Reader in the grass – 5 books to try

This year again, the sunny summer has gone off my radar – and if you live in Belgium, you might have entirely missed it, too. Here, it shows up on a “now you see me, now you see me not” basis. And while I have to part with my much beloved notion of summer once more on this side of the globe, further south the sun is just settling into its other home for a while. Not fair.

However, to show you that summer has hit Belgium too at some point this year, I took my camera out (and a bunch of books) on the occasion and also got busy with some gardening. Nothing like reading a good book and pulling out of the ground one nasty nettle after the other in-between. And while last very short, timid and fugitive summer proved me beyond the shadow of a doubt that one thing I will not be when I grow up is a decent gardener, it at least gave me the opportunity to read some wonderful books, which I totally recommend. In the back of my garden, they made me travel beyond the beautiful fields and forests of the Flemish countryside.

First among my favourites is Marriage Material – an accidental discovery, as it often happens, the sort you are forever grateful for. Sathnam Sanghera has a beautifully crafted writing style and telling stories is clearly his business. The book conveys deep roots that are familiar to the author: traditional versus modern life of descendants of Punjabi families established in England. All the cliche elements are there: there is the corner shop, there is the never ending struggle to integrate and reconcile family values versus society expectations, there is a wealth of history and luggage from past lives, carried by people from a different country and passed on to the next generation. There is displacement, frustration, love, hate, rules to break from, mistakes to learn from and everything that makes the fragments of life in a Sikh Punjabi community exciting, colourful, and worth reading about. And above all, there is grace and an exceptional writer with a sense of carrying his audience right at the heart of the things he describes. A read that definitely excites all senses and leaves an exquisite after-taste.

A book by Bill Bryson is a guarantee to make me a happy gal on any kind of weather. This time Bill took me Down Under, where I have never been, but which is the place where most of my friends whom I met throughout my travels live. That is because Aussies are generally inescapable, wherever one goes. Bryson loves Australia and says it loud and clear. As always, expect a fair amount of well-researched, interesting and unique information dug out by the Master of hilarious accounts and some extra wrinkles once you’ve finished the book. Hard to put down, as any of Bryson’s works.

In Xanadu is a special kind of journey and the author, William Dalrymple, is not your ordinary travel writer. He is a historian through and through with a vivid interest in art and religion, with an eye for detail that most mortals visiting places will not see and a mind curious enough to bring hidden worlds to life. The book follows the footsteps of Marco Polo on the Silk Route from Jerusalem to inner Mongolia. It portrays a difficult undertaking of a student retracing the past -Dalrymple himself- through challenging, restless and not particularly travel-friendly places marked by political problems and complex bureaucratic systems. An eye-opener in many respects.

I bought Michael Palin’s  The Truth at a flea market somewhere in London and it was time for me to finally take it off that shelf I almost forgot it on. I was not disappointed. An engaging and accessible read in a flowing, catchy journalistic style, this work of fiction exposes some dark areas of modern-times troubles surrounding the publishing industry, for instance,  as well as environmental issues. Thanks to it, I also discovered that Mr Monty Python has a travel website where you can find out more about the man himself and his adventures around the world: http://www.themichaelpalin.com/

India has been quite present in my mind this summer, with the sad celebration of 70 years since the Partition covered by the media channels. And so I thought I would finally give a go to a book I actually bought in India two years ago:  it’s time for Alex Rutherford’s Empire of the Moghul series. A blend of history and fiction, this promises to keep me entertained for a little while. And what better to make the transition from summer to autumn than to indulge in the world of spices and warriors and great empires!

While Indian summer remains an unfulfilled dream and a rather wishful thinking where I am currently located, there is a lot of comfort, thrill and fulfillment to be found in those many books waiting for me to open. One page at a time, rain or sunshine, keep on reading.

Travel solo, but take a book

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Few days back I found myself walking again under –this time – the lighter weight of a familiar load: my blue backpack. Slightly absent minded yet ready to get carried away towards my destination by a habitual combination of metro, bus and plane, something occurred to me for the too many-eth time: I literally started to walk into life with a book in hand. My father insists that this is how I fancied taking my very first steps as a toddler: by furtively grabbing a book and starting off with it in that funny walking fashion that reminds of a rough night at the pub. To give me better balance, dad caught me and put a second book under my other arm. And that was it: walking happened.

