Growing Up Multi-Lingual–And Staying That Way

The uproar about that New York lawyer going postal because people were speaking Spanish at a Fresh Kitchen eatery has reminded me how lucky I was to grow up in a multi-lingual home.

Before World War II hit his tiny village in Czechoslovakia, my father knew Yiddish, Hungarian, Czech, Russian, Ukrainian, and Ruthenian. He learned German during the war, and also Rumanian. Far to the north in Vilnius, my mother’s household languages were Yiddish, Polish and Russian, and she studied German and French in school. Latin, too, which benefited me as a kid because she was able to explain grammar simply and clearly.  When they lived in bi-lingual Brussels after WW II, my father picked up Flemish.

I myself was bilingual before kindergarten: I spoke Yiddish and English at home, and even though over time I stopped using Yiddish with my parents, I still understood it. In fourth grade, my class started learning French, which I loved and took to so well that down the road I become my high school’s star French student.

When a German publisher bought three books of mine back in the 2000s, I started taking German classes and reached a point where I could introduce a reading in German on a book tour and even do the reading itself in German.

Not too long ago, a senior colleague at Michigan State University asked if I’d like to join him in launching a summer program in Sweden. I didn’t hesitate.  Part of the attraction was getting to study Swedish, a language I quickly fell in love with for its musicality and relative simplicity compared to German. That program didn’t pan out because of issues with the Swedish university, but the time I spent immersed in Swedish language study was tremendous fun.  When you study a language, you also learn about the country’s culture and history and until then, I’d known very little about Sweden.  I was fascinated by many things, including their notion of lagom: having just enough in life.

I moved on to Dutch more recently when I created a summer abroad program of my own based in Ghent, Belgium.  I made fairly good progress until it was kiboshed by a department chair despite the enthusiastic approval of administrators above her level who were eager for something new and exciting. I don’t regret the time devoted to it. Dutch isn’t easy, but it’s been fun and I know on my next trip to Amsterdam or anywhere in Flanders that I’ll be able to interact with people without feeling stuck in my own skin.

French has helped me in my travels across Europe and even, surprisingly, in Israel; ditto German outside of Germany.  I’ve read books in both languages that have inspired me as a writer.  A shop owner in Paris once said to me–after complimenting my French–that you can’t really understand another culture until you enter its language.

I’m grateful to the many fine language teachers I’ve had over the years for opening those doors.  They’ve made my travels infinitely more enjoyable, they’ve given my deeper access to the countries where I spoke that language, and they’ve connected me to my past.

Lev Raphael is the best-selling author of a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  You can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com

Food Fun in Chicago

Because of my Russian heritage, when I’m in Chicago I like to eat at Russian Tea Time near the Art Institute. I’ve never been served a bad meal there, and having lunch or dinner, scraps of my parents’ conversations in Russian come back. The enjoyable present makes for a warm connection to my past, and I feel my late mother’s presence very strongly because she was a wonderful cook and used to make her own borscht.

But this past weekend I felt like changing things up. I’ve had several book tours across Germany and in Vienna where I became very fond of the food, the wine, and the beer. So Berghoff seemed a natural choice. It’s been in business for a century.

The wood paneling and stencils on the wall felt familiar even though the clientele was multi-national. I’d eaten many a schnitzel on my book tours so I wanted to see how their Wiener Schnitzel compared. Served with spaetzel and creamed spinach, it was delicious, and so was the German Riesling. The apple strudel, though, was a bit too sweet and looked deconstructed.

There was a band playing blues in the bar, but I didn’t mind the commotion because I was reflecting on how my life had changed so dramatically after I found a distant cousin by marriage in Magdeburg, where my mother had been a slave laborer in a munitions factory. Germany had always felt taboo to me until that discovery, and I’ve been there five times now, visits recorded in my memoir/travelogue My Germany.

