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THE CRITICS ON ONCE AROUND THE FOUNTAIN

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Alan Behr reveals himself as well as his destinations.

By Jack Severson

Alan Behr is a marvelously talented travel writer, masquerading as a Manhattan intellectual property lawyer. Several of his travel articles have appeared in the pages of this section and, if we have our way, there will be more.

Until then, however, readers can content themselves with Behr's new book, Once Around the Fountain (Welcome Rain Publishers, $25), a memoir - for want of a better term - of the peripatetic lawyer's European travels.

Behr is a stylish and graceful writer who employs his wry humor and keen observer's eye to reveal as much - sometimes more - about himself as about the people and places he encounters in his wanderings.

People are always important in Behr's writings. Desk clerks, taverna owners, seatmates on planes and trains, the Budapest hotel maid he beds one idle afternoon early in his traveling career - all are employed by the writer to peel off the complex layers of a destination visited for the first time.

The most important of those people, however, is the woman who would become his wife and traveling partner, Julie. From the anecdotal evidence Behr provides, it is clear that the two are terrific traveling companions - and very much in love. As my wife reminds me from time to time, travel, with the stresses and unexpected problems that can crop up, is a true test of a relationship. Behr and his wife certainly pass the test, and it is a delight to share their experiences on the road, despite the almost obligatory, occasional speed bump.

Both Manhattanites, neither has ever owned a car, although they have driver's licenses. So, Behr's recounting of a rental-car jaunt in the Netherlands - Behr at the wheel, Julie navigating - becomes a scenario worthy of a segment of TV's Absolutely Fabulous. "We were following a meandering route that would require two days to travel from Maastricht to Amsterdam, though a highway drive could have put us there before lunch. We missed some turns, and Julie, trying her best with the map, advised a few dicey maneuvers. After I had executed one of them, she wondered aloud, 'Where would we be without U-turns?'

" 'Belgium,' I reminded her."

It's great fun to travel with the two of them as they develop schemes like "Italy on the Half Price," wherein, using Julie's beauty to distract Italian guards, they would gain admission for two to a museum while purchasing only one ticket.

In the book's poignant epilogue - written before Sept. 11, but certainly applicable now - Behr informs us that his wife was diagnosed with a serious illness, requiring surgery. While recuperating in the hospital, she and the author discuss their next trip. She settles on a European skiing trip that winter. Behr thinks it's too soon, his wife will still be in treatment.

"Julie's hazel eyes are firm, but they melt into an imploring, earnest stare, as if to say, 'I need this.' I believe she does. . . .

"Travel is about nothing if it is not about enjoying all the good that life can give you, because as long as you can get up, crawl up, or get picked up and carried over the next ridge, there is a chance you will get more out of your life than if you stay where you are. Travel, in the end, is about life, and all of life is a fleeting sneer at death.

" 'Switzerland?' I ask Julie again.

" 'Ski trip.'

"I nod. 'I'll look into it.'

" 'We're doing it,' she says.

"And damn it, we did."

And Julie and Alan Behr are still traveling.

MORE REVIEWS OF ONCE AROUND THE FOUNTAIN

This is a totally engaging book on the romance of travel, literally and figuratively, written by a wonderfully talented observer with a wickedly self-deprecating, acerbic wit.

-Newsday

Imagine a modern-day, and amusing, Henry James. Alan has produced that rare memoir through which readers learn not just about the author but about the wider world.

-The South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Everybody loves a love story. A lot of people just have trouble admitting it. Case in point: the juggernaut of American book publishing and marketing, which requires that those rare, first-person love stories written by men fit neatly into some other genre, any other genre. That's a shame, for author Alan Behr's search for his true love, and the discoveries he makes along the way, are rich with the gold of insight into human nature. . . . Let's not be embarrassed to call it a romance.

-Chicago Tribune

If you enjoy a different type of travel book, perhaps one with some sex and sex appeal, try this new publication by Mr. Behr, a New York lawyer-writer-photographer.

-The Cincinnati Enquirer

[Alan Behr] writes about journeys with Julie in a personal, anecdotal way, full of impressions and encounters with locals and fellow travelers. He's very good, writing so that readers feel as though they are with him. And this memoir is terrific. . . . This is a love story with a sense of humor and place.

-The New Orleans Times-Picayune