The first book that I picked up in the reading year of 2013 was Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There. The year was young and I wanted something fun and entertaining to read and I knew that Bryson would not disappoint. Indeed, this book about his travels in Europe was so funny that I found myself laughing out loud in public places while reading it – and I never do that! From a somewhat odd beginning in Hammerfest, Norway to see the Northern Lights to an satisfied, if exhausted, ending in Istanbul (not Constantinople), Bryson’s commentary is hilarious and well-written.
Originally published in 1992, the premise of Neither Here Nor There is a retracing of Bryson’s first backpacking trip through Europe, which he took in the early seventies. Beginning at his home in England, Bryson does the full circuit of Europe on his trip. Of course he makes sure to hit the big mile markers such as Paris and Copenhagen, but he also stops in smaller destinations such as Gothenburg and the tiny country of Lichtenstein.
The book starts out in Hammerfest, Norway where Bryson is determined to have a good time despite the crushing darkness and bitter cold. He goes on for paragraphs about the bleakness, but he’s there to see the Northern Lights. And, as desperate as he is to leave, he knows that he can’t get on the waiting bus until he sees those lights. Does he get to see them? I’ll leave that as a cliffhanger and – hopefully – an incentive to read the book.
Bryson’s journey definitely peaks in sunny and pleasant Italy where he commentates on the poor parking skills of the Romans. As his journey comes to a close, Bryson seems to embody the weary traveler who just wants to get back home. The last few destinations are still taken in and enjoyed, but it’s with the melancholy of someone who is looking forward to guaranteed good food, warm socks on a cold evening, and lights that have bulbs bright enough to read by. Bryson mentions several times that the lights in his hotel rooms simply aren’t bright enough to accommodate his reading habits. I found this a rather interesting detail for him to mention, and I think it just goes to show you that no matter what exotic locale you’re visiting, you still pine for the comforts of home.
I would call this the quintessential funny journey across Europe because you’re visiting all of these places and seeing them through Bryson’s eyes. His sardonic wit and sarcastic observations are a joy to read and only add to the destinations he ends up in. He does, at times, cater to stereotypes of various European countries, but mostly he relies on the hilarity of traveling on one’s own in a place where you don’t speak the language and don’t understand the system said place has established.
For instance, at one point in his journey, Bryson suffers a pickpocketing at the hands of some young street urchins. The most hilarious part of this incident, though, is that reporting the crime to a lackadaisical police force and working through the system to get reimbursed for those stolen traveler’s checks is, perhaps, more harrowing than the actual pickpocketing.
Though Bryson’s forte is finding the humor in any situation, there are also poignant moments in this book. Bryon visits Capri, which he describes as a “mountainous outcrop of green ten miles away off the western tip of the Sorrentine Peninsula.” Between him and this verdant paradise is a challenging 6-kilometer climb up a steep hill. Though it’s a tough journey where he passes locals who clearly make the trip every day just to do their shopping, the payoff is magnificent. After enjoying the view, Bryson spends a serene evening watching local families and friends gather throughout the night in an village square.
Overall, this is an incredibly fun read. If you’re looking for a light-hearted travel memoir to start off the year (it’s not too late, right?), I would definitely recommend Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There.