Although the sixth Harry Potter book is out and the fourth movie is about to debut, nothing matches the wonder of the very first launch of Harry Potter in Ukrainian, back in 2002.
The invitation came to me in a plain white envelope with a swirling script that said “Pani L.” When I opened it up, there was a card that twinkled a little around the edges.
“You are invited to meet with Master Harry Potter at exactly 23:59 and 3/4 on April the 13th. You may bring one very nice friend along.”
I’d read the first of the Books, so the significance of 9 and 3/4 did not escape me. We would meet at the crossroads between normal time and place and the world of Hogwarts.
I called around to see who else I knew had been invited.
Sure enough, a lot of people had never heard of it.
“Harry who?” they asked indifferently. And promptly began explaining that they were too busy on the weekend to meet new people.
“What’s a Hogwarts?” they muttered suspiciously. And cautioned me about going to strange places by myself on a Saturday night.
“Why 59 and 3/4?” they queried irritably. And started in about what a terrible week they’d had, counting the bunions on their feet.
I could only cheer when I got off the phone that they would immediately forget about our conversation as if sprinkled by Dismemorious powder.
Of course, all the most interesting people knew.
My friend the curly-haired witch who runs a small shop selling curios. “My dear Pani L, I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I’m going to bring my three spotted cats and orange-faced dog along with me. And my mother-in-law. It will do her good.”
My neighbor the wizard who can fix anything that rolls. “You’re darn tootin’, I’ll be there! I’m going in my ZAP 2001 with purple handles and double-inflated tires.”
My other friend the spellbinding singer who has a band that’s out of this world. “My name ain’t Skrypka if the boys and I don’t make it with our bayan, sopilka and boubny.” (Violin, accordion, flute and drums to those of you who don’t know the Slavian language.)
I invited one little friend who hadn’t got an invitation. She’s named after an ancient Slavian princess and has a long golden braid down her back. Olya squealed with delight when I told her.
“Mama, can I go, please?” she shouted at the other end of the phone.
I could hear her braid twitching and her face crinkling in a huge smile when the answer came back.
“I did all my homework, so Ma says I can go!”
There was a pause. I could hear her blushing over the phone.
“Will… Ron be there?”
“Sure! Maybe he’ll even let you hold his pet rat Scabbers for a bit.”
At 21:00, I came by her house in my blue ESP 1998 with bead seatcovers and broken side mirror. We were so keen to get a good spot that we only watched half of a scary movie before heading out the door.
“Make sure you bring Olya back by 01:00,” said her mother sternly.
We flew down the streets of Kyiv, bumping along the cobbles. There were lots of Muggles wandering around in the dark. Many of them full of beer, many more full of boredom on a Saturday night.
“Do you think they know?”
“I doubt it. Harry wouldn’t broadcast this to just anyone, especially drunken Muggles.”
It was a little early when we parked my ESP. We wandered down to The Crossing and stopped in front of a dowdy shop called “Mystetstvo.”
“Ooh,” said Olya. “Look! There are baloons tied to the doorway and windows!”
Sure enough, in the dark, you could see rows and rows of huge colored baloons. There was a tiny platform hidden in the shadows, with curtains and a poster of Harry chasing a Snitch on his Nimbus 2000. If we squinted just right, we could even see its tiny wings glittering in the dark.
There was a small crowd gathered, but the Master of Ceremonies, Vasyl the Wolf, said, “Go on inside so you don’t freeze.”
The store proved much bigger than it looked and thousands of pictures of Harry Potter on his broom gleaming at us from every shelf. “Just for tonight,” explained a tiny woman with a crooked hat, “you can buy Harry’s book for 3/4 of the regular price.”
The minutes ticked by quickly and before we knew it, the clock said 23:58. We dashed outside to find a huge crowd of people, young and old, big and small, Slavian and otherish. Olya squiggled through to the stage area.
At exactly 23:59 and 3/4, a stream of odd-shaped lights began playing on the walls around the shop entrance and mysterious music boomed.
A huge, bearded man in a robe, with hair out to there, wandered onto the stage with a baby bundled in his arms. It’s Hagrid!
“Harry,” said the giant, slowly unwrapping the cloths around his bundle. “I have brought you here so that you can be taken care of by your friends.” We all held our breaths. Suddenly Hagrid pulled out a huge book with Harry Potter on the cover.
The crowd roared and cheered.
“It’s the Sorcerer’s Stone!”
Before we could blink, Harry himself appeared on the stage, his lightning scar visible to all. “I so happy to be here! I sorry my Slavian not so good! But I learning.”
The evening went by in a whirl. Ivan Malkovych the publisher of ABABAGALAMAGA, Prof. Dumbledore, Viktor Morozov the translator, Ron, Ihor Slisarenko the television star, Prof. McGonagall, the little Harry Potter look-alike from Ivano-Frankivsk, Hermione. We couldn’t catch our breaths for gasping and cheering.
When it was over, we stood there with three Ukrainian copies of The Sorcerer’s Stone in our hands. Signed by Harry himself. It was magic! •
(Originally published in Eastern Economist in April 2002)