Saturday, 7 December 2013

Revisiting Europe: Bill Bryson's Neither Here Nor There

I've read many glowing recommendations of Bill Bryson's books. I've also read a few comments that weren't especially enthusiastic. Myself, I have been in the "not enthusiastic" category. I remember reading A Walk in the Woods several years ago and liking it moderately. On the other hand, I retained a very negative impression of Neither Here Nor There, his book about travelling in Europe.

After reading Sheila's recommendation for In a Sunburned Country at the Deliberate Reader, I thought I'd give Bryson another go. This book about his travels in Australia has been published as Down Under in the UK, and that's the edition I got from the library.

I quite enjoyed this virtual trip to Australia. After all, it's clear that Bryson loves Australia, despite the dangerous wildlife. Even when he's making fun of people's quirks or the strange things he encounters, the overall tone of the book is positive, and he finds much to love, admire, enjoy and recommend.

After Down Under, I decided to give Neither Here Nor There another chance, too. My overriding impression of it from the previous reading was 'negativity'. As I recalled, Swedes were depressed and depressing, Norway was cold and expensive, German food atrocious, etc. I had felt that he made most of his jokes by looking for something to complain about in a funny way. But maybe I remembered wrong?

Now that I have refreshed my memory, I can perhaps write a more balanced review. There certainly are more positive comments than what I remembered. Even in the places where Bryson was not happy, for example Stockholm, he did find something good to say, something to appreciate and enjoy. And yes, there was humour, and not all the jokes were about putting something/someone down.

As for the negativity, Bryson definitely found a lot to complain about. It seems to me that Parisians cannot do right by him: when they're more polite than he remembers, he starts to feel uncomfortable, and when they're rude, he's happy because it reinforces his opinion of them. Bryson criticizes Sweden and Norway for their strict laws and orderliness; he says they're "determined to squeeze the fun out of life" because, for example, the serving and selling of alcohol is restricted...

The one thing that really bothered me in this book were the constant references to sex. Whether he's looking at foreign language TV and imagining what people say, or looking at certain type of shops in Amsterdam or Hamburg, there always seems to be innuendos - or plain, explicit comments. Call me a prude if you will, but this book has more of that than I can comfortably deal with. Down Under had some, but not quite as much and as often as Neither Here Nor There.

While reading, I had to remind myself that Bryson travelled and wrote in 1990. He went to Yugoslavia before the state dissolved into bloody and violent wars. It feels poignant now to read about a peaceful, picturesque little town called Sarajevo, known mostly for the incident that sparked World War I. The name 'Sarajevo' now brings the more recent war to my mind first.

The last 23 years must have seen many considerable changes elsewhere in Europe, too. In Neither Here Nor There, Bryson was retracing a journey he had taken in 1973 and commenting on the changes he noticed. What would Bryson make of the same places in Europe now? At the very least, he would find more restaurants open on a Sunday in Stockholm, and probably serving better food...

It's understandable that I don't always agree with Bryson's opinions about the places he visited. I'm a woman, a Finn, a Scandinavian, a European. In the 1990's, I was a twentysomething student, and when I have travelled in central Europe, I have mostly looked for very different things than Bryson. Of course our points of view and experiences differ. Our expectations, too. I'm glad I gave Neither Here Nor There another chance and revisited the Europe of my youth, seeing it from a perspective so different from my own. The second reading left me with a much more positive impression of the book, though I still would not recommend it to everyone without hesitation.

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