Wherever I travel to, trust me to always have a good book for company. I’m one of those people who actually enjoy silence and the possibility of introspection on the road. I like to listen to my thoughts and feed them, cultivate them, let them wander and come back to me deeper than before. During the camping evenings on the Inca Trail in Peru, wrapped up in a sleeping bag, I read “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer in my tiny tent, lighting the pages with a head torch. It felt greatly adventurous under the circumstances if slightly unsettling since it develops on the true story of a young man who discovers the freedom of ultimate solo travel but dies because of it. It is, no doubt here, an amazing read and a ravaging insight into a traveller’s soul that any person who is a wander at heart should dive into, I believe.

In preparation for a travel to Sumatra, Indonesia I started reading “Krakatoa – the Day the World Exploded” by Simon Winchester. Now that enhanced the thrill of the experience I was about to live and gave me a sense of where I was going, if ever my booking left me with any doubts: the Pacific Ring of Fire. The book is a complex account of one of the largest catastrophe’s the world has faced so far – the eruption of the Krakatoa volcano, of course – and is sprinkled with a fair amount of local history as well as highlights of the glorious days of the first explorers and colonisers. It is interesting and documented, though rather charmless from a literary point of view. But if you’re headed to Indonesia, you might as well give it a chance.

And ah, South Africa! I first travelled in mind there thanks to the stimulating, romantic and absolutely mind racing stories of one of the best adventure writers alive, Wilbur Smith, and his Courtney series. The man had me dream of this country before I could actually see it. He clearly inspired me to travel there. Or was it Sean Courtney?

Travel mates can be buggers. Sometimes the landscape may not be particularly gratifying and for having counted a long series of leafless trees on a recent trip through the States and Canada I can confirm that watching out the window for long hours will not always leave you breathless. Maybe you’re bored and possibly can’t sleep. In those moments, what you really, really want is to open a book. My personal recommendation is to travel with Bill Bryson.

The first book I read by him was “Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe” and I found myself in the embarrassing circumstance of bursting into laughter in the public transport. So the danger is real and it’s reassuring to know that I was not an isolated case of this new (to me) kind of public embarrassment. As it turns out, there are more of us out there taking the metro with a Bill Bryson book, laughing their heads off and embracing the risk of being mentally labelled as poor innocents: http://bit.ly/1C5P0qL.

Bryson has become a sort of best friend and as it so happens with some best friends who do not live close by, I miss his humour, the enlightened, jovial tone of his stories and his personal travel undertakings which sometimes end in such a wonderfully comic catastrophe. His books are guaranteed to have a gripping, long-lasting effect on me.

I later went on with “Notes from a Small Island” which tells about his discovery and first-hand observations of  Britain and Britishness and continued with “Notes from a Big Country” where he wrestles with aspects of American life. Finally, I have just finished “A Walk in the Woods” and found it exceptional and as close to perfection as a book can get. Bryson is unbelievably gifted when it comes to decorticating details and explaining otherwise unfathomable and hard to describe feelings, thoughts and behaviours. How he puts that into such unique and mesmerising English is a source of wonder and makes me read his sentences again and again. Bill is magic. I can’t imagine anyone reading one of his books and not be immediately turned into a fan.

“A walk in the Woods” is about encounters:

I have long known that it is part of God’s plan for me to spend a little time with each of the most stupid people on earth, and Mary Ellen was proof that even in the
Appalachian woods I would not be spared. It became evident from the first moment that she was a rarity.

But most of all, it is an invigorating encouragement to go hiking and lose yourself to the nature:

We took off our shoes and socks, rolled up our trousers, and stepped gingerly into the frigid water. The stones on the bottom were all shapes and sizes – flat, egg-shaped, domed – very hard on the feet, and covered with a filmy green slime that was ludicrously slippery. I hadn’t gone three steps when my feet skated and I fell painfully on my ass. I struggled halfway to my feet, but slipped and fell again; struggled up, staggered sideways a yard or two and pitched helplessly forward, breaking my fall with my hands and ending up in the water doggie-style. As I landed, my pack slid forward and my boots, tied to its frame by their laces, were hurled into a kind of contained orbit; they flew round the side of the pack in a long, rather pretty trajectory, and came to a halt against my head, then plunked into the water where they dangled in the current.

