Travel vicariously via these French memoirs

“Finding My Way Back to 1950s Paris”

Beverley Lehman West

“A Long Way from Paris”

E.C. Murray

Whenever I feel stuck in a rut, I’ve found that one of the best cures is to take a trip – seeing a bit more of the world helps to put my own concerns into perspective. But when time and budget don’t allow for this, the next best thing is to pick up a book and go on a vicarious journey. This week, I’m reporting on two new memoirs that fill the bill.

Bainbridge Island writer Beverley Lehman West has traveled to Europe, and particularly Paris, many times over the last 60 years. As a youngster in San Francisco during World War II, she began saving for her first trip abroad. At age 24, she traveled across the country by train, boarded a French ocean liner, and sailed to Europe. Her mother preserved all of the letters West sent home, and those serve as the foundation for “Finding My Way Back to 1950s Paris.”

This charming book begins with West’s heady days as a single woman in post-war France. She lives in a garret, shops in the markets, writes and smokes in cafes, meets friends for drinks in some of Paris’ storied bars, pitches woo and finds work to make ends meet. From bidets to musées to escargots, she takes in everything the City of Light has to offer.

West recounts everyday life as well as extraordinary experiences. Her French grows more confident as she learns to deal with landladies and black marketeers. At the same time, she hangs out at the famous Shakespeare & Company bookstore, attending readings by scandalous novelist Henry Miller and others.

After three and a half years, West comes back to the U.S. and takes a job at the San Francisco Chronicle. But once she has the bylines and credibility to work as a freelance correspondent, she returns to Paris, sending articles back to newspapers in the United States and eventually giving readings of her own at Shakespeare & Company.

“Finding My Way Back to 1950s Paris” rambles through a lifetime of experiences, but repeatedly returns to the city along the Seine.

The other memoir is by E.C Murray. Today, she is a Fox Island-based writing instructor and publisher of a resource website for Puget Sound writers called the Writers Connection.

But in the early 1980s, Murray was a young American woman backpacking through Europe, who quickly ditched expensive Paris and hitchhiked south, looking for work so that she could afford to stay on in France for a while.

“A Long Way from Paris” recounts her jarring transformation from footloose vagabond to live-in, language-deficient goatherd for a family in the mountains of Languedoc.

The year and a half of immersion in a culture so different from her own forces Murray to confront her insecurities and grow beyond them. Gradually, she learns not only how to speak French and tend goats but how to deal with life and death up close. Flecked with humor and bittersweet candor, this account captures the essence of coming of age.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com