Sunday, April 18, 2010


Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe

I'm a little addicted to Bill Bryson's style of writing. My email verbiage has slowly morphed into a stepchild of his prose, and I'll read anything he's written. Neither Here Nor There jumped out at me when I was looking through the Europe section of the library, and after scanning Fodors, Frommers, and Let's Go editions, I was surprised to see a Bill Bryson book in the nonfiction section. Not that I have much reason to doubt anything he says in his books - it's more that I enjoy reading him so much that he must be fiction. So of course I picked it up, and finished his small section on France on the subway ride home, and then forgot about it until we got back from our trip. I picked it up again to see what I had missed in our Europe trip. Not much, it turns out, but at the same time, quite a lot.

He wrote this in 1990, and as such, his Bulgaria and Yugoslavia chapters are slightly arresting. But many of his other observations remain very salient. At the same time, however, his approach to travel in this book is not very similar to mine:

"When I told friends in London that I was going to travel around Europe and write a book about it, they said, 'Oh, you must speak a lot of languages.' 'Why no,' I would reply with a certain pride, 'only English,' and they would look at me as if I were foolish or crazy. But that's the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I don't want to know what people are talking about. 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, you can't even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses."

I understand that excitement, but I like to prepare more than that, and am always trying to learn as much vocabulary before I cross a border as possible. But it does make an interesting book.

Instead of describing what else is in the book, I'll just quote bits to show you what you get when you read a Bill Bryson book. You can extrapolate this prose out to him fumbling around Europe. And now, comedy genius:

"It wouldn't bother me in the least if all the dogs in the world were placed in a large sack and taken to some distant island - Greenland springs attractively to mind - where they could romp around and sniff each others' anuses to their hearts' content and would never bother or terrorize me again. ... To my mind, the only possible pet is a cow. Cows love you. They are harmless, they look nice, they don't need a box to crap in, they keep the grass down, and they are so trusting and stupid that you can't help but lose your heart to them. Where I live in Yorkshire, there's a herd of cows down the lane. You can stand by the wall at any hour of the day or night, and after a minute the cows will all waddle over and stand with you, much too stupid to know what to do next, but happy just to be with you. They will stand there all day, as far as I can tell, possibly till the end of time. They will listen to your problems and never ask a thing in return. They will be your friends forever. And when you get tired of them, you can kill them and eat them. Perfect."

Even when I disagree with what he's saying, he makes my sides hurt.

"I tend to think of life as bleak when I can't find a parking space at the supermarket, but imagine what it must have been to be Italian in the fourteenth century. For a start, in 1345 it rained nonstop for six months, turning much of the country into stagnant lake and making planting impossible. The economy collapsed, banks went bust, and thousands died in the ensuing famines. Two years later the country was rocked my terrible earthquakes - in Rome, Naples, Pisa, Padua, Venice - which brought more death and chaos. And then, just when people were surely thinking that things had to get better now, some anonymous sailor stepped ashore at Genoa and said 'You know, I don't feel so hot,' and within days the great plague was beginning its long sweep across Europe."

"...but I soon learned that everyone in Paris was like that. 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, hands aflutter, 'not a dead beaver. A loaf of bread." The sluglike creature would stare at you in patent disbelief, then turn to the other customers and address them in French at much too high a speed for you to follow, but the drift of which clearly was that this person here, this American tourist, had come in and asked for a dead beaver and she had given him a dead beaver and now he was saying that he didn't want a dead beaver at all, he wanted a loaf of bread. The other customers would look at you as if you had just tried to fart in their handbags, and you would have no choice but to slink away and console yourself with the thought that in another four days you would be in Brussels and probably able to eat again."

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