June 16-18, 2008
Chicago à Philadelphia à London à Paris
In This Week:
US Airways Madness and Serendipity
Paris 11:00PM June 18th
Well, I am going around the WORLD!! Always going forwards, never backwards, and continually east until I end up right back in my familiar apartment at 722 Clark St., Evanston, Illinois. Following American fiction and poetry as it makes its way through countless hands and minds – publishing houses, bookstores, book clubs, literature festivals, and classrooms. Exploring western European, Maghrebi, Indian and Chinese culture through their transformation and reception of American books, and ultimately discerning America’s place in the literary world – and, by extension, its place in the minds and hearts of ordinary people (not necessarily literati) everywhere.
After leaving Evanston at approximately 10AM for what should have been a flight to Philadelphia, with a connecting flight to Paris. Due to an east coast storm, my flight from Chicago was delayed, and I arrived in Philadelphia at 6:05PM, ten minutes prior to the scheduled departure time for my 6:15PM flight to Paris. With two other somewhat desperate Francophiles by my side, I ran from my arrival gate to the international terminal with the hope of finally realizing my dream of flying to Paris – I looked forward to the French-speaking stewards and stewardesses, the French flight updates and safety warnings, and all the perfunctoriness of air travel made totally new by the switch to French. Well, unfortunately, I arrived with my two comrades to an empty gate, and we were told unsympathetically that the plane to Paris had just left. Though my hopes of arriving in Paris by Tuesday morning were dashed, I was to take a late-night flight to London with a connecting flight to Paris. The US Airways clerk, frustratedly trying to re-rout me, asked harriedly, “When is your flight back from Paris?” I said, “never,” and he laughed, “good answer.”
While waiting, I struck up a conversation with one of my two unfortunate Francophile comrades. He managed airplane engine repair companies, one of which was based in Paris. He has traveled all over the world – Germany, Singapore, Japan, Australia, you name it – to supervise these companies. When I told him about my project, he suggested visiting Shakespeare & Co., the famous bookshop on the rue de la bûcherie in Paris. He said he goes there often – I probably will, as well – and I will probably run into him. Shakespeare & Co. actually just held a much publicized literary festival – so he told me – featuring internationally renowned authors, translators, and critics. Among them were Paul Auster, Amélie Nothomb (a bestselling French author), and André Schiffrin (who wrote a book on the international publishing industry, a book which quickly became my primary resource as I was preparing for this project). If Schiffrin is still in Paris, perhaps I can get his contact information from the folks at Shakespeare & Co.
I was reading Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters on the plane to London, and it only made me more excited. Casanova acknowledges Paris’s place as the world’s cultural and literary capital, a “counterpart in the social order to what Vesuvius is in the geographic order: a menacing, hazardous massif, an ever-active hotbed of revolution…[a] uniquely fertile ground for the blossoming of art, festivity, fashion.” Casanova acknowledges Paris’ place as an imagined world: “I did not come to Paris as a foreigner, but as someone who goes on a pilgrimage to the innermost landscapes of his own dreams.” It made me think of The Yacoubian Building – a bestselling Egyptian novel that was assigned in one of my classes last quarter. One of the novel’s main characters talks continually of nostalgia for Paris – he is Egyptian, but he grew up there and misses it terribly. Paris’ imagined splendor is far-reaching, encompassing Egypt and beyond.
I arrived in Paris and was picked up by Mireille Grandval, a spirited, garrulous French middle-school teacher of Greek, Latin, and French literature. I will stay with her in the southern end of Paris (14e arrondissement, near Montparnasse) for my first week here. Mireille speaks very quickly, and I sometimes have trouble keeping up, but, as she told me, “vous débrouillez bien avec la langue” (you’re getting along fine with the language). Mireille and her husband, Hubert, speak nothing but French, and I am getting a useful immersion into the language and culture. Everything in Mireille’s home – the television, radio, food, talk – is so very, very French. I think writing this is the first time I’ve encountered English in my first few days here. I’ve even started talking to myself in French. It’s strange how quickly a language can infiltrate your consciousness. It will be weird to go back to speaking English after three weeks here.
The 14e arrondissement – Mireille’s neighborhood – is famed for Montparnasse, a small borough where a number of well-known American expatriates once lived and worked. Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and others all once patronized the cafés of Montparnasse. Many of these literary luminaries are interned at the large Montparnasse cemetery. Though Mireille does live in the 14e arrondissement, her home is located below Montparnasse, and just about at the border between Paris and the outlying suburbs. Mireille lives in a three-bedroom apartment above a café on the rue d’Alésia, a street lined with boucheries (butcher shops), cafés, and other small restaurants and such. Interestingly, the street is named for a French military defeat, the Battle of Alesia, when Caesar laid siege to the Gallic town in 52 BCE. Though Vercingetorix – the Gallic commander – resisted, the Romans eventually gained control of the region.
After arriving at Mireille’s home on the rue d’Alésia at 7PM on Tuesday evening and settling in, I fell quickly asleep. I awoke early Wednesday morning to attend what would be my formal introduction to French literary translation and the higher-ups of the literary world: le 31e Festival franco-anglais de poésie (The 31st Annual French-English Poetry Festival). I had contacted Jacques Rancourt, the festival’s director, a few weeks prior to introduce myself and to set up an interview. He was very interested in my project, an gave me a special “backstage pass” to sit in on a kind of private “congrès de poètes” – a meeting of published poets and translators preparing their work for an upcoming reading. The meeting began at 10AM, and I took the métro from Mireille’s home to the western end of Paris and found myself in a very affluent intersection of about eight roads. Paris is arranged in a circle – not a grid – and crazy intersections like this are not uncommon. I was to sit in on the poets’ meeting at 67 boulevard de Montmorency, but I really had no idea where I was after leaving the métro, and I think I wandered around that intersection for about ten or fifteen minutes asking for directions, until a genial elderly woman actually walked with me to the boulevard de Montmorency. She was incredibly nice, and made sure I quickly found my way. I arrived just in time for the meeting of poets and translators.
The meeting was held in what was once the house of Edmond and Jules Goncourt, two nineteenth century French writers and critics who founded the prestigious Prix Goncourt – the most prestigious prize French literary prize, given to “the best imaginary prose work of the year.” Marcel Proust and Simone de Beauvoir, among others, have won it in the past.
When I arrived, I was shown to an empty room in which to leave my bag and coat, and was then given a brief tour of the historic home. I saw the Goncourt brothers’ old library, their attic, posters, etc. Afterwards, I was plunged into what I could only recognize as French 391 with Professor Sinclair (Theory and Practice of Translation, a course I had taken the previous winter), only this time it was for real. The participants were translating one another’s poems, and discussing – sometimes vehemently arguing – over those translations, and getting paid for it! It really was exactly the same as what I had done at school, only with more experienced translators and writers.
The meeting involved five poets and myself – two American-born poets, Margo Berdechevsky and Michael Lynch, and two French-born and predominantly francophone poets, Céline Zins and Martin Richet. A man named Christophe, one of the Festival’s organizers, led the meeting. All of these poets had been published, and Céline Zins, in particular, had a considerable reputation as a contemporary French poet. Martin Richet had published a translation in Canada.
The meeting began with introductions, and the American-born poets (who were both fluent in French) expressed embarrassment regarding America. Margo admitted often contemplating “throwing her American passport into the Seine.” She was born in New York, but often visited Paris as a child. After publishing her first book of poems in America, she moved to Paris permanently and now considers it “the place that feels most like home.” She writes in English, but speaks fluent French.
When I introduced myself as having gone to Northwestern, Margo also revealed that she had once been a part of Northwestern’s undergraduate theater program. I wondered if she would remember any of Northwestern’s poetry faculty. I mentioned that I had taken a course with Mary Kinzie, and both Margo and Michael recognized the name immediately. They knew her work well, as did Christophe, and I was surprised by Mary Kinzie’s international renown. In a conversation with Michael later in the day, I asked about the difference between French and American poetry, and he responded by classifying American poetry as more prose-based than image-based French poetry. Mary Kinzie, he said, along with John Ahsbery and Jorie Graham, were working on “Europeanizing” American poetry – that is, making it more image-based rather than prose-based.
Shortly afterwards, the group split into pairs, with each pair having translated one another’s poems. Some poems were written originally in French, others in English, by American writers. Though these poems originated in France, I was witnessing a kind of linguistic transposition of American literature into French, and French into English. The discussions revolved around such things as gerunds – with a few of the poet-translators griping about how the French do not use their gerunds as well as English or Spanish speakers. Other debates included how to translate specific French idioms into English, or English idioms into French.
In the quaint backyard of the old Goncourt house, I had a conversation with Martin Richet, a translator who was interested in learning more about what poets I had studied in America, and who actually gave me some useful advice about bookstores to visit in Paris, and various sights to see. We exchanged contact information, and he suggested we meet sometime during my stay in Paris.
The six of us walked down the street to have lunch, which I soon discovered was magically paid for by the Festival! I spoke with Martin a bit about Chicago and Philadelphia – he had been to both – and then headed back to the Goncourt house to hear a bit more debate about poetic translation. The poets worked out the order of the next day’s reading, and agreed on which translations would be read aloud for the audience. I can’t wait to hear the final reading.
As I was about to leave, Jacques Rancourt invited me to an evening concert with him and a few other poets and translators. The concert was to involve readings of contemporary international francophone poems and musical interpretations of those poems. The concert was scheduled for 6:30PM, so I arrived at 5:30 and visited a nearby bookstore to look at their inventory and set up an interview.
The concert was mesmerizing – a poem would be read, in both French and English, and it would be followed by an avant-garde musical rendering by a violinist and saxophonist. Occasionally, a certain soprano – who had the most amazing range I’ve ever heard, she could sing lower and higher than anyone I’ve ever encountered – would join with the two instruments. She had a great tone, but her range made her sound a bit otherworldly. Her uncanny voice reminded me that I was not at home anymore.
The concert’s host explained that many of the originally English poems were more concerned with the origins of the universe than the French poems – according to her, continental Europeans are not as concerned with the universe’s origins as Americans or English speakers. I don’t know about that, but I do know that one of the poems had to do with an article in a scientific magazine about fractals. It began, “if the universe is shaped like a fractal, it might overturn everything we thought we knew…” The musical rendering involved a woman playing the violin, but, simultaneously, there was a woman speaking into a kind of voice manipulator. It made her sound a bit like a strange demon or ghost – supernatural, and very bizarre – I can’t really explain it in words. Anyway, most of the audience started laughing. The strange voice echoed through the room: “If the universe is shaped like a fractal…tal…tal…tal…”
Is it true that the French do not concern themselves as much with the origins of the universe? A close reading of that poem’s musical interpretation (the original poem took itself relatively seriously) might reveal a kind of unwillingness to earnestly contemplate things like cosmic origins. Was the humor of that interpretation a way to evade the topic?
The concert ended, and an art exhibit followed – visual interpretations of the same francophone poems. The exhibit was interesting, as the poems and artists came from all over the world – Australia, Kenya, France, Canada, Britain, etc. I spoke a bit with Jacques, and then went back to Mireille’s home at 10:00PM. As the sun does not set in Paris (at least in the summer) until 10:30PM, it was still light out as I wandered through the café-lined streets.
I have only spent one day in Paris, but that day contains more than many ordinary days at home or at school. What a summer this is going to be!
In This Week:
Life as a Parisian
Paris 6:00PM June 23rd
After a little less than a week here in Paris, I could probably get around the city with my eyes closed. The metro is incredibly easy to use, and though I am staying in the 14e arrondissement, on the left bank of the Seine, I have been all the way to the far end of the right bank, and almost everywhere in between. The city is divided into two banks – left and right – by the Seine river which cuts right through its middle. Notre Dame and the original old city are located on an island in the middle of this river – an obviously strategic place to found a city. The top and bottom banks of this river (the top bank is called the “right bank,” and the bottom the “left bank”) have their own personalities and histories. The “left bank” is famous for the historic cafés of Montparnasse, where Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Fitzgerald and Hemingway paved literary history. The “left bank” is also home to La Sorbonne – the oldest French university – which is located with other universities in the Latin Quarter. The “right bank,” by contrast, houses the Parisian business district and many of the famous tourist sights – the Louvre, the Place de la Bastille, the opera house, historic palaces, etc.
One day, when I did not have any interviews scheduled, I took a very long walk all along and around the Seine, from le Forum des Halles (basically the French version of our Mall of America – it has two movie theatres, a pool, an adjacent park, etc.) past the Jardin des Tuileries (a large garden-park adjacent to the Louvre), and all the way southwest to the edge of the city. The eastern and western edges of the city are marked by two large parks (or “bois,” meaning “woods” in French). When I had reached the western one of these – called the Bois de Boulogne – I knew it was time to head home. The metro system is very easy to understand, and you can’t go more than three or four blocks in Paris without reaching another station, so it was easy to get back. That long walk was actually the first time that I’d seen the Eiffel Tower – even from a distance – on my stay in Paris. Though it used to be the tallest building in Paris – and it still does stand out as being very tall – you can’t really see it unless you’re within a certain radius of it (maybe a few kilometers or so). While I was near the Eiffel Tower, though, I realized that the best thing about it is not really the tower itself, but the sprawling park that stretches all the way from the tower down through the left bank. It’s called the Champ de Mars, and it is one of the biggest open parks I’ve ever seen. When I was there, I saw lots of kids playing soccer and there were a few open-air music concerts going on.
The international poetry festival in which I was participating just ended. It was five days full of public readings, translation workshops, lectures and book fairs. I had feared at first that this festival may not add much to my research – it was great to listen to the poems, and meet the poets and translators, of course, but few turned out to be American (most of the Anglophones were Australian or Canadian) and what kind of insights about American literature’s international circulation could be drawn from hearing three or four Australian poets read aloud in French and English? Well, I soon realized that the festival was beneficial – poetry is really all about individual words’ meanings and importance. The words themselves get a level of individual attention lacking in prose. I got a chance to sit in on workshops where francophone and anglophone poets were debating the meaning of these words, and I sense that these workshops will lend my project a valuable sense of linguistic detail. More importantly, however, I was introduced to some amazing people – a few of whom I had no idea were amazing until I started seeing their names everywhere as translators for French versions of books I was reading. Céline Zins, for example, was at the translation workshop I attended on my first day in Paris. A few days later, I was looking through some books of Philip Roth’s, translated into French, and I saw that Céline Zins had translated them! And one of the other translators I was working with that day, Martin Richet, lives in the Latin Quarter, and I’ve run into him a few times. Small world (or small city)!
I have found that the best way to secure interviews – with bookstore managers, especially – is to arrive ten minutes before opening time, and to speak to the manager before any customers arrive. I’ve gotten to a few stores too late, after customers have already arrived, and the possibility of an interview seems relatively unimportant to the employees by then (with customers demanding attention). Hence, my days usually go like this: I wake up, have breakfast with Mireille and Hubert, her husband, and then head off to one of many French bookstores and publishers. There are no bookstore chains in France – French law does not allow the kinds of book discounts that large chains usually thrive on – so publishing houses have their own independent bookstores. Bookstores are small and personal, and they do not all carry the same selection. If you walk down any given Parisian street, you will see at least one small bookseller. They really are everywhere – this is a city overflowing with stories. Books are everywhere, and when I explain my project to people, they understand it immediately. No wonder Pascale Casanova begins her books, The World Republic of Letters, by talking about Paris’ “literary hegemony.”
After running around the city during these morning hours, setting up interviews at bookstores, knocking on publishers’ doors, visiting the Sorbonne to track down professors who haven’t yet left on summer vacation – after that, in the afternoon, I sometimes go to the large public library in the center of the city, at the Centre Pompidou. It is a huge three-floor library in a weird-looking building (some call it ugly), with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city. The same weird-looking building also houses a bookstore and art exhibits, and in front of it is a large courtyard and fountain, in which a variety of street performers entertain for free. It’s a great center, though when it was originally built, it caused a huge uproar (because of its ugliness). I can’t really explain what it looks like – if I had to boil it down into a phrase, I’d say that the Centre Pompidou looks like an inside-out building. The inside is clean and attractive, but its outer walls are surrounded in large metal pipes, and weird chutes and ladder-y plastic passageways. The center of Paris does not have much in the way of twentieth-century architecture – there are no real skyscrapers, or recently built concert halls, or anything – so the Centre Pompidou sticks out like a sore thumb. But, after a while, the French got used to it.
One of my aforementioned early morning bookstore visits is particularly notable. I was at the Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore in the Marais (one of the most “chic” towns in Paris), and I met a woman there, named Penelope, who runs the shop and knows a whole lot about American books in Paris – she knows all of the American and Anglo bookstores, and which ones are doing well, or aren’t, and all that. She let me in after opening the store, and immediately, after my opening questions, started telling me a million things about the histories and current successes (and failures) of these other Anglo bookstores. Most of these bookstores, according to Penelope, began sometime during World War II, and some of their former owners were deported to Auschwitz and other concentration camps. I’m finding that this project is opening up some unexpected windows into history, as well…
Also notable are my conversations with Mireille before I leave each morning. We discuss everything – Barack Obama, Ségolène Royal, the French education system, the Châteaux de la Loire – and I am sometimes a bit late for my morning appointments because of it (but the conversations are really worth being occasionally a little late). As I think I mentioned earlier, I recently took a course on the Holocaust (last spring quarter, with Peter Francis Hayes in the history department). I was curious about Jews in France, and in Paris, so I asked Mireille what she knew of their history here and contemporary place in Paris. Mireille began telling an amazing story about a group of Protestants that she knew in Le Chambon (a rural region of France, south of Paris). I had heard of this before – I think Professor Hayes mentioned one sentence about it in my course – but Mireille actually knew someone who had saved Jews in this little town. It was really fascinating – we talked about it for an hour, and then I compared what I had learned about French Jews’ survival in France with what she had known of their persecution there. Apparently, Professor Hayes had given us a tamer history of the Jews in France than the one taught in France itself. Afterward, we moved on to Barack Obama, John McCain, and the American presidential election, and I explained the difference between the general election and the primaries.
