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How Travel Made Me a Writer
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Barbara Sjoholm arrived in London in the winter of 1970 at the age of twenty. Like countless young Americans in that tumultuous time, she wanted to leave a country at war and explore Europe; a small inheritance from her grandmother gave her the opportunity.
Over the next three years, she lived in Barcelona, hitchhiked around Spain, and studied at the University of Granada. She managed a sourvenir shop in the Norwegian mountains and worked as a dishwasher on the Norwegian Coastal Steamer. Set on becoming a writer, she read everything from Colette to Dickens to Borges, changing her style and her subject every few weeks, and gradually found her voice. Incognito Street is the story of a young woman's search for artistic, political, and sexual identity while digesting the changing world around her.
As she sheds the ghosts of her childhood, we come to know her quiet yet adventurous spirit. In moments that are tender, funny, bewildering, and suspenseful, we see an evocative look at Europe through the blossoming writer’s maturing eyes.
A FEW TEARS of farewell were still damp on my face as I settled into my window seat on the charter flight from Los Angeles to London one morning in December. Just beyond the tarmac, palms rustled with expectation in the artificial wind of takeoffs and landings. It was 1970 and I was twenty, on my way to spend two months in Europe. I’d just said a wrenching goodbye to my boyfriend, Rob, and now wondered if I’d done the right thing.
An actor and a mime, Rob excelled at dramatic attitudes and soulful expressions. Back when we were both acting in high school, our drama teacher was always reminding him that he was not the lead (he was too short), and he should not always be trying to upstage the rest of us. This morning he’d been nerve-rackingly silent driving me from the tiny seaside apartment in Long Beach that we shared with his magician friend Jeff. Silent and radiating misery and disapproval. You’re always going away, his pale, tense hands on the wheel seemed to say, mime-like. And that was true: I was always trying to gather up enough escape velocity to leave him and California.
Two years ago I’d flown up to Seattle to attend the University of Washington. Last year I’d worked in Germany for several months. Even when we’d tried settling together in Monterey at the beginning of this year, I’d bounced constantly around Northern California, visiting friends and demonstrating against the war in Vietnam. Rob, meanwhile, had been offered a job at the newly fledged South Coast Repertory Theater back in Southern California. His career was beginning to thrive and he wanted me around to support him. Now, just when he thought we were back on track, I was leaving again. I’d be spending two weeks in London, two weeks in Paris, and then I’d meet my friend Laura for a month in Spain.
“I need to do this,” I’d told him. “It will help me as a writer.”
To that, he’d said nothing. Rob no longer believed in me—as an actor, an artist, or a writer—though he thought I could still be his muse. In high school he’d praised my painting and acting. He’d loved my poetry. Now, immersing himself in Beckett and Pinter, he found everything I attempted too wordy, too girlish, too predictable. It had been a long time since I’d finished a poem or a story, a long time since I’d attempted one.
Rob wouldn’t look at me as he drove through the heavy freeway traffic, or as we sat holding hands in the terminal, but just before I was to board the plane, his black-lashed green eyes filled and he whispered in his slightly stagy deep voice how much he loved me. He urged me to make the most of my trip and to return to him as soon as I could. “If you don’t like it over there, come back sooner. You don’t have to stay two months if you’re homesick. I’ll be here, longing for you,” he reminded me, pressing me to him fiercely.
Once, I’d lived for such moments, entranced by the sense of being so utterly adored, so completely desired. But more recently I’d begun to feel that our life together was a play that I watched from the audience. I could never be sure whether Rob was acting or not, or what he really felt about me. If he loved me, if we were the soul mates he claimed we were, why had he been unfaithful so often? Why had he so rarely written me when I was away from home and so often ignored me when I was around? Rob had become a very good actor because he believed in himself. He was determined to become a leading man, in art as well as life. I’d learned I could never be the heroine in our play; in fact, I felt more and more like the girl tied to the train tracks in a Victorian melodrama. No one was going to untie the ropes for me. I’d have to do it myself, before I was crushed.
“The time will pass quickly,” I said. “You’ll be so busy at the theater. And you know, I can’t really disappoint Laura. She’s working two jobs to save up enough money to join me.”
It wouldn’t have occurred to Rob to be jealous of Laura, even though he knew I found her attractive. So did he. He had no idea, when I said I wanted to travel to Europe to find myself as a writer, that I was also dreaming of being alone with Laura. I’d told him nothing about what had happened between the two of us a few months ago in September. If he could keep secrets, so could I.
