June 14, 2007
One of my favorite books that I’ve read recently was Incognito Street: How Travel Made Me a Writer by Barbara Sjoholm. It’s a memoir of her time in Europe, particularly Spain and Norway (Morocco, London, and Paris also play a role).
Twenty in 1970, Sjoholm flew from L.A. to London to begin two months in Europe. To friends and family, she always seemed to be going away. In this entertaining if somewhat overlong memoir, she says that was the way she liked it. She took every opportunity to experience someplace new and different. She believed travel would help her grow as a writer, but the pleasure of traveling most appealed to her. Restless, insatiably curious, she wanted to do anything and everything.
She reached London in winter; it was “thrillingly foggy and damp.” Then it was off to Paris, which offered too much of a good thing: “In Paris it was almost impossible not to desire more.” Barcelona, Valencia, Granada, Seville, Cordoba, Madrid, and Rome followed. She wound up in Norway, working as a maid and then a “ship girl” (a glorified title for a dishwasher) on a cargo and passenger ship, Kong Olav. She learned about other cultures, about what it means to be a writer, and most of all, about herself.
It’s an intensely personal book but manages to maintain a conversational tone – she doesn’t take herself too seriously and isn’t afraid to admit to her flaws, but manages to convey her emotions extremely well. I’ll admit that I probably enjoyed the book more because I traveled to many of the same places at a similar age, but it’s beautifully written and anyone who’s looking for a inspiring travel book should pick it up.
It was also one of the only books I’ve reread – I rarely read a book more than once but this one I wanted to savor, to pick up on the little things that you miss the first time around.