One of the things that many people can’t seem to get past when they travel is feeling like an outsider. They may eat in the same restaurants and walk the same streets as the people who live in a particular place, but they still find it hard to differentiate one destination from another because the traveler experience is all they really have.
This is not the case with Alice Steinbach, author of Educating Alice, who employs a completely different travel technique. This book follows Alice’s adventures as she travels from country to country immersing herself in an educational or cultural experience that goes far beyond the random show or museum tour. She takes an intense cooking class at The Ritz in Paris, separates from her tour group and settles in at a local club in Cuba, follows in the footsteps of Jane Austen in England and takes dancing lessons in Japan.
I most enjoyed following her adventures in Scotland—where she stays on a sheep farm and lends a hand at herding with border collies—and Provence—where she embarks on an extensive study of the area’s artfully designed gardens. Each chapter follows one of her educational encounters, which often last several weeks in order to get the most out of the experience and the destination.
Steinbach has authored other travel books, though Educating Alice is the first I’ve read, and I loved getting so drawn in to very specific parts of a local culture instead of trying to cover huge expanses of space, time or history. She offers thorough portrayals of the people she meets, and, at its best moments, I found myself watching the author walk around the sheep farm in knee-high boots or feeling her anticipation as her turn approached to share a piece of her work at a writing workshop in Prague.
What’s best about this book is that each chapter can be read as a story in and of itself, so if you aren’t enamored with a particular local experience that Alice has, it’s easy to skip ahead to something a bit more interesting. That said, even though I liked some chapters more than others, I enjoyed reading the book from cover to cover, just because it was so refreshing to read about a traveler who really settled down for a (relatively) long time to focus on something specific instead of trying to do it all.
The one thing Educating Alice could have done without were the interspersed letters that Alice wrote to Naohiro, her on-again, off-again romantic interest from Japan. These letters do nothing to enhance the book, but luckily they don’t take up too much of the text.
Beyond that, though, I recommend Educating Alice for anyone who is interested in slow travel and learning about very specific aspects of a variety of cultures and destinations from around the world.
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