A book from every country – Weeks 1-6

As well as cooking a meal from every country, I set myself the challenge of reading a book from every country, while we were actually in each country.

Thus far I have, almost, managed it, and it has been enlightening, although not necessarily in the ways I would have expected.

The problem, of course, is that what with the travelling and the child-wrangling, and the cooking and the reading, there wasn’t much time to blog about them until now, when suddenly we have all the time in the world.

Choosing the books

The first challenge in each case was picking a book. We have historically been notoriously bad in the UK about reading books in translation, (although this is slowly changing) and so my choices were rather limited.

I have been helped by the Ambassadors of various countries to the US, who kindly each recommended a book to Conde Nast Traveller. These generally, have been an easy choice.

In addition I wanted to read books that I actually wanted to read. An English A level and a literature degree were quite enough compulsory reading for one lifetime…. And in my head the books I chose needed to be books “about” the country. It is blinkered and stupid of me, but it turns our that there are just as many genres of fiction in Dutch, or Hungarian, as there are in English. The biggest selling book in English from Poland at the moment is The Witcher series, which I understand to be Game of Thrones crossed with Lord of the Rings. Could be right up my street but wasn’t, I thought, what I was looking for at all.

Possibly it should have been – if that’s what Polish people want to read probably that’s what I should read too. I suspect my ideas of a representative Polish book are as wildly inaccurate as my expectations of how this trip was going to go…

I get the impression that UK publishers and translators are nearly as blinkered as I am when it comes to their choices, as the books that were available seemed to be disproportionately concerned with the twentieth century: endless wars and life under communism. With the benefit of hindsight I realise that that was subconsciously both expecting and looking for, but as I write this, in Hungary and about to embark on yet another book (Austrian) set in 1938, I’m slightly wishing I had some swords and dragons to look forward to instead.

In addition, the books have to be available on Google Play Books. Some years ago, for various reasons (including, but not limited to, the fact that they locked me out if my account) I stopped using Amazon. It is, although I know most people won’t believe me, surprisingly easy to survive in the 21st century without the everything store, but e-books seem to be one area where it has a virtual monopoly.

I have an android phone and tablet and Google does provide you with a reading app, but many books aren’t available on it, including my first choice books from Poland and Hungary, and anything at all (that I could identify) from Slovenia.

The Netherlands

I admit it: I failed at the first country.

I did not finish all 500+ pages of Collected Dutch Short Stories. I got through about eight of them (the stories, not the pages) and decided I had had enough all life is pointless and we’re just going to die anyway (and this was before Corona came to Europe). It may be that this is a fair representation of the Dutch psyche (Keane certainly commented that they thought they were popular in The Netherlands because Dutch people are as miserable as the band is) but that’s not the impression I got of then at all.

Plus I was getting bored and miserable. Time to move on. I read The Hate U Give which Lucy had brought with her instead. It was good.

Belgium

The Belgian ambassador recommended War and Turpentine by Steran Hertmans. This is a novel, but it feels very much like a memoir and was, I understand, very much inspired by the author’s own grandfather and his experiences during the First World War. It was beautifully, viscerally written and, I thought, well translated, in that the English (the original was written in Dutch) did not feel stilted or contrived.

If the aim of my reading is to give me a tiny bit of a better understanding of the country we are in, what I took from this is the conflict (which I think still remains) between the two Belgian languages, as well as the geographical misfortune of Belgium, to be the point where the armies of World War One met. To my shame I had never really thought about the Belgian army even taking part in the War, but clearly they did, and suffered as much as any other.

But what I will really remember from this book is a butal passage set in a slaughterhouse. Once read, never forgotten.

Germany

An actual paper book!

Lucy had finished the three books she brought with her by the time we got to Amsterdam, so when we passed Sterling Books in Brussels, we were dragged in to pay twice the cover price for more…

As I idly scanned the shelves, wondering how you identify a German book by its cover, the name Roland Schimmelpfennig jumped out at me. Aha! That’s how you do it…

In One Clear, Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century, shortly after dawn, a wolf crosses from Poland into German and makes its way towards Berlin.

