NEITHER HERE NOR THERE: TRAVELS IN EUROPE
by Bill Bryson
Non-Fiction: Travel Memoir
Harper Perennial, 1992
Paperback, 245 pages
Twenty years after backpacking across Europe as a young man with his (rather unlikable) friend Katz, Bryson retraces his journey across the continent. Now middle-aged and somewhat less wild and spontaneous, he travels from the northernmost town in Europe through Scandinavia, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Turkey.
My favorite parts of this book were his observations of the people in each city and country he visits. He points out the American tendency to view Europeans as all the same, for the most part, and it is fun to see how greatly the citizens of neighboring countries differ and how each city has its own personality. Describing the different flavors of the places he visits is where Bryson shines: the charming ugliness of Brussels, where it’s nearly impossible to tell that it’s a center of international government; the appealingly peaceful ambience of Copenhagen, which has a statue of a little mermaid rather than monuments to famous generals; the richness and style rampant in Milan, a city that barely feels Italian for its brusque order and businessmen; and the handsome Bern with its young people and lively cafes.
“Is there anything, apart from a really good chocolate cream pie and receiving a large unexpected check in the mail, to beat finding yourself at large in a foreign city on a fair spring evening, loafing along unfamiliar streets in the long shadows of a lazy sunset, pausing to gaze in shop windows or at some church or lovely square or tranquil stretch of quayside, hesitating at street corners to decide whether that cheerful and homey restaurant you will remember fondly for years is likely to lie down this street or that one? I just love it. I could spend my life arriving each evening in a new city.”
Bryson’s reminiscences about his earlier backpacking trip are another highlight of the book. It was great fun to read about his adventures through Europe as a 21-year-old seeking adventure, beer, and women. These stories actually stood out to me as more fun and interesting than some of his middle-aged ramblings, but perhaps that’s because I’m 22.
Although I enjoyed Bryson’s witty observations of different European cultures, I would have liked him to include more history about the places he visits. When reading about foreign cities and countries, I like to learn a little bit about their background. However, Bryson is more interested in complaining about every hotel he visits, recounting in detail the exorbitant expense, the drabness of the rooms, the hardness of the beds, the low wattage of the light bulbs in the reading lamps, and whether or not the rooms have televisions. Learning these things about every single hotel he stays in got old pretty fast, and the pages dedicated to this whining would have been much better spent describing the sights he saw or delving into history.
I enjoyed this book, but I didn’t love it. It was fun to read Bryson’s take on the few places I’ve visited (Brussels, Rome, and Amsterdam) and compare our experiences. I also added quite a few cities to my “must visit” list and knocked a few cities down the list a bit, although I’m inclined to take some of his criticisms with a grain of salt when I take into consideration our age difference and the amount of time that has passed since this book’s publication.