Before embarking on a longish trip, Jill and I like to read about the places we are going to visit. Not just guidebooks–although I must admit we buy those by the pound–but travelogues, histories, and novels set in those areas. Sometimes this is easy. Italy and the Galapagos are well represented in literature. Other places are not so visited by those whose inclinations are to put pen to paper or hands to keyboard, including Ecuador and Costa Rica. At the present, I am unsure of where Austria and Switzerland will fall, but the thought has crossed my mind that a well-placed proposal might nab me a book contract.
As histories go, Austria is completely overshadowed by its larger German-speaking neighbor. This is unfortunate. While it is understandable that historians be interested in Germany, Austria has plenty to answer for in the last century as well. The same goes for the Swiss, who sorely need some bright lights shone in their shady vaults and executive suites, as the recent findings about Jewish bank accounts proves.
The problem in travelogues lies in the fact that no travel writer seems to go to either of these countries by themselves. Nestled in the heart of Europe, they are waystops between places–like from Germany to Italy or France to Russia–and while travelers may make it a point to stop in, say Salzburg or Zurich, for the night, the urge to stay never comes over them. According to Bill Bryson, the lack of this urge may not be wholly the blame of the visitor.
Austria and Switzerland each get a chapter (out of the total 22) in Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There. Similar to his first travelogue, The Lost Continent, this one has Bryson still trying to recapture earlier days, but in Europe. Although American by birth, Bryson is thoroughly British in his writing and wit. His journeys resemble those of Redmond 0’Hanlon, except more cosmopolitan acid without a companion. It is not that things go wrong necessarily, but that when they do so he describes it so hilariously.
Something that Bryson does not describe is how he can afford his trip– both in time and money. He mentions wife and children seldomly, although he has both. He does not mention regular employment, but I get the feeling that he is not independently wealthy either. It is neither here nor there, but I am intensely curious (if only to see if it is possible to emulate).
I am not sure that I learned that much about my upcoming vacation here, but Europe through Bryson’s eyes is almost as much fun as going yourself.
[Finished 21 February 1998]