I also began, a few days after I came to Mireille’s house – to type my blog on her laptop. I began typing, not really looking at my hands, but looked at the screen and noticed that what I’d typed a big bunch of gibberish. Actually, some of the words were correct, but others definitely were not. I had heard that French keyboards were different from English ones, but I didn’t really know in what way they differed. Basically, the keyboard is the same except for a few letters – a, o, m, and e. I think there may be a few more, but those are the main differences. I spoke with Mireille a bit about the reason for these differences – it must be due to the different construction of words in English and French. Maybe the letter “a” is somehow used less often in French – it was moved up to where “q” is on American keyboards. Interesting.
Well, that is all for now. More to come on upcoming interviews, and I am also planning a much-anticipated visit to the Louvre!
In This Week:
French-Indian Beggars with Golden Teeth
Paris 6:00PM July 5th
Incidentally, in the coming days, I saw that same Indian woman three more times on the Rue de Rivoli, and when asked if I spoke English, I said “Polish” with a weird accent and she left. Martin Richet – one of the translators from the literary festival I attended my first day here – taught me to do that. Polish is a very difficult language, and almost no hecklers can speak it, so it works well as linguistic insulation.
My last few days have been cramped with interviews, goodbyes, thank you visits, and last-minute sightseeing. Though I began with only a few scheduled interviews, almost all of my meetings have spawned further meetings, further trips to even further corners of Paris, and, like a mad scientist whose laboratory has become overrun with unexpectedly bubbling and overflowing beakers and flasks, I am left with much more than I bargained for. Only, I am leaving my laboratory in a few days, and I must clean it up quickly – but I am undoubtedly glad it ended up becoming such a productive mess. With the sudden accretion of opportunities, however, I feel like I am leaving Paris just when I feel most at home here. Perhaps that’s how it will be with all of the upcoming cities.
One of my last interviews here, with a woman named Odile Hellier, was one of my favorites. Hellier is the founder and manager of Village Voice Bookshop (http://www.villagevoicebookshop.com/), an American bookshop near where the book fair I’d attended when I first arrived in Paris had been. It is located on the left bank of the Seine. Hellier began our talk with a declamation: “America has lost its luster.” According to Hellier, all anglo and American bookshops in Paris have been doing badly since the start of the war in Iraq. These sentiments were confirmed when I checked up on the financial statuses of The Village Voice, The Red Wheelbarrow, and other anglo bookshops in Paris, through this website: www.infogreffe.fr. Granted, all bookshops, anglo or not, in all parts of the world, are struggling – says Hellier and many others – because reading books is just not as popular as a number of other leisure activities in the 21st Century. The dollar’s declining value, though, makes it a bit worse (I don’t really understand this logic – wouldn’t the dollar’s decreasing value make it easier to import American books?). Gas prices exacerbate the situation, as, for a regular overseas importer or books like Village Voice, the prohibitive cost of transport limits the amount of foreign books one can sell.
When I asked Hellier about “American literature,” an admittedly nebulous entity, she replied, in a thick French accent, “There is no American literature. There is only American literatures.” I had heard this before – I think in Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters, or maybe I heard in it an echo of Malcolm Gladwell’s now famous “They were looking for the perfect Pepsi, and they should have been looking for the perfect Pepsis” (http://youtube.com/watch?v=iIiAAhUeR6Y). Either way, the comment resonated with me, and encapsulated the quixotry of almost everything I had arrived in Paris – and Europe, and Africa, and Asia – to do. I had known this before, but I think I realized it most acutely in that moment – to attempt to distill the “effect” of “American literature” on “the people of France” is to tilt at windmills. Now, up until this point I had been “tracking” some of my favorite writers – Twain, Salinger, and Melville – and how they, in particular, are re-published, referenced, marketed and interpreted in Paris. But I realized then, more than before, that if “There is no American literature,” then there obviously is no “people of France” and possibly no “national French literary sentiment.” What kind of generalizing enterprise have I gotten myself into?
Hellier’s next comment allayed my fears, a bit. I asked her why she began Village Voice, and she immediately submerged herself in memories of Russian literary study in France, Russia, and America – Hellier had apparently been on track to become a professor of Russian literature, and had gone to America in 1969 to brush up on her Dostoevsky and Pushkin. While there, she experienced what to her was an absolutely unimaginable activist ferment – Vietnam protests, women’s rights marches, a civil rights war uprush in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination – and she realized that the America she thought she knew (maybe involving jazz clubs and postwar conformity) did not exist. Hellier saw a bubbling vibrancy in the multifariousness of American subcultures, and decided to give up Russian literature in favor of something more encompassing: opening a multicultural Anglophone bookshop in the heart of Paris, one that would share America’s diversity with the European world. In her words, the prevailing French image of America was “dusty,” and she wanted to wipe it down. It was a youthfully impulsive plan – maybe a bit too idealistic, she admits – but ultimately successful.
Hellier is very passionate about what she does. Her enthusiasm reminded me that bookselling is not a stodgy job – it’s obvious, but selling books is selling ideas. Just like the most successful film producers, Odile Hellier peddles ideas – from one side of the Atlantic to the other. The reason for her passion, though, might be more complex, darker. She thinks of it like this: “There are times when I still marvel at this life of mine, a life so happily involved with books and reading. I wonder whether a single image, buried deep within myself, might not be the source of it all. My mother often used to tell me about my father, a resistant who was killed during World War II. They were forced to vacate their house in Strasburg, Alsace. Soon after, my father’s entire library of books was taken out, thrown into a pile in the middle of the street, and set on fire by the German officers who had taken possession of the place.” Hellier asks herself, “Is the bookshop somehow my way, a mysterious way, of remembering the father I never knew? Are these wonderful books that I spend my life with my way of redeeming loss and reclaiming life? What I do know is that, despite these periodic attempts to censor, destroy or eliminate them, books continue, over the centuries, in times of peace and war, to represent the different voices of humanity.”
A few other interviews – aside from Village Voice – yielded some priceless results. Shortly before my meeting with Odile Hellier, I had met with Marie Paccard, the director of Galignani, the “first English bookshop established on the Continent,” according to their brochure (www.galignani.com). The store began in 1520, and used to publish its own books. Paccard had given me a twenty-five page elegantly bound brochure (it looked like a book of its own) narrating the store’s illustrious history. After I’d read the brochure – in French with a side-by-side English translation – I met with Paccard and we discussed the adverse effects of gas prices on bookselling (somewhat similar to what I would soon hear from Odile Hellier). We discussed Galignani a bit, too – she told me all about the celebrities, like Karl Lagerfeld, who regularly run their fingers along the polished bookshelves of her posh central Paris store. Reading the brochure, I had found the English translation of the original French description a bit awkward (with sentences like “Paralell to its traditional activities as a general bookstore [sic] stocking English and French books…”), and mentioned this to Paccard and volunteered to re-translate the French into English. She had never been happy with the too-literal English version, and welcomed the idea of a new English text, just in time for the 2009 or 2010 updated brochure.
I have learned many, many things here in Paris, and they are all floating around in my head right now, growing weird branches and hopefully evolving into meaningful ideas and conclusions. More to come.
In This Post:
London 6:00PM July 14th
I am staying with family here – with my second cousins, Elaine and Adrian. Though I am staying with Elaine and her family for my first week here, Adrian picked me up at the train station and gave me a whirlwind tour of London by car. He showed me the location of the British Library, which contains some amazing national documentary treasures, including two original copies of Magna Carta, a Gutenberg Bible, and Auden’s notebooks (I later visited on my own – it’s completely free – and, looking at Auden and Brontë’s crossed-out notes and ruffled drafts, realized that nothing great comes easily to anyone). Adrian showed me everything – a life-size replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the Marble Arch, the sculptured griffins marking the historic entryways to the original City of London (the original walled city, only about one square mile), Tower Bridge, London Bridge, and various hundreds of year old attractions. In London – and in all of Europe, probably – there’s a kind of continuity between past and present that you don’t really get in America. Taverns from the 1500s are still working taverns, and contemporary roads lie exactly where their Roman predecessors once lay. On a clear day, you can see the Tower of London with the gherkin (a modern, gherkin-shaped glass office building) and other modern glass marvels in the background.
The Roman city of Londinium was established in about 50 A.D. (at least according to what I’ve gathered), and remained occupied by the Romans until about A.D. 410. The Thames has obviously always been the heart of the city, and though it was once as polluted as the Ganges, I’ve heard that if you dip a cup into the river today, and let the dirt settle to the bottom, it is actually drinkable. But I don’t think I’ll be doing that any time soon.
Adrian took me to the London Docklands, a section of East London, and originally the city’s principal immigrant port. East London has a bad reputation – similar to Chicago’s “south side” – but gentrification and rapid redevelopment since the 1980s have transformed the Docklands into a high-income area. Adrian parked his car, and we walked along the banks of a small inlet surrounded by luxury apartments and condominiums. We were walking where our grandfathers may have walked when they first arrived in Britain in 1904.
My relation to Adrian is quite interesting – his grandfather and my great grandfather were brothers who immigrated together to London from the Ukraine. They were planning to go to America to join up with their father (my great great grandfather) who had already sailed across the Atlantic. When the two brothers arrived in London, Adrian’s grandfather reached into his pocket for his wallet, and, to his dismay, it had been stolen somewhere between the Ukraine and Britain. My great grandfather decided to go on to America, while Adrian’s grandfather decided to stay in London for a while, to make some money in order to eventually reach America as well. It turned out that Adrian’s grandfather married in London, started a family there, and never did come to America like he’d planned. My father’s mother’s maiden name is Kirschner, and Adrian’s last name is Korsner – both are phonetic translations of the Ukrainian original name, “Kirzna,” or something along those lines.
Adrian and I are second cousins once removed, and meeting him, Elaine, and an entire long-lost side of my family, has been amazing. The Korsners/Kirschners have always been smaller than most, and I find myself for once actually taller, rather than shorter, than the people around me. After walking around the Docklands, Adrian took me to the Tate Modern, a museum of contemporary art on London’s south bank. Like most of London’s premier museums, the Tate Modern is free, and we spent about an hour walking through galleries filled with everything from Jackson Pollock to Magritte to Cy Twombly. There was a large piece of empty canvas, with one huge rip running through it, and a few disorienting installations (the kind where you walk into a dark room full of flashing pink and green lights, or a room of dizzyingly striped walls). Afterwards, we walked along the Millennium Bridge, built around the same time as the London Eye, and recently reconstructed after engineers discovered that it was in danger of collapse (it would wobble when people walked over it). Now, though, it is sturdy, safe, and provides an excellent view of the Thames and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Later that day, Adrian dropped me off at Elaine’s home in Cockfosters (a small town in the Northern tip of London – almost in the suburbs), and though we were planning on eating out with Adrian and the family, found ourselves transfixed by the live TV broadcast of Wimbledon – Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal. The epic match – Nadal won, as most of you probably know – didn’t end until about 8:00pm or later, and we went to Nando’s for dinner (http://www.nandos.co.uk/index.cfm). If any Americans have been to Qdoba, Nando’s is similar, though it specializes in Portuguese rather than Mexican cuisine. They are all over the place in England – I’ve seen a few walking around Oxford and Cambridge, and a few in London as well – and I think they are opening up an American outlet later this year. I think it’s going to open in Washington, D.C.
I have had some exciting interviews here so far. Shortly after arriving at Elaine’s, I met with Adam Freudenheim, the head of Penguin Classics’ UK branch. Adam Freudenheim has what might be my dream job – he basically decides which books are “classics” (or included in Penguin’s line of “black classics” or “modern classics”), and which are not. He works with about four co-workers to make these decisions, and he had some surprising things to say about American literature in Britain (and across the world, as Penguin Classics circulate internationally). He told me how Penguin continually works to update and re-invent their classics – publishing them with new covers, new introductions, with new notes, hardback editions, etc. – to try and reach an ever broader audience. They have begun a new series, entitled “Red Classics,” to publish established “black classics” without any kind of critical introduction or notes – they market them as contemporary novels. Here’s their description of the series: “Over the 70 years in which we’ve been publishing books, we started to realize that for every Harry Potter there’s an Alice in Wonderland, for every Stephen King horror there’s a Frankenstein. That, with our Classics and Modern Classics ranges, Penguin actually publish what are, quite simply, the best books ever written – whether they’re thrillers or romances, horror stories or comedy. So we thought we’d offer you a selection of them, but without all the extra material that usually comes in a classic. And that’s how we came up with the Red Classics. They’re just simply wonderful stories that stand alone and grip you right from the start. So, if you’re a serial killer thriller addict, why not read the original and best, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Or, instead of reaching for a romantic blockbuster, try the love story that leaves all the others standing, Wuthering Heights. (You’ll be glad you did, honestly.”
It’s an interesting marketing strategy. They are, in their own way, de-classicizing the classics. Freudenheim also let me know that their Modern Classics series is one of the strongest collections of American literature in existence. Basically, the American Classics dominate the Modern Classics series, and these Modern Classics are read all over the world – they are tremendously popular in England. One other thing Freudenheim mentioned, and something I’ve been hearing a whole lot in my travels, is the immense international popularity of Jack Kerouac and the Beats. The immense popularity (I saw this in France, too) of Cormac McCarthy’s On the Road, possibly fits into this trend. America, apparently, is still seen as a kind of unchartered mid-century desert of hope and reckless abandon. It’s the nature of the publishing business – if something sells, they stick with it, incessantly milking the cow for all it’s worth. Across the world, according to a few people I’ve interviewed, publishers are milking the American fantasy, publishing and marketing On the Road and books like it, and possibly promoting an image of America that is stuck in the past. They’re afraid to invest in something new, because the past works so well.
Of course, this is an exaggeration, but it does get at what publishers sometimes do. In an interview with Paul Giles at Oxford (Giles is the head of the Rothermere American Institute there), I learned that America’s conservatism, Puritanism, and religious fundamentalism is hardly addressed abroad. It’s just not appealing to an international audience. It doesn’t coincide, according to Giles, with their views of America. Likewise, American Studies centers in England and across the world tend to focus on both coasts – New York and California – when they think of America, and not really on what’s in between. Giles described the Midwest as a “terra incognito” for Brits. Sitting outside of Giles’ office, waiting for our interview, I learned something maybe more interesting. Reading an American Studies journal in the lobby, I learned the following. Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org), as many of us know, has been recently banned from use in some American universities – students are not allowed to cite Wikipedia in their papers. Because it’s a “free encyclopedia” that can be edited by anyone, it isn’t credible. Some British universities, however, actually require their students to visit Wikipedia in certain courses – not as an endpoint to their research, of course, but as a beginning point. Of course it’s silly to prohibit citation of Wikipedia in college papers. But should it be required reading? The authors of the article argued that you can usually find more worthwhile information, all in one place, on Wikipedia than you can most other places. Wikipedia also offers useful web links to more credible sources.
I’m inclined to think that the British way of doing things is more sensible than ours. Either way, thinking about the difference between British and American use of Wikipedia was something I’d never thought of before. I assumed that the Internet’s worldliness meant it was used the same by everyone in the world. I guess that’s not true.
Next week, I will travel to Totnes – near Plymouth and Exeter – for a book fair there. I’m excited to see some of England’s southwestern countryside. More to come in later posts.
In This Post:
London 11:00PM July 20th
After staying with Elaine and her family for about week, I transferred locations to Adrian’s house to spend my last few days in London with him. While I was staying with Elaine, I got to see more of London than most Londoners have probably seen – Elaine took me around to all of the downtown sights, and even secured a private tour of the Parliament! Elaine and her husband, David, are friends with their local MP (Member of Parliament), and this MP’s secretary gave us a brief history of the amazingly gothic Parliament building, in addition to telling us some insider stories about what it’s like to work in Parliament. According to British law, anyone can come to the Parliament building to speak with their MP, and MPs are obliged to come down and speak with them. Occasionally, though, these petitioners can end up end up being incoherent (or belligerent) homeless folks. Elaine’s secretary’s MP could recall a few instances of belligerent petitioners becoming permanently barred from Parliament. She also told us how boring it is to work in Parliament during the long summer recess – “there is almost nothing to do,” she said, “and while you’d think you’d have all the time in the world to accomplish what you actually should do, you actually find yourself without much motivation to do anything at all.”
Aside from our visit to Parliament, Elaine took me to Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, and St. Paul’s Cathedral. We saw, at Buckingham Palace, a line of guests waiting to enter the palace to attend the queen’s summer garden party. These guests had been invited, Elaine told me, as recognition for extraordinary humanitarian achievements – charity work, educational services, etc. They were dressed to the nines – top hats, coats with tails, and elaborate dresses.
I also talked a bit with Elaine’s son, James, and his girlfriend about the differences between American and British universities. In England, university lasts for three years, rather than four, and students must know what they want to study before they enter university. I thought of how weird it must be to decide on your major or profession at the age of eighteen. Of course, some British students change majors, or career plans, but it’s more difficult to change your plans there than here.
