In 1993 I was 10 years old and my family moved to Strasbourg, France, as my mom had dreams of obtaining her PhD outside Brazil. My mom had first prepared herself to do that in Upstate New York, even spending three months there learning English back in the late 80s, but my dad was not exactly an Americanophile and vetoed any plan to move to the US (although, in his case, might be also a lack of willingness to leave his life in Brazil for a few years). When my mom applied and obtained the scholarships that could fund our stay in France, there is not much that my dad could argue against the move. François Mitterrand was a socialist, after all…
I know it’s corny, but I feel compelled to describe those two years of my life as magic, although the expression cultural shock would be more accurate (in its best meaning) would be more appropriate. There was so much to discover as a tween who was raised in such a backwards place like the state of Goiás back in the late 80s and early 90s when you land in a reality that values culture and intellectuality. In Goiânia, a city over 1 million persons back then, we only had one major theater. Quality children plays would come over only when there was some theater company touring the country thanks to a private donation. Strasbourg, which was four times smaller than Goiânia, had a whole theater focused only on children (Théatre du Jeune Public).
As the legislative capital of the European Union, Strasbourg felt cosmopolitan despite being just a medium sized city. The European Union flag proudly flew on top of its pink medieval cathedral’s spire (seconded only by Cologne’s cathedral in height). I was in classroom where most kids went to the conservatory twice a week and had recently been invited by ZDF to sing with German children in a TV ad lauding the European Union. There was an optimistic and energized vibe related to social existence in that time and place that I thought it would be the standard for life in a first world country (personal experiences and more awareness later in my life about how your mind too can be colonized showed me that it wasn’t the case).
And then there were the libraries. I had to take a bus to go to Strasbourg central library and dive in what was for me the novelty of the French-Belgium comics universe. You have the usual suspects such as the René Goscinny fare, in which he would partner as a writer with an artist to create hilarious comics such as Asterix (with Uderzo), Iznogoud (with Tabary) and the Dingodossiers (with Gottlieb), among so many others). The solo work with these artists was never as great as the one they delivered when teaming up with Goscinny. There was also a very cool science fiction and fantasy fare prone to feature strong (and somewhat flawless) female leads such as Yoko Tsuno (a brilliant engineer), Isabelle (a witch in training) and Marine (an aspiring pirate). And, of course, there were plenty of gamebooks that I could borrow with my Library card which featured a cool drawing from Tommy Ungerer (an elephant reading a book with a line up of glasses on his trunk). And then, if I was not feeling like taking the bus all the way to the central library or do the 30 minute walk to the branch in Neudorf, every Friday the Bibliobus would park on my street in the Esplanade neighborhood with a very decent catalogue of comics and books. But the fact is that I lacked guidance to get the right books in science fiction, as my dad was only into horror and thrillers/crime. That changed in 1995, just one month before I returned to Brazil.
My dad enrolled me in the French boy scouts a few months after we moved to France. As a kid prone to sedentariness it took me lots of adjustment to integrate a movement that required me to sleep in relatively uncomfortable tent and walk many and many kilometers in their activities. I grew fond of it, though, even if I was the chubby kid that would trail behind. That was specially the case in our 2 week camping trip in the Massif Central, the mountain chain that sprawls across France’s rustic and not particularly industrialized Auvergne region and beyond. After two weeks of breathtaking yet exhausting daily excursions in the area, we all needed a break, so the chiefs gave us a lazy day. One of the chiefs was a SFF enthusiast but he kept it to himself. However, in the lazy day he showed us a metallic crate filled with part of his personal library. I sat down in the morning in a shady comfy tent filled with cushions and picked a book that intrigued me, a certain “Le Guide du Voyageur Galactique” from a certain Douglas Adams. By 4pm I was done with it, and I hated that the book was over. I wanted more of that crack, I wanted to go where Arthur Dent went, because that place was as cool compared to where I was as France was cooler than Brazil.
And then I moved back to Brazil the following month and couldn’t find the Hitchhiker Guide to the Galaxy anywhere, but that’s a matter for my next post.