Sunday, November 25, 2012

Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson



Why I read it: Yet another Bryson book. Like a bluefish in August off Boston, I think I'm hooked.

Summary: The author takes his famous grousing act across Europe.

My Thoughts: There are so many things I could say about this book - the love Bryson shows for my people, the Italians, the fact that the French are still sooo French, etc., but one passage stood out above all for me.

He's in Austria at the time that the notion strikes him. He reminisces about a Disney film about the Vienna Boys' Choir. "It all seemed so engaging and agreeably old-fashioned compared with the sleek and modern world I knew, and it left me with the unshakable impression that Austria was somehow more European than the rest of Europe. And so it seemed here in Innsbruck. For the first time in a long while, certainly for the first time on this trip, I felt a palpable sense of wonder to find myself here, on these streets, in this body, at this time. I was in Europe now. It was an oddly profound notion."

I've been twice. When I was 14, I joined a school exchange trip to Italy. We landed in Rome, took a train down the Italian coastline to Reggio di Calabria, the train boarded a ferry, crossed the Straits of Messina, and deposited us in Siracusa for two and a half weeks. If you've never been to Europe, it's hard to explain how it felt, but Bryson comes close. It's no longer a shape on a map, a social studies topic defined by its terrain, principal language and chief exports. You're there. You're not able to run down the street to your favorite convenience store to intercept a craving, and in fact, most of the foods you normally eat are out of reach entirely, as are pretty much everbody you've ever known in your life. Many of the buildings around you reach well beyond a few hundred years old - in America, 1620 is antiquity - and can be a couple thousand years old. It hit me so at 14 as I stood in awe of the Colosseum.

At 29, I took full advantage of it, in London. I was there for research with a dear friend, who guided me through the city. We did the sights in our down time, over Thanksgiving weekend, no less. I watched BBC television, listened to BBC radio, I bought a pair of "Mind the Gap" boxer shorts, visited the Tower of London and took in Big Ben in big gulping eyefuls while the rest of the tourists on the boat on the Thames practically tipped us over trying to catch a glimpse of the London Eye. I absorbed London like I never could have taken in Italy at that age.

Bryson forced me into a LOL moment when talking about visiting the Vatican City. He mentions having to fight his way through a small army of men attempting to sell him slides - oh my god! I was there just a few years before he was, and had the same exact experience. What are the chances that we were accosted by the same men? I'd say pretty damn good.

Whether you are neither here nor there, the world is a smaller place than one might guess.

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