pan, never grow up, those we meet in autobiographies and memoirs are as susceptible to the passing of time as we are.

I am certain that when Alice was ill, she would have continued to show interest in the lives of not only the nurses who cared for her, but the hospital cleaners and porters too.

And when I set off on my short travels as an independent woman, even though it is no longer a rarity, I will carry my memories of Alice Steinbach as an inspiration and comfort.

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