Schimmelpfennig is a poet, and the writing has the feeling of poetry, or a fable told by firelight. I read each chapter several times (admittedly this is partly because a) I have a terrible tendency to read too fast and not take things in properly and b) it’s quite a short book and I wanted to make it last) in order to repeat the pleasure of reading.

In Berlin, this was absolutely the right book. It is completely rooted in the place and the names and locations were all around me. As we drove towards Poland, we followed the wolf’s route in reverse.

For the humans in the book though, the problem, whatever it may have seemed to them, was not the wolf itself. I kept thinking of EM Forster: only connect.

I suspect that as a non-German, there are themes running through this that completely passed me by. If I was looking for insights into modern Germany, what I got was alcohol. A lot of alcohol. I have no idea if that is fair or not.

Poland

I knew the Polish book I wanted to read. Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. It won the Man Booker International in 2018 and she is last years Nobel Laureate for Literature. But guess what? Neither that, nor any of her other books, is available on google.

In fact of the non-witchy works on this list of Polish books in translation, only one was available: The House with the Stained Glass Window by Źanna Słoniowska.

(Ironically of course, in As You Like It, the English bookshop in Kraków there were many, many lovely Polish books in translation, but by that time what I needed was a Hungarian book…)

Once again I was forced to confront my prejudices and lack of knowledge. I feel I’m learning more about myself through this that I am about the countries we pass through, or the literature they produce. But then maybe that’s what good book is for.

This was, indeed, a Polish book, in that it was written in Polish. However it is set in the city of Lviv (formerly Lwów, formerly Lemberg…) which is now in Ukraine.   It thus wasn’t a book “about Poland” or indeed about the experience of being Polish, so much as it was about being from Lviv, and the experience of being torn between the many layers of culture and history in that city.

Indeed the translator’s note makes it clear that the city is itself one of the main characters in the book. The others are four generations of women with differing cultural experiences and loyalties. Like the city itself they suffer the weight of layers of complicated history and confused identity.

I knew nothing about any of this history or cultural background before I read the book and I again felt that I probably missed a great deal of nuance as a result. 

I also feel, and after three books, I am allowing myself to say this, that I read differently (and less pleasurably) on screen from how I do if I have a book. I know this at work – if I need critially to analyse a legal document I have to print it out. My eyes slide over the screen in a way that they don’t on the page. In addition, with a book I can flick back and forth to check that I am remembering things correctly or to remind myself who said what and to whom.

Hungary

Undaunted (or perhaps I didn’t have any choice), my next book was also from Google books. Again it wasn’t my first choice. The helpful lady in the Polish bookshop had recommended Sandor Marai and László Krasznahorkai but no works by either of them were available.

So, and I’m not entirely sure how, I ended up with The White King by György Dragomán. This is, together with the Schimmelpfennig, the only book that I have read on this trip that I would read again and wholeheartedly recommend. Think Lord of the Flies, but under a totalitarian government. And don’t be put off by the blurb, if it’s the same as it was on the e-book, as it’s totally wrong. Sometimes, I wonder if the people who write the blurb actually bother to read the books first.

Again though, this wasn’t a representative Hungarian book, or at least not in the way I had intended. It wasn’t acutally until I read some of the online reviews (after I’d finished it) that I realised that the unnamed totalitarian mid-80s country isn’t, in fact, Hungary but Romania. The author is an ethnic Hungarian who was born in Transylvania and moved to Hungary when he was 15. I had no idea when I was reading it. Perhaps I should have done. I don’t know whether it matters.

Austria

By this time I had given up on trying to find something that my prejudices thought was “Austrian” and just went for something that was a) by an Austrian, and b) available. It was also what the Austrian ambassador had recommended.

The book in question was The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler and as was absolutely not what I wanted to read, as it was set in 1938 and I was still hoping to step away from the troubled experience of 20th Century Europe. My Polish, Belgian and Hungarian books notwithstanding there seems to me to be so much more to write about in all these countries, yet what gets translated comes back to the same few years of misery. (And The Witcher).

Reader, I thoroughly enjoyed it and it confounded my expectations. As in Berlin, reading this in Vienna was the right book in the right place: it was lovely to wander through the Prater and think of Franz, 70 years earlier (although the bar he went to was shut, and there were no seedy dancing clubs that I noticed…).

