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  • Written by Alice Steinbach
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  • Written by Alice Steinbach
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Adventures of a Curious Woman

Written by Alice SteinbachAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Alice Steinbach

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On Sale: April 02, 2009
Pages: 320 | ISBN: 978-0-307-48417-8
Published by : Random House Random House Group
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ABOUT THE BOOK ABOUT THE BOOK
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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READER'S GUIDE READER'S GUIDE
Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Eight years ago, Alice Steinbach, a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist for the Baltimore Sun, decided to take a break from her life. She took a leave from job, friends, and family for a European journey of self-discovery, and her first book, Without Reservations, was the exquisite result.

But once Steinbach had opened the door to a new way of living, she found herself unwilling to return to the old routine. She quit her job and left home again, only this time her objective was to ?nd a way that would allow her, personally and professionally, to combine three of her greatest passions: learning, traveling, and writing.

This funny and tender book is the result of her decision to roam around the world as an informal student, taking lessons and courses in such things as French cooking in Paris, Border collie training in Scotland, traditional Japanese arts in Kyoto, architecture and art in Havana. With warmth and wit, Steinbach guides us through the pleasures and perils of discovering how to be a student again. Along the way, she also learns the true value of this second chance at educating herself: the opportunity to connect with and learn from the people she meets on her journey.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Cookin' at the Ritz

A light snow was falling as I left my hotel and hurried across the narrow rue Cambon to the employees entrance of the Hotel Ritz. It surprised me that I had learned only two days earlier that such a door even existed. How, I wondered, in all my years of exploring the streets and passages of Paris had I missed it? After all, back doors were a major interest of mine. And so were side doors and courtyards hidden behind green gates and anything else that concealed the private Paris from me. Once, I spent two years writing letters and making phone calls before being allowed to visit the mysterious Maison de Verre, a house on the Left Bank designed in the late 1920s by the French architect Pierre Chareau. Compared to that heroic effort, gaining entrance to the back door of the Hotel Ritz was a snap: I had simply enrolled as a culinary student in the Ritz Escoffier École de Gastronomie Française.

Now here I was, on a snowy morning in February, about to enter the hotel not as an outsider but as an insider, a thrilling prospect. After all, I told myself, anyone willing and able to pay seven hundred dollars a pop to stay overnight could walk through the Ritz's imposing place Vendôme entrance. But only those carrying an employee's identification card were allowed through the back door on rue Cambon. Still, as eager as I was to begin what seemed an adventure, the truth is I was nervous about what to expect on the other side of the door. A French security officer who would turn me away? A snooty chef who would laugh at my limited French vocabulary? Classmates who would criticize my chopping and dicing techniques? A sudden, humiliating announcement from the schools Directeur that, for undisclosed reasons, he had revoked my student status?

It was in this Kafkaesque frame of mind that I pushed open the plain unmarked door and stepped into a small vestibule. A security guard sitting in a small room behind a counter stood up and carefully gave me the once-over. Immediately his stern appraising demeanor made me think of my root canal dentist.

"Bonjour," I said with fake nonchalance, holding out my photo ID in such a way that my thumb covered any evidence of a very bad haircut. He nodded and reached for the card. I watched as he looked at it and frowned. Was it my bad haircut that offended? "Is something wrong?" I asked. His response was to look at my face and then at the photo, comparing the two. He repeated this twice. Face-then-photo. Face-then-photo. Just as I started to explain that I'd drastically altered my hairstyle-for the better-since the photo was taken, a buzzer went off. A clicking sound followed as the gate to the long basement corridor unlocked and, with a wave of his hand, the guard motioned me through.

So this was it, then, the moment when I became a part of the venerable Hotel Ritz. After descending a flight of stairs, I looked down a corridor so long I couldn't see the end of it. What I could see, however, was a small army of employees engaged in a whirlwind of activity. Fascinated, I watched as men in crisp white uniforms picked up crates containing hundreds of bottles of Evian water and florists pushed carts filled with lavish arrangements of lilies, tulips, and irises. As I moved deeper into the corridor I saw workmen carting off worn pieces of Persian rugs and cabinetmakers moving a hand-painted Chinese chest marked "For repair." Service staff carrying covered silver breakfast trays entered and exited the service elevator. Some of the employees nodded to me in a collegial way as they passed by. I nodded back, trying to conceal my excitement at witnessing all the daily routines necessary to run a world-class hotel.