For breakfast I picked Le Pain Quotidien on Michigan Avenue and that also sparked great reminiscences. My tasty avocado toast with smoked salmon seemed very American, but the coffee came in a little pitcher and I got a bowl as opposed to a mug. It brought back more pleasant memories, this time of research trips I’d done in both the French and Flemish speaking parts of Belgium. The coffee was smooth and strong, the staff friendly.

I had planned lunch at a trattoria but got the days confused and it was closed, so I found myself drawn ineluctably to the nearby Russian Tea Time where I had two specialties I’d never tried before.  The excellent mushroom barley soup was tomato-based and filled with vegetables, while the duck strudel (yes!) was terrific and unusual.  I had two glasses of a sweet red from the Republic of Georgia and wished my mother could have been alive to dine with me there.

Food and writing often go together for me, and this trip gave me ideas for fiction and much more. I was alone for most of my time in Chicago, and that can sometimes make me miss being home, but memories and new enjoyments were great company.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir, including Writer’s Block is Bunk.  He’ll be teaching an online memoir writing workshop this summer at http://writewithoutborders.com/workshops/

My First Trip To Canada

I grew up in a wildly multilingual family and Canada’s bilingual nature fascinated as soon as I started learning French in elementary school.  It was just a short flight from New York, but felt as distant and exotic as Belgium where my parents had lived for awhile.

I eventually became my high school’s star French student, thanks to tutoring from my mother whose French was perfect. Even the subjunctive somehow sunk in. I received a certificate of achievement from the Alliance Française in New York, so a trip to Montréal seemed ideal after I graduated high school and was feeling almost bilingual (unlike my older brother whose French was not very good).

He put me in charge of hotels and I picked one on Place Jacques Cartier which was then somewhat ramshackle and noisy, but exciting for a student like me. Just being able to use French outside of a classroom–and be understood–was thrilling. I’d been studying it for eight years but in a hot house—now it was alive, transactional.

Getting into the country was unexpectedly dicey. It was 1971 and both of us looked like hippies. Clean hippies, but hippies just the same. And I didn’t realize that joking with Passport Control was not a good idea. When I was asked by a suspicious agent if I had any money with me, I emptied my wallet onto the table and made some remark like “Ai-je assez?” (Do I have enough?)

My brother claims that we were taken aside for an hour and interrogated. I have no memory of that. What I do remember was the superb food everywhere we went in Vieux Montréal and the wonderful feeling of being a different person when I was speaking and thinking in another language. Oh, and how difficult it was walking in stalked heels on cobblestones (it was the early 70s, remember?). I

I knew then that I’d be back—and in more suitable shoes.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-five books in genres from mystery to memoir, He is an assistant professor in the English Department at Michigan State University and also teaches creative writing on line at http://www.writewithoutborders.com

When Doves Don’t Cry: Travel Notes From France

My first time in France, the doves outside my tower bedroom window sounded happy and fat. Their pillow-soft, subtle conversations woke me every day for a week when I stayed in a 19th century Renaissance-style chateau hotel. Twin towers with pointed roofs graced the terrace side, and it looked like something in one of the posters that had hung in my fourth grade classroom.  That’s where I first started learning French and started dreaming of going to France.

My tower was shaded by trees where the doves clustered and cooed. I couldn’t see them, but their presence was as rich as the desserts and sauces downstairs in the elegant restaurant.  The waiters and owner treated me well because I ordered and talked about meals in French that surprised the staff and the owner. My French wasn’t perfect, but it was good, and I was American. Those were two things that didn’t go together in French minds. I wasn’t guessing: People told me that directly.

The compliments were as comforting as lying in bed every morning in my round bedroom whose ceiling was easily 15 feet high, and then lounging in the suite’s main room. The walls were covered in faded green silk which somehow seemed to match whatever it was I thought the doves had to say to me. Their sound was as soothing as gentle fingers massaging a forehead creased with a migraine. I’d think about breakfast, read a Guide Michelin in French, consult a road map and plan which chateaux we would drive to in the Loire Valley that day.  Blois?  Amboise?  Azay-le-Rideau? Usse? Angers? Chenonceau? Saumur? Villandry?  So many tempting, gorgeous choices….

