I am not a die hard Bill Bryson fan by any stretch of the imagination. I've enjoyed several of his books, but there's been a couple of others I gave up on. I decided to give this one a go though because I was visiting Paris and Amsterdam, two of the cities Bryson visited in this book. I'm glad I did.
'Neither Here Nor There' is an account of Bill Bryson's travels in mainland Europe. He mainly travelled by train and bus, and visited many places - mainly cities - in both Western and Eastern Europe. It took me most of the book to work out exactly when the book was set, I had been thinking it was around the year 2000, but when he was visiting Eastern bloc countries it transpired that his trip took place in 1990, when many countries were on the cusp between communism and capitalism. To paraphrase Bryson, he said he was sure the place (Sofia in Bulgaria I think) would be very different in five years time, and the inhabitants would be much better for it, but he was glad he saw it before it changed all the same.
The book is not only set in 1990 however, as it features a number of flashbacks to when he travelled in Europe as a student in 1972 with his friend Stephen Katz. This allows an interesting 'then and now' comparison which I think added to the narrative.
It's interesting that of all the Bill Bryson books I've enjoyed, I've liked each one for different reasons. For instance I enjoyed 'Down Under' for all the history and interesting stories of Australia and Australians, whereas I enjoyed the autobiographical aspects and social history in 'The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid'. I really liked 'Neither Here Nor There' because it made me get up and travel to a lot of these places. I really felt the excitement and adventure of travel in this book, and loved the descriptions of some of the places that made me feel like I was there (Sorrento and Lake Como both spring to mind). I also really liked the sound of Split, Croatia and Diocletian's Palace where the corridors of the old Roman Palace are now the narrow streets of the old town. I really want to visit.
This was a really good, classic travel book, easy to read with plenty of comic moments, but also beautiful descriptions, fascinating facts and the real feeling that you are travelling along with Bill Bryson at times.
I don't tend to highlight many passages in books that I read (though it is quite easy on my Kindle Paperwhite), but there was one paragraph towards the end of the book when Bryson was in Bulgaria that I wanted to quote, because I found it quite profoundly true.
"I know Communism never worked and I would have hated living under it myself, but it seems to me none the less that there is a kind of sadness in the thought that the only economic system that appears to work is one based on self interest and greed."
Something to think on I think. I also wonder if one was to follow in the author's footsteps today, what sort of different experience they would have. Obviously, they wouldn't be travelling through communist countries, and so many Eastern European cities would be profoundly different. I suspect everywhere would be very different too, the internet and globalisation generally have dealt a profound blow to individual cultures all over the world.
Some of the adventures of travel are lost these days too - all those hours getting lost and not being able to read or understand anything would no longer be a problem. You can just pull out your smartphone for directions or instant translations when you don't understand something. My recent experience in Europe was greatly enhanced by this technology, though I was with my family and so being able to quickly find toilets, cafes, the hotel etc were really helpful.
Anyway, that's enough of being morbid. This is a great travelogue written at just the right time I think. A worthy 9/10.