When my girlfriend went to Germany this summer, her tales of Germany’s quirks made me think immediately of Bill Bryson and one of his early books, Neither Here Nor There. Realizing that I last read it before the start of this meme back in 2005, I thought it would be the perfect time to dust it off and enjoy it all over again.
There are startling bits about Neither Here Nor There, especially if you’ve read a lot of Bryson’s more recent work. It’s downright bawdy at times, which doesn’t bother me, but does come as a bit of a shock. The only other book which approaches this style is A Walk in the Woods, I suppose because these are both largely narrative books, rather than the more detached kind of exposition you might find in one of his books about language1.
Neither Here Nor There is a travelogue of Bryson’s trip across Europe in the early 1990s. It’s a strange hybrid of the “present” and flashbacks of the author’s first trip(s) across Europe, one of the times with a crass young man named Katz, the sort of comic-relief boor that enjoys “Pull my finger” jokes and thinks that volume is a sufficient substitute for the inability to speak a foreign tongue.
Young Bryson (and Katz) tends to chase women, smoke semi-legal hash in Amsterdam, and party into the wee hours of the morning in clubs that are hip in a way they can only be in Europe. Latter-day Bryson mostly wanders around the cobble-stone streets of Old Europe alone, either in a “I’m a tourist, but not an annoying one” sort of way, or a “What kind of strange, alien people are you?” sort of way. It becomes clear that he has an undying love for the bucolic Europe of his childhood imagination, satisfied most thoroughly by small Italian villages where everyone knows everyone else, and you can sit for hours at a Bistro, drinking coffee, and alternating between reading thick tomes about the Bubonic Plague and people-watching.
More broadly, Bryson laments the inevitable conundrum of travel-friendly Europe: tourism thoroughly kills the small-town, Old-World charm that makes these places worth visiting in the first place. The author starts in the godforsaken frozen north, looking for the Aurora Borealis, works his way through the middle of Europe, which he comes to find is largely overrun with touristy crap, finding only a few quaint places which slake his thirst for the pastoral2, being utterly bored in Switzerland, which apparently has all the charm of a sterile cotton swab, and then becoming entirely depressed when visiting Eastern Europe, which at that time was still either suffering under Communism, or suffering from the transition from it.
Bryson, inexplicably, finds a particular joy in the sensation of being utterly at odds with his surroundings when on vacation. Instead of being a source of stress, not speaking the local language appears fun to him (or so it would seem from his narration). Outside of the usual travel literature, it’s strange to find someone, especially an American, who isn’t an accidental tourist, traveling abroad while simultaneously trying to make his/her destination as much as possible like the place he/she just left. Bryson likes museums, long walks, good beer, good (but not too exotic) food, and downtown cafés. Out of that, he manages to make some of the most amusing travel writing I’ve ever had the pleasure to read.
As I will invariably say with anything by Bryson, you’ll do yourself a favor by reading this. Neither Here Not There is funny, informative, occasionally touching, and utterly difficult to put down.
- I should point out, however, that language books are often bawdy as well, since taboo words are goldmines for linguists[↩]
- It’s not only a European thing: read The Lost Continent to see how Bryson similarly lusts after that sense of the pastoral in the Midwest. My thought is that growing up in Iowa gave him the capacity for a particular type of nostalgia triggered by the quaint and the bucolic; his own well-traveled existence blended said capacity with the desire to find such a feeling halfway across the world. I find Bryson a complex man, and it’s fun to try to paint a picture of the author by reading his books.[↩]