I knew that after each day of touring, the evening would bring another elegant, lavish meal with my spouse–and the next morning would start with the quiet contemplation of murmuring doves.

Oh, and another leisurely cup of coffee after breakfast downstairs on the terrace before driving off. And sunshine. French sunshine.

It had taken me years to come to France, and here I was, actually discovering myself in French, discovering that all those years of books and classes had actually taken root, that I could think in this language, feel in it, react in it. I had never traveled to Europe before. I was entering a new life, seeing myself in a new light.  And learning the language of doves.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir and travelogue.  You can find them on Amazon.

What I Discovered When Flying With A Disability

The New York Times recently ran a story about being in a wheelchair and feeling invisible. When I injured my knee a few days before a trip from Lansing to D.C. via Detroit, I hesitated about arranging for wheelchair assistance in Detroit. It wasn’t invisibility I dreaded, it was exposure.

For those of you who don’t know the route or the Detroit airport, if you’re flying to or from Lansing, the connection there can take at least fifteen minutes even with the moving walkways and the monorail, because you have to switch terminals. As they say in the city of my birth, it’s a schlep.

My injury didn’t require surgery, just physical therapy when I got back. I had already cancelled a previous family visit to D.C. due to a severe migraine that kept me in bed for a whole weekend and I was determined to go this time. The trip was important, but then so was my health and comfort. I did not want to aggravate my injury.

I’d been in an airport wheelchair before when I had to take a flight to London and I didn’t like it. Yes, I got through security much faster, but at a price. People stared, then looked away. Both parts of that equation were very discomfiting. Were they wondering what was wrong with me since I seemed fit? Were they embarrassed for having been caught staring? I was embarrassed myself to have my disability—however unseen—on public display.

For this D.C. trip, a friend joked that I could wear a sign that said: INJURED KNEE. STOP STARING. That made me laugh, as she knew it would.

Being transported by wheelchair because of an injury, being helpless for what seemed like ages on that London trip made me feel reduced to that injury at a time when the pain, reduced mobility, and inconvenience had disrupted my normal routine enough already. In a chair, the disability felt like it was in charge and I was along for the ride.

I could easily imagine the flip side for my D.C. trip: limping the whole painful way. My light, well-packed roll-aboard would turn into a loathsome burden. Stopping to rest would be mandatory. Knowing that I might have to speed up at some point because the closer I got to the gate, the slower I’d be going as the pain and fatigue caught up with me. And people would stare anyway since airports aren’t made for limping but for rushing, and my face would likely reveal how miserable I felt.

Having dealt with shame in other areas of my life and written about it, I knew facing this was important, so I did order the wheelchair. And? Well, there was no happy ending. No sense of “closure.” No soaring ballad by Adele over the credits. But at least I was comfortable and on time– and most importantly, I won’t hesitate next time if need a wheelchair.

I’ve never been a sports nut, but I’ve belonged to a health club for years. I’ve done yoga, weight training, spinning classes, had swimming lessons with a coach, and I’d taken my physical being-in-the-world completely for granted until recently. I wonder now how many times over the years I’ve stared at people in airport wheelchairs. What was I thinking?

Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books in genres from memoir to mystery, including the travelogue/family history My Germany.

Oh, Canada: Love Letter From a Neighbor

Canada was just a short plane ride away when I grew up in New York City, and its bilingualism fascinated me as soon as I started learning French in elementary school.  I eventually became my high school’s star French student, thanks to tutoring from my mother whose French was excellent. I received a certificate of achievement from the Alliance Française in New York, so a trip to Montréal seemed ideal after I graduated high school and was feeling almost bilingual.

My brother, who didn’t speak French, put me in charge of hotels and I picked one on Place Jacques Cartier which was then somewhat ramshackle and noisy, but exciting for a student like me. Just being able to use French outside of a classroom–and be understood–was thrilling. I’d been studying it for eight years but now it was alive, transactional.


