"I spent quite a while looking at my library. So many books have had an impact on me - I really had my work cut out for me!" Queen Mathilde has been more than fascinated by literature ever since her teenage years. She thanks this passion to friends and to her father, Patrick d'Udekem d'Acoz, who stimulated his daughter to get to know foreign cultures and their history.
With official obligations, field and state visits, her dedicated work for the UN, Unicef, Child Focus and four children waiting at home... Mathilde's agenda is well filled. Still she finds time to read. "Books are a real relaxation to me. I read during long flights, without emails or phone calls. I'm attending the cremation service of king Bhumibol of Thailand: in the course of two days I'll be spending 24 hours on a plane. So I've got some books ready."
"Books are part of a culture, they open you to people. When I married crown prince Philippe, I wanted to get to know the Flemish culture. I had many talks with authors like Tom Naegels, Erwin Mortier, Saskia De Coster and Dimitri Verhulst. I really took my time to intensely explore Flemish literature."
For many years Mathilde was read aloud mom at the school of her children, on Tuesdays. She didn't read to her own children, but to pupils who had trouble reading or who lacked vocabulary. "Reading with children is a unique moment. You teach them to develop their fantasy. Only yesterday I was reading The Chronicles of Narnia with (princess) Eléonore. We've been reading the books for the past 6 months and we've nearly finished the 4th book of the series. A nine year old would never take the time for this by herself: the vocabulary is too heavy and there are so many descriptive parts about landscapes and emotions. The books evoke the good and the bad through imagination and adventure. Like children who step into a painting... Wonderful! As a reward I promised Eléonore we'll watch the films after we've read the books."
1. Mazzel tov - Margot Vanderstraeten
Mathilde: "Mazzel Tov is the true story of a critical Flemish female student who helps out with the children of a hasidic family in Antwerp. She gets access to their world, ruled by century old traditions. At the same time, the family gets to know the student's world: she's unmarried and living with her Iranian boyfriend. This book really hit me: wow! I really felt what the 23 year old student was living through. At her age, I was a speech therapist who often came into close contact with families. It must have been so difficult for her to live with a family who's traditions are completely foreign. At the same time she opens up to them and learns to appreciate the Jewish community. Afterwards she kept in touch with the children, she attended their weddings and visited the son in Israel. That intense connection with the family's children... It's what I too experienced with my pupils and their families. I recommended Mazzel Tov to my eldest daughter, Elisabeth, who's very fond of reading too."
2. Oscar and the Lady in Pink - Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt
Mathilde: "Ten year old Oscar is terminally ill. He get encouraged by Mamie Rose, who volunteers at the hospital, to write letters to heaven. His parents and the nursing staff don't dare to talk to him about the end that's near. But Mamie Rose does, with great care and patience. She turns out to be very inventive. It's a delicate subject, written in a very humane way".
Mathilde: "Oscar can't talk about death with his parents, he knows it's too much for them. Mamie Rose helps him and his parents to accept his fate. She gets him to write a letter to God each day. At first you mainly notice Oscar's naivity, but then his friendships with the other children in the hospital, like Peggy Blue and Popcorn, also come through. This book is like reading a poem - you can read it at different levels. A mother will think: Help! This is about saying goodbye to a child - but a child will look at it differently. I read this book to two of my children. We cried at the end of the story."
3 & 4. Sleepwalkers - Christopher Clark & De Groote Oorlog - Sophie De Schaepdrijver
No-one can ignore the many commemorations of the First World War, that raged one hundred years ago. The queens tells me that contrary to the Second World War, WWI was largely unexplored terrain for her. So she decided to learn more. In 'Sleepwalkers' Christopher Clark gives a detailed account (750 pages) of what preceded the war. "How did it come this far? The geopolitical world before 1914 is brought to life. My husband and I both read this work - Yes, that'll happen (laughs). It's easy reading, but quite intense".
Queen Mathilde combined 'Sleepwalkers' with professor Sophie De Schaepdrijver's book 'The Great War. The Kingdom of Belgium during the First World War'. Both works complement each other. The queen got to know De Schaepdrijver through TV series 'Brave Little Belgium' (canvas). She was intrigued by De Schaepdrijver's fascinating style of writing. "Her book really describes daily life of the Belgian population and the horror the soldiers went through. So much changed because of the First World War. It was a real discovery to me."
5. The story of my life - Helen Keller
Mathilde: "This is a fine example of resilience and perseverance for me, and for young people who are having a hard time. Helen Keller's nanny never ceased to believe in Helen's development. It's in-cre-dible what Keller managed to achieve. Can you imagine what it must have been like in those days: to be deaf and blind... And to achieve so much? To decide for yourself: I WILL learn to speak. A prominent American university refused to enroll persons with a handicap, but Keller maintained: I have the right to an education."
6. The Virtues of Failure - Charles Pépin
The last book caught Mathilde's eye when she saw it lying on a friend's coffee table. The cover and the title immediately spoke to her. She started reading 'The Virtues of Failure' at once and couldn't put it down.
Mathilde: "We're living in a competitive world, and failure teaches us just as much as success does. Sometimes even more than success does. Pépin is a philosopher who describes mistakes or errors as a step in life. You can grow, but you shouldn't identify yourself with growth. In my public life, I often come across people who are having difficulties. They, sometimes with the help of others, have learned from these difficulties, with modesty and patience. This book has helped me to give a meaning to the difficult moments of my own life. You have to dare to think about yourself, your expectations, and what you expect from others."
At the end of our talk, the queen reads an excerpt from Pépin's book. She's marked the passage with colour - something she often does, beacuse paper should come to life. The passage clearly touches her: "Our failures are booty and sometimes even a real treasure. We have to take the risk of living to discover them, and share them to experience their worth. (silence) "This book was a lesson to me."