My German Book Tours Had Their Quirky Moments

I’m lucky to have had three sponsored book tours in Germany, a country I surprisingly fell in love with, given that my parents were Holocaust survivors.

I was touring for several books including a memoir, My Germany, and I always had a terrific time, especially with my hosts in one city after another.  I admire the serious book culture that exists in Germany and how authors are respected as cultural figures. I love the comfortable trains and the train stations with good food, great bookstores, and cheerful-looking flower shops.

But I found certain things about traveling in Germany quirky, and that’s actually a good thing, because a book tour can be exhausting with the constant change of scene and because you’re working so hard.  Without a sense of humor, you can really get worn down.  Noting cultural differences is a fun distraction–and educational, too.

Those same great trains and train stations have been a consistent source of amusement for me. No matter where I am or what train I’m on, even though an announcement might be delivered in German and English, the speaker always leaves out important content in English. The German announcement will apologize for a train being late in German but that won’t be repeated in English, and forget hearing anything about connections or even whether there’s a bistro or restaurant on the train. Without knowing German, you can miss a lot, and let’s face it, plenty of foreigners travel on Die Bahn.

Hotels of all sorts there are a puzzle. Why are so many German beds so low to the ground? This isn’t a country prone to earthquakes — they really don’t have to fear falling out bed, do they? And what’s with German pillows? They’re mostly as soft as rags, which is why the hotel staff can arrange them in pretty shapes on the bed (triangles seem to be popular). Usually I need a handful of them to make for a somewhat restful sleep, or the hope of one.

The beds are low but the showers are high. You almost always have to step up into the shower or bath tub which admittedly isn’t a big deal. But the dismount can be tricky when you’re all wet. And why are German toilets high, too? Are you supposed to be having elevated, philosophical thoughts on the throne because you’re in the land of Goethe?

Maybe so. Let’s face it, Germany is Goethe-crazy. On one tour I ate at a Heidelberg restaurant Goethe mentioned in one of his journals, and the restaurant noted in its publicity material and in a mural on its wall that he almost slept at the inn there way back when. Almost.

But even Germans make fun of their Goethe worship. In the university town of Tübingen, there’s a plaque indicating that Goethe puked there. What’s even funnier is that plenty of American tourists don’t realize it’s a joke.

Lev Raphael loves travel and speaking foreign languages.  He’s the author of twenty-five books in genres from memoir to mystery, and teaches creative writing online at www.writewithoutborders.com.

Fans Keep Asking Me, “Which is Your Favorite Book?”

I get that question all the time at readings.

The answer doesn’t pop up immediately, because I’ve published in so many genres: memoir, mystery, literary novel, short story collections, psychology, biography/literary criticism, historical fiction, Jane Austen mash-up, vampire, writer’s guide, memoir-essay collections.

I love them all, or I wouldn’t have written them, but my 19th book My Germany has a special place in my writer’s heart. It’s more deeply personal than my other books, and it’s also the one I struggled with most.

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I’m the son of Holocaust survivors, and the book is a combination of history, family history, travelogue, mystery, and a coming out story.  The thread that connects it all is my exploration of the role that Germany–real and imagined–played in my family while I was growing up and in my own life as an adult and an author.

It wasn’t an easy set of stories to tell. It took me more than five years to figure out the book’s structure and to let go of trying to force it into a specific mold. I finally realized that I could blend genres, and that set me free to follow the advice the poet Sir Phillip Sydney’s muse gave to him: “Look in your heart, and write.”

My Germany is also the book that garnered me the most speaking gigs of any book in my career: somewhere between fifty and sixty.  That included two book tours in Germany where I spoke in over a dozen different cities, and sometimes even read from it in German, which I had started studying in night classes.

Unexpectedly, I felt comfortable the moment I got to Germany and I remembered something I’d somehow completely forgotten: I grew up in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood, where thousands of neighbors were German refugees from the Nazis.  I’d been hearing German in the streets, in stores, in our building’s lobby and elevator since childhood.  So suddenly plunging into a German-speaking environment wasn’t strange; it was comforting, it made me feel at home.

