Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Inspiration in Amsterdam and Sofia

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to tag along on a mini book tour of my husband's. They were publishing editions of his latest book in The Netherlands and Bulgaria and his publishers asked him to come give talks in three places: Amsterdam; Gent, Belgium; and Sofia, Bulgaria. I'd always wanted to visit Amsterdam. Belgium sounded nice, but when he said Bulgaria, I said, "I'm coming!" When else would I have a chance to go there?

I can't tell you about the whole trip in a short piece (though I would love to), but I will tell you about one thing from each place.

First, the thing that "blew my mind" in Amsterdam. No, not that. I was too jet-lagged. The Anne Frank house. I knew I would have to go there. I read The Diary of Anne Frank when I was in sixth grade. I'll never forget the moment I finished it, at a family gathering at my grandparents' apartment. I adored everyone in that apartment, and yet when I closed the book, in hysterical tears, I looked at my grandparents, my parents, my aunts and uncles, my older cousins, and I thought: I hate you. I hated them why? Because they never told me. My younger son had the same reaction when he first learned about the Holocaust in Sunday School. Of course this is not about not being told, it's about learning it for the first time for yourself. Experiencing the horrors of the world unfiltered in some way. That happened to me again in the museum that is in Anne Frank's hideout. Walking through the rooms where Anne and her family hid out, reading Anne's words, looking at photographs of Anne and her family, and the others, touching things Anne might have touched, I was deeply moved. Walking through with a crowd of other people from all over the world, all of us silent, was an emotional experience. Thinking of Anne experiencing first (and last) love in those rooms, was almost unbearable. Reading her gorgeous words, her genius that was snuffed out by evil, I was near tears. But it wasn't until the end that I was walloped.

The people at that museum know how to tell a story.

When you get to the end, there are videos of people talking not about Anne, but about her sister Margot. Saying things such as (not an exact quote), "I don't know why they focused on Anne. It was Margot who was special, brilliant..." At first I was upset because this felt like a betrayal of Anne. Then I realized with a thunk: It's all about Margot, isn't it? Because of course Margot was special. Of course her friends would think it was her story that should be told. And how many friends of the millions upon millions of people who were killed in Germany and Poland and etc. by Hitler and co, and in Russia and Lithuania by Stalin and co, and etc. etc. etc. would think that it was their friend whose story should be told? You get to the end of Anne's story and you are not allowed to feel grief about just her life. You have to multiply it by an unimaginable number. And that is, of course the beauty of Anne's story--it is particular and it is universal. But hearing about Margot makes the whole thing overwhelming. Why didn't anyone ever tell me about MARGOT?

Yes, folks. That is the way to tell a story. I understand it's a temporary exhibit. I hope they keep it there always.

I spent only a day in Gent. During that time I did the most important thing one can do in Belgium: I bought chocolate. And ate chocolate. Also pizza. (If it was Wednesday, it was Belgium. I have to go back.) I also got to know a young woman, an academic, who I hope I will see again.

Bulgaria. O.K. first, a confession. I was working on a deadline, and I did no research before we left. I had no idea where exactly Bulgaria is (well, I did look on our shower curtain map) or what the history was (other than Soviet Bloc, Balkan, Iron Curtain...). Fortunately that didn't matter because we had the most amazing hosts in the world. Not only did they set up tons of interviews for my husband (something like 15, including at least four on TV!), not only did they create a book with the best cover of all the editions so far (in my humble opinion),

not only did his book launch include the most famous actress in Bulgaria, a "living legend," Tatyana Lolova, who is a great comedian and singer, not only did they feed us sumptuous meals (once I told them I love eggplant they ordered every eggplant dish on the menu), not only did they take us around Sofia and in an hour and a half tell us everything they possibly could and probably everything we needed to know, not only did they do all of this and more, but they also did what I thought might be impossible for two middle-aged writers: they inspired us about the future of books, and nonfiction books in particular.

Sofia is a wreck of a city in many ways. Huge Soviet buildings--concrete, ugly, covered in graffiti dominate. Public buildings are vandalized regularly. People steal the metal railings to sell to factories. Everywhere we went there were missing banisters, chopped up streets, boarded up windows. Crime is king--not violent crime, but corrupt government, bribes, organized crime... The fashion for men is to look like a crime lord. And YET in this environment there is a small but strong and vocal segment of the population--dominated, I gather, from our delightful hosts--that is determined to foment intellectualism.

Hristo, who is only 26, reads books from morning until night. He has a blog (sadly only in Bulgarian) in which he writes about books that he loves. His job is to read books in English for the publisher, East West, and recommend which ones they should translate. ("Can you believe it? It is my dream job--to read all day!") His current dream is to build a small private free library so people can borrow wonderful books --because there is nothing like that in Sofia. He is raising the money by selling books he's read, delivering them himself on his bicycle. Spending about 48 hours with Hristo and with Petyo, Jon's translator for the visit, who knows 40 languages!, and with Leyuban, the head of East West, and his wife, Girgi, restored my faith in the future of books and intellectualism and even in the possibility of peace through words. O.K. maybe it was all that yogurt. But I felt renewed optimism in that former Soviet Bloc country. It may be seriously dysfunctional, but there is wireless everywhere.

They might publish Charles and Emma in Bulgarian. I hope so, even just so they ask us back. When we parted at the airport, we felt like we were leaving family. I think we were.

I hope to see some of you at ALA this weekend. I will be presenting at the nonfiction book blast, and signing at three different booths. Come say hi!


Barbara Kerley said...

Loved this post, Deb -- especially your observation that the most moving stories are both particular and universal. So very true! I can't wait to read what you've been inspired to write!

April Pulley Sayre said...

Wow, Deborah. I feel swept up in your swirl of experiences, people, and ideas. Thanks for giving us a taste of your trip in this post.

Susan Kuklin said...

What a wonderful post, Deborah. I love the reminder that the life of one person can be unique and representative at the same time. Its an important lesson for writers, and especially nonfiction writers.

The trip sounds pretty terrific, too. Can't wait to see the photographs.

CC said...

Fascinating stuff on Bulgaria,Deb.
You have alsoreminded me of my visit and impressions at the Anne Frank House.

As for Belgium, OK, there IS the chocolate, but also its where master flower painter Pierre Joseph Redoute was born, in St Hubert, in the Ardennes Forest. Spent several delightful days there and in Brussels doing research for the book! ;~)

Sounds like a fabulous trip.

Христо Блажев said...

Wow, Deborah, I have no words to tell you how grateful I am for your post and all words you wrote about Bulgaria, me and my collegues. It was really a privilege to publish Jonathan's book and to have guests like you both! This was one of the most inspiring days of my life! I have no patience to read your book! Greetings from Sofia, which is not so scary place as you describe it - we just don't had the time to show you it's beauties :)

Deborah Heiligman said...

Hristo--It was not scary really! I was just trying to describe the contrast between you and your idealism, and the "other stuff" that does tend to stand out more. It's what we call here a contrast gainer!