Rob was only a little taller than me; his muscular body had the comforting smell of family, and his damp green eyes looked so innocent and lost that I almost turned back right there, almost said, “I made a mistake. Let’s go home.” I’d known him since I was seventeen. I couldn’t bear the moment of saying goodbye to those I cared about; it felt so final, so death-like.
“I’ll miss you every day and I’ll be back before you know it,” I promised, before I reluctantly boarded the plane in tears.
The plane gained altitude, the palms and airport fell away, and then the endless city and even the churning cold green Pacific, and suddenly we shot through the dirty winter cloud cover into the radiant blue above. I pulled out my traveling book—the only book I’d brought with me, and for some time my favorite companion—Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, a thick paperback by R. H. Blyth. An English scholar once tutor to an emperor’s son, Blyth had published this compendium of quotes from Basho, Wordsworth, Cervantes, and a hundred others, with his own commentary. I’d picked it up in Monterey out of curiosity, at a time when everyone around me was reading Alan Watts and going off for sitting retreats at the new Buddhist center in Tassajara.
I didn’t understand Zen, but that was the point. It stopped me from brooding hopelessly on the confusion in my life; it snapped me into attention.
I opened the book’s dog-eared pages at random and read:
For long years a bird in a cage;
Now, flying along with the clouds of heaven.
I arrived in London wearing a black felt hat and a long black coat, already threadbare, both purchased at a St. Vincent de Paul thrift store in Monterey. I had a blue vinyl suitcase and the outlines of a plan. A few months before, I’d heard from my father that a portion of my grandmother’s small legacy of $4,000, held in trust until I was twenty-one, could be used for educational purposes. With this lure, my father hoped to persuade me to drop my hippie lifestyle and return to college.
But I had other ideas. To me, education was seeing the world, traveling and living in foreign countries. For six years I’d studied French, the last three under the judicious eye of Mr. Heidelberg, who taught us English grammar while escorting us through the writings of Voltaire and Montaigne. I’d discovered Colette last year as well as Dostoyevsky, Knut Hamsun, Henry Miller, and Anaïs Nin. Almost every writer I admired was either European or had gone to Europe to become a writer, beginning with Betsy Ray of the Betsy-Tacy books. As a child, long before I was familiar with Henry James, I’d read Betsy and the Great World and could recite by heart Betsy’s explanation of why she, as a young woman writer, had had to leave college and head to Europe in 1914:
“Guided tours are all right for some people, but not for a writer. I ought to stay in just two or three places. Really live in them, learn them. Then if I want to mention London, for example, in a story, I would know the names of the streets and how they run and the buildings and the atmosphere of the city. I could move a character around in London just as though it were Minneapolis.”
Last year, under the sway of Rilke’s poetry and the notion that I wanted to read Das Buch der Bilder in the original German, I’d gotten myself to Düsseldorf, where my college roommate had relatives who’d promised to find me a job. I’d expected to work a couple of months and then travel to France and Spain on my wages; unfortunately, the job they found for me was as a maid in a women’s residence run by Lutherans and filled with dental hygiene students. I did learn a great deal of German, but I never saved enough to get much beyond the Rhineland. This time, I resolved, I’d really see some of Europe. I’d visit museums and historical sites, polish up my French, learn Spanish, and, most importantly, get the feel of a place. The first month I’d explore London, Paris, and Barcelona. Then Laura would join me and we’d hitchhike our way around Spain. I’d bought a one-way ticket to London, since that was cheapest. I wasn’t sure where I’d be returning from.
The first three days in London I stayed at a student hostel in working-class Kilburn, on a busy street of betting shops, launderettes, and Wimpy burger restaurants, where the fog reeked of coal and oily fish-and-chips, and the mornings tasted of strong, milky tea and bacon and beans. I caught a cold from my habit of walking from morning to night in the sleet and drizzle, returning only to feed shillings into the small heater after dark and to huddle up in my under-blanketed bed. One morning after a breakfast of lukewarm boiled egg and cold toast, I got talking with a French boy at the table. Pierre was also of an ecstatic turn of mind and noticed I was reading a book about William Blake.
Est-ce que vous aimez la poésie, mademoiselle?
Oui, oui. Rimbaud? Baudelaire?
I accompanied him to his tiny private room, where, amidst a jungle of wet underwear hanging from two lines stretched from window to bedpost, he read me the poems of Jacques Prévert, in French. In return I read him snatches of Basho from Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. He suggested that we save money by rooming together and that when I was in Paris I stay with him for free. I agreed.
That evening, panicking, I took the tube out of Kilburn and moved into the YWCA on Great Russell Street, in Bloomsbury, just a few blocks away from the British Museum. I never thought to leave a note for the French poetry lover; in those days the only way I knew to say no was to flee.