American music and TV expectedly infiltrates British youth culture, and though I was not surprised to see American advertisements and television shows, I was surprised by the breadth and scope of American media readily available across the Atlantic. But, I should also be surprised, then, by the availability of British media in America. Look at Coldplay, for instance.
When I got to Adrian’s house, he took me to the Victoria & Albert (V&A) museum, and the London Science Museum, and the Prince Albert Memorial. The V&A displays decorative household appliances and furniture, among other things. It’s really a kind of all-purpose museum, with everything from a section of a fifteenth century iron fence to the latest Sony laptop. From art nouveau to art deco to postmodern chairs and tables, everyday objects are displayed as art, and, walking through the museum, I began to realize that everything – even a typical desk chair – is decorative in its own way. Everything is art.
We visited the London Science Museum right after the V&A, and I was struck by how similar they are. Just like the V&A, the Science Museum displays all kinds of historical medical paraphernalia in glass cases. Of course these are not being displayed solely for their aesthetic value, but is a 19th century shoehorn being displayed at the V&A solely for its aesthetic significance? Both museums assume a certain fascination with historic artifacts – partly just because they’re historic, but also because they are beautiful, in their own way. An old telescope, along with a section of a medieval iron fence, in different museums, can be equally fascinating and equally beautiful.
A few days after our visit to the museums, I took a train to Totnes to attend a book fair there. The book fair is run by the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association – the same group that organized a fair I’d attended in London. They’d invited me to come to their Totnes fair, so I agreed and booked one night at a B&B in the small town of Totnes.
Totnes might be the most idyllic place I’ve ever visited. It is a borough in Devon, on what Adrian called “the British Riviera,” near England’s southwestern coast. It is a little town, with one eleventh-century castle and a fourteenth-century church. The town comprises one street – High Street – that runs up a hill, and perpendicular to the River Dart. The River Dart is a small inlet of the Atlantic Ocean, and connects two eponymous towns: Dartmoor and Dartmouth. The town of Dartmoor marks the source of the river (and its surrounding “moor,” or fen), and the town of Dartmouth is the “mouth” of the River “Dart.” Dartmouth College takes its name from this town.
My train took me directly southwest from London, through Reading, Taunton, Exeter and Plymouth. Its final destination was Penzance – the southwest tip of England, the furthest you can go before the ocean. When I arrived in Totnes, I checked in at the B&B – which was situated close to where the next day’s book fair would be held – and walked along the River Dart almost all the way to Dartmoor. I felt like I was in the middle of Pennsylvania – I don’t think I saw a single soul, or highway, walking along that river. Actually, I did pass one bald woman, who had one tooth and was sitting listening to Kelly Clarkson on a portable radio. She smiled up at me and said something I didn’t understand (she only had one tooth). That was kind of weird, but it only intensified the feeling that I was in the middle of nowhere.
Totnes embodies every fantasy you’ve probably ever had about the English countryside. The River Dart runs right through the town, and there is a stone bridge leading from its bank to a large island in the middle of it. The bridge was built – according to a plaque on its side – to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1952. From this island, I could see the small dock of the Totnes Boating Club, with a few boats anchored in the river nearby. There are some houses on the river as well, and a memorial commemorating the Totnes residents who fought in World War II.
As in America, I’ve been noticing a lot of World War II memorials here. I learned from James that England’s role in World War II is one of the cornerstones of British primary education. That, along with the Tudors (Henry VIII and his six wives) are what British children learn first in the way of history. At the London Transport Museum, I saw photographs of hundreds of British citizens sleeping in tube stations during German bomb raids (or for fear of such bomb raids). I don’t remember learning much about World War II until U.S. History in high school with Mr. Linehan. In elementary school, I remember a lot of history lessons revolving around the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, along with “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” I think we also had to build some tepees out of popsicle sticks. But World War II was not something I remember learning about at age seven or eight.
After walking around Vire Island (the name of the island in the middle of the River Dart), I took a short walk up to Totnes Castle (http://www.theheritagetrail.co.uk/castles/totnes%20castle.htm). Built by the Normans shortly after their invasion, it is essentially a stone wall in the shape of a circle – a fort, really. Aside from a small alcove once used as the latrine, the castle doesn’t really have any rooms. It does, though, have a kind of circular balcony up near its arrow slits. I walked up to this balcony, and saw some breathtaking views of Devon – I could see Dartmoor, Dartmouth, and some of Plymouth and Exeter. I could see farms with cows, next to other Norman castles and churches. Centuries ago, these views allowed Normans to protect Totnes against invaders. Today, tourists can see appreciate Devon’s rural splendor.
At the book fair, I talked to a few sellers about the books they collected and sold. Now that I think about it, I really didn’t see anything by an American author. Everything I recognized – Ian McEwan, William Golding – was British. I bought a nineteenth century copy of Dickens’ American Notes for a surprisingly cheap price, and took a trip to the nearby Totnes bookstore. There, I found a whole section dedicated to “Politics and World Events,” most of which had titles like “The Post-American World” and “America’s War for Oil.” Really, almost all of the books in that section were Bush-bashing or American-focused. Even in Totnes – almost in the middle of nowhere, in Devon. I didn’t really expect that amount of anti-American books there – I had expected some, but not so many – was surprising. Totnes has a virulent political consciousness, it turns out.
I left Totnes Sunday evening, and recently came back to Adrian’s. At the train station, I was given a free tabloid. Tabloids are much more popular in London that in America – actually, print newspapers in general are much more alive in the UK (this what Adam Freudenheim, of Penguin Publishers, told me). There is so much competition among newspapers, that many of the most popular ones resort to near-tabloid formulations – huge headlines that take up a quarter of the front page, sensationalism, and celebrity gossip. In America, newspaper sales have been rapidly declining
I leave for Amsterdam tomorrow. Looking forward to Van Gogh (pronounced “chhochh” with lots of guttural “chhh”) and Anne Frank. After Amsterdam, I will ride the Eurail down through Germany to Bavaria. Auf wiedersehen!
In This Post:
Bielefeld 10:42PM July 27th
After Totnes, I went back to London and then to Amsterdam the next day. I’ve been in a different city just about every day this week – Sunday in Totnes, Monday in London, Tuesday in Amsterdam, and Wednesday in Bielefeld (more on Bielefeld below). On the plane to Amsterdam, I was sitting in the middle of a large Dutch family. They tried to say a few words to me, but they quickly learned that I can’t speak Dutch. I tried a few words of English with them, and was surprised when they couldn’t speak much – I had been told, by Adrian and a few Northwestern professors, that the Dutch usually speak English better than the British. Adrian recounted a conversation with a man in Amsterdam: Adrian asked, “Do you speak English?” and the man replied, “Of course I speak English – I’m Dutch!”
When I arrived in Amsterdam, I learned that the vast majority of Dutch do speak good English, and I was able to communicate well. I checked into my hostel, and met the Brazilian traveler bunking above me – he had just spent a few days in Amsterdam on his way to Brussels, and he was leaving the next day – before going out to explore the canals a bit. I didn’t have much time to look around, as it was getting dark and I my back hurt from a day of lugging my huge backpack around Heathrow like a hunchback. I did, though, walk by two old men playing a jumbo sized chess game – each piece was three to four feet tall, and the area of each checker on the board was one square foot. To make a move, one of the old men had to lift their chosen piece with both hands and walk it to its intended square.
I woke up to a crazy Finnish girl screaming about her pants. Someone had apparently stolen her pants in the middle of the night, and she grabbed the pants of the Scotsman bunking above her (his only pair) and blurted out angry intentions in broken English (“I put to police!”). I knew Amsterdam would be kind of crazy, but not like this. The Brazilian student bunking above me also woke up, and took out his camera to take a picture of the angry Finnish girl with Scottish pants. That made her very mad. The Scotsman also woke up, and asked politely for his pants. She refused, and held them tightly to her waist. “That’s fine, but you just have to know you’re not getting out of here with my pants.” I couldn’t help laughing (like a few other Scots in neighboring bunks) – my first day in Amsterdam, and look what I was waking up to! The Brazilian, the Scotsman, and I, looked around the room for her pants. We couldn’t find them, and the others’ laughing only made her more irate. We called the front desk to ask for pants, or for the name of the one Irish prankster who had left in the middle of the night (presumably with a pair of Finnish pants). Nobody found the pants, and a few of us went downstairs to get breakfast. After ten minutes, the Finnish girl and the Scotsman came smiling into the cafeteria. She had been sleeping on her pants, or something. All I know is we all ate breakfast together, laughing about it. Everyone’s pants were in the right place. And that was my introduction to Amsterdam.
After a hilarious morning, I went to the Van Gogh museum and Anne Frank’s house. The Van Gogh museum offered an informative artistic timeline of the post-impressionist painter’s life – the paintings were arranged in chronological order, and I got a chance to see his development from black and brown still lifes to his well-known “Sunflowers.” I was surprised by how much he had been influenced by Japanese prints and compositional clarity. Many of his later work was labeled by the museum as Japanese-influence, and he even went through a phase of Japanese imitations – he would paint a large-scale version of an authentic Japanese print. I hadn’t known Van Gogh was so cosmopolitan.
After Van Gogh, I waited in line for about two hours to enter the Anne Frank House. You don’t really enter her actual house – you enter the house next door, which has been made into a museum, and eventually find yourself in the house’s downstairs offices before climbing up steep stairs to the secret annex. There were videotapes of Miep (one of Otto Frank’s colleagues) speaking on her willingness to help the hidden families (Miep, like the other non-Jewish helpers, were incarcerated but eventually set free). Otto Frank also spoke on a videotape (he survived). The house was fascinating. Aside from the overwhelming feeling of actually standing where the Franks lived in fear for so long in the early forties, the strangest part was seeing the untouched walls of Anne Frank’s bedroom. To lend some much-needed hominess to the place, she had cut out magazine and newspaper photographs of all sorts of things – celebrities, nature scenes, attractive advertisements. Walking through the room, looking at newspaper cutouts of Ginger Rogers and Greta Garbo – the kinds of wall decorations you might find in any contemporary teenage girl’s room – gave her whole story an immediacy I hadn’t felt before. Also, on those same decorated walls, there remains a familiar pencil chart of Anne and her sisters’ growth while they were in hiding – the same kind of chart you’d find any child’s bedroom. It felt surreal to see that I am the same height as Anne once was.
After exiting the historic house and entering the adjoining museum once again, I watched a short video of Otto Frank speaking about the experience of reading his daughter’s diary for the first time. He had seen her writing in it, and she stored it by his bed when she was not working on it. She had asked him never to read it, and he had obeyed. After Anne died at Belsen – tragically, one month before the liberation – Miep discovered the diary (she had cleaned the annex after the Franks were sent to concentration camps) and sent it to Otto. Here is a rough quotation of Otto’s thoughts on his daughter’s diary: “It took me a long time to read the diary, and when I was finished, I was surprised by the thoughts she had at the time. Deep, adult thoughts. Now, Anne talked about many things, and I must say I knew her very well, but reading that diary was a surprise to me. And the one conclusion I have reached, after all these years, is that parents don’t ever really know their children.”
After listening to this, I walked into an auditorium with another giant video presentation. This one had to do with different forms of contemporary prejudice, and extended the museum’s concern with anti-Semitism and the Holocaust into twenty-first century debates. Small informative segments presented both sides of several hot-button issues: Should Holocaust denial be protected under the first amendment? Should neo-Nazis be able to march in front of Synagogues on Shabbat? Should Protestants be allowed to march through Catholic neighborhoods in Northern Ireland, despite resulting violence? It was an interesting video, and apparently part of the museum’s educational program.
In the museum’s bookstore, I unexpectedly found something that played right into my research project – editions of The Diary of Anne Frank from twelve countries, side by side on a long shelf. Even Japan was included. Expectedly, their covers varied from painted portraits of Anne Frank to realistic color photographs. I should have taken a picture – I forget exactly what these covers looked like – and I wasn’t expecting to find any research material, so I hadn’t brought my large notebook. Hopefully I will be able to find them on the internet.
I originally scheduled a flight to Amsterdam in order to travel to Enschede (near the border of the Netherlands and Germany) to talk to a book collector there, and to spend some time looking at his collection. After discovering pretty late that he would not be available for this, I kept my flight to Amsterdam and decided to spend one day there before moving on to Bielefeld, near where I would meet a representative of Bertelsmann (largest publishing conglomerate in the world). That is the reason for my one-day holiday in Holland.
The next day, I boarded an international train going all the way to Poland. The train had scheduled stops in Osnabrück, Hannover, and Berlin, and I was planning on getting off at Osnabrück to board a regional train to Bielefeld. The international train broke down just before the German border, and we switched to a more crowded train to Hengelo, where we could again switch trains before entering Germany. Basically, getting to Germany took about four trains. On the way to Bielefeld, from Osnabrück, I forgot the day’s hassles as I looked out on the most beautiful swaths of German countryside I have ever seen. Huge windmills on top of mountains in the distance, farms as far as the eye could see, a few huts, and the setting sun. North Rhine-Westphalia – the section of Germany my train was taking me through – is really beautiful.
When I got to Bielefeld, I took a look around the train station bookstore before heading off to my hostel. I had printed a Google map in Amsterdam with directions from the Bielefeld train station to my hostel, so I started walking, and before I knew it, I was lost in the Teutoburg Forest (Bielefeld is a small industrial town in the middle of a huge forest). It was getting dark, and I felt like someone out of one of Grimms’ fairy tales – a kid who doesn’t speak German, lost in the dark German woods. Maybe I would see a gingerbread house, or a witch holding a gleaming red apple. A red-faced man walked by, wearing denim overalls and carrying what looked like a hatchet. I asked him for directions to Hermann-Kleinewachterstraße (the street where my hostel was), in English, and he patted his pockets and shook his head adamantly. He thought I was a beggar. I guess I did look kind of disheveled, after all those trains.
I eventually found a Polish woman who spoke good English, and she led me out of the woods and into Hermann-Kleinewachterstraße (which I hadn’t been pronouncing correctly, and that may have been the reason why everyone was giving me such blank looks). Bielefeld is not a popular tourist destination, and when I told the woman behind the hostel desk that I was from America, she looked very surprised and said “Ah, America” about three times. The hostel was very clean, and very big – with an indoor fountain, palm tree, and pond filled with koi – but no one was there. I was the only guest I saw there, and I had a room with four beds and two bathrooms for myself. It felt strange to be the only one in that huge place – whenever I came and went, the hostel attendants all stared, and at breakfast the next morning, there was a huge spread, and I was the only one eating it.
Germany has a booming book business – it is second only to the United States in the number of books published annually, and has the highest amount of bookshops per square kilometer of any country in the world – so after that breakfast, I went to have a look around town. I set up a few interviews at some local branches of major German bookstore chains – Thalia, for example. I walked around town and had some Bratwurst and sauerkraut (Germans love sausage – at the supermarket near my hostel, I saw more varieties of sausage than I’ve ever seen in my life, in addition to lots of marzipan from Lübeck in the north). Bielefeld was founded by linen traders, and there is a huge statue of a linen trader from the early twentieth century in the center of town. I was beginning to get a bit lonely about being in Bielefeld all by myself, when I went back to my hostel to find two university students in my room – Kyle and Morris, from a rural suburb of Bielefeld. They were in the middle of a backpacking trek through the Teutoburg Forest, and were recuperating in Bielefeld after a few days of intense hiking and camping. They asked me about my research project, and we talked for a little bit about where we were going next – they were going to continue through the forest to Detmold (that’s what it sounded like), and I was going to Frankfurt. Kyle got a kind of awestruck gleam in his eye when I told him I was going to that huge southern city. I asked him if he’d been there, and he said “I never go to the big towns. I am…how do you call it…from the small towns.” I was glad to not be alone in Bielefeld any longer.
The next day, on a whim, I sang in the street and made enough money for a nice lunch – some linsensuppe (thick lentil soup with, of course, sausages on top) with apfelschorle (apple juice mixed with bubbly mineral water). I also had enough money to go to the supermarket with Kyle and Morris to buy some fruit for our room.
My German roommates left the next morning, and I had a short interview with a representative of Bertelsmann. As one of my professors told me, “visiting Bertelsmann is kind of like traveling into the death star of international publishing.” They own Random House International, after all, and they control much of German (and worldwide) music/book/dvd selling. My interview was pleasant enough – I think I bypassed some of the “death stariness” by meeting with a bland press representative. I tried to meet with the higher-ups, but never responded to my calls and e-mails. I guess I will have to do some more research on them myself.
I leave Bielefeld for Frankfurt tomorrow, but before boarding my train, I have one last interview to conduct. The interview is at Thalia (when I told them about this grant, they didn’t believe me and thought I was absolutely crazy, but they agreed for me to come back on Monday anyway). Today, my last full day in the wonderfully unheard of city of Bielefeld, I went to the Castle Sparrenburg (the city’s medieval landmark, with its high thirteenth-century watchtower) for their summer “Sparrenburg Festival.” I got there and found myself in medieval Germany – dukes dressed in period garb marched and shouted around the castle, bagpipe players played medieval music while they danced around in Gothic black leather suits, with quivers over their shoulders. I had bratwurst, watched a blacksmith working on an anvil in a medieval forge, and climbed to the top of Sparrenburg’s watchtower – after hundreds of steps, I could see all of the Rhine valley and the Tuetoburg Forest. What a great way to end my stay in this picturesque place. On to Frankfurt am Main (Germany’s most modern city, and what some call Mainhattan or “Chicago am Main”).
Incidentally, I am sending this from a McDonald’s (one of the only places where I can get wifi) near Bielefeld’s main plaza. An affable old German man just leaned over me and spoke for about five minutes – he is very friendly. What did he say? I don’t know.
