Growing up in a communist Eastern European country there was not much to do as a teenager: no drugs to get high, no crazy parties with dozens of kids and flowing alcohol, no Playstation or computer games to play for days and thus avoid the reality of unhappy or uncomfortable feelings. Yet we all had to face the same problems as other teenagers around the world: body issues, mood swings, peer pressure, bullying, and so on. The only things we did were small stuff: going out on bicycle trips to the outskirts of the city to get a juice at a rundown bistro, play soccer or tennis or basketball (some of us but I was not too much of an athlete), skip a class or two just to listen to Beatles, Jimmy Hendrix, Bob Marley or Beethoven and Chopin while enjoying a forbidden cigarette and sometimes a glass of home made wine, or just spend time in the park, talking, laughing, socializing. I mostly liked to spend my time reading. For all the issues I would encounter there was a character I could identify with and find solutions for my real life. Or this is what I thought. Sometimes it would work, most of the times it would fail and I had to move on to the next problem as life was not going to wait for me to solve everything!
My parents had quite a library at home and my grandmother who was watching over us during the day had this rule: never touch any books that are on the upper shelves. Those were the forbidden books, books that she used to say were too difficult for us to understand at that age. Well, the tactic was super efficient: I read only the ones on the upper shelves but strangely enough I could never finish them as new ones kept on showing up. Being the smart woman she was, she never over encouraged me to read. There were no balloons, cakes or clapping, no “atta girl” and let’s throw her a party every time I would finish a book. She kept a very good balance between praising and nagging me about reading too much. For this reason I always saw reading not as a chore nor as a bragging right: it was just a normal daily activity, more like washing your face or sitting down at dinner table.
After I landed in Canada, I stopped reading. There was no time, no money or state of mind for books. Basically over night I went from being surrounded by family, friends, books and a highly stimulating intellectual environment in a culture I knew so well to being a single mother with one maybe two friends, no material possessions, a crappy job and my own drama unfolding in front of my eyes in a foreign culture and language. Life was getting complicated and I had to get rid of a few of my habits if I wanted to stay afloat; I had no more time to myself and even when I could steal a few minutes, I was too exhausted, mentally and physically to be able to concentrate on reading. My personal life was providing me with way too much excitement to allow my brain any time or strength to analyze and understand some or any fictional characters. The television seemed to be a better mind tranquilizer.
For the first few years I had the feeling my brain was wasting one cell at a time. Back home, reading, researching and debating ideas used to be a daily occurrence. Life used to happen at a faster pace and you had to stay relevant. Working with teenagers and also in the radio industry forced me to stay on top of trends not only in fashion and music but literature, lifestyle, and the economy as well. All these on top of the most debated subjects ever: soccer and politics.
My personal struggles to fit and succeed in the new country were not the only cause of my habit change.Choice back home was limited. After communism fell, the variety of any products or services had increased but not to the scale I was faced with here, in Canada. From food to clothes to bread and beverages, they all come in a one hundred thousand varieties. To choose the best product you need is a daunting time consuming exercise. I still have a tough time going to Subway for example to get a sandwich. The first hurdle and the most difficult step is to choose the bread! I usually go for the Italian Herbs and Cheese for no other reason other than the fact that I like the way the name sounds. But I could select Italian bread, or Rosemary and Sea Salt, or Hearty Italian, Jalapeño Cheese, Monterey Cheddar, Parmesan Oregano, Roasted Garlic, 9-Grain Wheat, 9-Grain Honey Oat, Italian, Italian Herbs & Cheese or Flatbread. Wow! Did I get them all? And yet, they have no bread with olives or nuts, things that I really like! I think my feelings have just been hurt! 🙂
It was 2001 and I knew I had no budget for books at all but I really wanted to step into a Chapters or Indigo as they were the Cathedrals of my imagination. I missed touching the crisp pages of the new books, I wanted to inhale the scent of the newly printed novels, I just wanted to lose myself for one hour into my favourite playroom. I took advantage of a birthday party my son was invited to, dropped him there half an hour earlier just to be sure and drove to the nearest Chapters. The first five minutes or so I walked aimlessly around the store trying to understand the layout. Nothing made sense to me. So many faces and names that I had never heard of were smiling glamorously at me from glossy covers taking the best spots in the huge store. Big Best Seller, Oprah’s Book Club or Heather’s Pick stamps and signs were demanding your attention. Where should I go first? Who was this Heather and why I had never heard of her? Is it that long ago that I stopped following any news in the literary world? And why is Who Moved My Cheese a best seller? The selection was overwhelming! I had no criteria to sort through the madness! I felt hopelessly lost.
I wanted to visit the book store not only for the books but hoping to find a safe place where I could shut off my brain and let my senses take control and through smell and touch of books and sight of familiar faces and printed names connect the old life with the new life. After two stressful years I needed that common denominator to help me start growing roots and find a reason to pull through that period of my life that was not happy, stable or fulfilling on any level: professional or personal. It seemed that it was not meant to be. I could not recognize any names, the titles were absolutely hilarious and most of the books were dealing with self help – a subject that I have never been a big fan of but it seemed to be a big hit here. It looked like my only hope of finding a familiar place inhabited by familiar characters was impossible to find.
Feeling down and still having some time before I needed to pick my son up, I moved towards the back of the library. It was quieter and I thought I could just grab a book, no matter which and read for a few minutes. I thought I also saw a sale sign and I had developed a real attraction for it that I am still fighting to get over! I got closer and my eyes lit with happiness: all Penguin Classics were on sale. Familiar names on small, unattractive covers ( from a commercial perspective) were waiting patiently for somebody, anybody to take them home. I did not have money to spare but, I had to find a way to take a few of these with me. Shoplifting crossed my mind for a second or two, but the thought I was the only “responsible” adult in my son’s life killed that thought. I took a quick executive decision and decided to splurge and not think about consequences! I picked up John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Aristotle’s The Politics and Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, Caesar and Cleopatra and Captain Brassbound’s Conversion . All for the huge amount for me at that time of CAD $16.90.
It was one of the first moments I felt good in my new country. I was impressed and I admired a lot of things here but at the time I had little or no reason to feel good about me or my decision to emigrate. But now, holding tightly to the books I felt like I was getting back some of the old Michaela and I liked that one so much better.
In time I learnt how to filter through all the best sellers that pop up almost on a monthly basis; I learnt that best sellers are not necessarily the best read, quite the opposite. I learnt that Heather is the CEO of Chapters and quite a good book critic on whose opinion I have based some of my purchases before the Internet and Amazon and Google took over. I learnt to deal with choice although at times I still feel overwhelmed. I feel better about my decisions and about myself but I still fight the occasional mood swings when I miss my old self and my old friends.
In the meantime, I managed to cover some of my walls with books and I feel the happiest when the house is quiet and warm, I am curled on a couch with a book in my hand and a hot tea at my side. That is when I finally feel at home.
“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” Jorge Luis Borges