Wednesday, December 1, 2010

I loved the idea that you could never be sure of anything in Europe

I want to start my posts about Bill Bryson's Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe by saying this is one of my favorite books and one I have read multiple times.  If I start relentlessly gushing, just keep in mind I am unable to give an unbiased review.  Though now that I've typed that I realize that suggests that I believe my other reviews/posts/whathaveyou are unbiased and I don't really think that's true.  Well, now that I've spent the entire intro contradicting myself, onto the book.

If it wasn't clear from the title, the book is about Bryson's travels through Europe. (Though if it wasn't clear, perhaps you should move along. Maybe lie down for awhile.) He somewhat retraces the trip he had taken years earlier with his friend Stephen Katz, a character you may remember from A Walk in the Woods. He tells stories about his first trip, describes his trials and tribulations navigating new cities, and describes all the wonderful and frustrating things about Europe.

It's the style that gets me.  Bryson has the best voice for a travelogue. At least in my opinion, having hardly read any other travelogues.  None that I can think of right now anyway.  I don't really want to read about spiritual journey about self-discovery, I want to hear a funny story by a clumsy, not-very-suave guy as he goes to places that I want to see.  I've traveled a little around Europe (some Ireland, some Italy) but my current financial situation means I won't be jetting off to the continent whenever my little heart desires.  This acts as a nice stand-in if I get the urge to travel but the ATM makes a sad trombone sound when I check my balance.  And let's face it, when I travel my experiences are much closer to the awkward situations Bryson finds himself in than any journey of enlightenment.

The book is a quick read, one of the reasons I've read it so many times.  And I tend to pick it up if I've just read something I didn't enjoy or if I want to go back to something familiar.  I know all the funny situations in the book, yet they make me laugh every time.  Bryson has a fantastic way of describing events or general observations in this amazingly witty way.  I know I've said it before but I'm pretty sure he could write about paint drying and I'd still be cracking up.  Here's a quick example of his view on countries living up to their stereotypes:
"Germans are flummoxed by humor, the Swiss have no concept of fun, the Spanish think there is nothing at all ridiculous about eating dinner at midnight, and the Italians should never, ever have been let on to the invention of the automobile." (35)
The book isn't Bryson going to a city, telling you where he ate, what museums he say and providing travel recommendations. You'd need a Lonely Planet book if that's what you want. He'll discuss the basic feeling of the city: the abundance of hippies in Amsterdam, the air of sophistication and wealth in Aachen, the fact that all Parisian drivers want him dead.  He breaks up his current journey with tales of his previous trip with Katz, as well as stories from the cities history or of his own history or just small bits of advice while traveling, such as the importance of making sure a German restaurant does not have a polka band that will surprise you during your meal.  As he says; "It should have been written into the armistice treaty that the Germans would be required to lay down their accordions along with their arms," (73).

I'm almost to my favorite part of the book, when he gets to Italy.  Reading this part always makes me long to go back.  I'm thinking that post will possibly just be a series of quotes because I'm not sure I can say anymore that I haven't already shared, yet I'm not quite finished talking about it yet.  Perhaps I'll come up with something incredibly insightful in the time being but I wouldn't count on it.

Title quote from page 35

Bryson, Bill.  Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe.  HarperCollins, New York.  1992.