Many fantasize about leaving behind their daily routines and responsibilities and starting a new life. But Alice Steinbach actually did it, in 1993 when she went to Europe on a yearlong quest to find her former self.
In "Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman" (Random House, $23.95), Steinbach chronicles her adventures as a middle-aged single mother traveling alone in Paris, London, Oxford, England, and several cities and towns in Italy.
Although she considered herself an independent woman, Steinbach felt restricted by her daily role as mother of two adult sons and writer for the Baltimore Sun. She missed the free-spirited person of her past, "the woman who loved jazz and art," and longed for "the feeling that an adventure lurked just ahead."
In her quest to reconnect to the woman she lost while reporting about "other people's lives," she attended weekly wine and cheese parties at Parisian art galleries, inquired about dyeing her hair, and bought a pair of beige silk espadrilles that proved to be a challenge to stand in, let alone walk in.
During this self-described "Year of Living Dangerously," Steinbach became romantically involved with Naohiro, a Japanese businessman she met in Paris. Although they were often together in London and Italy, Steinbach doesn't mention whether they stayed in touch when she came home.
She bonded with three well-read English women she calls the "Bronte sisters," who cared for her when she became ill in London. Steinbach was pleasantly surprised with herself for having let down her guard, because in America, she "subscribed to the notion of independence as a condition that dictated complete self-sufficiency."
Her time with the "Brontes" taught her that temporary friendships can be just as valuable as long-term ones. She writes, "Who's to say length is the yardstick by which to measure such encounters?"
Steinbach found her former self resurfacing on a drive to Oxford, as she sang along with Ella Fitzgerald on the radio and felt the freedom of driving as if it were her first time.
In Milan, she spent an afternoon riding trams and stopping whenever a church or a piazza caught her eye. She didn't feel lost because the trams reminded her of the trolleys she rode as a child in Baltimore and the neighborhoods felt strangely familiar even though she had never visited them before.
Although Steinbach usually traveled alone, she spent some time with her brother and his wife in London. She also felt like part of a "family" when she took a class at Oxford and joined a tour group in Italy.
When she missed her family and friends, she spread out pictures of them and reminisced. On two occasions, a funeral and a family matter, she interrupted her trip to return to the United States.
More than a chronicle of the writer's search for self-discovery, "Without Reservations" is a lovely travelogue. Each chapter begins with a postcard picture and a note Steinbach wrote to herself that describes her adventures, while colorful reproductions of regional stamps decorate the pages.
Steinbach recognizes that although she hadn't "scaled mountains or crossed deserts," in her own way, she was "wading into the stream of the unknown, accepting whatever the gods had to offer."