On the first of January, holed up at home with what, I now realize, was a moderate case of the ‘nice flu’, I wrote up a list of things I look forward to this year, including, naturally, travels. For more than a decade now years have been framed, punctuated, divided by travels. I have never strayed too far, but was always on the way to somewhere. Now, come March, I am dusting my library, wondering if any of my planned trips this year will happen- some definitely not, more distant ones still hanging in limbo. I have all the time in the world to very meticulously dust the library, as I’ve perhaps never done, for our house arrest may last weeks, months- I dare think no further. As I was progressing shelf by shelf I came to the realization that, in some ways, I never returned from my travels, because I’ve always made sure to ditch classical souvenirs and instead bring books, risky as that might be to my luggage quota- stern lady in Barcelona who made me carry my Spanish Vogue in my arms so that my small suitcase would fit in the metal frame, hope you are sorry now. I never forget where a particular book came from, and whenever I open them, I am transported back to a place and time that otherwise may have been forgotten. So here comes a selection of these books, which may as well serve as quarantine pastime suggestions for those who have not read them yet.
Finnish-English Dictionary, Jyväskylä, August 2006. Fine, you don’t have to read a Finnish- English dictionary, though as a child I could spend hours engrossed in reading the DEX (Dicționarul explicativ al limbii române), the thick, worn Holy Grail of meaning of all things Romanian, a heavy brick with tattered green covers, later graduating to a Hungarian edition of the Larousse encyclopedia (in three volumes). So when I returned from Finland at the end of a wondrous summer, I decided to haul home a dictionary in the hope that the knowledge contained within would follow me too. Sadly, it didn’t. My Finnish is trickling away from me like an icy, offended rivulet, but this dictionary is also glorious 11 PM light shimmering over translucent lakes, walks home from the pub through the fragrant forest, old wooden churches and modernist library halls, the ashen scent of the savusauna, the tangy taste of the one euro student lonkero (indefinite long drink) and the red light of my room, filtered through the thick curtains that I had finally managed to source from the dorm super, who was actually doing his military service there, as he was a conscientious objector. He was the most Finnish person I’d ever seen, with straw yellow hair and kind blue eyes, and I’ve forgotten his name, but not his smile. It’s also, strangely, the random memory of my last supper on a Malév plane: chicken paprikash with noodles and pickles, in a fluff of peaceful clouds somewhere over Poland.
Stieg Larsson- Uomini che odiano le donne, Venice, carnival of 2009. I may very well be mythologizing, but the carnival of 2009 did not seem overcrowded to me. Sure, there were a lot of people late in the evening in Saint Mark’s square, but my most vivid memory is that of small side streets with laundry hanging in the breeze, the overwhelming scent of fresh tomato sauce wafting through the windows, small, delicate glass statuettes I admired in shop windows and the way the driver of our bus climbed in, with stylish sunglasses as if he, and he alone, ruled the world. And above all the thrill of the first time I was left to my own devices with my Italian and its native speakers, no friends to bail me out if I made a mistake. And mistakes I did make, calling our host and telling her I’d forgotten my ‘cucciolo’ in the room, she panicking I was insane enough to travel with baby animals, me talking about my stuffed rabbit…Ah, peluche! she said, lady, that’s French, I thought. So I bought Stieg Larsson’s book on a whim, and spent the next years tearing through any Scandi-noir I could find, in any language I could understand. I was engrossed in Lisbeth Salander’s adventures when I got a call for a job interview, in Italian, a language I’d hardly used officially before, but as my luck would have it, it permeated my whole world at the time. At the end of the interview they asked me where I had learned Italian from, and I sheepishly said ‘from TV and books’. It’s true. And that job is my job to this day.
Jan Neruda- Prague Tales from the Little Quarter, Prague, February 2010 I had read this book before, a library copy, borrowed it several times just to re-read the stories I liked best, and felt with certainty that I knew Prague as if I’d been there before. I loved the Czechs too, somewhat prickly and arrogant, but hilariously funny and somehow, close to their core, fundamentally nice. Then we went to Prague, in a viciously cold February, the brutal Czech highway rocking our car through minor snowdrifts, and one day climbed up, on the slippery cobblestones of the Little Quarter, to the cathedral. It was so mercilessly cold that I could hardly move even after hot Becherovkas, and in spite of being bundled in the kind of very warm coat only mothers ever buy for their children. My teeth were chattering uncontrollably and I felt that the stained glass windows of the church were echoing the sound. To my right stood an elderly Czech lady with the face of a classical sculpture, enveloped in an expensive looking fur coat. She looked at me with freakishly perfect Slavic eyes full of both judgement and pity and suddenly I felt as if I’d finally entered one of the Neruda tales I loved so much.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón- El prisionero del cielo, Barcelona, May 2012 Spanish is my nemesis. I read it, well. I understand it when spoken- possibly better if the speaker is from Southern America. I speak none of it myself. Or at least nothing that can extricate itself from being hopelessly, irrevocably Italian. Not that you need much Spanish in Barcelona- and I truly wish to offend no one, I simply became a Barcelona fan at some point (long story short, Johann Cruyff and the two of us sharing a birth date) and was inoculated with a passion for all things Catalan. But Catalan is even more obscure to me, even if it oddly resembles the inflections of Romanian every now and then. So when in Barcelona, I bought a book in Spanish, with its story set in the city itself- the third installment from the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, and now, whenever I look at it, I remember how I carefully carried its hardcover beauty through something of a pub crawl, including sweet brandies in Els Quatre Gats and the best mojitos I ever had in a low lit bar where I was so happy to understand everything the waitress told me in Spanish. Of course I did. She was from Cuba.
Karl Ove Knausgaard- My Struggle 1: A Death in the Family, Copenhagen, July 2014 I often travel to northern lands in summer, and thus they invariably become connected to radiant sunshine and warm evening breezes, like the one that accompanied me when I entered a large bookstore, with many tall mahogany shelves and one shop assistant, sitting somewhat despondently behind her desk, in the centre of Copenhagen. I would have comfortably spent the rest of the day in the store, but from one of the nearby chairs I heard my boyfriend’s impatience and hunger increasing with every passing second, so I quickly sought out the letter K, for the novel of this Norwegian writer everybody was starting to talk about, this guy who wrote in a mesmerizing way about the tedious minutiae of his everyday existence. I found an English edition and quickly proceeded to pay. As soon as the shop assistant saw my book, her face was lit with a passion I had never thought her capable of. She looked me straight in the eyes and whispered softly: you know, HE was here, in this store. Who? I whispered back. Knausgaard! He is SO handsome, she said, while carefully wrapping the book for me and also melting in a small erotic trance. Five years later, HE had a glass of white wine and some pogácsa in my close proximity. And yes, I guess that in some rugged Scandinavian way he is handsome.