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Tag: reading

Books Shaping Travels – Part II

I explained last week in Part I of this post how before I left on my big trip to the Balkans in 2010, my friend Christoph came up with an idea. He wanted to give me a book that I could take, and when I was done with it I was to exchange it for a new book, and I was to do that with every book, and bring him back the last one. I loved the idea and agreed. I have told you about the first three books that took me through the first two countries, Hungary and Slovenia. Funnily enough, the next three books lasted me up until the end of my trip through nine more countries.

I couchsurfed in a lovely flat with five wonderful people in Maribor in Slovenia, and I asked them what books they could recommend for me to read that were related to their country or the Balkans in general. They came up with two suggestions: Vladimir Bartol’s Alamut and Ivo Andric’s The Bridge over the Drina. When I went to Lujbljana, after Maribor, I found the greatest English book shop in all my travels, Behemot. They happened to have copies of both books in English and I bought them without second thought. It stepped on the point of having to exchange books for one another a little bit, but I really wanted to read these two novels and exchanging books had proven difficult so far anyway.

Alamut is a novel by Slovenian author Vladimir Bartol – which is why I started with it, since I was still in Slovenia. At first sight one wouldn’t think that it had anything to do with the region. It is a story set in 11th century Persia and tells of the training of assasins in service of a political leader. It is a deeply moving story of almost epic proportions about love and friendship, sacrifice, honour, pride and deception. It would be easy to oversee the actual tie to its author, who wrote it as an allegory for Italian fascism under Mussolini, being part of the Slovene minority in Italy himself. I loved everything about the book that took me through Slovenia and Northern Croatia almost half way through Dalmatia.

Bartol: AlamutI gave away Alamut to a girl I met at a hostel in Split. I had a feeling she would appreciate it and gave it to her gladly.

Following this was the reading of something particularly special to me. I have written about the meaning I attach to Ivo Andric’s wonderful novel The Bridge over the Drina when I wrote about, well, the bridge over the Drina – because it is an actual place in Eastern Bosnia not far from the Serbian border, the magnificent Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge in Višegrad. This picture certifies it for me that I did sit on the very bridge as I finished reading the book. It was not just a dream, I truly did it.

Andric: Bridge over river Drina

Ivo Andric actually won the nobel prize for literature for this book in 1961 – even if the book was published in 1945 already. In it, he connects the fates of people living in the small town of Višegrad to the fate of the mighty bridge. The town’s life seems to circle entirely around it, and as I sat on the bridge, I wished that someone would come by and sell me a piece of water melon, like it was described in the book, so that I could try and spit the seeds as far as I could into the turquoise waters of the Drina.

I finished reading The Bridge over the Drina and couldn’t just get myself to leave it somewhere for anyone to find. Besides I needed a new one in exchange. I went back to Mostar, that city of cities to me, and saw my Canadian friend Aasa again who I had met the time I had been atround before. She knew about the book and had wanted to read it for a long time, and now the prospect of getting her hands on it excited her much. I couldn’t have found a better person to give it to. In exchange, Aasa gave me Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

West: Black Lamb and grey falconAn absolute classic in Balkan travel literature, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon has well over 1,000 pages and is a non-fiction account of a journey that Dame Rebecca West took through what then was Yugoslavia with her husband in 1937. It is a right brickstone, and quite a few people pronounced me completely whack carrying it around with me through Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, again Bulgaria, again Macedonia, and Kosovo.

I never finished the book. In fact I was not so much reading it as reading in it. I didn’t do a linear reading, chapter by chapter. Instead I went directly to parts Rebecca West had written about cities I got to know and love. I was indignant over the fact that the chapter on my beloved Mostar was so short, but I loved whenever there was talk of meeting locals and being welcomed with open arms in so many different situations. Often I marvelled at what had not changed, and sometimes I was startled by how different my own impressions were. All of the time I was thinking about how I would describe the places I read about in Rebecca West’s writing.

I left the book with my couchsurfing host in Prishtina, and Irish girl who had as desperately wanted to read it as my Canadian friend had the Ivo Andric novel. Again I am confident that I left it in good hands.

