Book Review: Without Reservations by Alice Steinbach

In my last semester of college, I took an English course at the beginning of which our professor asked us students what kinds of books we enjoy reading. I thought about it for a while and couldn’t answer that question – I hadn’t read anything for pleasure in a long while. Being a student of Anthropology, I was reading constantly, but reading dry, dense material coming from a wide range of time and places, and it was definitely difficult to enjoy it all. So, my answer to my English professor’s question was rather generic and came from a place I remember from when I was much younger and had time on my hands. “I like to read autobiographies,” I said, thinking back to when I was an ornery teenager attempting to be humorously “ironic” (as silly hipsters today would use the word) and I read Frank Zappa’s hilarious autobiography. After I answered the question in front of my classmates, however, I felt rather phony, and a little sad that I wasn’t able to sincerely answer the question because I simply didn’t know what books I really enjoyed reading. 

Over the course of the rest of the semester I thought more and more about what I really do love reading. Thinking back on books that I have loved, I realized I do love autobiographies, but more specifically autobiographies pertaining to independent, international travel journeys. It made perfect sense all of a sudden – of course I love reading about people adventuring to other parts of the world; my area of study is cultural and linguistic anthropology. I had read “Tales of a Female Nomad” by Rita Golden Gelman, and was completely inspired by Gelman’s spontaneity and accounts of the many cultures around the world she encountered and experienced. In high school my best friend lent me her copy of “Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure” by Sarah Macdonald. Her trials and triumphs of her multiple trips to India forced me to want to experience the colorful, spiritual, and fragrance-filled (not always in a good way) country someday for myself. 

So, naturally, when I read a brief synopsis of “Without Reservations” by Alice Steinbach on librarything.com, I was instantly intrigued and excited to read about European culture from the perspective of another independent woman traveler. I put a hold on it at my local city library, and began reading it immediately after I picked it up.

Alas, my disappointment in the writing did not take long to kick in. Steinbach visited France, the UK, and Italy throughout a year-long sabbatical from her American life and reporting job at the Baltimore Sun (the same newspaper for which David Simon, creator of the amazing television series “The Wire,” also wrote and featured in the later seasons of the series). Despite the often sought-after and exoticized locations of Steinbach’s chronicles, I was surprised by how “touristy” her adventures seemed, and by the lack of focus on the local cultures. She visited fantastic places in different cities in these European countries, and very much had a sense of “going with the flow” and simply going wherever pulled her in a particular day. But rather than staying in the present moment, she almost too-frequently reminisces on spending time with her grandma when she was a young girl; she mentions this every ten pages or so, if not more. 

Perhaps I cannot fully understand because I am not yet a world-traveler, yet I can understand how going to a place very different from home can make you look within and examine yourself in a new way. However, my personal preference is more toward learning about the local people of the place, not the other tourists who are just visiting and seeing the places on the surface as well. Whenever she was in a place other than England, she rarely seemed to have made too much of an attempt to delve into the local language, often allowing the local folks to accommodate her and speak English with her if they could. 

All in all, I admire Steinbach for being brave and going to whole new places and experience the unfamiliar for an entire year. I’m sure there are many who would enjoy reading about her adventures, and her writing by no means is “poor.” My personal preference just for a more ethnographic (but not dry and totally dense) type of writing – one that focuses more on the culture and place than just one’s personal experience of it – although I realize it is necessary to acknowledge one’s own position juxtaposed that of the investigated culture at hand. This book just was not “my cup of tea.”  

I would like to end on a positive, less cynical note, however, and identify my own “take-away” after reading the book. Steinbach is successful in not over-planning, and in letting her mood take her wherever it may. I need to remember to do this in my own daily life; to say “Yes!” to opportunity when it beckons. One should not over-plan life to a stifling degree, and I think in my super-organized mentality I haven’t been successful in that. As I am sure this habit will not change overnight, but I will try to be more conscientious as I am experiencing my days ahead. 

Now, I am off to return this book to the public library and check out “Bossypants” by Tina Fey (I need a bit of a chuckle.) 

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