Bis später – until later!
In This Post:
Frankfurt 8:00AM July 30th
On my last night in Bielefeld, as I mentioned last time, I attended the city’s annual summer festival at Sparrenburg Castle. Despite occasional loneliness, Bielefeld has really been a comfortable introduction to German book culture. The city is smaller than Frankfurt or Munich – my other two main stops in Germany – and with less bookstores than those two metropolises, I was able to concentrate on the few that were there. As mentioned in a previous post, Germany has the highest number of bookstores per square kilometer in the world. Without Bielefeld to ease me into this complicated literary culture, I probably would have been immediately overwhelmed in Frankfurt.
After drinking some apfelschorle and bratwurst at the medieval festivities, I returned to my hostel that night to find another roommate – a young Polish business student (a few years older than me) on holiday in Germany. He was from Poznan, and had arrived at about midnight. He was only staying for the night, before heading off to Köln (Cologne) to see some of the cathedrals and churches there. After Köln, he would end his holiday in southern Germany, near the Alps.
He had a kind of strange gleam in his eyes when I first met him – like he was really happy, or maybe like he was six years old – and I didn’t really know what to make of it. I still really don’t. Maybe he was just very excited to be on holiday, or to meet an American – he did ask me a lot of questions about America, and with an unusual alacrity. Anyway, I was glad to finally have a roommate (Kyle and Morris had only stayed for one night) and we talked about what Poland was like (I have never been, but a recent course on the History of the Holocaust gave me a good idea of Polish geography). He said he had been to Auschwitz, and that it is one of the most touristic parts of the country. Apparently, aside from visiting Warsaw or Auschwitz, tourists don’t really visit Poland. It must be strange to have a bunch of Americans and Western Europeans constantly traipsing about your country to look at the horrible remains of what your ancestors did sixty-five years ago. According to my roommate, more tourists should come to the rest of Poland – not just its Holocaust memorials – as living expenses are much lower there than in Western Europe – the dollar is worth more than the Polish zloty.
My new roommate also referred to Poland as “the middle east.” I didn’t really understand this – when I think of “the middle east,” I think of what most Americans think of – unduly shaped by CNN, our government, and the New York Times. For Poles, their country is “the middle east,” and they refer to it as such, because it is in the middle of Eastern Europe. He laughed when I was confused – “It is the middle east of Europe, not the middle east of the world.” Is Poland the middle of Eastern Europe, though? Regardless, it made me realize just how calcified my notions of the world are – a benign geographical designation means so much, unconsciously, to someone inundated with Western media messages.
He spoke German, Polish, and some English. It was easy for us to communicate – I helped him with his English, and he taught me a few German words. He said most Poles don’t learn German – it is a hard language for Poles to learn, compared to Russian and other Baltic languages. Russian, as I expected, is close enough to Polish to make it very easy for Poles to learn. Most Poles, then, must learn English, and then are given a choice in school between German and French. I gathered that Russian is usually picked up fairly easily either in or out of school. Of course, Russian language training was once mandated by Soviet communist rulers. A BBC article offers some insight into the rise of Russian language training in Poland: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6233821.stm
I told him about some interesting things to do in Bielefeld – he wasn’t going to be leaving for Köln until late the next day – and then he asked me the ubiquitous question. I don’t think any European I’ve met so far has not asked me this question: “Obama or McCain?” I told him my views (I am a liberal college student, what do you expect?) and told him about how Americans – young Americans, especially – are going nuts for him. He said, “Yes, it is same for Poland” I asked, “So Poles really love Obama, too?” and he threw his head back, looked up and screamed “Obama Obama Obama!” Remember that strange twinkle in his eye? I think this might have been why. He had just come from hearing Obama’s speech in Berlin (or he had only passed through Berlin and seen the speech in Poznan – he was vague on this point) and was evidently a fan. His friends in Poland loved him, too (as did Berliners, at least most of them – http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,567922,00.html).
He did criticize Obama’s Berlin speech a bit – for being to idealistic, and for not detailing exactly how he would “build transatlantic bridges.” My roommate from Poznan was, however, wildly in favor of a possible Barack presidency. The twinkle in his eyes when he looked up at the ceiling of our bare hostel room in Near Nowhere, Germany (a.k.a. Bielefeld) reminded me of Odile Hellier and her instant smile when I uttered the presumptive democratic presidential nominee’s name. In France, Obama enthusiasm was expectedly widespread. I was explaining the difference between the primaries and the general election to Mireille when she described an Obama presidency, with a smile, as “un message pour le monde entier” – “a message for the whole world” that America had abandoned its racist past. I apologize if this is getting too political, but you must understand that everywhere I go, I keep facing that question: “Obama or McCain?” In French, German, British, Dutch bookstores, I walk in to see Fareed Zakaria’s recently-published The Post-American World next to The Audacity of Hope or Dreams From My Father. Sometimes they’re right next to each other, prominently displayed on a front table. What does this say about America today? This summer seems to be imbued with a potent mixture of intense fear and desperate hope – China’s Olympic preparations, Obama’s international tour, quakes in California, bombings in India – but then when are these two forces not running the world?
I told my roommate about my research project and the Circumnavigators Club – like a lot of people, he laughed and thought I was telling stories. I showed him the proof – my seven-page itinerary from STA – and then he believed me. That STA packet is, for these three months, more valuable to me than my clothes, my shoes, books, camera, anything. It contains record locators for all of my major flights, and exact dates and times for switching cities and checking into hostels and hotels. I handed it to my Polish roommate with trepidation – as if he would suddenly drop it, and it would shatter into a million pieces.
We talked for a bit longer, and then went to bed. In the morning, I woke up early for an interview I’d set up with the fiction manager at a Bielefeld outlet of the Thalia bookstore chain. The manager had actually prepared a written list of their store’s bestselling American authors, and confided to me that they don’t really check the New York Times Best Sellers Lists, but rather order books “people ask for.” A bookstore obviously carries what “people ask for,” but in most Parisian and British bookstores I’d been to, the ordering heads usually look to American literary publications – New York Times, The New Yorker, Book Forum – for information on which books to order. With fuel prices climbing, these choices are crucial. Ordering a hundred copies of a book that no one wants can kill a store’s bottom line. I was surprised with this woman’s nonchalance about overseas ordering. But then, Germany has a tremendously rich literary culture, and Thalia is one of its prominent chains.
After the interview, I caught a train to Frankfurt. I got a bit sidetracked in Düsseldorf – my connecting train from Düsseldorf to Frankfurt never arrived – but eventually arrived in the bustling German metropolis. It reminds me of Chicago – a river, a similar skyline, and lots of greenery. No wonder they call it “Chicago am Main” (the River Main – pronounced “mine” – bisects the city). Aside from the Roman ruins, they’re very similar. Further, like Chicago, Frankfurt is one of Germany’s most diverse cities – one in four inhabitants are foreigners (many Italian, Turkish, and Greek immigrants).
After dropping my bags off in Frankfurt, I took a quick trip to nearby Mainz, where Johannes Gutenberg once lived and worked. I didn’t have anything scheduled for my first day in Frankfurt, so I thought I’d make the most of my day-long train pass. Mainz is a beautiful small city on the Rhine. I saw a re-creation of Gutenberg’s workshop, and about four or five statues and memorials commemorating his invention of printing. Germans are very gung-ho about their literary giants (I’m counting Gutenberg as a “literary giant”). You go into a Parisian bookstore, and you’ll see, on the “Classics” shelf, Flaubert mixed with Hermann Melville and Mark Twain. In Germany, “Classics” shelves mean Goethe, Schiller, Mann, and maybe some Faulkner.
After spending some time in the church where Gutenberg was baptized, I went back to Frankfurt. The world’s largest book fair is held here annually during the second week in October. Here, I am meeting with one of the fair’s organizers, along with assorted interviews with various bookstore managers. I have had a few of these interviews already, and I am learning that I must read up on German literature – somebody give me some Goethe, please!
The people I have met so far have been warm and welcoming. Frankfurt contains the headquarters of many German banks and newspapers, so I am inevitably passing by huge numbers of dark-suited businessmen with briefcases. In the train station, though, I took a picture of a couple of immigrants from Doha and they gave me some figs. There was also the guy who came up to me out of nowhere, smiling and spreading the news that “tomorrow it will be 32 degrees in Frankfurt!” He was very excited about it.
Germany is rife with Roman ruins, Romanesque cathedrals, and half-timbered houses from five hundred years ago. Many of these buildings, however, were destroyed during World War II and meticulously re-created in the 1950s. Nonetheless, these national treasures are still as captivating as they must once have been. Frankfurt also, expectedly, loves frankfurters. One bratwurst can hold me over for practically a day and a half. In Frankfurt, they also like to spread their sausage on morning toast – I discovered this at my hotel’s breakfast on the first day – they gave me a tube of what smelled and looked like pureed hot dog to spread on my bread. It tasted kind of strange – I’m not really sure yet what I think of it.
In other news, I finished The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini on the train from Bielefeld to Frankfurt. I am still trying to understand why it was such an international phenomenon. Was it simply because the book contains a large number of Afghani and Pakistani cultural references? Was it the writing? I don’t think so. The story? The book seems to fit with what I read in a book about bestsellers: their popularity coincides with a specific moment in time. Could The Kite Runner could only have been a bestseller before 2003? Before 2001?
More to come of Frankfurt in later posts. And up next: Munich.
In This Post:
Munich 11:00PM August 9th
I am busy here in the capital of Bavaria – learning German, interviewing patrons and owners of Bertelsmann bookstores, looking at some surprising German versions of American books, and eating Weißwurst (“white sausage,” a traditional Bavarian veal sausage, eaten with mustard and a pretzel – really, really good!). I have met some interesting Bavarians, Manitobans, Saskatchewans, Irish, and Kiwis, in my hostel, and I hope that I can come back here one day! Germany is diverse, rich with history, and strangely reminiscent of America. I mean, I really didn’t expect to see soft pretzels anywhere outside of Philadelphia. Here, huge pretzels are practically falling from the trees. And I do mean huge – much bigger than any soft pretzels I have ever seen, and definitely rivaling any American dominance in portion size. American ballpark fare is a bastardization of German wurst, mustard, and pretzels.
Literary censorship in Germany often figures into my thoughts of the place – with so many availability issues surrounding Mein Kampf, and with German national identity in a precarious place after World War II (it was not until the 2006 World Cup that Germans actually waved their own flag with pride), national identity in Germany is a worrisome thing. Sixty years after Hitler, Germans were still ashamed of black, red, and gold. Imagine living in a place so full of embarrassment that it scorns patriotism – it must be difficult. Here is a link to an article on the first signs of German nationalism in 2006: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/18/world/europe/18germany.html
Aside from interviews and sightseeing in Munich, I took full advantage of my rail pass – which allows five free round train trips – and traveled to Saalfeld and Treuchtlingen. The two towns boast some beautiful old castles and churches. Saalfeld is especially idyllic, with a quiet river running through it, and forest-covered hills in all directions.
As I was exploring Treuchtlingen, I passed a house with three German flags hanging from three of its windows. It took me by surprise, and made me think of the apprehensive glee that must have surrounded the 2006 World Cup display of nationalism. Germany also doesn’t really know what to do with the physical remnants of the Third Reich – in the Hofbrauhaus (Munich’s most famous beer hall), the swastika-tiled floor was recently torn up, and new tiles are being installed. The decision was apparently controversial – should Munich leave the swastikas, as a reminder of what happened sixty-five years ago? How should a nation remember its past? In some places, swastikas have been carefully transformed into pinwheels.
Germany’s complex nationalism – must affect Bertelsmann’s choice of books to publish and stock in its stores. I asked the Bertelsmann representative I met in Gütersloh (near Bielefeld) about this, and they said that it must, but they didn’t really know exactly how. I was not speaking with the company’s head, but rather with a press spokesperson. I wonder, though, if while German nationalism was more or less prohibited in the latter half of the last century, literary circulation compensated for the ostensible silence. In other words, perhaps as nationalism vanished from public, it flourished in the quiet pages of books. Or maybe all those statues of Goethe took the place of political monuments, and kept the German people proud of their national identity.
This is a rough theory, but I am seeing some evidence of it around Munich bookstores – I am finding that most of the bookstores here actually sell less foreign literature than the French or British bookstores I visited in those countries. Of course, the standard American bestsellers are definitely popular here – Ken Follett, Cecilia Ahern, Cormac McCarthy – but as for long-running American classics or contemporary novels with any kind of staying power, the German selections do not match much of what I saw in Paris and London. This could just be a function of the bookstores I am visiting – there is not time to visit them all – or it may have something to do with underlying twentieth-century German nationalism. Is this a reality – the heightened preservation of national literary treasures to the exclusion of other ideas and authors? Or perhaps it has something to do with what Marie Paccard in Paris told me – the current price to import books is skyrocketing along with the price of gas, and German bookstores can more easily buy books from a neighboring publisher than from across the ocean.
On my first day here, I had a meeting with the owner of a bookstore – a Bertelsmann outlet – on the ground floor of the Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall). The owner showed me some German versions of American books – Catcher in the Rye among them, with its typically spare cover art – and we spoke about America. “I have been to New York, yes,” he said, and went on, “I remember I ordered a pizza and it came and was as big as the table! I laughed and laughed.” He was probably as surprised about table-sized American pizza as I was about table-sized Bavarian pretzels carried around in large baskets by German women wearing dirndls.
I am finding, as I continue, that this project is less about books than about the people behind them – I guess I always knew this, and expected my project to take on this focus, but I am learning that the people who manage these publishing companies and bookstores are the real interesting ones. Every publisher has a great history, every bookstore a unique audience and story of its founding.
After meeting with the owner of this Bertelsmann outlet, I was lucky enough to hop on a free tour of Munich. Patrick, the tour guide, was from Ireland and working using tips from free tours to finance his summer holiday in Germany. He gave a great introduction to Munich’s subtle monuments and tumultuous history. I learned all about the Oktoberfest (originally a royal festival begun by a seventeenth century Bavarian king), Hitler’s beer-hall putsch (a Nazi march at which protesters attempted to assassinate Hitler), the Frauenkirche, and the subtle World War II monuments commemorating destroyed synagogues and those who protested against the Nazi regime. One of these memorials, a silent line of golden bricks in a narrow cobblestone alley, commemorates those who protested by walking down that alley rather than giving a statue of pro-Nazi plaque the obligatory salute. Many quiet protesters who walked down this alley died as a result. As Munich was one of the centers of Hitler’s support and attendant rise, the tour included a visit to Munich’s new Jewish synagogue and community center (opened in 2007). The complex includes an underground memorial, situated in a tunnel connecting the synagogue to the community center. Visitors must pass through a metal detector before entering the complex. The guard told us that Bavarians Jews are still afraid, and protect their temples vigilantly.
In my spare time, I sometimes go to bookstores to look at American travel guides in German. I guess I could have done this at home, but it is definitely fun to do it in Germany. Looking at a Las Vegas travel guide in German, for instance, offers an interesting perspective on America (you’d never expect some things to be listed under “Local Cuisine”). Just as I am excited to try Weißwurst, so Germans must be excited to eat at Wendy’s. Actually, talking with one of my roommates from Nottingham, I realized that Wendy’s might be a coveted American delicacy – he couldn’t stop talking about it!
I should not be surprised that American travel guides are amusing, as all travel guides are funny in their own way. They usually use such lush language to describe some not so glamorous things, and it is because I am so familiar with America that I am aware of the contrast between the truth with the exaggeration.
My hostel is a converted Ford automobile factory (a large mural of a colorful globe entitled “Ford über all” greets you in the lobby). I have met really great people there, and we share stories about Münich and German – one of my newest roommates is from northern Bavaria, and he helps me out with my elementary German.
A few of us decided to go to Dachau on our last day here, so we signed up for a guided tour and woke up early to walk to the train station. We arrived, and the tour guide (his name was Adam) told us that his fiancé’s father had been interned in Dachau. He was a great tour guide, and I asked him incessant questions about the camp’s history, which he answered easily. Much of the camp (most of the barracks, for example) was destroyed after the war, but some buildings remain.
The most difficult section of the tour was visiting the gas chambers and the trail leading to them, which are still intact. Adam said he did not want to go in, so we went ourselves. There is a kind of trail through the forest that connects the main section of the camp to the gas chambers (the chambers are hidden in the forest). There are a few monuments on the trail, memorializing shooting ranges or macabre ditches. The surrounding forest is abnormally verdant – moss everywhere, and vines inching up the trunks of trees. Maybe this is typical of all German forests (known for their Grimm-esque beauty) but I was taken aback by such a horrible place’s thriving plant life. It was a strange contrast.
The camp contains many memorials, among them the famous “intertwined bodies” ironwork memorial, and we spent some time inside them. At 2:45, a large bell rang, and four nuns emerged from one of the memorials to pray in the center of the camp. This happens everyday.
After the tour, my friends and I took a train back to Munich (Dachau is only about fifteen minutes from Munich by train) and talked a lot about our thoughts on the camp. We were expectedly angry that no one had done anything, even while most Germans in Munich knew what was going on at the camp (Adam had told us this).
Tomorrow, I will take three planes through Spain to Morocco – I can’t wait for Casablanca!
In This Post:
Casablanca 2:43PM August 12th
It’s taken me three flights and numerous train journeys, but I am finally in Casablanca. I left Munich early Saturday morning to take a ninety-minute flight to Barcelona, and stayed there for a grand total of twelve hours, most of which were spent traveling to and from the airport or sleeping. I ate a bocadillo de jamon as well, to remind me of Purple Haze’s recent trip there (we ate lots of bocadillos de jamon), and I passed by the Sagrada Familia on the way to my hostel. That was about all I saw of beautiful Barcelona.