While writing this, I had completely forgotten how the story ended. I was already prepared to have to tell you now that it had just escaped my consciousness what had happened with Cristoph’s and my deal. In fact it only just came back to me that I gave Black Lamb and Grey Falcon away in Prishtina. And similarly, it just now came back to me what I brought back for Christoph. There is another fabulous little bookshop in Prishtina called Dit e Nat. It is a good place for meeting both locals and expats and the have a good selection of English books and delicious coffee – plus and unbeatable atmosphere. There, I bought an English a novel called Ministarstvo boli (The Ministry of Pain) by Croatian author Dubravka Ugrešić that I brought Christoph back to Germany. And thus it was a perfect circle – leaving with a novel in German, coming back with an English translation of a Croatian one, leaving with a book on academia, returning with one on war traumata and cultural identity.

What books in your travel has shaped your experience? Do you read when you travel?

Books Shaping Travels – Part I

Before I left on my big trip to the Balkans in 2010, I had coffee with my friend Christoph who asked me: „Which book are you taking?“ I replied: „Apart from my Lonely Planet Eastern Europe? None.“ He looked at me in utter disbelief and silence. When he found words again, he said that he couldn’t allow that to happen and came up with an idea. He wanted to give me a book that I could take, and when I was done with it I was to exchange it for a new book, and I was to do that with every book, and bring him back the last one. I loved the idea and agreed.

Now a lot of things about this plan did not work out. For one thing, Christoph never managed to get me a book before I left, so I bought one myself. It was Pascal Mercier’s novel Perlmanns Schweigen (Perlmann’s Silence). I was, and am still, in love with the same author’s work Night Train to Lisbon, and while I didn’t find Perlmann’s Silence to be quite as brilliant, it was a book I thoroughly enjoyed. It is about a linguistics professor who has run out of ideas and is trying to deal with pressure in the academic world, with his own terms of achievement and success and with language on the whole.

Mercier: Perlmann's SilenceI put Christoph’s and my name on the title page in each book, along with all the places where I’d read it. That way, when I would leave the book anywhere, people would know where the book had been and that it was connected with the bond of friendship between two people.

So Perlmann’s Silence took me through Hungary, on trains and busses between the capital Budapest, Alföld (the Great Hungarian Plain) and the beautiful Lake Balaton. In Veszprém, a gorgeous little town not far from the famous lake, I couchsurfed with a family – th only time during my entire trip. They had a beautiful house and three precious children and showed such deep heartfelt warmth towards me that I don’t think I could ever forget them. I had finished my novel and asked Gabor, the father, who spoke both English and a little German, if he’d like my book and if he had another one I could take. He gave me Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael.

Quinn: IshmaelWhat is special about it is that Gabor is the translator of this book into Hungarian. He came across it in the US, and felt it should be known to a wider public in Hungary. Ishmael consists mainly of philosophical dialogue between a nameless narrator and his teacher, a gorilla by the name of Ishmael who can communicate via telepathy. When I first heard of the plot, I wasn’t sure what to think about it, but upon reading the book, it raised questions that had me buried deep in thought. I finished it very quickly – just two stations, as you can see in the picture – and writing about it now I realise how much I would like to read it again. All the great philosophical issues of our time and maybe every time were in there: Where do we come from? Where are we going? Why did life come to be this way? It is a book that will have you contemplate your life and life as a concept, and try to place yourself as an individual in your surroundings more clearly.

Gabor had asked me to send the book back to him after reading it (although he had allowed me to write the two names and the stations of my journey in the book), so I couldn’t exchange it for another. In Maribor in Slovenia I thus went into a bookshop that had some English books and bought a novel called Guernica by Dave Boling.

Boling: GuernicaNow while I am a big fan of historical events brought to me in literature, I am not a big fan of people from a completely other culture doing it. Dave Boling is American, and to be honest I haven’t bothered researching how he came to write about that famous Basque city that was bombed by the Germans during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. While I found the novel enjoyable on the whole, I couldn’t quite take the sentiment as seriously as I could have if the author had been from Spain (if not from the Basque country!). It was a quick and easy read though. I left the book in Koper in an internet cafe – I had bought the next one in one of the greatest English bookshops I have ever been to in Ljubljana, and I will talk about it in part 2 of the Books that shaped my Travels.