It was also, despite being firmly set in 1938, and not shying away from the experience of Austria as it voted (with 99.73% in favour) to become part of Greater Germany, somehow not about that at all, being much more concerned with Franz’ coming of age and search for love, and above all self.

Freud is a major character too. I didn’t know he had a prosthetic jaw.

France

As I write, here we are. And here we will remain for some time. I am carrying with me a Slovenian book (lovingly identified and brought out by my mother) a Norwegian book, an Uzbek book, a Russian book and a Japanese book and I have no idea when, or if, we will be in any of those countries.

Here, though, I bought, on Monday, something entirely different and completely unconnected to 20th century history: a murder mystery. It’s in French. I may be some time.

Week 5 – Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria

Week five has been a slightly odd one: the coronavirus, of which more later, has increased its presence across Europe and the news is changing daily.  We have had to change accordingly.

Where were we? What did we do?

Poland

When last we wrote we were about to head into the Tatra Mountains. The children had been asking to visit a water park and we had found one fed by mineral-rich hot springs. This was everything you’d expect: loud, noisy, great fun and a chance to teach them all about the periodic table…. They enjoyed some of it more than the rest.

From there to a chalet in Zakopane. This looked very cool and stylish on AirBnB, but sadly the listing didn’t mention that a) it was up a drive that was not designed for a large and heavy Toyota van and b) once you got there the turning space was six inches deep in mud. We discovered the latter too late…

After some ingenuity, a bit of digging, use of the jack and a load of old pizza boxes, a not inconsiderable amount of sotto voce swearing and some invaluable help from a good Samaritan in the form of the astonishingly kind and English-speaking neighbour (how many random people in the UK would know the Polish for “manual transmission“?), we got out. It wasn’t a great first impression though.

The next morning though, as the sun rose over the snowy Tatra, so close we could almost touch them, and the children gambolled in what remained of the snow, it all seemed worth it.

Slovakia

You couldn’t, sitting in our car, quite have blinked and missed Slovakia, but if you had been better at sleeping in the car than our children are, you could probably have slept through it.

That is to do Slovakia a disservice. It was, through the car windows, beautiful, with rolling hills and snowy mountains. We stopped in Banska Bystrica (because it was on the way) for lunch, and enjoyed strolling through the centre of town.

Slovakia, we apologise for not spending longer with you. We will hopefully be back.

Budapest

Ben had been to Budapest before, in 1993, and had raved about it pretty much ever since. It did not disappoint.

We stayed very centrally, in a once very grand town house, just behind the national museum, so on our first evening we strolled along the banks of the Danube, watching as Buda slowly became illuminated.

We headed for the Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial, which remembers the Jews of the Ghetto who were brought to the banks of the river in late 1944 and 1945, told to remove their shoes, and shot. In the twilight, it was both beautiful and very moving. In a way I think it made the horror of the Holocaust more real to the children than anything else we have done on this trip.

The next day we went out, on public transport this time, Budapest being rather bigger than we realised, first to the Donhanyi Synagogue, with its many memorials (including to Raoul Wallenburg, of whom, to our shame, we had never heard) and stunning architecture. Then on to Buda Castle. We walked up and enjoyed the instagrammable-ness (yes that is a word) of the views, the Fishermans Bastion, the Presidential Palace (the sentries gave some of us a shock when they moved) and the giant eagle up which Ben once saw someone climb.

Szechenyi Baths

Harriet was slightly kicking herself (sort of still is, to be honest) for agreeing to the water park, having forgotten about the baths of Budapest. We rather thought that two swimming experiences so close together would be too much. But this, on a gloriously sunny day, in the smartest public swimming pool you will ever see in your life (no slides, sorry kids), was an experience unlike any other.

Escape Room

The children had been asking to go to an Escape Room since Berlin, where they are also a big thing. Budapest, which has many cellars and grand ruined buildings, is also a hive of various small rooms with people paying to get out.

We found one ten minutes or so away on foot, with an Indiana Jones-style temple-themed room (in English) , and booked ourselves in, smugly thinking we would be quite good at this.

Before they locked us in.