After waking up at 4:30AM to make it back to the Barcelona airport, I flew to Valencia and then to Casablanca. Upon my arrival in Morocco, I immediately began to speak French again, and it felt great! Also, after arriving, as I was filling out my entry card before going through passport control, a Spaniard looked over my shoulder and saw that I was American. He gave me a wide smile, slapped me on the back, and exclaimed “Snoop Dogg!” I didn’t really know how to react, so I just said “si!” and nodded. I think he was happy to finally set foot in Morocco, too.
I saw a few French-looking cafés in the airport lobby – names like “Café Bienvenue” and “Café Maroc.” They could have been situated in the heart of Montparnasse – they included same tables, chairs, dishes, and décor as the Parisian left bank cafés. As I would later hear from the manager of my youth hostel, “Morocco is like a tree with its roots in Africa but its leaves breathing the air of Europe.” I am discovering that there is much about Morocco that is definitely not European, but a lot that remains from form French and Spanish colonization. Most tourists here are either French or Spanish, too. Though Arabic is the official language, signs, menus, and other public notices are all written in both French and Arabic.
Street signs, however, can be a bit confusing. Because Morocco only recently (1956) gained independence, it is still in the process of renaming former French streets, and giving them new Arabic monikers. Consequently, many streets have two names, and it is sometimes difficult to figure out where you are. Many older Moroccans, and dated Moroccan maps, are aware of only one of the two names. Finding my hostel, for example, was an unexpected adventure. The hostel’s address was listed as “6 Place Ahmed al Bidaoui,” but this name was apparently new, and many people were not familiar with it. I would ask them for “Place Ahmed al Bidaoui” and the would laugh and say “le chanteur?” Apparently, Bidaoui is the name of a popular singer here in Morocco, and the square had only recently been named for him. The square’s original French name was “Place Admiral Philibert.” I wonder how Morocco’s international identity will play into its fiction – I expect to find similar books sold here as I found in Paris, but I will have to see for myself.
On the way from Mohammed V Airport to Casa Port station (the closest station to my youth hostel, which is right on the Atlantic coast), I passed desert shantytowns and hundreds of satellite dishes. Almost every building has at least three or four satellite dishes, huddled together on the roof. I changed trains at Ain Sebaa before arriving at Casa Port, and I remember waiting at Ain Sebaa for about an hour, sitting under a palm tree and watching mothers carrying their children across the train tracks, beneath a signpost adamantly declaring, “il est formellement interdit de traverser les voies” (“it is formally forbidden to cross the tracks”). There, with dusty desert and palm trees blowing in the pleasant breeze, I may have realized for the first time that I was, in fact, on another continent.
I arrived at Casa Port in search of my hostel, and upon walking out of the train station, was immediately offered a ride in a “petit taxi” (small red automobiles that serve as taxis in Casablanca), but I turned them down. I knew that my hostel was close to the train station, I just didn’t know exactly where, but I insisted on walking. Walking around somewhere new is the best way to take it in.
The hostel’s website had noted that it was in the “ville nouvelle” or the medina (the original walled city of Casablanca – most Moroccan cities have this kind of walled center). Casablanca’s medina is a bustling place, brimming with secondhand clothing stalls, small cafés, extraordinarily friendly touts, panhandlers, and children chasing one another through the narrow, labyrinthine streets. Looking for my hostel, I of course ventured innocently into the heart of the medina – obviously a foreigner, weighed down by a backpack twice my size and smiling innocently at the grandeur of the immense clock tower guarding the entryway to the ville ancienne – and was immediately approached by a small man who shook my hand and shouted a hearty “Welcome to Morocco!” I told him I was from America, and he seemed very happy about that. When he discovered I was looking for the Hostelling International Youth Hostel, he led me straight to his bazaar, and showed me just about everything he sold there – Moroccan carpets (of course), fezzes, Moroccan tunics, carved birds, and spices. “Don’t buy, just look,” he repeatedly exclaimed, all the while smiling and shaking my hand. I think he definitely wanted me to eventually “just buy.”
After twenty minutes of exploring his immense bazaar, meeting his business partner, and nodding incessantly, I did not find my hostel, and I declined to buy anything. I promised to come again, and we parted with a handshake and patting our hearts with our right hands. Here, that is a common method of thanking someone, or of meeting a friend – shake their hand, and then touch your heart with your right hand.
I was left alone again in the middle of a bustling medina, walking past men selling cactus fruit and some stray cats munching on fish heads (Casablanca is Morocco’s principal port and the medina is located right by the Atlantic coast, resulting in an ever-present fishy smell, a pleasant breeze, and some fish heads in the streets). I left the medina – after just coming off the train, and with all my luggage hanging from me, it was a bit overwhelming as a first stop – and headed back toward the train station. A guard at one of the ritzy hotels nearby pointed me in the right direction, and I was soon unloading my luggage in my room.
My hostel is conveniently situated on the edge of the medina – a few steps from the rocky Atlantic coast, and across the street from a post office and traditional hammam (bathhouse). I briefly unpacked and ventured into the medina to buy two things – toilet paper (hostel guests must bring their own) and a towel (I think the girl with no pants might have stolen my Amsterdam towel). Toilet paper was easy, but the towel was a bit more difficult – I visited an old clothing seller in his small shop, asked for a towel, and was elaborately presented with four different sizes and many different designs. I chose the smallest size, and haggled a bit with him for the cost of the towel. We settled on 30 dirham (about $4.50), and I gave him all I had with me – a bill for 200Dh from the airport ATM. He did not have enough change, but went to the owner of the small shop across the way, and came back with about enough change – about 5Dh too much. He gave me the money, but made me promise to come back that night, or the next day, with his 5Dh. I agreed, and went back to the hostel, where I had some change from buying the train ticket from the airport – I quickly found 5Dh, and brought it immediately back to him. He thanked me, put his hand on his heart, and even gave me some pita bread – gratuit! I was surprised by how friendly Moroccans are.
I dropped off my new towel and toilet paper and took a brief walk around town – I passed by a few street side bookstalls, one of which had a large display (filling up its own towel, lain on the sidewalk), of books on Hitler and Nazism – I couldn’t really read the Arabic titles, but saw numerous swastikas and faces of Hitler. Definitely not representative by any means, but it expectedly caught my eye, especially after having visited Dachau a few days prior. I also found a large bookstore where I bought a Moroccan travel guide – I will have to visit again soon to speak with the owner about the store’s selection of books. Also, walking around town that first day, I was given a Moroccan haircut (I really did need a haircut after just about two months, so I stumbled into a nearby barbershop). After the haircut, I ate some shwarma (lamb roasted on a spit and served with tahini) and walked to the coast. There isn’t really a beach so close to the port, so the coast was rocky rather than sandy, and I could see the massive Hassan II Mosque in the distance. The mosque is the city’s principal architectural wonder – it is the world’s third-largest mosque, opened in 1993 and built to commemorate the former king’s 60th birthday. I sat on the rocks, looked out over the Atlantic Ocean, and thought of America on the other side of all that water. Coming back, I passed by Rick’s Café – a re-make of the 1942 film’s iconic eatery, capitalizing on the dreams of tourists who come to Casablanca looking for the exoticism of Hollywood and World War II.
The past few days had been a whirlwind of planes and trains, and I was exhausted. I spent a few hours reading my new travel guide, took some notes, and drifted off to sleep, glad to have finally arrived in this fascinatingly multicultural port city. Casablanca is Morocco’s principal metropolis, and, through all its smog and commotion, the variety of backgrounds represented here is really astounding – from rich Arab tourists to French restaurant owners, veiled panhandlers to women in jeans and sunglasses – Casablanca is incredibly diverse. I grew excited for the coming weeks as I drifted off to sleep.
What follows actually ended up happily, so don’t get too distressed – in retrospect, it is kind of funny. I unexpectedly awoke about three hours after falling asleep, staring at a few drops of blood on the sheets next to my pillow. Jumping out of bed, I turned on the lights and saw my sheets densely speckled with crawling things – I had been unwittingly having a slumber party with bedbugs! I’d read about them in my travel guide, but never actually seen them. The phrase, “don’t let the bedbugs bite!” is actually grounded in truth (http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/bedbugs/DS00663). Apparently, they had been feasting on me in the night, and I had unconsciously either tried to swat them away or had crushed a few rolling over – either way, there were scattered bloodstains on my sheets. Very strange. I frantically tore off my clothes, shook the bugs out of them, and ran to the shower. Needless to say, I was somewhat freaked out. I came back to find a few insects still crawling on my bed, but most of them had crawled away, as bedbugs are not too fond of light. I looked at my shirt, and found a few extra sneaky ones clinging nonchalantly to the fabric – they blended in, and I had to really inspect all my clothes in order to make sure they were all gone. After searching through my clothes, I found some crawling through the books I had placed on the floor before going to sleep.
I didn’t want them again finding their way to me, so I crept into the hostel lobby at 3:00 in the morning and attempted to make a bed out of three breakfast chairs. I was just getting comfortable (as comfortable as one could get on three breakfast chairs) when a hostel guard shined a flashlight in my eyes and whispered something in quick Arabic – he gestured for me to go back to my room. I tried to explain what was going on in my room, but he spoke no French and was intent on getting back to bed (it was 3:00AM, after all), so I slept in the hall (or at least I think I did – that night is a bit of a blur). I do remember that I was awake at 5:00AM when the muezzin called the morning prayer from the nearest mosque (this happens every morning at roughly 5:00AM in Muslim cities). I remember the muezzin singing and a cock crowing.
I woke up and told the hostel manager of the incident – he was very nice, put his arm around my shoulders, and asked if I wanted to switch rooms. “Oui, s’il vous plaît,” I replied. I moved my things to a neighboring room and helped the owner move my mattress and bed to the storage area located on the roof of the hostel. He spoke great French (like most Moroccans) and we talked as I helped him carry the bed frame upstairs – I told him about my research project, and when we were finished fumigating my room he took me to some of the best bookstores in Casablanca! He knew a lot about where to find great French literature, and was very gracious. I had a new friend.
A French student in my hostel was a bedbug aficionado (he’d encountered them in Tangier), and we thoroughly inspected my belongings together. Apparently, bedbugs have a tendency to hide themselves (or their eggs) in your luggage, and to thereby transport themselves to your next bed. I was very worried about this, and I did find eggs in two of my shirts – I washed them, and hope to never see bedbugs again. The incident left me with a vast knowledge of bedbugs (after some internet research, I think I am the world’s expert – they’re supposed to be prevalent in Brooklyn, so watch out!), and some paranoia (will I ever sleep again without looking under the mattress ten times?), but most importantly a few great friends and a revised itinerary of a few new bookstore owners to interview. I am totally safe now, and can say that I have successfully conquered an army of bedbugs in Morocco! No worries.
I am planning visits to various bookstores here (ones I never would have known without the help of the hostel owner) and a much-anticipated tour of the huge Hassan II mosque. Built in only six years on an outcropping over the Atlantic, it takes literally the Quran’s verse stating, “the throne of God was built on the water.” At night, its minaret shines a laser beam toward Mecca.
That’s all for now – more to come on Moroccan literature in further posts. In addition to looking at French novels in Morocco, I am interested in discovering whether certain Moroccan-American writers (Laila Lalami, for instance) are just as popular in Morocco as in the United States. Until next time, sleep tight, and don’t let the bedbugs bite!
In This Post:
Casablanca 9:46PM August 14th
The Hassan II mosque might just be the most impressive feat of engineering I’ve come across since the Frauenkirche in Munich. It features the highest minaret in the world, towering over Casablanca’s salty seaside mist, and includes sliding panels in its ceiling (each panel weighs a few thousand tons), columns plated with egg whites and marble, chandeliers imported from central Italy, and onyx from the Moroccan Atlas Mountains. In the ablutions rooms, brass chandeliers keep their color without oxidization – the pillars in these rooms are coated with a mixture of limestone, clay, black soap, and egg yolks, and this concoction successfully absorbs the rooms’ moisture, allowing the chandeliers’ brass to remain chemical-free – what a clever idea! Two shallow trenches run through the center of the mosque’s main hall, making an isolated platform of marble between them. These trenches are filled with water when King Mohammed VI comes to worship, and the King walks along the isolated platform, between two flowing streams. All this, and the mosque was built in only six years!
I took a tour of the mosque today, and met Yves – originally raised in Togo, he currently teaches French at a high school in Sacramento. He was one of the few English speakers (with an American accent) I encountered at the mosque. I have grown increasingly mesmerized by American English speakers since arriving in Morocco. American accents are a rarity here, and they instinctively catch my attention – it’s like the “cocktail party effect” from Introduction to Psychology. The effect explains why you can always hear when someone else utters your name, even if you are in the middle of a crowded cocktail party (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cocktail_party_effect). It’s an instinctive attention-grabber. When I hear an American accent, my head turns like a cat spotting a bird, and I sometimes stare with my mouth open. It’s just so rare.
Yves was understandably surprised when I told him my nationality – most tourists in Morocco are French, Spanish, or Arab. He was heading east to Fès (the Fès medina is supposed to be a sight to behold), and then south to Marrakesh (Morocco’s tourist capital, a colorful city of souqs, snake charmers, and palm-covered gardens). I told him I was headed to Rabat (the country’s governmental capital, and one of its most European cities). He was disappointed in my decision to head north to such a Westernized place, and I explained to him the nature of my research project. I am not really going to Rabat for tourism (there isn’t much local color in the capital). As I am heading north, though, Yves suggested I check out Tetouan, a northern city southeast of Tangier. Tetouan’s medina is a Unesco World Heritage site. After Rabat, I am scheduled to head up to Tangier. After Tangier, however, I am left with two free days before I have to be back in Casablanca to catch a flight to Tunisia – perhaps, with those two days, I will be able to see the Unesco site at Tetouan.
The mosque tour lasted about an hour, and it was my one chance to languidly take in the sights as a tourist after a day of running around the city chasing down bookstore after bookstore (more on that below). It was a nice break from the routine, and I had a chance to speak briefly with the tour guide as we walked through magnificent marbled courtyards and dark, echoing prayer halls. She is from southern Morocco, and speaks just about every language you can imagine – along with being a linguistic genius, she is witty and with it. This tour guide really smashed whatever stereotypes I’d had about Muslim women (sheltered, perhaps?). She gave the tour with humor and confidence – she had a kind of personable swagger. Describing the mosque’s elevated pulpit, called a minbar, she laughed and added, “that’s minbar, not minibar.”
A private Turkish tour group was walking alongside our English tour, and the Turkish guide attempted to translate everything the guide said into Turkish. Our spunky Moroccan guide, however, translated most of what she said into Turkish herself! And German, and French, and Arabic, and Spanish. I think the Turkish tour guide was a little bit embarrassed – every time she tried to translate our English guide’s words, she’d stumble as the Moroccan guide took charge.
Given the overabundance of language textbooks in all of the bookstores and street side bookstalls I have visited in Casablanca, it is no wonder Moroccans are polyglots. French and English language textbooks are everywhere, and the English bookstore managers I have spoken with tell me it’s the textbook sales that keep them afloat. The country’s colonial history adds to its multilingualism. Tangier, a northern city on the Strait of Gibraltar, was once officially declared an “international zone” controlled by French, Spanish, British, Portuguese, Swedish, Dutch, Belgian, Italian, and American diplomats. Before that, Phoenicians, Romans, Visigoths, and Arabs alternately controlled the region. The country’s strategic location at the gates of the Mediterranean makes it a lucrative protectorate.
Though American diplomats did once control Tangier (along with myriad other European nations’ representatives), most Moroccans I have met are fond of the American people (they are not fond of the American president, but they are fond of the American people), and I have met a few Moroccans my age who wistfully dream about one day trekking across America. They know that America is “un pays très vaste” (a very vast country), and they want to drive “out west” from New York to Las Vegas. Jack Kerouac, anybody? Maybe Tangier’s beat legacy (Kerouac, Burroughs, and Bowles all visited there, and Bowles died there) plays into these dreams of America and its “vaste” open road.
Morocco’s relationship to America actually goes back to the late eighteenth century, when Morocco was the first nation to officially recognize America as its own country in 1777. I don’t think most Americans know this (at least I didn’t!). There is supposedly a letter of thanks from George Washington to the Moroccan sultan on display in Tangier’s Old American Legation Museum. Historically controlled by so many foreign powers, that eighteenth-century sultan (whose name was Mohammed ben Abdullah, if my sources are correct) must have empathized with the American struggle for self-sovereignty. Morocco and America are historically closer than you might think.
Earlier in the day, before the mosque tour, I interviewed the owner of Gauthier Livres (a French/English bookstore in a quiet residential street). Surprisingly, his store does not carry Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, one of the first books published in English by a Moroccan. The book details Moroccans’ perilous journey to emigrate from Tangier across the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain, and I had expected to find a French or Arabic translation. Lalami was born and raised in Morocco, but now lives in California, and her book was published in America, in English. She keeps an engaging blog, too: http://www.lailalalami.com/blog/. Does Lalami’s publishing and living in America deny her the kind of status she might have won had she published in Morocco? Is she an American traitor? I asked the clerk if he had ever heard of the book, and he just laughed at the title and shook his head. I guess it is a strange title. Another Moroccan bookstore clerk, whom I interviewed later in the day, hadn’t heard of it either.
