A dicey foray into a Romanian reading list

It’s been a while since I’ve complained about language learning, hasn’t it? Maybe it’s about time that I get back to that….

I’m mostly kidding; I actually quite enjoy learning a language. But I don’t love it as much when it’s the “drop you in the deep end of the pool, do-or-die immersion language experience.” (Though I do know that really speeds up the process.) I think I might be more of the “my partner makes all the money in the family so I have lots of time for luxurious hobbies like decoupage and linguistics” kind of person.

Life in Moldova has been a small taste of the latter, and I’m certainly aware of that privilege. In Chișinău I have both the free time to study and the financial ability to pay for a private teacher. It has been amazing.

But don’t you worry. I can still find a thing or two to complain about.

My first attempts at reading

Let’s take my latest adventure into books. Way back in February or March, I went to a bookstore and purchased The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Little Prince in Romanian. I attempted The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe first, and let me tell you, THAT was a labor of love. I took literally five months to read it, and I looked up half the sentences. But feeling brave from my first attempt, I did go on to read The Little Prince.  And that only took me a month!

After which, I was obviously in need of some new reading materials. So I went back to a book store and noticed a cute little novel called Un Fiu.  I found the book lovely and a quick read per my standards (3 weeks anyone??). My one complaint about the book was that it, too, was translated. The original book is in Spanish.

Now – what’s the point of learning a language if you don’t even attempt to read original texts? For example, one should read Pride and Prejudice in its original English, but Don Quixote in Spanish. With this in mind, I ventured yet again back to the book store. My goal was a book written by a Romanian or a Moldovan.

Navigating a book store

It turns out my goal was easier said than done. I mean – it’s easy enough to narrow down a stack of books that have potential. Book stores in Moldova are small little shops – nothing like a Barnes and Noble. (Think the size of a small optometrist in a strip mall.) There’s only so many books you can fit in a space like that. And then on top of that, being Moldova, at least half the books in the store are written in Russian. This means you can immediately eliminate half of the store. And then of course you can do your normal elimination of non-fiction and children’s books. All this elimination left me looking at one bookshelf worth of books.

And even still, I was stumped. So I turned to the store employee and tried to explain my situation. As a language learner, I didn’t want a kid’s book, but I also needed something on the “easier to read” side of the spectrum. And I was clear with her (I think) that I wanted a book originally written in Romanian. The employee carefully and deliberately pulled two books for me, and left me to ponder.

I read the back of each book, flipped through them quickly, and then made my decision: Fata cu Vise Alb Negru.

Realizations come slowly in a foreign language

I started the book quite excited. The premise was interesting: a young woman desiring to be a detective is tasked by her detective father to re-open a missing persons case from 24 years prior. Sounds intriguing, no?

And to be fair, I’m sure the book is great if you meet certain criteria as a reader. The problem is that I met none of the criteria, which are as follows:

  1. Be a young adult
  2. Have a predilection for the macabre
  3. Actually be able to read in Romanian

This book was a language learning slap-in-the-face. I had been getting a bit cocky – patting myself on the back for reading books in a second language for leisure. I refused to admit my struggles, even though from the beginning I complained to Daniel that the author was unclear.

And then on top of that, it probably took me a good 50% of the book to realize that it was totally young adult literature. The dramatic feelings and awkward crushes were unmistakable. In English, I can spot a YA book a mile away. In Romanian, it took me hours of reading before it dawned on me that this book was much better suited for a 13 year old than a 31 year old. (To be fair, some YA books are amazing and speak to all ages of readers.)

The real kicker came as I was reading the book late at night – alone – on the first night Daniel was away for an extended trip to the U.S. SPOILER ALERT!! On page 100 something, I read that the missing girl had been kidnapped by a creepy old neighbor who kept her locked in the basement and experimented on her so that she would never age.

UM excuse me? What kind of absolute bizareness is that?!

The pleasant but constant exposure to humility

And this is the thing : Although I sure am coming down harsh on this book, it is in fact I myself who is the problem. I think the author is young and talented, and this is in no way an actual literary critique of her book. This is a critique on the fact that I have an adult brain with a kid’s vocabulary.

Imagine a person trying to learn English. They have dreams of reading Mark Twain and John Steinbeck in their original language. So they wander into a Barnes and Noble and ask for a book that is more or less written for adults with a child’s level. Obviously, they walk away with one of the Twilight books, and then are horrified to find that what they are reading is in fact soft vampire erotica.

That is totally what happened to me. And it’s part of the continued journey of learning a language. I pit this part of the journey along with the other lows of sounding like an idiot during basic conversations and wondering if there will ever be a time when Romanian speakers don’t offer to switch to English. But it also comes with its many highs – those aha moments when I remember an obscure word or have a conversation entirely in Romanian.

It’s a work in progress, and I’m kind of loving it.