Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson

Neither Here nor There: Travels in EuropeAlternately profound and profane, Bill Bryson's book is an interesting and occasionally sarcastic look at Europe in the 90s, its history, lands, and culture. Bryson had previously traveled around Europe with his friend, Katz, as a young man, wandering from place to place without any real itinerary, and he tries to recreate that journey as much as possible by himself a number of years later.

He starts in Hammerfall, near the Arctic Circle, hoping to catch a glimpse of the spectacular Aurora Borealis, and spends quite a few cold, boring days and nights there before finally experiencing them. From there he travels south to Oslo, Paris, and Brussels. He has some rather dour observations of all of these cities, before moving on to other places.

One thing I found interesting, in light of what most of us tend to think about the European social safety net was what he had to say about Switzerland.

"The Swiss have a terrible tendency to be smug and ruthlessly self-interested. They happily bring in hundreds of thousands of foreign workers - one person in every five is Switzerland is a foreigner - but refuse to offer the  workers the security of citizenship. When times get tough, they send the workers home - 300,000 during the oil embargo shocks of 1972 for instance - making them leave their homes, pull their children from schools, abandon their comforts until times got better. Thus the Swiss are able to take advantage of cheap labor during boom times without the inconvenient social responsibilities of providing unemployment benefits and health care during bad times."

The only place he really liked was Capri, where the combination of the Mediterranean climate, the exuberant and lively people, and the wonderful food and drink seemed to strike a chord for him. He does mention some of the beautiful parks and countrysides elsewhere, but for a solitary traveler he remains extremely uninvolved with the people he meets, and perhaps even considers himself a bit superior to them all. Something that's notably missing from his tales are the random acts of kindness and hospitality of foreigners and strangers that other travelers often relate. He seems to feel that everyone is just out to take advantage of him, take or steal his money, or confuse and delay his voyaging.

Interesting for the amount of ground he covers and the cultural landmarks he describes, but I think he'd be a wretched traveling companion, quite frankly.

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