After the tour, I grabbed a McArabia and went back to my hostel. McDonald’s in Morocco features a slightly different menu than American McDonald’s, and one of their sandwiches is the “McArabia.” It is basically a hamburger patty inside a folded piece of Moroccan bread, with lettuce, and it is halal. The McArabia proves my theory that McDonald’s is not really American anymore. It’s just (in the words of Adam Freudenheim, of Penguin Books in London) “blandly international.” For more on McDonald’s in the world, see James Watson’s book, Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia. I didn’t know that McDonald’s actually revolutionized sanitation standards in Asia until reading it.
On my way to the hostel, I passed numerous wooden carts of fish in the street. Fish abound in Casablanca (did I mention the city smells perpetually fishy?), and these carts sell the freshest catches of the day. You can see the men bringing baskets of freshly caught fish directly from the coast to their street side stalls. I saw some swordfish that were still moving, and customers haggling vehemently over the price of a medium-sized shark.
At the hostel, I met a few friendly Saudi Arabians, who said I should come to Saudi Arabia sometime, and gave me their e-mail addresses to contact them if I ever visit. They were studying engineering, and were, like Yves, planning to head south to Marrakech. I think I should also mention that they wouldn’t stop calling me Harry Potter, no matter how frequently I emphasized that I was not a fictional character. Some of the middle schoolers I tutor call me Harry Potter, too. I guess I do kind of resemble him when I wear glasses. All I need is a lightning bolt scar.
Tomorrow, I leave Casablanca for Rabat. More to come as I travel through Morocco’s cosmopolitan capital. After that, it’s off to Tangier, near the Strait of Gibraltar.
In This Post:
Tangier 10:00PM August 19th
More has happened this week than I will probably ever be able to fit into any post – I think I would have to write a book and a half to fully absorb all I have heard, seen, tasted and felt throughout the past week. I close my eyes at night and can’t escape a kind of endless slideshow of the day’s encounters – long talks with street side booksellers, the U.S. Embassy with its towering American flag, a fish seller performing ventriloquism with a dead shark. True to Moroccan tourism’s motto, the Maghrebi Atlantic coast is an “éblouissement de senses” (overwhelming of the senses), and it bowled me over with its captivating chaos. Strolling through blaring medinas evokes my first trip to Manhattan without the skyscrapers, though Morocco grabs onto you and doesn’t let go – New York seems less persistent. Here, I cannot walk three blocks without someone offering a carpet, or some cactus fruit, or a brass cup of sweet mint tea. I also can’t examine my map for too long in public – if I do, within two minutes an overly friendly Moroccan will approach me with a deceivingly genuine smile and ask, “quel pays?” No matter where I say I come from (Philadelphia, Chicago, Saskatchewan, Quebec, Nova Scotia, etc.), they have two or three cousins there (one of which might need surgery) and want a few dirham to pay upcoming medical bills. Either that, or they bend their head and whisper “hashish?” or simply want to show me the sights (and they want a tip). I was walking through Rabat’s Kasbah (its ancient citadel), when one of these amateur guides actually started chasing me when I wouldn’t respond to him. I walked quickly through the Kasbah’s winding alleyways, and ended up lost in its labyrinthine streets. It took a while to get back on the main road.
Yves (the Californian schoolteacher I met at Casablanca’s Hassan II mosque) had an extended conversation with one of these amateur guides, and the guide so desperately wanted Yves to take him back to California that he asked earnestly, “Can you make me a business proposal?” Imagine walking down Michigan Avenue and being approached by a stranger asking for you to make them a business proposal. If only we were all businessmen, and if only business was that easy.
After reading Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits in a class at Northwestern last quarter (CLS 383 with Brian Edwards – great course), and learning about Murat and his life as a faux guide in Tangier, I can understand where these touts are coming from. I don’t think I would have learned as much from Morocco and Moroccans had I not read that book – it takes a certain degree of patience and perspective to see past the Moroccan clamor. In the end, we’re all just trying to make a buck (or a dirham). Moroccans are persistent salesmen, but they want the same thing as all of us – realizing that has helped me understand and benefit from my weeks in Morocco.
I will never forget Moroccan persistence, but I will also never forget the food! Moroccan food has perplexed me since I landed here – why does everything taste like candy? Now, after fourteen days here, I think I have discovered the secret to Moroccan cuisine: everything is about ten times sweeter. Veal, couscous, tea – it’s as if everything’s natural sweetness was brought to the surface and multiplied by ten. The tea is sweeter than Georgia sweet tea, and American couscous pales in comparison to the Moroccan original. Small Moroccan patisseries (bakeries), found on just about every block in the medina, sell small pastries called chebbakia – wedges of flaky pretzel-shaped dough literally dripping with honey and sprinkled with spices and sesame seeds. The bakeries sell them by the kilo, and pile them waist-high in enormous tubs. I ate one of these, and it was a memorable. My parents know what my face looked like when I first tasted candy, and my face looked like that, times ten. I almost fell over. And I don’t think I ate again for at least the next twelve hours – I was sated beyond belief.
It’s really the honey that makes Moroccan chebbakia, tea, and all the rest so scrumptious. Moroccan honey isn’t saccharine American clover honey, but rich and hearty bee’s honey – it almost tastes like maple syrup, and you definitely can’t have too much at once. In Moroccan patisseries, hordes of bees walk all over the pastries – everything is so sweet that they think they’re at home in the hive. You ask for something, and the clerk flicks a few bees off of it before handing it to you.
I apologize if all this is making your mouth water. Go buy a doughnut to satisfy your sweet tooth. But know that an entire box of your pathetic, fluffy Krispy Kremes will never be as sweet as one real Moroccan chebbakia!
I have also begun to fully appreciate the quirkiness, comfort, and openness of independent bookstores. Though Borders, Barnes & Noble, Waterstone’s and various other anglo bookstore chains do stock an unparalleled selection of all kinds of books, it is a kind of shame that there are not more independent bookstores in America. The clerks often have idiosyncratic backgrounds and predilections, and because they are not faced with the task of managing a veritable superstore, they talk for hours. I know mega bookstores try to approximate this kind of intimacy with things like “Borders recommends” and showcasing employees’ favorites, but this is a prime example of Arjun Appadurai’s “fetishism of the local” – in one of his essays (also a part of Professor Edwards’ course), Appadurai describes ways in which international or “global” superstores, for example, try to emulate the practices of smaller local entities. Think of Whole Foods or Starbucks with their fake chalkboard ads. It’s trying to reach the unreachable. There is no substitute for a bookseller who intimately knows his or her customers. Among other things, this project has inspired me to start a store of my own sometime in the near future – I actually have a lot of ideas for it, but I won’t reveal them here. Anyone want to help?
One of my most fruitful small bookstore encounters happened at a little shack in Rabat aptly named “English Bookstore.” The name was written clearly in chalk on a royal blue awning. The store’s manager, a small talkative Moroccan who spoke great English, French, and Arabic, opened up to me immediately, and we talked for about two hours – it was one of the best interviews of the whole journey so far. Amazing. He was interested in what I was there to do, and gave me some valuable information. Talking about the American books assigned in Moroccan secondary school language and literature classes (of which Salinger and Ellison were two of the most popular, along with Steinbeck, according to him) – he mentioned that mostly he sells language textbooks and “criticism.” “Criticism?” I asked. “Yes, criticism,” he said as he lifted a dusty carton of books to reveal container brimming with myriad CliffsNotes. “The students don’t read as much as they should, but they come in here for the criticism.” Apparently, some teachers come in for Cliff’s Notes, too. He also showed me some language textbooks labeled “NOT FOR SALE IN THE UNITED STATES.” As I was leaving, a large group of students walked in, all of them clamoring for language textbooks.
I spoke with this bookseller towards the end of my stay in Rabat (a few days before leaving), and visited him again about an hour before my train left for Tangier. I wanted to ask if he carried Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. He did, but his version looks different from the one sold in the United States – it’s published by the Moroccan Cultural Studies Centre instead of by Algonquin Books, and looks decidedly less commercial than its American counterpart.
On this last visit, we also looked at some Moroccan travel guides together – he sells lots of them to tourists. Interestingly, travel guides published in Morocco – no matter the language – must include the Western Sahara as part of Morocco. Guides published outside of Morocco don’t need to do this. The Western Sahara is a strip of land south of Morocco, inhabited by desert dwellers (“Saharawis”) adamantly demanding freedom and self-sovereignty. They unofficially call themselves the “Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic.” Spain ruled the strip of land until 1975, the Moroccan government has been pouring money into regional infrastructure projects – today, much of the conflict has subsided, and tourists frequently cross the barren tract to enter Mauritania (Morocco’s southern neighbor). A bedbug aficionado I met in Casablanca was actually headed to Mauritania through the Western Sahara. He explained that he would have to hire a local truck driver to take him across the border, as the desert is riddled with land mines and only the experienced Saharawis know how to avoid them. Consequently, not all maps of Morocco are the same. The CIA World Factbook doesn’t include it the Western Sahara, while my Lonely Planet guide (bought in Morocco), does.
Through talks in Rabat, I also learned that Morocco is relatively new to publishing – storytellers and singers are traditionally the ones in charge of spreading national histories and legends. In fact, according to a few bookstore proprietors, it’s only recently that you could publish in Morocco – writers used to have to send their manuscripts to Lebanon for publishing.
After four days in the coastal capital of Rabat, I hopped on a six-hour train up to Tangier. On this epic train ride, I caught a glimpse of some of Morocco’s oral storytelling tradition. I was sitting with a family from Fès – they had come down to Rabat to pick up their daughter from university, and were heading up to Tangier for a brief vacation – and a few Saudi Arabian teenage girls who were headed for Asilah (a small coastal resort town). I can’t really understand Arabic, so I was getting some reading done without really being able to understand what they were discussing, when an old man wearing a suit and tie came into our little alcove, sat down, and started talking. He talked for about four hours – I knew he was telling a gripping story by the looks on everyone’s faces. They stared at him with a kind of awe, and nobody moved. I couldn’t understand any of it, but knew he was a great storyteller. One of the Asilah girls started to cry – she was that moved.
The man finished and left the train – I asked the Fès family what the story had been about, and they told me he was telling a story about his recent divorce. Then I began talking with the Fès family – they were extraordinarily nice, and very funny. The family comprised a mom and dad, along with their college-age daughter and twelve-year-old son. We had an amazing conversation – their daughter spoke some French, so we were able to communicate through her. We talked about George Bush, Islam, and Morocco. I really wish you were there, to see the five of us – four Moroccans and an American – speaking about these things in a cramped train with the Atlas mountains on our right and the Atlantic ocean on our left. Here is a translated snippet of the humorous beginning of our conversation, as best I can remember it. The daughter’s name was Rajae, but I never learned her brother or parents’ names:
Dad: Where are you from?
After that, we talked about Muslims in America. “What about people who look like my daughter? How do they treat them in America?” asked Rajae’s dad, putting his arm around her (she was wearing a headscarf). I explained that they are treated just like everyone else in most places, though 9/11 (among other things) caused some undue fear. They had heard all sorts of stories – Muslims being stopped on the street, prevented from boarding planes, etc. Rajae shook her head, “They think just because you are Muslim you are a terrorist. It’s false. It’s just so false.” All of them looked down and shook their heads disappointedly. I asked them if there were a lot of Americans in Morocco, and how Americans are treated there – Rajae said there were some there to study, and that they were very rich. After that, Rajae told me her favorite singer was Celine Dion, and her little brother liked Shakira. When I told them that Kobe Bryant went to my high school, Rajae’s little brother (a basketball fan) almost fell off his seat. They really got a kick out of that.
We went on to talk about a bunch of things – couscous, television, movies, the Olympics (the reminded me that China is beating the U.S. in gold medals, and we all laughed). When we were ready to get off at Tangier, they all got up and hugged me, and Rajae gave me her e-mail address and their phone number. They urged me to come to Fès to visit them – “If you are ever in Fès, telephone us! Our home is open to you – our family is your family.” I thanked them profusely and put my hand over my heart. They were extremely welcoming. They said I should come over for Friday night couscous someday (most Moroccan families have glorious couscous dinners on Fridays). The little brother gave me some of his go-gurt (yumm!), and we said goodbye. Unfortunately, I won’t get to see them in Fès on this trip (they will still be vacationing near Tangier by the time I leave Morocco), but if I ever come back here, I will be sure to visit them.
That’s all for now. After a few days here in Tangier, I will be saying goodbye to Morocco and hello to Tunisia!
In This Post:
Tunis 11:00PM August 30th
Africa meets Europe meets the Middle East in Tangier – its location on the Strait of Gibraltar, and its Maghrebi connection to the Middle East, make it feel like a kind of otherworldly non-place. Locals speak Arabic, Spanish, French, English, and maybe some Turkish or German. The abundant paella, kebab, croissants, and hamburgers make this place feel like the ultimate melting pot. America may be a melting pot as well, albeit a much less tasty one than this Mediterranean stew. Lots of Spanish vacationers take ferries across the strait to enjoy the strange transcontinental mix.
I got off the long train from Rabat, shook the Fez family’s hands, put my hand on my heart, and took a taxi down to the city center (only about ten or fifteen minutes in the cab). The driver and I had an interesting exchange – he smiled and spoke some English to me (at least I think it was English – it didn’t sound like it could be anything else), and I just kind of nodded, smiled, and spoke some English back to him – I couldn’t really understand much of what he was trying to say to me. When we arrived at the center of town, I got out, said “shukran” (“thank you” in Arabic), and walked around for a while, taking in the Strait – I could see the mountains of southern Spain on my right and the wide open Atlantic Ocean ahead of me. It was beautiful. I would never have imagined the two continents to be what seems only a hair’s breadth apart. I thought of how easy it would be to swim to the other side, back to continental Europe and Mireille. However, it would not have been so easy to swim across. Though the two seem close, the journey from Tangier to the Spanish coast is notoriously treacherous – Moroccans frequently attempt illegal immigration using small inflatable rafts to get across to Spain. Usually, they have to swim part (or most) of the way, and many don’t make it to Europe’s mountainous shores. They work for years, saving money for an ultimately unsuccessful journey. Laila Lalami includes a story of one such hopeful migrant in Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. Looks can be deceiving, I guess. It just looks so close – and for Spaniards, it is. Not for Moroccans, though.
This leg of my trip – Tangier, through Tunisia, and up until New Delhi – is much more of a whirlwind than the last two months. From Tangier until New Delhi, I am spending about three or four days in each location. I have to hustle my way east in order to make the Delhi Book Fair in early September. The quick switches allow me an opportunity to visit a variety of cities, bookstores and publishers, but it’s at times challenging to set up interviews with only a few available days before the next flight. I must make the most my days in each location – sometimes, that means forgoing a must-see monument for the possibility of an interview, and focusing completely on what I need to accomplish. Fortunately, in Tangier I found an internet café around the corner from where I’m staying. The owner is my age and I think he identifies with me or something, so he’s started to let me use his wifi free of charge. If only all internet café proprietors were generous twenty-somethings.
In Tangier, I visited the Librairie des Colonnes – a small, centrally located bookstore with a good selection of important literature. No Danielle Steel here. One of Professor Edwards’ friends who works there wasn’t in (August is a hard time to find European/North African higher-ups at work, I’ve discovered), so I made a brief trip to the American Legation Museum in the nearby medina. Walking through the medina, I was accosted by a few touts, but not nearly as many as in Rabat or Casablanca – Tangier seemed almost calm compared to those two southern cities. Tangier’s medina took me uphill to a kind of overlook, from which I could see the Mediterranean coast. Getting there meant walking through narrow, quiet uphill alleys, and sometimes ending up facing a dead end, with smiling groups of Moroccan children pointing me away from their front doors. It was a strange – and seemingly endless – walk, but I finally found the museum.
My stay in Tangier was short, but I managed to visit a few bookstores – in addition to Librairie des Colonnes – and I got some worthwhile reading done. Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World and a fresh look at On The Road. I like reading On The Road while I am on so many roads. Or so many airplanes and six-hour trains. I’ve been on so many planes that I am beginning to feel like a plane. It is definitely exhilarating to switch cities three times a week. Reading On The Road, though,makes me want to attempt this research in America someday – how do schools in El Paso teach The Catcher in the Rye, for instance? Is it at all different from the list of “themes” and “motifs” that my high school English teacher photocopied for me? Does Borders change its selection to fit different sections of the country?
I think I’ve mentioned this before, but this project is turning into an ethnography of bookstores. How do bookstore layouts differ around the world? And what is the reason for those layout and design differences? For the most part, the stores I have visited fit the same mold – bestselling fiction at the front, non-fiction and Anglo books at the back. There are some variations – in some of the more upmarket Moroccan and Tunisian bookstores, postcolonial nonfiction about either Morocco or Tunisia is displayed prominently on the front tables. And language books are much more in-your-face around the Maghreb than in the more linguistically stable Europe. They are sold everywhere, and they are on every front table. Language is a priority here.
I took a plane to Tunis the next morning. Families hugged and kissed as they parted – cousins and siblings were flying to Tunisia for the upcoming school year. After arriving in Tunis, I took a quick jumper flight to Djerba and found myself on one of the most beautiful islands in the world. Djerba is a small island off Tunisia’s eastern Mediterranean coast. Even the short flight – from Tunis to Djerba – was breathtaking, as we flew through purple and orange clouds. When the plane landed, it was nine o’clock, and I took a taxi to my hotel in Houmt-Souk (the island’s largest town). The loquacious taxi driver drove me away from the small Djerba airport along the island’s rugged coast, and soon there was almost no ambient light – just stars above us and the wild Mediterranean coast to our left, with its abandoned wooden fishing boats, scattered palm trees, and tiny rocky offshore islands. The driver turned back to me: “in one minute, the next plane come down,” and soon a little plane, like a glowing spaceship from the sea to our left, flew only a few meters above our heads.
