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Travel writer follows many diverse paths

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Because she is a curious extrovert, Alice Steinbach quit her job after 20 years at The Baltimore Sun so she could redirect her life. Quoting George Eliot, she said, "It's never too late to become the person you might have been."

Steinbach rejects traditional beliefs that a person must follow one career path for a lifetime. Before she left journalism behind, Steinbach had won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. Then she wrote "Without Reservations," a book about a woman in transition. "When that book became popular, I thought I could combine three things that give me the most pleasure — travel, writing and learning," she said during a telephone interview from her home in Baltimore. "Then I would become a proxy for the reader."

Her new book is a traveler's memoir, "Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman," in which Steinbach provides a lively narrative description of her 18 months roaming the world as "an informal student." She took classes in Paris, Prague, Kyoto and Havana. She studied cooking in France and learned the secrets of geishas in Japan, among other things.

"Everywhere I went the people knew I was writing a book," Steinbach said. "I carried a notepad constantly, and I used shorthand. It was hard to take notes in cooking class or dance to exotic music in Japan — but I did. And when I returned to my hotel room I'd write more notes. I didn't want to make generalizations, I wanted to intensely report what I experienced."

Her cooking class in France was "high end," including "a chef who was a stern perfectionist. I don't know how chefs do it. I think of them next to surgeons. The outcome is not as important with a chef — he is not saving a life. But in terms of physical stamina, a chef and a surgeon compare. It's very hard work. One night, after returning to my hotel, I fell asleep in the bathtub eating a candy bar!"

Steinbach was also exhausted by her experience working with sheep farmers in the Scottish Highlands. "The sheep these border collies herd are big and black-faced. When you're in a field and 10 of them come at you, it's disconcerting. They come down from the craggy, high hills only two or three times a year, and the dogs bring them. These dogs can climb the steep hills. They have more stamina than any dog in the world, except the husky."

She chose to treat in her book only about half the cultures she experienced. Steinbach went birdwatching in Morocco and practiced step-dancing in Ireland. She also stayed in a convent attached to the Vatican. "I may write a whole book about that," she said.

Divorced several years ago, Steinbach has two grown sons, one a lawyer, the other a physicist. For a while, one lived in Tokyo and one in Paris. "So I don't have a lot of family responsibility. I dedicated the book to my ex-husband, who is my loyal friend. I have very good friends in Baltimore, because I grew up here. When I'm on the road, say in Paris, I have a completely different life."

She calls herself "a semi-nomad," but she also holds the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship for the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, located in Princeton, N.J. (She is not connected with Princeton University, although she has taught classes there, as well as at Washington and Lee University and Loyola College.)

During her travels, Steinbach became acquainted with an urbane Japanese businessman named Naohiro, who frequently spends time with her. In the book, she leaves their developing relationship an open question. During the interview, she said, "I've decided I don't particularly want to define my relationship with Naohiro. As far as I'm concerned, it's the perfect relationship. You get selfish when you're in charge of your own life. I'm going to see him in two weeks when I go to Paris."

Steinbach loves Paris and calls it "my city. Italy is my vacation. I love the way Italians live their lives. I'm not a French-basher, but the French have rules for everything. It works for them. Italians are more spontaneous, with fewer rules. The French love angst. Italians don't even know what angst is."

When she came home, Steinbach felt "more at home in the world, more like a citizen of the world."

Her writing style emulates the famed E.B. White, whose classic book "Charlotte's Web" she has re-read often. "I loved him the minute I read his first line. The beauty and grace of his writing is unequaled. He wrote an essay called 'Once More to the Lake,' contained in the collection, 'One Man's Meat.' It's the perfect essay, three pages long. He said, 'In every man's life there comes a time when you have to be fully awake instead of half asleep.' "

Steinbach also savors the advice of crime novelist Elmore Leonard, " 'that the writer should leave out the parts that readers skip.' You can't do that in news reporting, or people might skip the whole article! What you should skip is the pedantic style, try to tell the story in a way that it unravels for the reader."

Even though she has taught writing, she also took a writer's workshop in Prague, one in which all the students critiqued each other's work. She had always been afraid to take a workshop before. As expected, it was hard on her ego. "Nobody is immune to rejection. You never get past that. It always hurts when you put your blood and guts into something."

Next, Steinbach plans to write a novel set in Paris and Venice, and she expects the style will not be "too much of a bizarre digression from the way I think or write. I'm really looking forward to this!"

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com