The Daughter Unit was a little over two years old when we went to live in Greece, and almost kindergarten age when we left, and during that period we lived in a second-floor apartment in suburban Athens and hardly ever watched television. (I had a television set, but it was 110v, and Greece was a 220v country, and anyway, I was almost never at home in the evenings, the exception being when we went to our neighbors to watch Jewel in the Crown when it aired with subtitles on Greek TV.) This was at a time before wide-spread adoption of video players, before cable, way before streaming video. It was, in bald point of fact, rather like the three to five broadcast channels available when I was growing up. So, no, I didn’t miss TV much, and nor did the Daughter Unit, because we had books.
Heaps and heaps of books; my parents took the opportunity of the Daughter Unit being a military dependent and entitled to have her personal items shipped to Greece gratis to include almost all of the kid-lit that Mom had accumulated for my brothers and sister and I. (Mom and Dad were in the process of moving into a travel trailer parked on the building site of their eventual retirement home, and so took every opportunity to down-size what they didn’t need or want. Like … that part of the personal library.) Off that shipment went to Athens, augmented with new books that I bought through an English mail-order service which offered lovely catalogs aimed mostly at expatriates whiling away the decades in locations devoid of English-language bookstores, and a children’s bookstore in what passed for a mall in Voula or Vouliagmeni, which featured Greek, English and I think German and French-language books. It was a small place, barely one twenty-foot square room in size, with each wall dedicated to a language. I am pretty certain that I bought the Daughter Unit’s favorite comic book series there; the Asterix and Obelix books.
Asterix and Obelix; the series was translated from the French original and available everywhere in Europe; an epic and pun-laden series of books about the heroes; Asterix the canny warrior, his sidekick, the hefty menhir-deliveryman Obelix, and all the residents of the lone Gaulish village holding out against the Roman invaders, thanks to a magical potion brewed up by the Druid Getafix. Asterix and Obelix lived to beat up or out-wile the Romans, have adventures in far exotic lands, and to eat wild boar, presumably nicely roasted, crunchy and with appropriate sauces at a feast to follow their triumphant return. The illustrations were colorful and even surprisingly accurate when it came to Roman art and architecture, and the adventures were easy to follow. They became my daughter’s favorite bedtime story material, mostly because she could follow along. Not for her bland and simplistic materiel like Dr. Seuss; no, not when there were Romans and indomitable Gauls. (True Fact: in the midst of our road-trip through Europe in the autumn of 1985, when I told her that we were about to cross over from Germany into France, which used to be called ‘Gaul’ she perked up and asked if we were going to meet any Indominable Gauls.)
During that wandering journey, she encountered other fans of Asterix; a German teenager in Baden-Baden, who alternated with the Daughter Unit in naming all the cast of reoccurring characters – Getafix the Druid, Vitalstatistix the chieftain, Cacofonix the Bard, Fullyautomatix the blacksmith, Geriatrix the tribe’s senior citizen, and Asterix’s canine pet Dogmatix. In a small town on the edge of the Morvan national park in central France, we walked by a community billboard where there were pictures posted of a recent parade – for Bastille Day, perhaps? Among them was a home-made float on a towed trailer, and an assortment of children and teenagers dressed as characters from the series on the float. The Daughter Unit, of course, recognized them right away. All across Europe, she spotted the series on sale (the covers are very distinctive) and asked for the issues that she hadn’t seen, and of course I had to confess that … I couldn’t buy her those particular volumes, since they were in Italian or French.
And that, my friends – is how the Daughter Unit learned to read. From the English translations of a French comic book series.