Date a Girl Who Writes

Date a girl who writes. Date a girl whose hands are smeared with ink from the pen that she loves to write with, but that keeps leaking. She may not have a perfect French manicure because those long nails would always splinter when she spends nights on her computer typing. But with these hands of hers, she has created whole worlds in her writing that she will take you to if you want her to.

Find a girl who writes. You will spot her by her big eyes looking eagerly at the world, and you will see her stopping and staring at something beautiful, mouth wide open, lost to the world, in awe of something she just experienced. You will feel like you can see cogs turning in her head. That is her thinking about how she could phrase what she just saw so that everyone would be able to feel what she just felt. Maybe she will take out a little dodgy looking notebook with lots of dog-ears and scribble something into it. Maybe she will look up, think, and then sit down in sight of the thing that caught her attention, and repeatedly note down stuff in her book, smiling absent-mindedly.

CIMG9695Date a girl who writes. She will always find beauty in the things around her because she will always look for something that she can shape in the amazingness that is language. She knows that things are of a greater truth when she can share them with her words. She knows that phrasing her encounters will add a depth to the experience. She knows humility because she has met the boundaries of language and felt the gigantic silence that occurs when the world is too big for an expression, when words can never suffice. Date a girl who writes because she will know exactly when to speak and when to keep silent.

A girl who writes will be a girl who reads. She will see storylines in her life and in the lives of others around her, because she has come to know them from her favourite books and wants to put them in writing herself more often than not. Date a girl who wants to see Kafka’s Prague, Joyce’s Dublin and Dickens’ London. She’s the girl who is longing to go to Russia because she wants to see the wide landscapes she holds dear to her heart ever since reading Doktor Zhivago. She’s also the girl who wants to see Colombia because she cried when she read One Hundred Years of Solitude and wants to live the magic that the novel foretold. She even wants to travel to Afghanistan, enchanted by the beauty that the country must once have held and that she’s read about in The Kite Runner.

Date a girl who writes. She has been through struggles with herself and knows that conflict is an important part of life both inside of yourself and with others. She has fought her own wars inside her mind, battling “impressed” versus “in awe”, battling “ecstatic” versus “elated”, battling all shades of colours and all tones of sound that language can express. Date a girl who writes because she will touch all of your senses with language and with her entire being.

Don’t just tell her that she’s beautiful, funny, or smart. Tell her instead that her beauty is that of a red leaf on a golden autumn day being carried by the wind through the streets of a big city. Tell her that she makes you laugh until your tummy hurts. Tell her that her wits make her a female version of Odysseus. Allow her to be part of a creative metaphor. Baffle her with your eloquence. Understand her need for precise vocabulary. Write letters to her. Read her novels and poems. Point out song lyrics that you liked.

Date a girl who writes. She will always share with you what she thinks it is that makes life worthwhile. She will bring beauty, laughter and depth to your life. She strives for a life that is never boring, and with her, yours won’t be either. Listen to what she has to tell you and I promise, it will be worth your time, if only for the sound of the words that she will carefully choose to make you understand exactly what she is trying to say.

Know that you will never have her for yourself. You will always have to share her with her love for the world, with her passion for life, and with her need to be by herself so that she can form words and stories in her mind without being distracted. She and you will never be exclusive – she will always be in love with places, because they make the setting; with people, because they make characters; and with feelings, because they are what makes everything come alive.

One day you will say something to her, and she will startle, look you in the eye, smile and say “That is beautiful.” If you find what you said scribbled on a post-it note and pinned to the wall above her desk the next day, next to quotes by Hemmingway and Mark Twain, you will know you’ve won her heart.

This post, as many will have guessed, is inspired by Date a Girl Who Reads by Rosemarie Urquico and Date a Girl Who Travels by Solitary Wanderer. Maybe all three kinds of girls are really the same thing.