EDUCATING ALICE: ADVENTURES OF A CURIOUS WOMAN, by Alice Steinbach, Random House, 282 pages, $24.95.
The term "travel memoir" seems inadequate to describe what Alice Steinbach has accomplished in her warm and wonderful book, "Educating Alice," the happy result of her 18 months of interaction with diverse people in diverse cultures.
As with the elegant travel writer and novelist Pico Iyer, Steinbach has done her work so well that the reader is likely to be caught up in the story and will, at the end, feel a special relationship with the author.
Steinbach covers a great deal of ground, from French cooking in Paris to training border collies in Scotland to cultivating the Japanese arts in Kyoto to studying architecture and art in Havana to studying writing in Prague to becoming lost in the Florentine culture of Italy to mixing with the erudite scholars of Jane Austen in England.
She demonstrates both agility and stamina in reporting on her strenuous and challenging activities in these various delightful places, along with writing about the people who became her new friends. There is nothing "general" about this book. It is developed carefully and tenderly, combined with intense description and witty analysis.
An early paragraph illustrates her endurance: "Working with deep fryers containing hot oil was not one of my favorite things. Of all the accidents possible in a kitchen — stabbing yourself with a fish knife, catching on fire, throwing out your back while lifting a 5-gallon pot of water containing 10 pounds of meat — of all these possibilities the one that spooked me most was the idea of accidentally boiling myself in oil. My timidity resulted in potatoes that didn't puff up to Chef's standards."
Her description of learning French cooking catches the depth of her experience: ". . . the thing I would miss most was this: the way the act of cooking forced you to live in the present tense, something I often forgot or was unable to do. Living in the present tense means living like a child, or as I had come to define it, living in the purity of the ticking moment."
Steinbach enjoyed the exhilarating feeling of being a student, "reawakening to the essential humility of learning," wherever she went. "Being a student meant always looking up to someone wiser and always measuring yourself against that wisdom and knowledge. But being a humble student also meant experiencing the thrill that comes from adding a new piece to the puzzle of where and how you fit into the larger world."
She heard the Japanese compare geisha women to "bunny women" ("Oh, Playboy bunnies?"), became a detective in Father Domenico's church in Italy, and hung out in the "Slavia," the legendary spot where Prague artists, musicians and writers have been gathering for 100 years. She also brings to life the people she met by comparing them with well-known actors (Hugh Grant, Richard Gere, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Cotton).
Steinbach cautiously carved out her own comfort zone among a crowd of Jane Austen scholars in England, wandered in the secret gardens of Avignon, and compares Havana's street hustlers with the "fashionistas, tall gorgeous women accompanied by nattily dressed older men."
But there was something else: "An old man — a very thin old man — sitting alone at the bar, hunched over a shot glass of whiskey, jumped suddenly to his feet and began dancing. He was spectacular, better than anyone in the bar, and his moves even included the kind of hip-hop spinning that kids do. Everyone was stunned. It was like discovering your cat secretly reads Proust between catnaps."