I continued on through the long corridor, past the sparkling white tile and stainless-steel kitchen classrooms of the cooking school, to the locker rooms where students changed into their uniforms. After a few minutes of struggling with the key, I unlocked the door on the right marked "Women." When I opened it a blast of hot, steamy air hit me; it smelled like the warm dampness I breathed as a child when changing clothes in the locker room of the YWCA pool.

Inside the small, L-shaped room there were thirty-five bright blue lockers, a few narrow benches, and an adjoining space with a toilet, a shower stall, two sinks, and a mirror. On a small table in the corner someone had left a hair comb and a large roll of Tums-a bad omen, perhaps, to find in the locker room of a cooking school. After locating the locker assigned to me-Number 210-I opened it and saw hanging inside the uniform I'd been fitted for on the previous day. The room was empty so I began to undress quickly, hoping to finish suiting up before my classmates arrived. Call me insecure, but I preferred not to meet my colleagues for the first time wearing only my underwear.

The uniform was formidable. First, I removed the sturdy closed-toe shoes students were advised to wear and stepped out of my khaki pants. Then I pulled on a pair of heavy cotton houndstooth-check trousers. My sweater came off next. It was replaced by a starched white double-breasted chef's jacket with double rows of buttons and the name of the school embroidered in blue on the left. Then came the napkin-like neckerchief that had to be tied in a very specific way. Next, I wrapped a starched white apron around my waist, tied it in front, and then tucked a thick white side towel under the apron string on my left side. By this time I was perspiring heavily.

Finally it was time to don the flat, starched white hat worn by students. I approached the hat with some trepidation. I still had not gotten over the humiliation of being told by the sympathetic French laundress who fitted me that I would require a very large hat. "A size 21," she said sadly. "There is no larger." Also I had no idea of how to wear this hat. Pushed back on my head like a beanie with hair showing? Or pulled down over my forehead, just above the eyebrows? Either way, it was not a becoming look. I decided to wear it in the more severe position: very low on my forehead, almost to my eyebrows, with all my hair covered. Somehow, it seemed more professional that way.

I looked at my watch; it had taken twenty minutes to suit up. I made a brief detour to the mirror and stopped to stare at myself. The person staring back, the one who was supposed to resemble a culinary student, looked in fact like a Red Army nurse, circa World War II. Actually I sort of liked the look. I fancied myself as looking very much like the Hemingway heroine in A Farewell to Arms, despite the fact she wasn't Russian and the story had nothing to do with World War II.

To complete the uniform I pinned on the nametag which, I had been warned at my fitting, "should in all cases be worn every day."

With half an hour to kill I headed for the employees' cafeteria, where I was entitled to eat at a student discount. The pretty, softly lit room was almost empty, so I sat down with a cup of latte and studied the dishes we would prepare over the next four and a half hours: sole fillets with a mandarin sauce; boeuf Bourguignon, waffle potatoes, souffléed potatoes, chocolate and orange mousse. We would also learn to prepare meat glaze and demi-glace. I flipped the pages containing the recipes, trying to familiarize myself with the conversion of measurements and weights from the European metric system into its American equivalent, a daunting task. Added to that was the further hurdle presented by having the course conducted in French with simultaneous translation into English. Between the foreign metric conversion and the foreign language translation, I saw the potential for big mistakes.

Indeed I had spent the night before worrying about whether I would measure up to the standards of the Ritz Escoffier Cooking School. After all it had been more than twenty years since I'd studied classic French cooking and almost as long since I'd cooked at that level. So, to be on the safe side, I had enrolled in a course listed in the school's brochure as designed for the "beginner to intermediate student." Still, the name alone-The César Ritz Course,-named after the hotel's founder-was intimidating to someone who grew up in a Scottish household where Grandmother dragged out the Wee Scottish Cookbook when company was coming and a fancy dish like steak pie or leek soup was called for.

I worried too about meeting my nine classmates, all of whom had started the six-week course together, beginning in Week One. I, on the other hand-having neither the time nor money for the full course-chose the option of starting halfway through the course in Week Four. What this meant, of course, was that I was the New Girl in Class, subject to all the disadvantages accruing to such an identity.