Getting into the country was unexpectedly dicey, though. It was 1971 and both of us looked like hippies. Clean hippies, but hippies nonetheless. And I didn’t realize that joking with Passport Control was not a good idea. When I was asked if I had any money with me, I emptied my wallet onto the table and made some smart-ass remark like “Ai-je assez?” (Do I have enough?)

My brother claims that we were taken aside for an hour and interrogated. I have no memory of that. What I do remember was the superb food everywhere we went in Vieux Montréal and elsewhere that week and the wonderful feeling of being a different person when I was speaking and thinking in another language.

But my next trips to Canada involved a different language: Shakespeare’s English. Living in Michigan, I visited the Stratford Festival in Ontario twice as a graduate student, and later, my spouse and I became Festival members.

Though I’d seen some wonderful shows in New York, nothing beat watching Christopher Plummer as Lear in front row center seats or Martha Henry in Long Day’s Journey into Night, a play I’d seen and studied extensively in college. Her silence was more evocative and devastating than many actors’ monologues. The play left us so stunned we couldn’t vacate our seats for a good ten minutes afterwards–and we went back to see it again that summer, just as we saw other plays twice when they were terrific.

Stratford was a revelation: not just a charming, scenic town, but a place where you could run into the cast members anywhere and they were happy to chat.

And then there were several trips to Montréal and Toronto each, a week in Vancouver, a handful of celebrations we had at the Langdon Hall Country House and Spa, trips to Québec City by ourselves and with one son and his wife, and my own professional visits as an author to Windsor. I know I have a lot more to explore in Canada and luckily there’s plenty of time for more great food, wonderful people, and memorable sites.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-five books in genres from mystery to memoir including Writer’s Block is Bunk.

Is Ghent a Better Travel Destination than Bruges?

Bruges and Ghent were never on my radar until my first trip to Paris when I came across a travel magazine with a big section on Bruges and the amazing canals had me spellbound. I didn’t get there as soon as I hoped (author book tours in Germany sidetracked me), but when I did, it outshone my fantasies. My timing made it possible to see the famous Holy Blood Procession that had been going on there since medieval times.

In Bruges, my wonderful B&B host and I discussed other cities in Flanders and she dismissed Ghent as not up to the standard of Bruges. She thought that it was worth—at the very most—a day trip. That was also apparently what her other guests told her after visiting Ghent.

Having  spent a week there myself, I don’t agree. Bruges is magnificent, thanks to its death in the 14th century as a port city and to being relatively untouched by war through the centuries. The core of the city is beautifully preserved, and the further you get from the crowds, the more tranquil you find it. But it’s definitely “preserved” and in many ways feels like a giant museum.

Ghent on the other hand is a very dynamic city. It has its fair share of canals and gorgeous buildings, as well as ancient churches and beautiful art. Bruges has the Michelangelo Madonna and Child, Ghent has the Van Eyck altarpiece. I think it’s a draw there, and the same goes for the food. I ate just as well in each city, savoring Flemish/Belgian specialties like waterzooi, carbonnade, vol-au-vent, moules-frites, stoemp, and of course made only a tiny dent in the amazing variety of amazing beers (there are apparently over 1,000).

Where Ghent outweighs Bruges for me is the fact that it’s a university town that’s friendly, entertaining, and alive. Ghentians call their home “The City of Trust and Love” and I found that attitude in people of all ages.

There’s a reason Belgian novelist Georges Rodenbach wrote a book called Bruges-la-Morte (Dead Bruges). Bruges might be more picturesque, but Ghent is livelier and, perhaps best of all, attracts fewer tourists. Not surprisingly, it’s widely called one of Europe’s hidden gems.

Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books in genres from memoir to mystery, and is currently working on a novel set in Ghent.

Feeling at Home, Abroad

As a writer, I’ve always had a particular kind of wanderlust: I’m not into doing anything extreme or uncomfortable.  I like going someplace where the challenges are along the lines of learning a new language, or deepening the command of one I already know.  Someplace where I’ll be drawn into deep contemplation of a landscape, a street, even a marvelous meal.  I have hungry eyes.