Houmt-Souk is surrounded by resorts – and for good reason, given the island’s pristine beaches – so it was difficult for me to discern which bookstores sold to the locals, and which to tourists. In my few days there, I succeeded in making my way inland – out of the hordes of German sunbathers – and saw some of Djerba’s rural inland booksellers (my original intention). A few of the street side booksellers I spoke with were selling a variety of books about Djerba’s Jewish population – the island is home to an ancient synagogue and a small Jewish sect who historically emigrated from Babylonia over 2500 years ago. A truck bomb at the synagogue killed some tourists in 2002. Given this recent bombing, I was surprised by these booksellers’ interest in the Jewish sect. I got the sense that Muslims and Jews live peacefully on the island.
After 48 hours in Djerba, my romp through the Maghreb ended with a few days in Tunis – a great place to end the North African leg of my trip. Tunis reminded me more of Paris than Morocco – tree-lined boulevards, fountains so big they make their own giant-sized rainbows, and little patisseries made me feel like I was back on the rue d’Alésia in the 14e arrondissement. The Tunis medina is much more touristic than Morocco’s medinas – on the whole, Tunisia seems to be much more of a European tourist destination than Morocco. Large Spanish and German tour groups wandered through the medina.
Touts expectedly attempted to lure me into buying their alluring wares. One young man who was selling scented oils struck up a conversation with me (“Where are you from?” “Oh, I have a cousin in Canada!,” et cetera), and after we had been talking for about five minutes, he proceeded to rub a drop of cactus oil on my arm – it came out of nowhere, and I was not in need of any cactus oil, so I said “au revoir!” and exited the medina.
Also, one thing I’ve noticed about North Africa is that most cafés seem to be male-only. They are like men’s clubs – I’ve been to a few, and the proprietors pat me on the back and offer me a beer.
Bookstores in central Tunis, like Djerba, cater to tourists as well as locals. Again, it was hard to discern which books the locals actually bought. In one store, however, I was lucky enough to find a bookseller who spoke excellent English and showed me the store’s collection of local literature – books written by Tunisians, in French or Arabic. These, he said, were the most popular. On my last day in Tunis, I bought one of these and rushed back to my room to pack for India. Who knows what wild adventures India will bring!
In This Post:
New Delhi 11:00AM September 4th
The Tunis airport was busy with all varieties of European and Middle Eastern travelers when I arrived on August 31st to fly to India on Qatar Airways. I would make a brief stop in Doha (Qatar’s capital) before arriving in Mumbai.
I drank a farewell cup of potently sweet Tunisian mint tea at the airport, and stood next to a French woman who marveled at the profusion of French food items in the Tunis airport – “on va à la Tunisie et tout est français.” She was looking in bewilderment at the Camembert and croissants – colonialism endures in Tunisian tourism (geared almost exclusively to Europeans) and cuisine.
I was excited beyond belief to finally travel east – Tunisia is located on the same longitudinal line as Munich, so although I was no longer in “the West,” I had definitely not advanced any further toward my destination (Chicago) in my North African visit. The Maghreb is wonderfully intercultural, but I was ready to leave its European influences for a real taste of the East.
I sat next to an Indian man who prayed quietly to himself as our flight took off, and we chatted a bit about where he was from (Hyderabad) and about his time in Tunisia. After three weeks of French and Arabic, it felt strange to hear and speak English again. Indians speak excellent English (expectedly), and I was excited to more effectively study American literature in India, as I would not have to decipher Arabic or French to find out which titles are actually most popular there. Of course, some of the popular American books stay the same across the world – genre writers like Harlan Coben and Stephen King (though his status as a genre writer is debatable) – but there are some unexpected hits, and those are the ones that interest me most.
In Doha, while I was in line to switch flights, I met an Indian girl who was a student in America. She was on her way to Bangkok, and was experiencing significant difficulty leaving Qatar. She was one of the first I’d met in a long time that spoke flawless English with an American accent, and it was nice to talk to someone who spoke my language, in every sense of the word.
I deplaned in Mumbai at 4:30AM, and immediately felt the stifling humidity of the nearby Arabian Sea. Nonetheless, I was glad to be in India. I passed through customs and tried in vain to exchange a few Tunisian dinars for rupees. No luck, so I went to an ATM and withdrew $3000 rupees (about $65.00). With some of these rupees I hired a cheap cab to Colaba, where I found my small hotel.
Mumbai is a peninsula off India’s Arabian cost, and Colaba is that peninsula’s southernmost tip. As the Mumbai airport sits north of Mumbai’s city center, it took quite a while to reach Colaba by taxi. Perhaps an hour, or more. The ride was scenic, though, and the driver pointed out the glittering Arabian Sea on our right as we drove south. I couldn’t believe I was finally in India.
The taxi driver asked me where I was from, and tried to sell me a famous Indian Kingfisher beer at 4:45 in the morning. He was very proud of his country’s lager. He showed me the train station, and the downtown area, as we drove to Colaba.
When we arrived, I put down my luggage and slept for a few hours. No bedbugs here! On the morning of September 1st, I woke up to call Mohini Bhullar, my contact in Mumbai. I spoke to her secretary, and though Colaba is far from her office, she agreed to pick me up later that afternoon for lunch.
When Mohini arrived, we warmly greeted each other. “Aren’t you a bit young to be a scholar?” she asked. Yes, I know I look young, we laughed. She said I reminded her of one of her grandchildren. We decided on Thai food, and drove to a nearby restaurant.
Mohini and I had an amazing, spicy Thai lunch together, beginning with our waitress pouring water on two small white cubes that quickly grew (as water was poured onto them) into our napkins, and ending with cooling coconut milk and red water chestnuts. Mohini set me up with an overnight train to New Delhi, and gave me information about a few bookstores in the area – Crossword and Oxford Bookstore. Though I was only in Mumbai for three days, I had some time to visit them before my train left for New Delhi on Wednesday.
Mohini and I spoke about my previous travels, her extensive travels, and about Indian economic growth and international perceptions of America. I’m finding that America’s widespread social conservatism is overlooked by many Indians, Moroccans, Tunisians and Parisians – it’s America’s “hedonism,” according to Mohini, its sense of entitlement, that defines our country. Anti-Americanism usually targets this aspect of the United States, and looks past its religiosity and conservatism. Paul Giles mentioned this to me as well.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Mohini – we had a great time together, and Mohini lent me her driver a few days later to take me to the train station.
Before heading out to explore Mumbai a bit the next morning, I had an unexpectedly spicy breakfast – aloo paratha, a potato pancake served with pickle and bean curd. After drinking a thick lassi, I was set to go.
Mumbai is India’s economic capital, and is a growing international metropolis. I passed numerous Western cellphone-laden businessmen, and visited Crossword downtown. The store reminded me of Borders – it is part of an Indian bookstore chain, and comprised two floors with a great selection of English, Hindi, and international literature. I spoke with the manager about what was selling well, and he led me straight to the Harry Potter extravaganza in the back. There were little kids climbing a cardboard cutout of Daniel Radcliffe, and Hindi translations lining the walls. I had of course expected Harry Potter to be popular everywhere in the world, and asked him for other bestsellers. That’s when he took me to Jhumpa Lahiri and other internationally acclaimed Indian writers. Aside from Rowling, it’s the local writers that sell best – especially the locals that have achieved international fame. That’s something I’ve seen all over, though perhaps more in India and North Africa than in Western Europe. It’s as if, in countries with newer degrees of literary independence, they instinctively use fiction to tell stories about their nationhood. In Europe, indigenous fiction has been around so long that it does not need to assert its connection to France, or Britain, or Germany. It is more timeless and placeless than newer literatures. Pascale Casanova touches on this distinction in her book, The World Republic of Letters:
“The construction of national literary space is closely related…to the political space of the nation that it helps build in turn. But in the most endowed literary spaces the age and volume of their capital – together with the prestige and international recognition these things imply – combine to bring about the independence of literary space as a whole. The oldest literary fields are therefore the most autonomous as well, which is to say the most exclusively devoted to literature as an activity having no need of justification beyond itself.” (85)
It’s something I noticed in last quarter’s Egyptian/Moroccan literature course with Brian Edwards. The Moroccan and Egyptian novels we read seemed to concern themselves with defining Morocco and Egypt. Of course, European literature tries to define Europe as well, but to a lesser degree, I think. Does American literature try to define itself as strictly American, like some of these new literatures I am seeing in the Maghreb and India? I am not sure. Someone like Philip Roth would point to a “yes,” but is Philip Roth the norm? I don’t think most American writers are as Ameri-centric as him. But I must be careful not to generalize.
After a few brief days in Mumbai, Mohini’s driver (Govind) picked me up to take me to the bustling main railway station – an overwhelmingly raucous place, teeming with panhandlers, touts, and stray dogs. I am not sure if I would have made it to the train without Govind’s help. He made sure I was settled into my upper berth before the train began its journey to New Delhi.
The ride to New Delhi was surprisingly uneventful – I ate a samosa and some vegetable biryani before falling asleep in Mumbai, and awoke in New Delhi. I exited the train and five or six taxi drivers came after me – I just kept walking (I didn’t need a taxi). A smiling woman approached me and began to pin tiny paper Indian flags to my tee shirt – this made me laugh uncontrollably, and I politely declined the flags. I wish you could have seen it. Has a stranger ever come up to you and tried to pin something to your shirt, smiling? Strange.
That is all for now – I have just settled into New Delhi, and I look forward to exploring the city in the coming days.
In This Post:
New Delhi 12:00PM September 8th
New Delhi is a blinding concoction of touts, sizzling orange jalebis (a sweet Indian snack), smog, rickshaws, and roving cows. On my street � Arakashan Road, near New Delhi’s main train station � the cows stroll down the middle of the street like lazy tourists, looking languidly at the eager street sellers on either side of these narrow Indian alleys. I have come quite close to a few of them in my five days here. Walking in New Delhi can be treacherous � with so many people demanding your attention and your money, it’s easy to trip over random debris � and I’ve almost run straight into a cow’s behind once or twice. Maybe even more than Morocco’s teeming medinas, it is almost impossible to concentrate on any one thing in India. I feel perpetually distracted, almost like I’ve suddenly contracted an East Asian strain of A.D.D. I think I’ll miss it when I leave. Last night, for example, I took a walk to a local bookstall when a tout popped out of nowhere with a skinny snake around his neck. He wanted me to buy the snake. Only in India.
The jalebis, like the Moroccan chebbakia, rank among the sweetest things I’ve ever tasted � they resemble small funnel cakes, and after frying, they are soaked in honey. I paid a few rupees (about ten American cents) for one on my first night here, and a genial group of Indian street sellers � they were in the middle of a card game � handed me a piping hot one on a torn piece of newspaper. They smiled as I bit into it � I smiled, too, and the honey was dripping onto my shoes as I walked back to Arakashan Road. Good.
On my first day here, I took a walk up to Connaught Place � New Delhi’s main commercial hub � and passed numerous street side booksellers on the way. As I expected, they were selling photocopied �books� � a pile of paper tied together with string, for example, attempting to pass for Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, or for the latest Grisham novel. I flipped through the fake Blink . There were a few pages missing. These books, nonetheless, were selling well � they were cheap, much cheaper than the authentic copies sold at Crossword or some of the more up-market street stalls in Connaught Place.
According to Fareed Zakaria ( The Post-American World , 2008), India is in the middle of a swift and somewhat disorganized economic rise. Currently the world’s second-fastest growing economy (after China), India feels like the freewheeling, brazenly independent marketplace that America is supposed to be (or used to be). Though India still looks like the Third World (with cows on the streets, for example), pirated books, DVDs, and counterfeit money abound. Everyone is out to make a buck, and though they ride around the city on rickshaws and horse-drawn buggies, their persistence drives the Indian economy ever forward.
Bookstores in Mumbai � and New Delhi � are visibly enthusiastic about India’s current boom. The Oxford Bookstore in Mumbai proudly displays flashy English-language books heralding India’s economic rise on its front tables � books like In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India , along with India: The Emerging Giant and Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World . Business and how-to economic manuals line the front shelves of most major bookstores here, and it is obvious that this is a country on the up and up. Fiction takes a back seat to pragmatic nonfiction. I think this propensity for how-to guides and manuals might go back to the Kama Sutra and other popular Indian guidebooks. In this particular Mumbai branch of Oxford Bookstore, for example, the novels begin about midway through the store � nonfiction dominates the first three layers of shelves.
I think bookstore layouts tell a lot about a store’s psyche, its main customers, and the way its people � workers and patrons � think. Crossword Bookstore and Oxford Bookstore look a lot like Borders or Barnes & Noble, or even Waterstones, on the inside � albeit a bit smaller. The books they prioritize, though, are far different from those prioritized by their Western counterparts. Novels are not really their bestsellers. It’s business advice that locals really want, much more than the latest translation of Faulkner into Hindi. But perhaps this is what American and British customers want as well? I know this wouldn’t be the case in Paris � though perhaps in some stores it would. It is hard to make generalizations about nations and national literary preferences.
India, though, seems to be much more business-minded than France, England, or America. I don’t remember exactly how many small closet-sized bookstores I’ve visited, but when I ask their salesmen about novels, almost all of them get kind of confused before pointing me to a few used Grisham paperbacks. And they aren’t confused because I don’t speak Hindi � novels just aren’t what locals are coming in to buy. This may only have to do with the stores I visited in my short stay here � I certainly did not see them all. And I know that there are some very popular novels being read by Indians � Shantaram , for example, which was a huge phenomenon in India ( everyone was reading it) a few years ago. But Shantaram is a roman à clef � a semi-fictional re-telling of actual events. Maybe that’s why Indians are so enamored of it.
One of my last interviews here � at the Jain Book Depot in Connaught Place � complicated these questions a bit more. The owner didn’t have much American literature in stock, except for some books by Ernest Hemingway ( A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises ). American literature, according to him, is not taught or read as American literature in Indian schools � it is understood as part of �Anglo literature,� along with British, Australian, Canadian, and other traditions. I remember hearing about this from a German university student I met in my Munich hostel, as well � American books aren’t really differentiated from other Anglo novels, but are rather part of a �Western� tradition taught as a unit. Hmm�again, something to complicate this project.
On my next-to-last day here, I journeyed to Agra � about four hours south of Delhi � to visit the Taj Mahal. I woke up early to eat some breakfast and to take a train to the state border (Agra is in Uttar Pradesh, a bordering state). I had a breakfast of kulfi (an Indian ice cream-esque dessert, but I ate it for breakfast anyway because it is delicious) and watched a fellow American adamantly order eggs over easy with hot chocolate. He got mad when the eggs weren’t cooked his way. I was getting a little bit angry at him. Come on. You are in INDIA. You can eat piles and piles of eggs over easy when you get home. Have a lassi.
At the state border, I hired a taxi to take me to the Taj. The genial driver asked me where I was from, and we chatted a bit � he was from New Delhi, and had lived his entire life there. Never been to Mumbai or Bangalore.
We stopped at a small rest stop for a bathroom break (Agra was a long ways away) and I bought a coke at the little kiosk for fifty rupees (about one dollar). I’ve found Indians to be particularly talkative and personable � in almost no time, I was discussing the recent Olympic games with the Indian teens who’d just served me my coke. They teased me about America’s second-place standing in the gold medal count (I’ve gotten used to this by now), and they asked me how long I would be staying in India. We exchanged e-mail addresses, and they said I should stop by their kiosk again on future visits to the Taj.
We stopped once more before finally arriving at the Taj � the driver wanted to buy a newspaper. He left me alone in the cab, which was immediately surrounded (there were times when I couldn’t see daylight) by a motley pack of touts licking their lips at the thought of some American tourist rupees. The windows were closed (thankfully), but a few of them held up small chimpanzees � their pets, apparently � to the window, asking me if I wanted to pay to take a picture with one of them. This made me laugh. A lot. Have you ever sat in a car with fifteen touts knocking on your windows and holding up chimpanzees? When I declined, they walked away with their chimps leading the way, as if they were walking their dogs. India is unbelievable.
We finally arrived at the Taj � at around noon � and I knew at once why so many Indians trek across their country to see the thing. It is just as beautiful as the postcards make it out to be. And the great thing about the Taj is its popularity with the locals. It isn’t your typical tourist trap. Locals love it, too. Perhaps it had to do with the day I visited, but I only saw a few foreigners there � it was certainly crowded, but with locals from Agra just hanging out or having a picnic. It is a beautiful place to spend the day.
Aside from beauty, the Taj is a mausoleum, and a commemoration of the sixteenth-century love story involving Shah Jahan � the Indian Mogul emperor � and his third and favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. When Mumtaz died during childbirth, Shah Jahan built the Taj to memorialize her. The inside of the Taj � no pictures allowed, and visitors must remove their shoes � is one cavernous chamber with two cenotaphs � for Jahan and his wife � in the center. The real tombs are underground. Calligraphy and intricate marble screens surround the cenotaphs. I was expecting something lavish inside, but no � it is shadowy, somber, and small. It is a grave site, after all.