Kitchens are dangerous places. Within minutes of beginning our classroom work, two students caught on fire. Or to be more precise, their long side towels caught on fire. Real chefs, it turned out, don't use potholders. When something hot has to be handled they use their sturdy side towels. Which is exactly what Bruce and Paulina were doing-removing a huge stainless-steel pot of fish stock from the gas burner-when flames erupted. The blaze was put out quickly and no one seemed concerned. Except me.


From the Hardcover edition.
Alice Steinbach|Author Q&A

About Alice Steinbach

Alice Steinbach - Educating Alice

Alice Steinbach, whose work at the Baltimore Sun was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 1985, has been a freelance writer since 1999. She was appointed the 1998-1999 McGraw Professor of Writing at Princeton University and is currently a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

Author Q&A

A Conversation With Alice Steinbach
author of
EDUCATING ALICE

Tell us what got you started writing EDUCATING ALICE. How is it different from your first book, Without Reservations?

Although I didn’t know it until after I’d written it, the first book, Without Reservations, was the story of a woman in transition, a woman who was trying to figure out what the next step in her life should be and how to take it. That woman, of course, was me. Although I sensed something stirring inside me, it took the trip and the writing of the book to confirm that I needed to move on in my career and personal life. The new book, Educating Alice, is about the same woman but this time she’s taken quite a few steps away from the old life: left her job at a newspaper where she worked for 20 years, switched from daily journalism to writing books and discovered she enjoys the semi-nomadic life.

Did you have any reservations about quitting your steady job at the Baltimore Sun and taking off on your trip?

Yes, I did. Quite a few. I was scared I’d never find another job that would fit me as well as being a reporter and worried that no one else might want to hire me if the book-writing enterprise turned out to be a disaster. But as scary as the idea of quitting was to me, I was more frightened by the idea of not doing it. This was my shot at trying to do something I’d dreamed of all my life. The timing was right — my sons were grown — so I took the chance. And I’m happy I did. It’s clear to me now that I’ve chosen a career that I can sustain and that can sustain me.

How did you choose the destinations for your trip and the lessons you took in each country?

Although from the very beginning, the premise of my book was simple — to study things I found interesting in places that interested me — it was surprisingly difficult to narrow down my choices. I did a lot of research and subscribed to such esoteric publications as “Scottish Farm Life” and “Border Collie News.” I sent away for hundreds of university brochures and talked to friends, strangers and experts on subject matter that interested me, including one of Jane Austen’s descendants in Hampshire, England. Sometimes in the middle of the night I could hear the ringing of my fax machine, promising answers from some elusive group in Cuba or Prague or Kyoto. After months of this, I made my final choices. Some of the lessons were taught in organized classes, others were learning experiences where the approach was more about teaching learnable rules in an unstructured setting.

Do you have a favorite of all the places you visited?

Not really. Each one offered its own rewards and pleasures and they were all so different that I can’t think of comparing one to the other. Having said that, I did enjoy studying very much the world of Jane Austen at Exeter University. I never tire of reading and re-reading Austen’s novels. And when you put together a great Austen professor with 26 students who adore this writer as much as I do, what you have is a room full of kindred spirits.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced along your journey and how did you overcome them?

Actually, the biggest challenge was to adjust to the role of being a student again. Learning new things — particularly in foreign countries where the culture and sometimes the language are different — adds to the essential humility that always accompanies being a student. I coped with such challenges — sometimes more successfully than others — by keeping a sense of humor at the ready and by immersing myself in the task at hand.

Aside from the skills you took away from each lesson, what did you learn about yourself and about the world?

That I love being at home in the world, not just in my native land. The more I travel, the more I feel a sense of belonging to a larger family. It is a very reassuring way to feel in a world that is increasingly splintered and fragile. But traveling as I did, studying things that are important to different cultures, the divide narrowed.

Do you think women, more than men, tend to feel stifled in their everyday lives and seek adventure and change the way you did?

I don’t think men feel less stifled than women in their day-to-day lives. The need for change during the different stages of a life is equally important to both sexes. In fact, I think in the Greek language the words “change” and “growth” are basically the same. But I do think that men, because of cultural expectations, feel less free to seek out new ways of looking at things, especially changing their work lives. But it isn’t easy for either sex to take that first step away from the life they know, the one that offers security, however boring or unchallenging.

How has this experience changed you as a person and as a writer?