Clearly we can’t spoil it for others, but suffice to say that sadly, although we found the skull, and thus destroyed the Beast, we remain locked in the temple. We were, with hindsight, thinking too much like ourselves and not enough like Indy. We will know for next time.

It was brilliant fun though and there was some top teamwork. We’d do another one.

Vienna

Thence to Austria; on the way we popped into Vienna Airport to pick up the temporary seventh member of our travelling circus – Granny. Sometimes we like our massive car (when it’s not stuck in the mud or negotiating a Belgian underground car park).

The Prater

Keen, as ever, to give the children a full experience of the culture of every city we visit, once we got to our flat we dumped our bags, and headed out to the Prater.

Fourteen and a half years ago, when we got married, among our unwritten vows was that Harriet did not have to go on any roller coasters, ever (or to IKEA, if you’re interested) . Fun fairs are most definitely not her happy place, so this was an act of real love towards the children. But it’s Vienna, so you do, at least, have to go on the wheel.

And it was surprisingly fun. The Prater was clearly gearing up for its spring opening, so quite a few of the rides were having their light bulbs changed, or their mechanisms checked, and it is possible that the coronavirus kept some people away, but it was pleasantly busy without being crowded and there were no queues for any of the rides.

The wheel itself, in the glorious spring sunshine (22 degrees!) was a delight. We had a cabin to ourselves, and although Lucy was disappointed not to be able to throw tulips to small boys below (apparently she had read it in a book), we all thoroughly enjoyed it.

Then on to the main attractions. Magnus managed to find (and drag Granny on to) all of the dodgem rides in the place, and Ben fulfilled what has clearly been a fourteen and a half year lack by whooping and giggling his way round a roller coaster. Lucy got the fright of her life when air was puffed at her in a fun house, much to everyone else’s amusement.

And Granny and Harriet? They held the coats. And were delighed to be able to do so. Harriet was even more delighted to win the family ball-rolling competition. The prize is going back with Granny for her other grandchildren. Their parents will be delighted.

The Hofburg and other Palaces

Bill Bryson wrote that if you were an alien who landed in Vienna for the first time you’d think it was the capital of the world. He’s not wrong. It’s stately and grand and very, very sure of itself. It is also, at the moment, shut.

All those wonderful museums and galleries, all the palaces of wondrous riches, every one, shut to visitors for fear of Corona. Even the morning exercise at the Spanish Riding School was closed – do horses get COVID-19?

Oddly though (presumably it has something to do with numbers) the guided tour of the Spanish Riding School was open. (Apparently the Emperor who founded it came from Spain, bringing his funny Spanish customs, foods and way of riding with him. In German, we were told, “It’s all Greek to me“, or “double Dutch” translate as “Spanish“.) The boys had decided not to come with us, but Granny, Harriet and the girls rather liked the idea of dancing horses, so in we went.

Ben who is deeply allergic to horses, and struggling slightly with the arrival of Spring too (streaming nose and slight cough are not a good look right now, I can tell you), would have hated it, but we throroughly enjoyed meeting the horses, seeing them exercise, (nothing spectacular but still an enjoyable watch) and getting a full explanation of what goes on. Clearly it’s simultaneously brilliant and utterly weird and ridiculously over- mannered, but that’s sort of Vienna too.

Cafe culture

Having met up with Ben and Magnus, we ate our sandwiches in a rather windy but magnifient square and then went from the frugal to the utterly extravagant with coffee (mit schlag) and kuchen (that doesn’t do them justice at all) at Cafe Central, one of Vienna’s venerable coffee houses.

Composers and hamsters

Not far from where we were staying is Vienna’s Central Cemetery, resting place of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and others and home to several colonies of wild European hamsters.

The children had seen Seven Worlds One Planet and had been rather taken with the hamsters, so a wander around on a sunny day seemed in order. We found the composers (I’m going to resist the pun) with ease, but we possibly weren’t quite as quiet and patient as the BBC film crew as the hamsters remained resolutely out of sight.

Old (and new) Friends

Way back in 1996, Harriet spent a month in Moscow, trying to improve her (even then) woeful Russian. Staying in the same hall of residence were lots of Norwegians, one of whom has remained a friend, although of course the last time we saw him we were living in London and none of us had children.