I wandered around the Taj � there are a few surrounding monuments, along with fountains and empty fields. After such a hectic cab ride, it was relaxing. I can see why Shan Jahan described the Taj as a place of supreme renewal: �Should guilty seek asylum here, like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin. Should a sinner make his way to this mansion, all his past sins are to be washed away. The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs, and the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes. In this world this edifice has been made to display, thereby, the creator’s glory.�
I sat in the shade for a bit and watched the Taj from afar before brushing past the touts outside to meet the cab driver for the ride back. We had lunch together in Agra before setting off � he bought me a Kingfisher beer (�You are young boy! Young boy should drink beer every day!�) and we drove back to Delhi as the clouds broke and a vivid lightning bolt heralded an Indian thunderstorm.
We got to New Delhi at around midnight, and apart from the storm outside and a minor collision with a motorcyclist (everyone was okay � his motorcycle was only damaged a little bit), the drive was quiet. I slept in the backseat and dreamed of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. What a day!
Tomorrow I leave for my very last stop: Beijing. I can’t believe this amazing journey is almost over!
In This Post:
Beijing 11:00PM September 13th
Beijing’s airport shuttle led me to the Dengshikou station – nearest to my hostel – and I emerged from the subway staring straight at two enormous hotel high-rises and a brand new Starbucks in front of me. These two high rises looked just as modernly intimidating as I’d expected. Beijing’s architecture is otherworldly, as if built in the twenty-fifth rather than the twenty-first century. Absolutely amazing. In addition to abundant high rises, I spotted Cartier, Paris Photo, and numerous high-end western electronics and clothing chains with outlets in Beijing. The subway is immaculate, as is the gleaming new Beijing Capital International Airport. The airport feels like a pristine museum. Beijing makes New York City look like an old and outdated village. Everything here is the definition of modernity.
My hostel – Saga International Youth Hostel – is located in the Shijia Hutong, near Dengshikou station and the Forbidden City. It took me a while to actually find the hostel, though – I got into Beijing at around 8:00PM on Tuesday, September 9th, and I think I was so blown away by the city’s architecture and cleanliness that I lost my way, and I didn’t arrive at my hostel until 10:30 that night. Fortunately, I got to explore my neighborhood – the Dongcheng District. I wandered past glamorous hotels, massage centers (“foot massage five dollar”), and tourist-oriented “Chinese Restaurants.”
When I realized I was lost, I wandered into a small massage shop and asked for directions to the Shijia Hutong. We tried to have a conversation, but I don’t speak much Mandarin (my lexicon consists of “hello,” “goodbye” and “thank you”) and the massage clerk did not speak much English. She was very nice, however, and drew a map on the back of some massage stationary. One of her colleagues was going for a bike ride (everyone bikes in China), and led me part of the way.
After following her directions, I was still lost, and asked a liquor store clerk for further directions. She called on three of her colleagues, unraveled a huge map from beneath her desk, and soon I was standing in a liquor store in Beijing nodding my head as four extremely helpful and generous Beijingers spoke quick Chinese to me, hoping I would understand. Their generosity was a bit overwhelming, but I eventually found the Shijia Hutong and checked into my hostel. I met my roommates – a couple from Idaho, who were headed to Mongolia and then down to Guangzhou (Canton) in southern China. I was also living with a graduate student from Dresden who was preparing for his thesis on Chinese business practices. He was headed to India, and then to southeast Asia – Vietnam and Myanmar, if I remember correctly. I told him I had just come from India, and he was surprised I had survived. “I heard there was a panic in India,” he said in his thick German accent. “A panic?” “Yes, a panic – there were many people in one place, and then some fall down, and everybody panics and gets killed.” It was a strange description – I hadn’t experienced any “panics” in India. I laughed, and we talked about my research. He told me he loved Henry Miller, and that he was assigned Henry Miller in school, though Miller might not be popular in the States “because he wrote some bad stuff about America.” I have never read Henry Miller, but I should. My German roommate was very interested in what I was doing, and always interrogated me after each day – it kept me on my toes research-wise.
My first few days here, though, were sadly and unexpectedly spent sick in bed with a minor stomach bug. I ate something that definitely did not agree with me, and, like all travelers, I lost a few days to digestive problems. On my first night in the Dongcheng district, I excitedly strolled into a small Chinese restaurant in the hutong – my mouth was watering at the thought of finally tasting real Chinese food. Unfortunately, I ordered the wrong thing – Szechuan chicken. The chicken was very gristly, and the chili peppers didn’t help my stomach much either. Not what I expected. I discovered that I was proficient with chopsticks, however. Chopstick proficiency is a necessity in China – I don’t think I’ve seen a single fork and knife since I’ve arrived.
Part of the reason for my unfortunate decision to order Szechuan chicken were the cryptic food descriptions on the translated menu. Many of the entrée descriptions included verbs, and I was faced with a choice of “The temple explodes the chicken cube” or “the meat mixes the bean curd” or “the beef braises the persimmon.” “The temple explodes the chicken cube” sounded innovative – I mean, who doesn’t want an exploding meal? – so I ordered it, and it was Szechuan chicken. There was no temple to speak of, and it exploded my belly instead of the chicken cube.
This kind of too-literal verb-driven mistranslation is very common in Beijing. Again, I don’t speak Mandarin, so I don’t know exactly where the verbs come from, but I may ask a Mandarin professor once I get back to Northwestern.
After I recovered from the exploding temple inside my stomach, I met a friend from Northwestern, Max Clarke, who is currently studying Mandarin here. He was the first American I’d seen since I can’t remember when, and it was comforting to speak my language in all its American glory with another Evanstonian. We visited Tiananmen, the Forbidden City, and Beijing’s beautiful new National Center for the Performing Arts. The performing arts complex looks like a large glass egg floating in the middle of a humongous lake, and patrons walk through an underwater glass tunnel to reach the concert hall (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/24/arts/24open.html). It looks just as surreal as all the rest of the city’s architecture.
Max and I ended the day with some authentic Peking duck at the Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant. The American version doesn’t stand a chance against this duck. It was sweet, juicy, and everything I hoped it would be.
That’s all for now. This trip is quickly coming to a close – more on my last few days in Beijing in the next post!
In This Post:
Beijing 11:00PM September 18th
Well, I am sitting here on my last day in Beijing. Can’t believe this trip is just about over. I will certainly miss China, and India, and Morocco, Paris, London, Munich, and all the myriad new places in which I have been living and working for the past three months. It has been a whirlwind, but a productive and personal whirlwind – I think I’ve learned as much about international publishing and storytelling as I have about myself. Being on my own for a few months has taught me some things. But more on that later.
A lot has happened in this last week. Research-wise, the highlight of the week was my interview with Emily Wang at China’s branch of Penguin Books. It is a consulting company more than a publisher, and it is Penguin’s only branch in a non-English speaking country. Ms. Wang is one of a few associates at the new branch, which opened only a few years ago. She was very gracious with allowing me to barge in on her at work, and she offered me something to drink while we spoke about Penguin’s fledgling Chinese branch.
To prepare for our interview, I read a Guardian article entitled “Penguin takes its ‘black classics’ into China” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/aug/30/books.china). The article accurately predicted what I would hear from Ms. Wang about China’s literary culture. According to Jonathan Watts of The Guardian, Western ‘classics’ are “unlikely to hit best seller lists in a country where, with the exception of Harry Potter, the most popular publications are usually management guides, self-help books and biographies of the rich and famous.” Chinese readers are pragmatic readers, and, according to Emily Wang, they read first and foremost to advance their careers. Also according to The Guardian, “Rampant copyright piracy has deterred many foreign firms amid estimates that 50% to 90% of book sales are fakes.” Ms. Wang addressed that as well, and informed me that the Penguin Group in China does not publish its own translations – it outsources the editions to local publishers (a few hundred of them), who hire cover artists and translators themselves. The books are published later with the Penguin logo, but the Penguin Group doesn’t have direct control over them.
What they do have direct control over, however, are guidebooks and business guides. Penguin publishes travel guides and all sorts of business textbooks in addition to fiction. Popular American books on business and economics are also popular here – The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, for example – and some international bestsellers and American literary prize winners are read by adolescents and some adults (The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini was her example). These prizewinners are popular despite the fact that most adults do not have time for fiction. Children and adolescents are the main ones reading stories – in fact, when I asked Ms. Wang what some of her favorite books were she could only name adolescent or children’s novels.
Interestingly, Ms. Wang confided to me that Penguin has “no business model in China.” Why? I don’t know. She wasn’t very clear on why. Perhaps because the branch is so new – it only opened in August 2005 – its staff doesn’t know exactly where it’s headed. Part of the reason might be that China is not an open market, and, according to Ms. Wang, “it is very hard to publish in China.” Regulations can get in the way of publishing new fiction, and, as a result, there is a robust online literature community, in which someone can start writing a novel online and then get published after their online novel is “discovered” and republished on paper. In this way, online popularity sometimes leads to legitimate literary merit.
Ms. Wang was extraordinarily welcoming, and she gave me a tour of the nascent Penguin offices. Penguins were all over the place – stuffed penguins on bookshelves, penguin decals on the windows, and life-size blow-up Penguins in Ms. Wang’s office. They’ve had time to install Penguin decals, but not a solid business plan. Strange.
Emily asked me about my trip – how I felt about going home, how it was looking back – and we laughed about some of the ridiculous things I’ve seen and heard. She was very enthusiastic about America and Americans. I asked her about British versus American culture in China – do Chinese people watch American movies, and listen to American music, for example? She leaned in and whispered to me, “Britain is old to us. America is hip, trendy, stylish, so we read American books more than the English ones.”
She asked me what would be the first thing I’d eat when I got back to America. I said “I don’t know…a hamburger?” and she made a face that said “eww…gross.” I haven’t really seen many hamburgers here, and I can imagine how a burger could seem gross to someone who doesn’t often eat them. All that ground beef – it is definitely peculiar.
After my interview at Penguin, I spent the last few days here visiting bookstores near the Wangfujing Dajie – a major shopping street in the Dongcheng district. Asking where they shelve their American literature, or where they keep The Catcher in the Rye, sometimes resulted in a small hubbub as store clerks frantically grabbed paper for me to write down my question for them to take it to one of their English-speaking colleagues. In one store, I found a translated version of The Catcher in the Rye as part of a series of translated English-language novels, and a translated version of The Lord of the Rings (with cover art from the movie) was in the same series. I had never seen that before.
The last few days have been spent conducting last-minute interviews, taking down roommates’ contact information, sending postcards, and getting ready to re-enter Northwestern University and the United States of America.
I leave tomorrow, and there are innumerable thoughts floating around in my head right now. I hope to be able to order them as I return. I have been thinking deeply about not just the research aspect of this summer, but the personal side as well. I feel like I know more, but also like I know much, much less about the world than I thought I would, or should.
After I return, I will write a final post on the most important things I’ve picked up from this trip. Things broader than Beijing’s hutongs or Maghrebi touts. Stay tuned!
In This Last Post:
After A Week Of Classes:
I think one of the most rewarding moments of this trip came on the momentous transpacific flight from Beijing to O’Hare. I was sitting next to a girl from Tianjin who was fitfully reading a neon copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos . She kept taking her glasses off, and putting them back on, and sighing exhaustedly. She was Chinese, going to America for the first time to attend college at UMass, and reading Kurt Vonnegut was an obvious effort. What a strangely lucky end to this summer: I happened to be sitting next to the living embodiment of my research. And we were to be crammed next to one another for twelve hours! What luck.
We talked, and I learned that her boyfriend had bought her the book for her birthday in April a year ago, and then called her up the next day to tell her Vonnegut had died. He’d died on her birthday. That was part of the reason she was reading the book � she thought it was somehow spiritually connected to her. But after our Boeing left surmounted China’s Friday afternoon fog, and after a cheery Midwestern American accent greeted us over the plane’s public address system, she didn’t pick it up again. Its angular cover art � and the strange birth-death combination for which it stood � watched us as we ate our �Chinese fried noodles� and tried to pass the time with United Airlines’ rudimentary multimedia set-up. I listened to some Chinese pop, and tried to think back on the summer. Paris seemed (and still seems) like a million years ago, as did Moroccan bedbugs, and it felt strange to think that in twelve hours I would be riding the el into Evanston. The stewardess’ friendly American quips (�what can I get’cha? Anybody want an extra dessert?�) startled me enough � what would happen when I was surrounded by these strangely gregarious people called �Americans�?
I asked my seatmate what American books she liked � Mark Twain and Edgar Allen Poe were the ones she’d had to read in school. �But which ones do you actually like ?� I asked. �I can’t say. All my friends think On the Road is great, but I don’t like it. I don’t buy all the hype.� Hype? About On the Road in China? That was unexpected. I asked her if she had ever heard of J.D. Salinger, and she had not. Edgar Allen Poe was of course the center of her American literary education � he has been popular almost everywhere I’ve gone. Lots of Poe readers around the world (especially in France), which is strange because I never had to read Poe in school. Maybe on an end-of-the-week �poetry day� in middle school, but not as part of the established curriculum.
Sunset came quickly as we approached the International Date Line, chasing yesterday’s dusk, and soon I had one of those felt airplane blankets over my head and I was sleeping. I think I had a dream about Chinese noodles (I had eaten an amazingly huge bowl of farewell noodles and vegetables before boarding the plane) and woke up to the glow of my neighbor watching some moving images on her iPhone. I peeked my head out of my blanket and glanced over. She was watching Mary Poppins with a concentrated look in her eyes. I assume she was working to understand what Julie Andrews was saying. When was the last time you saw an eighteen-year-old watching Mary Poppins alone, with a scrunched forehead, on a flight from China to America?
As we ate our breakfast (more noodles), we filled out our immigration cards. Galápagos Girl was having trouble with hers (she didn’t have an American passport, so she had to fill out two cards, the second of which was about twice as long as the first) and asked me to fill it in for her. She transliterated her name and hometown for me, and as I was filling it out I saw something brilliant pass by in the aisle to her left. I looked back, and it was an Olympic gold medal! Our plane, I discovered, harbored the U.S. paralympic team, and when I got up later to go to the bathroom, I found myself standing in line with bronze, silver, and gold medalists from all over the country.
The flight went quickly (lots of sleep, food, watching Mary Poppins and learning about China from my neighbor). Before we knew it, it was 4:00PM on Friday, September 19 (we’d crossed the IDL, so it was still 4:00PM on Friday), and we were descending into America. Galápagos Girl had never been out of Tianjin, and she was breathing quickly. She had to make a quick transfer to Boston, and asked me if O’Hare was a small airport. �Well�it’s actually very large. It’s one of the busiest in America.� That made her breathe a little faster, I’m sorry to say. I was kind of nervous, too (after three months of anticipation, coming home was a big deal), and it felt like both of us were visiting America for the first time. After landing, though, she seemed fine. I turned to her and said �Welcome to America!� and she looked out our tiny window and said �It looks like pictures of Stockholm. I guess all cold places look the same.� This was after I had told her about Chicago’s reputation for cold weather. It didn’t look too much different from China, either. Boxy, foggy, and clean.
I almost ran to Immigration (I was extremely excited to be back), and showed the attendant my passport. �You been to all these places on one trip? Over land?� �Yep.� �Must cost a hell of a lot of money,� and he let me go through. Two minutes later, I was briefly detained by Homeland Security: �How’d you pay for all this, kid? What kind of grant? What’s your major? Where do you go to school? What’s your hometown? Where were you in India?� They apparently thought I was funded by some sort of terrorist organization or something � but, in the end, I explained my way out of it, exchanged my leftover yuan and rupees for about fifteen dollars, and boarded the el back to Evanston.
I saw some Northwestern folks on the Purple Line, and, as we were driving through the loop, thought to myself about how opulent Chicago is. Everything in the loop looked so rich next to what I had seen for the past two months or so.
After one week of classes, I can say that the expansive feeling of going around the world � the feeling of not knowing exactly where you’ll be sleeping next week, or what you’re ordering, or of meeting people unlike any you’ve ever met in your life � stays with me. I thought I’d be quickly sucked into Northwestern’s stressed-out atmosphere, but I sense a certain healthy distance between myself and my surroundings. I’m not saying I’m aloof, I just think about things more.
One of the wonderful things about this project was the way my personal and professional lives got mixed up. Researching American literature’s international circulation, and interviewing multitudes of publishing and bookselling personalities, I predictably learned about more than just books, and conversation turned to their personal lives and predilections as well. This project is a humanities project � it is about being human, and about more than words on a page. If I had to summarize some of the most important things I’ve learned, though, they might be:
I could go on and on, but I have lots of homework to do (Northwestern doesn’t mess around), books to read, and people to see. I am still working on processing and assimilating this summer’s experiences � I don’t know exactly how long that will take. Many years, probably. But the summer definitely stays with me, and sometimes I feel like I am back on the roof of my hostel in China (it had a great rooftop terrace overlooking the city), or walking through Paris in search of la Tour Eiffel, visiting Penguin Books in London, or squinting in a cab in New Delhi as it races through evening bustle. The memories are very, very vivid.
When I was riding the el back to Evanston, it felt strangely familiar because I’d ridden so many trains through the past three months. Arriving in Chicago felt the same as arriving in Rabat, or Djerba, or Bielefeld. Just one more temporary residence. One day I’ll leave, and take another plane, or train, to my next stop. It’s as if the incessant relocations of this whirlwind summer will persist for a long, long time.
Thank you to Northwestern University and the Circumnavigators Club Foundation for supporting this once-in-a-lifetime summer research project.
Thank you for reading,
Harris Sockel's Circumnavigator's Blog 2008
Harris Sockel was awarded the 2008 Circumnavigators Travel-Study Grant. It is jointly given by the Circumnavigator's Club of Chicago and Northwestern University's Office of the Provost. This is a screen capture of Harris' trip blog.