Milan, Italy: August 18th, 2013, about 2:00 p.m.
I lug my backpack down from the overhead rack and sling it awkwardly over my shoulders, limited by the tight space of the train aisle. I step off the stairs onto the platform and begin to walk right, followed by my sister. We’ve arrived in Milan, where we will spend the day before catching our night train to Munich this evening. The platform converges with the others and enters a grand atrium. The architecture is old, a few centuries at least, and the massive doorway allows the strong sunlight to filter in. We turn towards a different exit, looking for the metro, which will take us to the center of town. The escalator brings us down to a long hallway, lined with stores, in typical European train station fashion. Things are fairly quiet at this hour, but one of the shops catches my eye; an international bookstore.
I hadn’t brought a single book with me on my trip so far and I had been looking to correct my mistake as soon as I arrived in Europe a week earlier. English books were harder to find and so when I spotted the store I was quite pleased.
We enter the store and begin to browse. The selection is vast, with best selling titles in dozens of languages. I move towards the English and Spanish sections. I’ve always had trouble picking out books and usually find myself spending far too long deciding what I want. This time is no different and we are in the store long enough that my backpack begins to dig into my shoulders. Meanwhile, the soft ache in my legs gently urges me to either walk or sit down, and to quit just standing there looking at the same few shelves.
I grab two from the English shelves: Into the Wild and Never Let Me Go, both quite popular and both now converted to movies. I turn my attention to the Spanish titles, trying to pick something to help me practice before going to Spain in a few weeks. Some of the classics catch my eyes, but I decide I’m not quite ready to take on Don Quixote or Cien años de soledad and keep looking a bit more. One keeps catching my eye; a novel, called Dime Quien Soy, whose simple cover consists of a woman walking across an empty plaza in Moscow. It’s a bestselling story about a Spaniard uncovering the unknown past of his grandmother, starting from the Civil War in Spain. It’s quite long, over one thousand pages, and after deciding it will give me plenty of practice, I bring it to the register to buy.
I shove the books into my already crowded backpack, praying the zipper doesn’t snap. They add a bit of extra weight, and I clamp the waist strap to balance it. We continue down the long corridor until the Metro and catch the yellow line headed to the center of town. Within a few minutes we arrive at “Duomo”, the stop closest to the symbolic church of Milan. We take the stairs up and step out into the sun. Hurriedly, I cover my eyes with my sunglasses as the heat hits us. After my eyes have adjusted I turn to my left. We are on the south end of an enormous plaza, surrounded by shopping and restaurants with the giant gothic church of white marble residing on the north end. The church glows in the sun, a pure, shining ivory with tourists scattered around the entrance. I snap a picture before we head for the shade and begin to explore a bit.
After a short walk around the center of town we lean our bags up against an old building and sit on the cement ground located just a street or two off the main plaza with Duomo. To the left, an Italian man with his guitar and microphone sings American pop songs while the tourists take cover in the shade. The music turns out to be fairly relaxing. I open Dime Quien Soy and begin to read.
Madrid, Spain: February 4th, 2014, about 2:30 a.m.
I close La Biblia de Barro and yawn. It’s late, and I should have been asleep a while ago, but I had to finish the book. It’s my third Julia Navarro novel of the year, after Dime Quien Soy and La Sangre de los Inocentes. All are novels with a historical basis, written in Spanish, with La Biblia de Barro and La Sangre de los Inocentes reminding me of the “thriller” style used by Dan Brown. I’ve enjoyed them all, but none have compared to Dime Quien Soy. I thought it was an interesting and beautifully written book. It was an adventure through the twentieth century and the touched on a lot of interesting personal and political aspects of the time period using fictional characters. But maybe the reason I enjoyed it so much is because I will always associate it with my arrival in Europe and my first few weeks in Spain. I remember churning through it when I couldn’t sleep on the night train from Milan to Munich. Later on, I would carry it with me on my walks as I explored the city on my own the first few Sundays. I remember reading it before going to bed every night in the dorms while I looked for a piso and took the intensive language course. I remember understanding more and more as I progressed slowly through the nearly one thousand pages. And of course, I remember finishing it after staying up way too late some night in October.
So what brought on this story of a book I read months ago? Well, I think it has to do with realizing how far I’ve come over the course of the past few months. When I realized I’d read over 2,000 pages in Spanish I couldn’t help but smile, and think back to a year ago when I struggled through the first Harry Potter in Spanish, stopping every few seconds to understand something. It was nice to know I’ve made progress.
Madrid, Spain: February 8th, 2014, sometime at night
I enter my room and turn the overhead light off in favor of the small reading light next to my bed. From my desk, I grab the book my roommate has lent me, “El Dios de la Guerra”, a translated version of a novel about the life of Alexander the Great. It’s a beast, with well over nine hundred pages. I sit on my bed and lean back against the wall as I rest the book on my knees. I evaluate it as I weigh the decision of whether or not to go to bed. No longer able to resist, I open the book and begin to read.