Large black umbrellas crowded Charing Cross Road and Tottenham Court Road as people pushed politely past me, an urban crush I’d never seen before. Once, in my childhood, the downtown streets of Long Beach had been busy at all times of the day, women in hats and gloves, men in suits and shined shoes; but that had long given way to the vast, empty sidewalks and boulevards of suburbs designed for the automobile. London’s tube stations had their own dirt-sweet underground smells, and the cars themselves, rumbling purposefully far below the accumulation of history above, were nose-rich with rubber boots, dripping umbrellas, and the newsprint plastered in front of every face.
The city was filthy with history, as if too busy with commerce and knowledge to tidy or organize itself; it simply accreted layers, like a fantastic metropolis of barnacles attached to the banks of the Thames. Between the postwar office and government buildings crept narrow alleys and courtyards where a pub from the eighteenth century might still hang out a wooden sign or a secondhand bookshop, the size of an American bathroom, displayed in its bow window books on travel or the theater. Off any busy thoroughfare you might find yourself in a crooked warren of cobbled lanes that smelled of newly baked currant buns or sausage rolls.
Friends had asked me why I would want to go to London in winter, but London in winter was thrillingly foggy and damp. Through the pervasive, throat-choking mist, shops decorated with holly and berries or with swags of ribbon and wreaths glimmered under ornate street lamps. Poulterers offered turkeys and geese; butchers, suckling pigs and lamb in frilled collars; bakers filled their windows with mince pies and plum puddings. Bells jingled when you opened shop doors. The mood in the theaters was festive, as people traveled into London, dressed up in velvet and satin, and whispered expectantly before the curtain rose. I saw pantomimes and puppet shows, Maggie Smith in a Restoration comedy, and two different productions of Twelfth Night. Every day in London, especially now that I was out of Kilburn and into Bloomsbury, I felt enveloped in a world that was familiar as it was completely foreign. I bought a brolly early on at a shop completely devoted to umbrellas, and a wool scarf and mittens at Covent Garden. I bought a flannel nightgown at Marks & Spencer and a large, black-bound notebook of blank pages from a crumpled old impatient clerk with half glasses at a law stationer’s near Lincoln’s Inn Court. It was a dusty, dim shop that seemed to go back centuries, an older inventory of inkwells, pens, deeds, diaries, and leather-bound ledgers in which to enter accounts by hand existing side-by-side with the latest-style adding machines and electric typewriters. After I bought the notebook I went immediately to a steamy-windowed café on Chancery Lane, ordered tea and a buttered Bath bun, and began to write. I now discarded the drugstore-bought, spiral-bound journal I’d brought with me and began again, in a more determinedly poetic and artistic way, to capture London. I attempted sketches and notations differently from the first journal attempts, which had consisted of a variety of excited run-on sentences and conversions from dollars to pounds.
In my descriptions of the city, in which “Dickensian” is used an alarming number of times, I can see now that I immediately edited out the fish-and-chips shops and launderettes of Kilburn, as well as the Chinese restaurants and girlie shows of Soho where I’d spent an evening wandering with my new friends from the YWCA, the teacher from Trinidad, and the Greek American girl from New Jersey. I edited out the Indian restaurant across the street from the Y and the comic-book shop and described only the secondhand bookshops along Great Russell Street and Coptic Street and the approach to the British Museum. I never walked down a main road if I could help it or visited anything so tacky as Madame Tussauds, the Tower of London, or even Abbey Road or Carnaby Street, preferring all that was “shabby” and “begrimed” and “obscure,” or “drenched in history” and “history-laden,” or “stately,” “sumptuous,” and “imposing.”
I saw what I wanted to see and described only that, often in fragments: “White wigs like poodles at courtroom of Old Bailey”; “Coal soot blackens the brick. Smell of coal, slightly sweet”; “The Thames and its bridges, a harsh sleety wind makes me hang on to my hat.” On my own, walking miles every day, I sought out glimpses of the past in order to describe them: “ragamuffin man selling hot chestnuts: ‘here, luv,’ he tells me. ‘Only a shilling now’”; “Victoria Station swirled in fog as man in bowler hat goes past and bumps me with his long, furled umbrella: ‘So sorry, miss.’” How I would have loved to see rats and sewage in the cobbled streets, pigs squealing, Cockneys cursing, costermongers, hot eel men, and street sweepers. How I would have liked the fog to be that ghastly yellow color under the gas lamps; how I would have liked to hear the rattle of broughams through Hyde Park.