That was one of the many surprises connected to writing My Germany, and it made clear to me the power that memoir has to connect you to your own past in new, revelatory ways.  I was changing, which is why I had to write that memoir, and writing it changed me even more.   A colleague once said that writing is a process of discovery; well, that book opened up new worlds for me, and having just taught an online memoir writing workshop this past month, I’ve seen memoir do that for my students, too.  It’s thrilling.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the guide for writers, Writer’s Block is Bunk.  You can take writing workshops with him online at writewithoutborders.com.“Studying creative writing with Lev Raphael was like seeing Blade Runner for the first time: simply incredible.”—Kyle Roberts, MSU Class of 2016

How Philip Roth Changed My Life

My first Roth book was Portnoy’s Complaint, which I read as a teenager.  It blew my mind because I’d never read a first person narrative that was so anarchic. As Roth has written: “Nobody expects a Jew to go crazy in public.” It was also wickedly funny, and broke many other taboos. Nothing I read for school came even close to being so alive–and so entertaining.  The book changed American literature forever, as the Washington Post reported today.

It hit home for me. The over-protectiveness as well as the carping of Alexander Portnoy’s parents reminded me of my own mother and father who sometimes said things just as diminishing and weird. And his rage against anti-Semitism was revelatory.  But it would be awhile before I found the courage to write freely about being Jewish, the son of Holocaust survivors, and gay.

Soon after college, I read The Ghost Writer. I was in love with Henry James at the time and it seemed very Jamesian, like one of the Master’s tales about the “madness of art”–with a Holocaust twist. I read it over and over. The prose struck me as perfect, the story profound, and I thought that if I could someday write a book even half that beautiful, I would have really accomplished something fine.

I did a report on Portnoy’s Complaint in graduate school which had the seminar in hysterics because I read sections of the book aloud. It taught me something about writing as performance which I would utilize years later on my many book tours. I followed his work almost religiously, reading his criticism as well as his fiction, and the anger of his critics in the Jewish community sobered me. My first book, which combined Jewish and gay themes, got some savage reviews in the Jewish press, though nothing as bad or as widespread as Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus.

Years later, my memoir about coming terms with Germany as a son of Holocaust survivors was basically ignored by the Jewish press, including publications that had published my short stories and essays. I was relieved in a way. I didn’t have the skill to skewer critics the way Roth did, and I would not have relished a firestorm.  It was bad enough that when I spoke about that memoir at a famous Jewish venue, I was attacked by members of the audience for saying anything remotely positive about my experiences in Germany.  My favorite angry comment, which seems right out of a Zuckerman novel: “Okay, so you’ve been to Germany, why go back?  There aren’t other countries in the world?”

Before I became a regular reviewer for the Detroit Free Press, I was asked to review his memoir Patrimony and I declined.  I felt too humbled by the power and precision of his work.  Now I’m sorry that I didn’t at least try.

I met Roth when he spoke at Michigan State University.  He seemed bored by the questions from the audience, including mine, and when I had him sign one of his books afterwards, he was as aloof as if the experience pained him.  I’d given him one of my own books with a Roth quote written above my signature and he seemed startled, “Did I really write that?”

It was a chilly interaction, but that didn’t stop me from reading and enjoying later novels, and assigning his work in a Jewish-American literature class whose students loved The Plot against America.  And I’m proud to say that an essay of mine appeared in a collection where he was one of the star contributors. Better still, a reviewer in the Washington Post compared my novel The German Money to Roth (and Kafka!).

I haven’t uniformly admired all his books, but he’s still a model for me of dedication, insight, and perseverance–and his dialogue is some of the best any contemporary American author has written.  Along with James, D.H. Lawrence, Anita Brookner, Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, he’s been an abiding, inspiring presence in my life as a writer.

As Dwight Garner puts it so well in the New York Times, “His work had more rage, more wit, more lust, more talk, more crosscurrents of thought and emotion, more turning over of the universals of existence….than any writer of his time.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the historical novel Rosedale in Love (The House of Mirth Revisited).  He’s been  teaching creative writing at Michigan State University and you can study 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/