Saturday 11 March 2017

Educating Alice

Finished March 5
Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman by Alice Steinbach

This memoir follows the earlier book by Steinbach Without Reservations. Here she sets out to learn new things in different settings. By now she has quit her job at the Baltimore Sun, and is writing as a freelance journalist. She looks for things she wants to learn, and finds courses that fit her timeframe and needs. She includes her letters to her friend Naohiro that she met in her previous book and isn't shy about including her mistakes. She writes with the skill of a prize-winning journalist and observes the world around her with the eye of one too.
The book starts with her taking a cooking class at the Ritz Escoffier Cooking School in Paris. She has joined the class in Week Four, so has to quickly catch up her basic skills to those already schooled in them. Alice is a woman whose curiosity makes her open to meeting interesting people and having interesting conversations, and she finds herself befriending other students, the reception clerk at her hotel, and others.
The second educational experience is learning about traditional Japanese practices from dancing to origami to the geisha experience to woodblock printing. This is arranged through the Women's Association of Kyoto, and she is personally accompanied on each segment by one of their representatives, usually Michi Ogawa, a woman who had spent some time living in North America. Again, her curiosity balances with the politeness required in a different culture. Here though she faces the additional hurdle of not being able to read the signage as she moves around the city, which limits her solitary explorations. She enjoys some of the segments more than others, but learns something valuable from each one.
Her next experience is in Florence where she enrols in a class entitled Art in Florence at the British Institute there. The class involves many field trips to view the art around the city, and she also explores on her own, becoming fascinated with one street, and then one old church in particular. As she works on researching the history of a particular time in history, she also meets interesting people from a priest to a waitress. Her class is small, just herself and one other student, a Canadian woman, so the small group becomes friendly quickly and the two women explore outside of class as well.
The fourth experience has her exploring the world and writings of Jane Austen in Winchester, Hampshire, Dorset, Somerset, and Devon. Some of the exploring is on her own or arranged by contacts she has made, and others are through a class she takes at Exeter University. She enjoys the people she meets from the curator of Jane's house to the other students in her class. She enjoys watching the interactions between her fellow students, and is intrigued by the interest and passion in many for a woman writer long dead.
The next trip is a charter tour of Cuba organized for Vassar graduates. While not a Vassar alumni, Alice manages to get included in the tour and while she joins the tour for most days, she does her own thing some of the time, making friends with one of the other travelers and getting to know a few local Cubans in Havana. From food to music, dancing to social divisions, Alice learns about Cuban society and how the people deal with the economic hardships from being limited in their endeavors.
She next returns to France to tour a number of gardens in the Saint-Remy and Luberon areas. She originally planned to do this as part of a group tour, but when the tour was cancelled, she contacted the guide, and asked if she was available to do parts of the tour on a private basis. From meeting a woman on the train to Avignon, to connecting with her guide over their common interest in gardens, Alice finds friendly companions along the way. Getting access to private gardens that would otherwise be closed to public access, Alice thoroughly enjoys the variety and innovation in the gardens, and the hospitality of the many owners.
Her seventh excursion is to Prague where she attends a summer seminar on Czech literature and culture at Charles University. She gets there a little early for the course and finds a bookstore where the owner responds to her overture by recommending a book by a local author that she ends up loving. One of the courses she has signed up for is a creative writing workshop where the students critique each other's work. She participates, but finds that the format is not a comfortable one for her. She also finds herself creating a story around a few serendipitous experiences in the city.
Her last experience here is at a working sheep farm in Scotland, also a bed and breakfast, where she learns how to work with a herding dog and attends the annual dog trials event in Luss. She explores the local area on foot, and finds herself gradually making a connection with the dog as her host patiently takes her through the skills and challenges of herding sheep with a dog.
This book also includes a reader's guide which has some questions for discussion, and the last one asks what you would choose if making a list of subjects and locations for a similar learning experience. This has set me to thinking hard about this, and setting some loose plans for the future myself.

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