For one thing, I relearned to experience the world as a child does, to enter the ticking moment fully and look with fresh eyes at even the most familiar things. It is a gift, this reclaiming of the child’s ability to enter fully into the experience at hand and to bring to it all your senses, intellect and emotions. And in my writing I try to do that as well.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“Highly recommended . . . The beauty of [Steinbach’s] narrative . . . lies in her luminous descriptions. . . . But it is her perceptive looks into the lives and minds and hearts of the people she meets through her studies that bring her settings to life and make this collection of essays truly engaging.”
–Library Journal

“Steinbach makes such a life look highly desirable. . . . Her stories are powerfully seductive to anyone who’s ever been tempted to get up and go, following interests wherever they may lead.”
Publishers Weekly

“A delicious experience . . . This book will entertain, educate and perhaps inspire readers to make their own journeys.”
-–San Francisco Chronicle

"I loved Educating Alice....Alice Steinbach may visit some of the world's most popular tourist cities but she does not follow the ordinary tourist route. Oh no! Down the back alleys Alice Steinbach goes, slipping through side doors and riding on employees-only elevators; dropping huge, slippery salmon on the floor of the Ritz Escoffier Ecole de Gastronomie Francaise and charming retired geishas into showing her their prized kimonos, wrapped in rice paper and stowed in boxes in the attic. Ms. Steinbach must be who Henry James imagined when he advised novelists to try to become 'one upon whom nothing is lost.'"
Sarah Pritchard, author of Crackpots: A Novel

“In these uncertain times, the smart thing to do is stay home and read Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman. Alice Steinbach has more fun than anybody, whether chasing sheep in Scotland, or taking cooking lessons at the Ritz in Paris, or swinging to a salsa beat in a down-at-the-heel cafe in Havanna, or taking a writing course in Prague, or studying landscape architecture in Provence, etc. etc. etc.--- Alice’s etceteras are limitless, and what all of us, surely, have always wanted to do ourselves. What is more, no matter what she does or who she sees or how hilarious the encounter, she is a lady to her toes."
Jane Geniesse, author of Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark


“A brisk and companionate tour of the Paris Ritz, ancient streets of Kyoto, the Scottish Highlands, inner Prague and Renaissance Florence, in search of the secrets of French cooking, Japanese dance, sheepherding, writing and painting. Alice Steinbach’s travel memoir serves up, in savory detail, the tricks and ingredients of these trades, even as she reveals steps in the intimate dance of an epistolary romance of her own.”
Jean McGarry, Chair of the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. For years Alice Steinbach was a reporter and columnist for the Baltimore Sun, but quit her job in order to take the journeys described in this book. In what ways is her background as a reporter evident in the way she writes and travels? In what ways has she managed to make a break from the habits of her former career in some of the adventures she describes in Educating Alice?

2. In the piece “Cookin at the Ritz,” Alice gives us a good sense of the seriousness with which the French take their cooking. Can you imagine an American equivalent to “Chef,” in the same profession or another one? Do you think it is part of our culture to hold teachers and professionals in such reverence, or is this a more old-world, traditional attitude?

3. In what ways did “Dancing in Kyoto” change your attitude toward Geishas? Alice writes that she would not want a daughter of hers to be a Geisha, and yet many Japanese see it as a highly desirable profession. Can you explain why they feel this way?

4. Alice quotes an admonition by Henry James, that a writer must be “one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” In what ways does Alice’s own writing reflect her belief in this remark? Do you think the majority of authors would subscribe to this point of view, or can you name some would probably disagree with it?

5. In The Mystery at the Old Florentine Church, Alice becomes fascinated by the story of Father Domenico’s Church. In The Unreliable Narrator, she is absorbed by the story of “Lily.” What similarities do you see in these two experiences, and what do they reveal about the way Alice travels?

6. Think about Alice’s relationship with Naohiro. Why do you think she seems to focus on it only intermittently? Do you believe she is content with it? Have you ever had a distant-yet-close relationship with someone, and do you consider overall as a positive or negative experience?

7. Most people find it lonely and sometimes frightening to travel alone. If you were given the opportunity and time to take the same trips Alice took in this book, would you go? How do you think your experiences would compare to hers?

8. After much deliberation, Alice chose the subjects she would study and the places where she would learn about them. If you had to make a comparable list of half a dozen subjects and locations for your journey, what would they be?


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