GUEST POST – SURLY JOE
SYNOPSIS (From Goodreads) – Bill Bryson’s first travel book, The Lost Continent, was unanimously acclaimed as one of the funniest books in years. In Neither Here nor There he brings his unique brand of humour to bear on Europe as he shoulders his backpack, keeps a tight hold on his wallet, and journeys from Hammerfest, the northernmost town on the continent, to Istanbul on the cusp of Asia. Fluent in, oh, at least one language, he retraces his travels as a student twenty years before.
Whether braving the homicidal motorist of Paris, being robbed by gypsies in Florence, attempting not to order tripe and eyeballs in a German restaurant, window-shopping in the sex shops of the Reeperbahn or disputing his hotel bill in Copenhagen, Bryson takes in the sights, dissects the culture and illuminates each place and person with his hilariously caustic observations. He even goes to Liechtenstein.
I love Neither Here Nor There. I loved it when I first read it twenty years ago when my experience of solo travel was in its infancy and I loved it when I re-read it two weeks ago, with my experience of solo travel now mostly relegated to dusty memories and buried journals.
In 1972, Bill Bryson did what millions of other freshly-graduated young adults did and still do – he stuffed clothes into a backpack and left home for Europe to wander around, see new sights, gain new knowledge and do some chemically-induced stupid things. When he landed in Luxembourg and hitchhiked to Belgium, he was immediately “smitten”. He was “at large in a perfect world”. For four months, he traveled, “lost in a private astonishment”.
Twenty years later, after living in England for over a decade, Bryson, now an author, decided to retrace his early steps and rediscover the continent he loved and the feelings of exhilaration and trepidation that solo travel brings. Arriving first in northern Norway, Bryson slowly made his way south. Over the next few months, he wandered through France, Germany, Holland, Italy and the rest of the continent, loving and occasionally hating the feeling of being “hopelessly unfamiliar with everything”.
Neither Here Nor There is the hilarious, sarcastic and very honest recollection of his tour. He describes the “pleasantly pointless days wandering around”, the “necessarily aimless” evening strolls, and the “hermetic slobbiness” that can result from weeks of being a solo traveler. He both praises and criticizes bluntly. Bruges is “deeply endlessly gorgeous” but Cologne is “a dismal place” and Brussels is “seriously ugly” and “full of wet litter”.
But as I read, a new realization slowly began to simmer. Not only is Neither Here Nor There a travelogue, it has also transformed into a historical document of the early 1990’s and a description of what now seems prehistoric. Bryson’s journey is pre-GPS, without email, without Google, without Smartphones. If he wanted directions to the next town, it meant unfolding a map the size of a tablecloth or reading Let’s Go or Fodor’s, the guidebooks of the times. To buy dinner in France or Switzerland, he needed francs, in Italy, the currency was lira. No such thing as Euros back then. And Yugoslavia as a country doesn’t even exist anymore.
Even the humour seems somewhat outdated in our ultra politically-correct present. I both laughed and cringed at his cultural generalizations. Is it proper to say that “Germans are flummoxed by humour, the Swiss have no concept of fun” and are “desperately dull”? Or that “Italians are entirely without any commitment to order”? Statements made honestly at the time, perhaps, but still statements from another era.
Neither Here Nor There is back on my shelf again, where it will probably stay unopened for another twenty years. The humour, the currencies and the national boundaries may have changed, but my overriding thought when I closed the book was the same now as it was then. Heading to the airport with a one-way ticket to anywhere seems like a really good idea.
“Traveling is more fun– hell, life is more fun–if you can treat it as a series of impulses.” ― Bill Bryson,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bill Bryson’s bestselling travel books include The Lost Continent, Neither Here Nor There and Notes from a Small Island, which in a national poll was voted the book that best represents Britain. His acclaimed book on the history of science, A Short History of Nearly Everything, won the Royal Society’s Aventis Prize as well as the Descartes Prize, the European Union’s highest literary award.
Bryson has written books on language, on Shakespeare, and on his own childhood in the hilarious memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. His last critically lauded bestsellers were on history – At Home: a Short History of Private Life, and One Summer: America 1927.
Another travel book, A Walk in the Woods, has now become a major film starring Robert Redford, Nick Nolte and Emma Thompson. Bryson’s new book, The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island comes out in Autumn 2015.
Bill Bryson was born in the American Mid-West, and is now living back in the UK. A former Chancellor of Durham University, he was President of Campaign to Protect Rural England for five years, and is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society.
In his own words – Surly Joe is a moderately nondescript Toronto-based white guy who spends too much time contemplating the nature of boredom. His aspirations waver between wanting to be either a professional gambler or a Zen monk, with a touch of writing on the side. After completing university with a degree in a subject that does not readily lead to any sort of viable employment, he wandered through Europe and Northern Africa for a while collecting stories and useless trivia, circumstance led to a career back in Toronto. He now spends his money on food, friends, wine and annual trips to Las Vegas.