The same Norwegian, with his wife and children, now lives in Vienna. So on Saturday morning, mindful of the new instruction not to gather inside, and having greeted each other with full on media-luvvie-style kisses from the requisite metre away, we met up for a lovely stroll round a wonderfully, if rather eerily empty, Vienna. As ever, Magnus made a new friend and we had a bonus ice ream too.

But they had shopping to do before Austria shuts up shop almost completely on Monday morning, so we left them and spent our last afternoon in Vienna variously shopping, cooking, and taking Granny back to the airport.

What were our impressions? What surprised us?

Girls’ responses as texted from the back of the car…

Aurora: Vienna was really not busy. It had literally no one there cause of corona but it had millions of castles and palaces.

Lucy: Budapest was very grand- I thought it couldn’t get any grander, then we went to Vienna!

Sophie: 1.Fancy, posh 2. I thought it would be much less nice and fancy.

Harriet: You, or perhaps just I, associate Vienna with the Danube. But when you’re here you never actually see it, even from the top of the Prater Ferris Wheel. It would have been a full on trip for Strauss to get anywhere near it, however beautiful and blue it may have been. In a similar vein it seemed a shame there were no waltzers at the Prater, but maybe that joke only works in English.

Sadly this ride was not yet open for the Season.

I was surprised by how much I loved Budapest. It just felt so beautiful and so alive. I wanted to get to know it better.

Magnus: The Prater was massive. The chimney cakes were really nice. Vienna was really grand and also crazy because it had a million rides in the Prater.

Ben: The daily changes to the news and situation regarding the Coronavirus situation, and the consequent lack of crowds, whether strolling through the majesty of Vienna, or not waiting 45 minutes to get into the Central Café (which is a lot grander than it sounds). The Mud of Zakopane (a strong contender for my future heavy metal band name), which made me appreciate the horror of World War One even more.

What were the highlights?

Magnus: I really really really really really liked the water park in Zakopane because it had slides and stuff. The Prater. I enjoyed the bumper cars. Meeting Oskar. The “No kangaroos in Austria” signs.

Ben The weather – spring has finally sprung. Budapest being as alive and glorious as when I left it (with the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra 1993 Tour). Vienna is gorgeous too, but it is much more stately (and less fun as a result) than Budapest.

Aurora: The Prater was really fun when me Sophie and Lucy went on the rollercoaster and when I went on the one upside down with Daddy.

Lucy: I really enjoyed the escape room because it was my kind of thing and going on the scary rollercoaster with Daddy and Aurora because I loved the exhilaration, excitement and experience.

Sophie: Water park,escape room and fun fair. I liked the freedom of the water park and the fun fair. I liked the escape room cos it was using my brain in a fun team working way.

Harriet I could live at the Szechenyi Baths. It thought they were just brilliant. I loved our escape room too, even if I’m still kicking myself because we didn’t get out. Once again it was very lovely to see friends, albeit in rather odd circumstances – no hugs allowed. I was conscious of pure unconfined happiness watching the children in the Fun House at the Prater.

What was the weather like?

Utterly glorious. One of the great ironies of travelling while the world goes into panic mode is how wonderfully normal and glorious the arrival of Spring has been this week. The very territorial blackbird who woke us up every morning in Vienna doesn’t care about viruses of any kind…

What about the Coronavirus?

You don’t need us to tell you what’s happening on a global, or indeed European, scale, and, let’s face it, the situation is changing by the minute.

For us this has meant trying to be as safe and sensible as possible, while still trying to salvage as much of our long-held dream as possible.

The initial amended plan had us missing out Italy, and at the beginning of the week we booked accommodation in Innsbruck and St Gallen, with a view to spending four days travelling between Slovenia (where we were supposed to be going next) and France, where Ben’s parents have a house and where we are still hoping to meet them and hand over the car.

Oddly, too, although the media was very clear on the seriousness of the situation, on the streets of the major cities we have visited we were not really aware of anything out of the ordinary going on, at least until we arrived in Vienna earlier this week. We have seen perhaps half a dozen people in face masks across our entire trip. The first day in Vienna was completely normal and it wasn’t until the second day, when museums were shut and it was oddly easy to get a table in a café; and the third, when people were told that shops cannot open after Monday, that things started to change. Certainly it was eerily easy to park in central Vienna yesterday morning.