I’ve never felt the need to rack up “points” by seeing a lot, though. I want to savor a place I visit.  When I was in London a few years ago, I went to my favorite museum The Wallace Collection twice, timing my second visit when there would be as few other visitors as possible so that I could spend as much time as possible contemplating paintings I wanted to see again and truly appreciate.  And a perfect day in Florence for me was visiting a church and enjoying its art, savoring a long lunch, then taking in another church followed by a long dinner–with both meals at the Piazza Santo Spirito, and the churches nearby.

If I’m abroad and I find a restaurant or café I enjoy after having tried a few others, I keep going back.  I don’t need to continue trying others, looking for some Holy Grail of Dining.  In the new city the familiar setting, staff, and menu appeal to me and I’d rather try as many different dishes on that menu as I can.

Spending a week in Ghent recently, it didn’t take long sampling eateries around the train station of Gent-Sint-Pieters to decide that Café Parti was where I could happily have lunch and dinner as often as possible.  The vibe was hip and neighborly. The staff was friendly and I used as much of my newly-acquired Dutch as possible, though my French is so much better.  I got good recommendations for specials, and I chatted just a bit about what I was doing there, where I was going (Antwerp for the Rubens Museum), and when I got back, the differences between Antwerp and Ghent.  It made me feel as If wasn’t just skimming across the surface of the culture.

In the same way, I took more cabs than trams in Ghent because I’ve often found that I learn a lot from cab drivers in foreign cities.  My father was a cab driver years ago in New York and that’s always a point of connection; I sit in the front passenger seat to make conversation easier.  When my Dutch failed me, I asked if I could switch to French, which was usually fine, but there was always English as a fallback.  I learned that in Ghent, tourists came predominantly from Germany, The Netherlands, France–and China.  And, unexpectedly, that the park near my hotel wasn’t especially safe at night.  I got a colorful and detailed warning despite not needing one, but hey, he was being friendly, and Ghent prides itself on being “The City of Trust and Love.”  Of course, for me as a writer, there’s a story in that conversation….

Lev Raphael is the author of the memoir/travelogue My Germany and 24 other books in many genres.

Falling in Love With Ghent

The psychologist Otto Rank wrote that artists are perpetually in conflict with life.  They need seclusion to produce their work, but they also need to go out into the world for stimulation to create their art.

Whatever takes me away from home, I’m always receptive to possible locations for stories, essays, and books–and I return with lots of notes and photographs.  I was recently in Ghent, Belgium on a travel grant, liaising with officials from Ghent University to explore the possibility of a study abroad program with Michigan State University.  The city is widely called “a hidden gem.” It’s all that, and more.  Day after day I felt bombarded with impressions and ideas I knew would fuel my writing down the road.  I fell in love with a city I’d known almost nothing about, and fell hard.  Here’s why.

First there are the people. As my favorite author Henry James would have put it, “the note” of the city is friendliness. I got that vibe everywhere, whether in sandwich or coffee shops, stores, restaurants, and even from strangers who helped me when I got slightly lost. Some of them walked a short distance with me to make sure I was headed in the right direction.

As a writer, I seek comfort and quiet when I travel and the Carlton Hotel Gent was the epitome of those things. Family owned, boutique-style, it was smoothly run, ultra-quiet, close to the train station, served delicious breakfasts, and the owners were perfect guides to the city and its restaurants. The hip Café Parti was nearby and if could’ve eaten every lunch and dinner there, I would have. It served Belgian specialties that I’d sampled before in Brussels and Bruges, but they were exceptional, especially the stoofvlees, a beef stew made with dark beer, and the onglet, hanger steak better than any I’d had in the U.S.

I liked the modern lines of the hotel and the Café Parti (above) because Ghent has so much history in its architecture, from the Renaissance buildings along the canals, to the Romanesque St. Bavo Cathedral and the medieval Gravensteen fortress at the city center. Dipping in and out of these different periods was intensely enjoyable. And so was sampling my favorite Belgian chocolate, Neuhaus, and a Ghent specialty, neuzekes, candies filled with raspberry syrup that look like little pointed hats and are partly made with gum Arabic. They’re sensational.