Instead, I had to use my imagination to transform London’s grimy dark brick buildings, its winding lanes that led to larger and more modern streets, its curious squares with names like Neal’s Yard, lined with odd little shops, into the setting for a pilgrimage that could be both my own story (young woman heiress arrives in Europe to become writer) and one that had a Dickensian flavor. By which I meant, I think, a story rich with incident and character and imbued with that peculiar vividness of Charles Dickens that makes his fiction more real than reality. To remind me of what I was experiencing, I pasted postcards into my notebook and made small drawings. I drew people with umbrellas queuing outside the Strand Theatre; I sketched pub fronts, one with an enlivening sign for COURAGE, never realizing that Courage was an ale.
Although my descriptions were thin, I was sure that when the time came for me to write about London, to set a story there, I’d have no trouble at all evoking its atmosphere. “Snow fell lightly on the dark brick house in an old part of the city that had hardly changed since the days of Dickens. . . .” Such sentences were already in my mind: All that remained was to find a story to tell that would allow me to use as many of the following words and phrases as possible: fog, soot, Chancery Lane, coal fire, antiquity, haunts, bygone days, a stately old mansion forgotten by time, a quaint old bookshop on a lane unchanged by the passing of the years.
The London I discovered that December, the London I superimposed over the city, was familiar from all the Dickens novels I’d read the summer I was fourteen, staying with my grandmother, Faith Lane. My father and stepmother had shipped me and my younger brother off to Battle Creek, Michigan, in part because Grandma Lane wanted to see us and had bought the plane tickets, in part to give our stepmother, Bettye, a break from the strenuous task of disciplining us, a job she’d taken seriously over the last year and a half.
Although we hadn’t been to Battle Creek for some years, since before our mother died, Grandma Lane’s house had a known and secure feeling. The soapy scent of damp laundry seeped up from the cellar to mingle with the shades-drawn, lace-curtained, old-lady smell of the front parlor with its piano and doily-pinned horsehair furniture, with the humid breath of the Midwestern summer, only slightly moderated by breezes in the huge elms out front on North Broad Street. My grandmother rose at four, as she had her whole life. After she’d read the Christian Science Daily Lesson, and selections from the Bible and Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health, she had breakfast and sometimes made bread or biscuits, or pie from the abundant cherries on the tree out back; she did this while the air was still cool, and while we slept, so that when we got up, always late, the old-fashioned kitchen smelled deliciously of warm sugar and butter and fruit.
My grandmother prayed for a living. She prayed for those who suffered in body and spirit, who had come to her to be healed. As a Christian Science practitioner, praying was her work, and she was good at it. Sometimes people, troubled in mien, downcast and worried, appeared at the screen door, asking for Faith or Mrs. Lane. Sometimes a man moving haltingly with a cane or a young woman carrying a colicky baby was ushered into her small study at the front of the house and spent an hour with her. I could hear the rise and fall of anguished voices gradually calming, juxtaposed with my grandmother’s always firm, often bossy tone: “Now, Thomas, sit up straight. Do you think God has any interest in seeing you suffer? Do you think that our Father-Mother is that sort of a God? He’s certainly not. As God is perfect, so we are perfect. We are the children of God; He made us perfect. You are in error when you believe there is anything wrong with you.” I heard her on the phone too, alternatingly berating and calming in that strong, certain voice: “God is love. God will heal you. You are healed.”
A few years before, when Grandma Lane was much at our house in Long Beach, I used to hate that firm voice bullying my mother and demanding that she heal herself. Although no one mentioned my mother’s breast cancer or the suicide attempt that had left her lower face burned and scarred, it was plain she was suffering in body and mind. I always took my mother’s part when my grandmother told her she needed to get hold of herself. I saw how the hectoring never helped, how it only undermined my mother’s fitful emotional and physical strength in the face of cancer and mental distress.
But at fourteen, with my mother dead two years, the loss of her still unbearable, and unbearable too the new torments I’d come to know through my stepmother, I clung to my grandmother. Grandma Lane seemed the only trustworthy adult in my life. She was seventy-one, as strong as a horse, solid in her beliefs and solid in her person, with heavy shoes, a full bosom, a small hat with a veil for church, and a cameo brooch at her neck. When I was a baby she’d delighted in me, and all through my childhood presents came regularly, books and clothes from Marshall Field’s in Chicago, and dolls that I didn’t care for as a tomboy. Then, at ten and eleven, I’d resisted her authority in the house, and we’d quarreled daily. According to my father, Grandma Lane was the stubbornest woman he’d ever met. “She could wear down a stone,” he said. It was commonly agreed I was a close second for stubbornness. For I would not be worn down.