Moral of the story: read Bryson and/or travel with a book – it is bound to give you balance.

P.S. Though I firmly believe a book will always fit into a backpack, I might give Kindle a go one of these days to see how quickly I can adjust to modern day travelling. But I do love books in their printed version and what would make me at least as happy as great content is more use of recycled paper in the publishing industry. So that “A Walk in the Woods” can still be possible in years to come.

Hell of a May Day

Royal Greenhouses in Laeken
May 1st is, no doubt, a public holiday in Belgium, too. Labour Day or Easter – who cares about the underlying significance of the event, as long as it is a day off? I was once asked by a seemingly mature person why Easter was supposed to be a sad occasion. True, if you grow up thinking that Easter is that one moment when you look for egg chocolates in the garden, you might slightly overlook the mythical Crucifixion of Jesus (you know, the guy in urgent need of a haircut) by the Christians. Nowadays, everyone is just happy to have a day off away from the office. And I am by no means an exception.

Caught in Brussels, I decide to do the tourist and visit highlights that, possibly prevented by some exceptionally good instincts, I haven’t previously. Bill Bryson says that “once you’ve done a couple of circuits of the Grand-Place and looked politely in the windows of one or two of the many thousands of shops selling chocolates or lace (and they appear to sell nothing else in Brussels), you begin to find yourself glancing at your watch and wondering if nine-forty-seven in the morning is too early to start drinking.” (Neither here Nor there – Travels in Europe)

Still, the great thing about Brussels is that, small though it may be, one can hardly pretend having seen it all. There is always a park, a theatre, a museum, a bar, a site in or around Brussels that even locals are surprised to discover. Seriously, though I could criticize close to a hundred things about it, I am amazed how there’s always something to do or see in Brussels. Especially when you can’t book a flight to anywhere else.

Forgetting that I was not the only one enjoying a day off, I set my mind on visiting the Royal Greenhouses in Laeken. The day is bright though rain was supposed to be on the menu and I suspect that the guys from the weather forecast had been consuming again – somehow, their predictions are often wrong.

The first difficulty when reaching the park is to find a parking place – take the wrong lane like I did and you’re bound to do the tour of Brussels without any possibility of turning around in a foreseeable future. I end up managing to squeeze my car between two parking spaces for the disabled. Time to visit.

My mum is the fervent royalist, the kind who posts pictures of queens/kings and their inheritors from around the Globe on Facebook and captions them with enthusiastic remarks such as “Long live X or Y” ending in at least 3 exclamation marks. She dreams of restoring monarchy in Romania and I would hardly be surprised if she joined some activist group that secretly plots to get the job done. So I call her to say “Guess what? I’m going royal today: I’m visiting their weeds.” She asked for pictures with the intention to, of course, post them on Facebook for her other monarchy-crazed friends to like. She never ceases to amaze me.

The difficulty to find a parking place confirms my fear: half of the Brussels population had the same idea. Plenty also brought their children, strollers and most of their belongings with them. It’s a splendid sunny day, the entry ticket is 2.50 euros and I have a massive queue of humans in front me. I’m in trouble, for patience will be needed.

The cashier woman will not be nominated for the Kindest Person of the Year award. She looks bored already and it’s only noon. She takes my coins with a silent sign to put them down so that she can count them. I say “Bonjour” to her and although the poster says that the staff can reply in no less than 5 languages, she serves me a cold “alstublieft” in Flemish. She might as well have said “Go fuck yourself” to me. Maybe she actually did. The intonation was in no way different. I treat her with the adequate kind of look. Belgium is not a place where Flemish people love Walloon people (or the other way round), but Brussels is where they pretend to best. You should see Bruges!

Ticket in hand and with a still relatively good mood on my face, I get excited to see the flowers. But the road is packed with obstacles. To begin with, there’s a lot of walking to the greenhouses. There are also too many people lingering on and blocking my chances to move forward. I’m usually good at overtaking but this promises to be a very special day. People seem to stop and take pictures of every single patch of grass in a park that had absolutely nothing exceptional to offer and the families and big groups of friends occupy any available space, active at keeping everyone else behind.

