There are times where I have to struggle to get involved in a book, even books I have been looking forward to or books I end up falling in love with (the first and third entries in the Emperor series spring to mind here.) This book was not one of those; it grabbed me from the moment I opened it and quickly became difficult for me to put down, which may have contributed to more than one excessively late night of reading. As I finished the book I tried to remember if I had ever heard of Bill Bryson before, I have a pretty good memory for this sort of thing, and I could not recall having heard of him before. This surprised me as Bryson is exactly the sort of writer I enjoy reading; sarcastic and a bit full of himself without coming off as an egotistical ass.
This book chronicles the author’s journey across Europe during the winter and spring of 1990. His travels begin with a thirty-hour bus ride from Oslo to Hammerfest, arguably the northernmost city in the world. The purpose of this visit, in the depths of winter, is to see the Aurora Borealis because, lets face it, that far north in January there is not going to be too much else going on. He then returns home to England and begins planning his trip which begins in Paris. Bryson spends the rest of the book traveling throughout Europe, visiting recognizable places such as Rome and Amsterdam, and more obscure destinations such as Sofia and Liechtenstein, even visiting Yugoslavia before the Serbians turned into dicks and decided that Croats and Bosnians were only good for target practice. The journey ends with the author sitting in an open-air taverna in Istanbul, gazing across the Bosphorus at Asia momentarily debating whether he should continue his travels or return to hearth and home.
I picked up this book in a fit of searching for inspiration for a travel destination for later in the year, and if this is what you are looking for from this book then, as the kids say, your mileage may vary, however if you are just looking for a very enjoyable read, then this is the book for you. The very first thing I noticed about Bryson, besides the fact that he is insane enough to travel in Norway in January, is that he is unabashedly American despite having lived in Britain for the better part of twenty years, which is refreshing these days. The stereotype of boorish American tourist is such that when I have been traveling I have had friends advise me to try and “blend in” with the locals as much as possible, because a six-foot-three white guy can really disappear in a crowd in Japan and South Korea. (Apparently I did it so well in Scotland I was accused of being Canadian, eh.) The second thing I noticed, and this is what convinced me I need to read the rest of his books, is he has a very sarcastic wit to him that, if you know me at all, will know I appreciate. It seemed like every page had little gems on it which I wanted to share with you. In fact I was compiling a list until I ran into these paragraphs in the chapter about his visit to Austria wherein he encounters then-president Dr. Kurt Waldheim:
A lot of people aren’t sure of the difference between the offices of chancellor and president in Austria, but it’s quite simple. The chancellor decides national policy and runs the country, while the president rounds up the Jews.
For readers unfamiliar with Waldheim’s “interesting” past Bryson quickly fills in a rough outline including the fact that Waldheim joined the Nazi Student Union two weeks after the declaration of Anschluss and rose to a rather high rank in the Nazi machine and supervised the removal of something on the order of 40,000 Jews from Thessaloniki. After filling the reader in Bryson then says:
Austrians should be proud of him and proud of themselves for having the courage to stand up to world opinion and elect a man of his caliber, overlooking the fact that he is a pathological liar, the he has been officially accused of war crimes, that he has a past so mired in mistruths that no one but he knows what he has done. It takes a special kind of people to stand behind a man like that.
“Damn,” I thought while reading that, “Way to tell ‘em Billy.” Then I paused for a moment and checked to make sure he was still talking about Austria and Waldheim.