The summer I was fourteen, my grandmother shouted at me from time to time, but for the most part she considered me a hopeless adolescent and left me alone. I was dreamy and lazy, never lifted a finger to help her or showed any interest in learning from her, not how to bake bread or make a cherry pie, not how to tat or crochet. Half the time I didn’t even make the bed and left my clothes in a heap on the floor. I could never be persuaded to study the Daily Lesson, though I did go to the enormous Christian Science church on Church Street a few blocks away on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings.
At home in Long Beach the atmosphere was angry, tainted, furtive, and sad. Here it was calm and orderly. At home my stepmother monitored me feverishly and often confined me to my room for the least infraction; my grandmother, although she grumbled, never punished. If not entirely benevolent, she was always fair and often kind. Perhaps she felt she’d punished her own children too often, to no success. Her daughter was dead of cancer; her son lived most of the time in the VA hospital nearby, diagnosed schizophrenic.
My younger brother found friends his age in the neighborhood and was often at their houses or down the block at the park, and I sometimes went canoeing and swimming with a girl in the church who lived on a lake, but most of the time I was happiest doing nothing. It irritated my grandmother that I woke at noon, and slouched off to my art class, and lounged around the parlor reading constantly, but she let me be. When she got really irritated, she’d organize an expedition for us with friends, or she’d say sternly, “Get out of the house. Go to the library!”
This wasn’t punishment, for I loved my slow, hot walk down Church Street, over the river, to Willard Library; I loved the delicious smell of books in rows and the fact that I was no longer confined to the children’s section but was now that wonderful thing, as a reader if not in the world: An Adult. I was a voracious, undisciplined reader, though I’d started late, at seven. The sad times of my mother’s long illness had sent me to the imaginary world of books; I looked less for answers than for another world to live in, if only for a few hours. I took no recommendations, and few were offered. I found all the books I liked to read myself, and that meant fairy tales, poetry, Ogden Nash along with Emily Dickinson, Ballet Shoes and My Friend Flicka mixed in with Hawthorne, Twain, and Alcott. At twelve I grew interested in history, at thirteen I started to read plays, at fourteen, long Victorian novels. If I had any guide, it was the list of Modern Classics on the inside back cover of the dust jackets of the books published by Random House. I was convinced that if I read War and Peace, I would understand everything there was to know about living, and tried that summer I was fourteen, but I couldn’t make it through the first chapter, so packed with Russian names.
Instead I decided I would read all of Dickens. We’d studied David Copperfield in school a year earlier; my grandmother had a copy of that and The Old Curiosity Shop in small—smaller than a paperback—editions. They were bound in brown leather and the pages were thin and white as the wings of night moths. The copyright was 1912. I read them first and then moved on to the library editions of Great Expectations, Little Dorrit, Nicholas Nickelby, Hard Times, and Bleak House. On the simplest level I took heart in how the downtrodden eventually triumphed over those who oppressed them. In Dickens’ novels cruel and grasping adults had absolute power over children, often abandoned or orphaned, only for a little while; eventually the children grew up. The evil adults who had tormented them almost always came to a bad end. The children found their true parents, or partners, and became, though sometimes in complex and subdued ways, content and happy, or at least adults in their own rights.
A few years before, the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen had told me the same story, had given me the same hope. Like Andersen, Dickens helped me understand, so much better than the Christian Science teachings, which constantly emphasized that the world was perfect—it was we who just didn’t see it—that the world was a heartless, often unjust place but one in which goodness and justice prevailed in the end. Yet that summer of Dickens in Battle Creek was more than just a fictional reenactment of my yearning to see my stepmother crushed and my father repent of his hasty marriage. To read Dickens, to read novel after novel of Dickens, was to live in a world that seemed more real than my own. It didn’t matter that I was lying on the horsehair sofa, or bent over the kitchen table, or sitting in a hard chair at Willard Library among the stacks. I was in a London so real it was as if I walked with Little Dorrit across the bridge to the Marchelsea to visit her father in debtor’s prison, as if I followed the closemouthed solicitor Mr. Tulkinghorn through eerie gaslit lanes in search of Mr. Krook’s rag-and-bottle shop. The novels of Dickens offered the same pleasures of favorite children’s books: They enabled me to stop living my own life, to forget about my own life, and to live somewhere else.
One August afternoon toward the end of my stay, my grandmother came into the kitchen where I was reading. “Dickens again,” she said and sat down, the soft bulk of her, in the wooden chair. She had thin white hair in a bun, a big nose, blue eyes; she wore a flowered cotton dress, neatly pressed, with a starched apron. She smelled of cold cream and ironing. To me, she had always looked and smelled exactly the same.
- On Sale
- Apr 7, 2015
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Seal Press