However as the advice to self-isolate becomes more pressing, and in the knowledge that some of us look with our fingers at every passing surface, and with the risk that borders may shut for an indefinite period, we decided on Friday to amend the amended plan.

Early this morning (Sunday) we therefore got in the car and this post is being written as we drive straight to France where we can stay in Ben’s parents’ house. We have cancelled our Slovenia accommodation and the apartment we booked in Innsbruck, only five days ago. It is a 12 hour journey from Vienna to France, so the then plan was to break the journey in St. Gallen, but with countries’ responses becoming ever more stringent we have decided to push through to get to France tonight. We will stay in France as long as we have to.

Nowhere to park…

Since we left Austria this morning, passing through Germany, back into Austria, across Switzerland and finally to France, Germany has announced the closure of its borders with Swizerland and France, and Austria has banned gatherings of more than 5 people (how does that work for us?!). We are, therefore, as we drive along familiar French roads, very very glad we left when we did.

Even today though, as borders shut around us and there is a queue to wash your hands in the service station loos, life visibly goes on in the towns and villages we pass. Although the traffic has been relatively easy on our journey, this is perhaps no more so than you would expect on a Sunday. Planes are still arriving at Geneva airport…

Our intention was, and officially still is, to leave France at the beginning of April, and in theory Ben is also intending to spend a day at the Mongolian Embassy in Paris before then, but of course that may well all change and we will just have to review all our plans as they get nearer.

In the meanwhile it is excellent resilience training.

How plastic free were we?

Not very. There was a great plastic-free poster at the U-bahn station, but actual provision for plastic-free shopping, and indeed recycling, in Austria was woefully lacking. Budapest wasn’t much better.

We remain good about refusing straws and plastic bags and taking our reusable cups and bottles of water – thus far we are proud to have not bought a single bottle of water (although the man in the motorway services in Switzerland clearly thought refilling one was an outrageous request) – but it continues to be well-nigh impossible to shop for food without receiving it in plastic, especially in a country where you don’t speak the language.

What did we eat?

Chimney cakes. Lots of chimney cakes. Both the plain and cheap (from a kiosk in the metro) and the glam and pimped up and very expensive (from a swanky gelateria). They were all delicious but we concluded that the fresher and warmer the better. Ice cream improves a cold chimney cake, but not enough.

At the other extreme from chimney cakes in the Budapest Metro was Café Central in Vienna.

It would have been rude not to…

We also had great burgers in Vienna, and two lots of pizza (in Zakopane and Slovakia – although not Ben, who had a Slovakian speciality that was rather akin to macaroni cheese), as well as a lovely meal out, with requisite schnitzel, in the Palmenhaus of the Hofberg Palace.

Slovakian speciality.  With crackling garnish. Sadly we can’t remember its name.

We cooked Hungarian and Viennese too.

Any bad bits?

Lucy: The apprehension before the rollercoaster because I have never done an “upside down rollercoaster” before

Aurora: Magnus being hyper and annoying 😵🙄

Sophie: The bad bits were us fighting and Mummy and Daddy interrupting us while we were watching our movies

Harriet: The mud wasn’t funny, but pales into insignificance beside the coronavirus. Our best case scenario at present has us going straight from France to Russia (Scandinavia is a no go area) which would mean missing out five of the twenty countries we planned to visit. Technically of course at present even that’s not possible (the Russians won’t let us in if we’re coming from France, and in any event the trains between the two are all cancelled). I veer from being very sanguine about this (there are people in much much worse situations than us) to being very catastrophic and depressed: the what if scenarios can spiral very quickly out of control if I let them.

Ben: Getting stuck in the mud. Not knowing how much of the trip we’re going to have to miss. I was looking forward to a run around Lake Bled.

If early morning running always looked like this Harriet would go too.

Magnus: Getting into all those fights with Aurora.

What’s next?

With a sense of stepping into the unknown, we are on our way to the very familiar: Ben’s parents’ house in France. The plan was always to be there for a week at the very end of March and head on from there. As it is, we will wait there and assess the situation, moving on when we can.

In the meantime we will be communicating only in French…