Travel Lit Tuesday: “Neither Here Nor There” by Bill Bryson

neither“The first time I came to Europe was in 1972, skinny, shy, alone…The aeroplanes were old and engagingly past their prime — oxygen masks would sometimes drop unbidden from their overheated storage compartments and dangle there until a stewardess with a hammer and a mouthful of nails came along to put things right…”

“…And so the summer went. I wandered for four months across the continent, through Britain and Ireland, through Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy, lost in a private astonishment. It was as happy a summer as I have ever spent. I enjoyed it so much that I came home, tipped the contents of my rucksack into an incinerator, and returned the next summer with a high-school acquaintance named Stephen Katz, which I quickly realized was a serious mistake.”

The same Stephen Katz, might I add, that hiked the Appalachian Trail with Bryson in A Walk in the Woods. These boys have been friends for quite some time.

Neither Here Nor There chronicles Bryson’s third foray across Europe, more or less following the same itinerary that he and Katz had done nearly twenty years prior. Starting in Oslo, Norway (in order to reach Hammerfest and see the Northern Lights), Bryson travels by bus and rail through Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, eventually ending in Turkey.

He visits cities and towns such as Paris, Brussels, Aachen, Cologne, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Gothenburg, Stockholm, Rome, Naples, Sorrento, Capri, Florence, Milan, Como, Vienna, Salzburg, Split, Sarajevo, Belgrade, Sofia and Istanbul. I became jealous of his travels before I even read the book, just by looking at the Contents page.

I`ve said this before, and I`ll say it again — if there`s one thing Bill Bryson does extremely well, it`s describing the quirks and curiosities of the people he meets on his travels. He is a people watcher to the core. Travelling throughout various regions of Europe provided him with a plethora of material. As a result, we the reader get treated to an astonishing assortment of characters, as well as a glimpse into the different European landscapes he visits.

And let me tell you now, there is such a varying degree of landscapes that you`ll never get bored.

From witnessing the Northern Lights in Hammerfest…

“They were of only one colour, that eerie luminous green you see on radar screens, but the activity was frantic. Narrow swirls of light would sweep across the great dome of sky, then hang there like vapour trails. Sometimes they flashed across the sky like falling stars and sometimes they spun languorously…Sometimes the Lights would flicker brightly in the west, then vanish in an instant and reappear a moment later behind me, as if teasing me. I was constantly turning and twisting to see it. You have no idea how immense the sky is until you try to monitor it all.”

…to wandering around Paris and visiting the famous bookstore, Shakespeare & Co., to touring various cathedrals like St. Peter`s, to climbing an never-ending flight of stairs on the isle of Capri to reach its town centre, to realizing, once in Istanbul, that he was closer to Asia than he was to his home — Bill always keeps us entertained. He even manages to intertwine his present day travel stories with those experiences he had with Katz, creating a then-and-now comparison of his destinations.

One thing Bill talks about early on in the book really stuck with me:

“One of the small marvels of my first trip to Europe was the discovery that the world could be so full of variety, that there were so many different ways of doing essentially identical things, like eating and drinking and buying cinema tickets. It fascinated me that Europeans could at once be so alike — that they could be so universally bookish and cerebral, and drive small cars, and live in little houses in ancient towns, and love soccer, and be relatively unmaterialistic and law-abiding, and have chilly hotel rooms and cosy and inviting places to eat and drink — and yet be so endlessly, unpredictably different from each other as well. I loved the idea that you could never be sure of anything in Europe.”

I have to agree with Bill here. I have limited travel experience in Europe myself, but one thing that seems so tempting to me as a North American is how you can easily drive for say, an hour and a half (the time it takes me to commute to work on public transportation), and end up in a different country with a different mother tongue and currency system. I love Canada, but I’d also love to have the opportunity of jetting off for a long-weekend to a neighbouring country and being able to have more than one option to choose from.

This book is full of moments that force me to have to pause from my reading in order to stifle a chuckle. Like the other books I’ve reviewed, I find myself having to look away from the text and out the subway car or bus window in order to gather my composure. A perfect example of one of these moments occurs when Bill is in Paris, trying to cross a busy intersection.

“You also keep coming up against these monumental squares and open spaces that are all but impossible to cross on foot. My wife and I went to Paris on our honeymoon and foolishly tried to cross the Place de la Concorde without first leaving our names at the embassy. Somehow she managed to get to the obelisk in the centre, but I was stranded in the midst of a circus maximus of killer automobiles, waving weakly to my dear spouse of two days and whimpering softly while hundreds and hundreds of little buff-coloured Renaults were bearing down on me with their drivers all wearing expressions like Jack Nicholson in Batman.

I vividly remember the chaos that is the rotunda around the Arc de Triomphe where “thirteen roads come together”, so I can attest to this. I never pictured these cars being driven by the Joker, mind you, but if I ever return to Paris this image will be burned into my brain.

I could go on and provide an endless number of stories from this book, pertaining to the myriad of countries that the visits, but I don’t want to ruin it for you. I will, however, share this final quote of his.

At one point Bill gets tired of the dreary northern European weather, so he abandons his planned itinerary in order to get to Italy sooner (“I wanted to walk down a street in shirtsleeves, to sit out of doors with a cappuccino, to feel the sun on my face.”). He felt somewhat guilty for doing this, but then came to the realization that:

“Travelling is more fun — shit, life is more fun — if you can treat it as a series of impulses.”

I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment. Now excuse me while I picture myself sitting at a sunny café, set on Roman cobblestone, enjoying a  Birra Moretti Baffo d’Oro, while I raise my glass to offer Mr. Bryson a “salute” for providing us with such an enlightening thought.

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