Neither Here Nor There: Travels In Europe
- Transworld Publishers Ltd
- Publication Date:
- 02 April 1998
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Possibly the best travel book I've read.
While not Bryson's strongest book, NHNT is a fun chronicle of his travels in Europe, from Norway to Italy. His recount of a visit to a dirty book store in Hamburg is funny enough to warrent the price of a book. This book is less about people and more about the places, which I think is why it falls a little short of the others. More like Notes from a Big Country than Notes from a Small Island. But there's one unique benefit -- we meet Katz, the guy who accompanies him on the Appalachian Trail some 25 or so years later. Read mroe about Katz in A Walk in the Woods.
Bryson writes hysterical travel books. In this one he sets out to re-create a backpacking trip of Europe he made during the seventies when he was twenty. His descriptions of people and places will have you falling out of your chair. The beer he is offered in Belgium, for example, defies his palate. He just can’t associate the taste with any previous experience, but finally decides it puts him in mind of a very large urine sample, possibly from a circus animal. (He should have stuck with Coca-Cola, nicht wahr, Wendell?) Bryson has truly captured some of the giddy enjoyment that I experience when traveling in a foreign country where one does not speak the language. “I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything. You have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work. . . . Your whole existence becomes a series of interestingguesses.”At the Arc de Triomphe, some thirteen streets come together. “Can you imagine? I mean to say, here you have a city with the world’s most pathologically aggressive drivers -- who in other circumstances would be given injections of valium from syringes the size of basketball jumps and confined to their beds with leather straps -- and you give them an open space where they can all go in any of thirteen directions at once. Is that asking for trouble or what?”Interspersed are salient comments about traveling on European trains. “There is no scope for privacy and of course there is nothing like being trapped in a train compartment on a long journey to bring all those unassuageable little frailties of the human body crowding to the front of your mind – the withheld fart, the three and a half square yards of boxer shorts that have somehow become concertinaed between your buttocks, the Kellogg’s corn flake that is unaccountably lodged deep in your left nostril,”. . .and rude comments about the Swiss: “What do you call a gathering of boring people in Switzerland? Zurich.” He reveals some funny stories about himself. “I had no gift for woodworking. Everyone else in the class was building things like cedar chests and oceangoing boats and getting to play with dangerous and noisy power tools, but I had to sit at the Basics Table with Tubby Tucker and a kid who was so stupid that I don't think we ever learned his name. We just called him 'Drooler.' The three of us weren't allowed anything more dangerous than sandpaper and Elmer's Glue, so we would sit week after week making little nothings out of offcuts, except for Drooler, who would just eat the glue. Mr. Dreck never missed a chance to humiliate me. 'And what is this?' he would say, seizing some mangled block of wood on which I had been laboring for the last twenty-seven weeks and holding it aloft for the class to titter at. 'I've beenteaching shop for sixteen years, Mr. Bryson, and I have to say this is the worst beveled edge I've ever seen.' He held up a birdhouse of mine once and it just collapsed in his hands. The class roared. Tubby Tucker laughed so hard that he almost choked. He laughed for twenty minutes, even when I whispered to him across the table that if he didn't stop it I would bevel his testicles."It used to be -- not as common now as formerly -- that each public washroom had an attendant whose job it was to keep everything clean, and you were expected to drop in some change for his or her income. The sex of the attendant was irrelevant to the sex of the washroom and Bryson had difficulty getting used to the idea of some cleaning lady watching him urinate to make sure he didn't "dribble on the tiles or pocket any of the urinal cakes. It is hard enough to pee when you are aware that someone's eyes are on you, but when you fear that at any moment you will be felled by a rabbit chop to the kidneys for taking too much time, you seize up altogether. You couldn't have cleared my system with Drano. So eventually I would zip up and return unrelieved to the table [in the restaurant:], and spend the night back at the hotel doing a series of Niagara Falls impressions."Bryson does not mince words, and his perspective on former Austrian president Waldheim echoes mine but is perhaps more trenchant. “I fully accept Dr. Waldheim’s explanation that when he saw forty thousand Jews being loaded onto cattle trucks at Salonika, he genuinely believed they were being sent to the seaside for a holiday. For the sake of fairness, I should point out that Waldheim insists he never even knew that the Jews of Salonika were being shipped off to Auschwitz. And let’s be fair again – they accounted for no more than one third of the city’s entire population (italics theirs), and it is of course entirely plausible that a high-ranking Nazi officer in the district could have been unaware of what was happening within his area of command. Let’s give the man a break. I mean to say, when the Sturmabteilung, or stormtroopers, burned down forty-two of Vienna’s forty three synagogues during Kristallnacht, Waldheim did wait a whole week before joining theunit. . . . Christ, the man was practically a resistance hero. . . .Austrians should be proud of him and proud of themselves for having the courage to stand up to world opinion and elect a man of his caliber, overlooking the fact that he is a pathological liar. . .that he has a past so mired in mis-truths that no one but he knows what he has done. It takes a special kind of people to stand behind a man like that.”
I read this as a patient in a Romanian hospital, and was crying because I was laughing so much! I've lived and travelled extensively all over the world, but most especially in Eastern and Western Europe, both before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Can only presume that those sour reviews were written by people who have travelled little, if at all, in Europe. If they ever had a sense of humour (vital for all travel adventures), it has clearly been by-passed.
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