I was starting to make my way when I was stopped by another big gathering: it was the queue to enter the greenhouses. I couldn’t see the door from where we were standing. I breathe shoulder to shoulder with the other visitors. A baby starts to yell so hard it reminded me of an excellent condom commercial (and if you haven’t seen it, please do before it’s too late: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bYvLahRzabs). I was by then deeply cursing myself for having had such a wonderful idea as coming there that day of all other days.

And then the heaviest of rains started to pour down, making some of us run towards the two-three trees that grew in this park, clearly not made to accommodate visitors on rainy weather. Stoically, I endured it by covering myself, the camera and my bag (all three items soaked through within 5 minutes) with the only means of protection I had: my jacket. No, not a waterproof one!

Suddenly, it was not only grey and rainy, but also very cold. Under my very wet jacket, I was all but having fun. 10 minutes later, we were still not moving, and the rain wasn’t giving us any break. Once again, I congratulated myself on the idea. When we did move, it was only to put one foot in front of the other and then stop for longer minutes still. 100 metres were now separating me from the sheltering entry but it didn’t look like I was going to get in there that day. It’s the biggest joke to just stand wet in the pouring rain so close to a shelter and not be able to reach it. Frustration was escalating. But not to worry, two teenagers who must have been either volunteers or hired on very low wages to stroll around the park and make belief they were doing something there show up.

People, having identified them as traces of some sort of local authority start questioning them on how come we were left outside under such weather conditions. Those who had made it inside were evidently not giving one single fuck about those who were outside: they were having the time of their lives slowly taking happy snappies of every flower petal. I ask the teenagers if going back would get me out of the park. I had seen one plant too many and my car was still 2 km away anyhow.

“Oh, you’re right in the middle of the circuit and you can’t go back right now: everything is blocked by those who entered behind you.” Now this was absolutely unbelievable. In a country where it rains every 2 hours and on a day with high affluence for which heavy rain showers were actually announced, this royal park had taken absolutely no measure whatsoever to offer visitors an enjoyable, dry experience (and yes, damn it, I forgot my umbrella, but that doesn’t make them any less guilty). I can hardly imagine that no one has yet considered building shelters or at least sending guards inside the visiting spaces to herd the lazy crowds towards the exit. I know we were geographically in Belgium where people are not exactly familiar with the verb “to hurry”, but the awfully slow motion in the management of the place was simply unbearable.

Anyone who would have peeped beneath the green jacket covering my frozen self would have been met with a look that hinted to the fact that I was on the brinks of committing mass murder.

Not having anything better to do, I start to smile. At a sign of the only guard present I finally move in the covered area we had been longing for during those long minutes of incessant downpour only to notice that the sun had made it through the clouds again and was shining over us mockingly: “A tad wet, hey?”, it seemed to say to me. The guard tries to look like the world is depending on his job and does an affected kind of walking from A to B, speaking into the walkie talkie as if he was from homeland security. He does both actions very slowly, but gravely, in an imposing kind of way. Some old men take off their wet shirts in an attempt to dry them a bit. The old lady next to me whispers into my ear: “Look, topless men – if only for this and it was still worth coming.” Naughty old little lady! I agreed: we did get something worth 2.50 euros.

Finally in! Now, whichever genius mind built these greenhouses, he/she was a selfish bastard/bitch with no intention of ever inviting in more than 10 people. There was only one very small path between the truly beautiful flowers (of which I now didn’t give a damn) gorging with too many people. I almost fainted at the thought that I was going to be stuck in there again. I prayed hard that the path please not be too long. It was. Visitors were stopping to find the best position for their future Facebook profile picture. Damn Zuckerberg, too, he transformed us into a bunch of selfie and like-my-status obsessed individuals. My plan to get the hell out of there as soon as I could was compromised. Suddenly, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to go very far to observe the animal in its natural environment. I had a whole safari right in front of me.

It didn’t rain anymore after this. It was only once I made it outside the park and the royal environment (with only one picture as a souvenir) and started to breathe regularly again that I realized why I felt that the Universe held something against me on that May 1st. I hadn’t had a single coffee the whole day.