Bikes are king in Ghent, or so they say, and it apparently has the largest bike-friendly zone in Europe. Ghent was the first city to designate a street as a “cycle street”—meaning that cars have to stay behind bikes. They’re everywhere, weaving through traffic and around the trams which snake along the sinuous streets which seem unlike any other street plan I’m familiar with from my previous years of visiting Western. There was something very calming about riding a tram or just watching one.

For a city which is the third largest port in Belgium, and has 250,000 residents, Ghent never felt overwhelming. It welcomed and fascinated me, and unlike the more famous Bruges half an hour away (which has twice as many tourists), it didn’t feel like a museum despite the amazing architecture from so many different periods.

Before I got there, I had plans to set a novel elsewhere in Flanders, but after this past week, the novel-in-progress has moved to Ghent.  Frankly, I wish I could, too.  For awhile, anyway….

Lev Raphael is the author of the memoir/travelogue My Germany and 24 other books in many genres. He speaks French, German, and some Dutch.

Writing, Wandering, and Museums

I was recently in Philadelphia on a museum trip and I’m still musing as a writer about the experience.

One of my destinations was the Barnes Foundation on Benjamin Franklin Parkway near the Rodin Museum, which I’ve blogged about on The Huffington Post.  The Barnes is a work of art itself.  The approach and giant entry hall were so stately and cool in 90-degree heat that I felt like I’d taken a Valium, or a sea cruise, or a twenty-minute balloon ride high above the city. Choose your metaphor.

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DSC01278The collection is unique for its stunning array of Renoirs, Cézannes, Matisses, and Manets–and how they’re displayed.  This is not like any museum you’ve ever been to.  Because each room replicates the original collection miles away to the millimeter, with paintings and furniture and objects arranged as ensembles.  Of course, the setting is modern all the same, so it’s not like The Frick in New York with its Gilded Age opulence intact in room after luscious room.

Frick2At the Barnes, the original mission was to teach underprivileged art students, not stupefy or dazzle visitors, and Barnes was constantly fussing with his collection as he acquired new pieces.

barnes-foundation-rm23w-600Subjects and objects complement and even interrogate each other in geometric arrangements (as you can see above), or even have amusing dialogues.  In one room, there’s a Rubens of an ecstatic King David playing the harp.  His eyes are rolling up in his head and he seems to be staring right at the fleshy buttocks of a Renoir nude hanging right above him.

rubensThe guided tour I took was informative, but as usual, I found myself drifting from the more famous paintings to unexpected canvases that captured me, like a gripping Modigliani that had a kind of proto-Jazz Age insouciance.  She seemed both tender and wild.  I wanted to know her story (or possibly write it?).

bf206The Barnes itself and moments like these in museums remind me so much of the writing life.

First, different books I read speak to each other, interact in surprising ways, spark projects I never expected to write.  Or stories, essays, even books I write end up going together in ways I could never have imagined: they start an unexpected internal dialogue, even ignite a controversy.  Which leads to more writing, more “arrangements” in my mind, in the body of my work.  Every story or book I’ve written has added to the whole in ways I couldn’t have imagined.  And like Barnes, I’m constantly re-arranging.

Then I have certain projects in mind, might even have launched them with some kind of fanfare, and yet–  Something draws me off to another subject, to another vision, to another dream, another journey.  My day at the Barnes was like that at every single turn.  No matter what I was directed to look at by my smart and friendly guide, I kept drifting to a different painting or room or reflection or vision. I was on my own private tour.  But then what can you expect?  As Robert Heinlein said, “There is no way a writer can be tamed and rendered civilized or even cured.”

I guess you could say that to write is to wander…..

Lev Raphael is the art-loving, travel-loving author of Book Lust: Essays For Book Lovers and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.