"Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe" by Bill Bryson was first published in 1992 but is available now in a new Avon paperback edition. If you're planning a trip to Europe this summer, I think I recommend it.
Maybe I should say: If you're not planning a trip to Europe this summer, I definitely recommend it. It may be a little too reality-based for the person who is actually heading Over There, but for the armchair traveler it's perfect. Much of "Neither Here Nor There" is very, very funny, informative and evocative and the parts that aren't are still pretty good.
It's the second Bryson travel book I've read and now I have to admit I'm hooked. "Notes From a Small Island" was my introduction to Bryson. I loved it because it was about travels in England. Like Paul Theroux he's not fawning (far from it) but he's far funnier and unexpected than Theroux.
Plus, Bryson and I share the same dislike of things like liver, prune pastries, and the French. And we have the same desire to go back to all the places we visited in our youth.
He retraces a four-month journey he took with a sort-of friend in the early 1970s: Paris, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Florence, Rome, Switzerland, Vienna, Yugoslavia, among other destinations.
"On my first trip to Paris, I kept wondering: 'Why does everyone hate me so much?' You would go into a bakery and be greeted by some vast sluglike creature with a look that told you you would never be friends. In halting French you would ask for a small loaf of bread. The woman would give you a long, cold stare and then put a dead beaver on the counter. 'No, no,' you would say, 'not a dead beaver. A loaf of bread!' "
Further, Bryson gives voice to a secret resentment probably shared by a lot of baby-boomers and their parents.
" 'The other thing I've never understood about the French,' he says, 'is why they are so ungrateful. I've always felt that since it was us that liberated them…they ought to give all Allied visitors a book of coupons good for free drinks in Pigalle and a ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower. But they never thank you.
" 'I've had Belgian and Dutch people hug me around the knees and let me drag them down the street in gratitude even after I pointed out to them that I wasn't even sperm in 1945, but this is not an experience that is ever likely to happen to anyone in France.' "
French-bashing: It's so easy, but it feels so good.
But when Bryson likes someplace, his enthusiasm is a joy. He found the hillside town of Capri in Italy to be just exactly what he traveled thousands of miles to see. The town is located six kilometers straight up the hillside above the sea and worth the grueling hike.
"Capri town was gorgeous, an infinitely charming little place of villas and tiny lemon groves and long views across the bay to Naples and Vesuvius. I have never seen a more beguiling place for walking."
Not surprisingly, Bryson found Europe in general a whole lot more crowded 20 years after his first crawl and he provides an interesting if not alarming statistic, already dated. In Florence, he says, the ratio of tourists to residents is 14:1. Yikes. The golden years of travel may already be behind us, he says. Double-yikes.
With this in mind, he doesn't hesitate to take places that rely on tourism to task. Again, Florence: "Why is it that the cities that people most want to see are the ones that so often do the least to make it agreeable to do so? Why can't the Forentines see that it would be in their own interest to sweep up the litter and put out some benches and force the Gypsies to stop being so persistent in pan-handling and spend more on brightening the place up? "
When Bryson became the victim of an 8-year-old Gypsy pick-pocket, losing $1,500 in travelers' checks, he had nothing but admiration for her skill and nothing but irritation for the police. Bryson figures Gypsies pocket $25,000 to $30,000 mainly in travelers' checks every Sunday, a busy workday for them in Florence.
"Presumably the checks are then laundered through friendly exchange bureaus around the country. The whole thing must be an enormous racket," he says.
The police care so little about it, they must be getting a cut, says Bryson. Good observation.
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