Rating: ★★☆☆☆ 

Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe, by Bill Bryson. Perennial (1992), 235 pages.

This was a gift from somebody who remembered that I enjoyed Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, a comedic account of his hike along the Appalachian Trail. Neither Here nor There is similar in spirit—comedic musings and descriptions of a trip through fifteen or so European countries. However, I did not enjoy this one as much. He can be very funny and certainly has a way of getting to the absurd heart of every conceivable interaction, which I appreciate immensely, but he is not consistently funny in this book. At times, in fact, my reading experience was unpleasant.

First: I do not see any humor in jokes about harm befalling animals. Bryson should have kept his personal dislike of dogs and cats out of this book; surely I was not the only reader completely turned off by this? Secondly, there is something unseemly about a middle-aged man with a wife and children back home (whom he mentions missing and appears fond of) carrying on in an adolescent way about hot young women. A few times, fine…but this is a recurring theme throughout the book. For example: in Italy, after giving up his table in an unbelievably crowded restaurant with angry people waiting in line, he writes that the staff was so happy they “bowed and thanked me and brushed my shoulders with a whisk broom and offered me their daughter’s hands in marriage or even just for some hot sex.”  The whisk broom is really funny. That makes me smile. The hands in marriage is less funny, but okay. The “hot sex” ruins the whole sentence. Boring, mundane, entirely unoriginal.

Likewise, in Copenhagen, apparently, during the summer months female office workers use their lunch break to sunbathe topless. He bemoans the fact that while he was there, “all the secretaries were tucked away in their dark offices, their lovely breasts bagged away for at least another day.” Bryson, you’re a grown-up, remember? The irony here is that he makes frequent references/comparisons to a European trip he took when he was only twenty, with an uncouth friend who was unbearably annoying because he “talked about boners all the time.” The author seems unaware that a bit of this friend resides within him.

The thing is, Bryson often displays a highly unusual take on life and I frequently admire both his phrasing and his amusing outlook on trivial matters—such as guidebooks that offer handy translations: “The utter uselessness of the language appendices in guidebooks never fails to fascinate me. I find myself studying them with an endless sense of wonder. Take this sentence: ‘We would like a bathing cabin for two, a beach umbrella, three deck chairs.’ Why three deck chairs, but a bathing cabin for two? Who is being made to change outside?”

His description of Hammerfest, Norway, which opens the book, is one of the best chapters. Shortly after arriving he notices that all of the telephone directories in the post office have been burned and are hanging “charred from their chains.” Later, in an empty restaurant with an angry waiter, he muses that there’s truly nothing to do in Hammerfest to pass the time “other than set telephone books alight, insult the waiter, and weep.”

Fans of travel writing should read this, but if you are disturbed by inappropriate jokes about animals, contact me and I’ll tell you precisely which pages to skip.

I have a certain weakness for tacky memorabilia…I thought I might find some suitably tasteless compensation here—crucifix corn-on-the-cob holders or a Nativity pen-and-pencil set or a musical last Supper toilet paper holder… But all the shops sold a more or less identical assortment of rosary beads and Pope John Paul dinner plates, none of them in remotely bad taste…

On my final morning I called at the Capuchin monks’ mausoleum. This I cannot recommend highly enough. In the sixteenth century some monk had the inspired idea of taking the bones of his deceased fellow monks and using them to decorate the place. Is that rich enough for you? Half a dozen gloomy chambers along one side of the church were filled with such attractions as an alter made of rib cages, shrines meticulously concocted from skulls and leg bones, ceilings trimmed with forearms, wall rosettes fashioned from vertebrae, chandeliers made from the bones of hands and feet. In the occasional corner stood the complete skeleton of a Capuchin monk dressed like the Grim Reaper in his hooded robe, and ranged along the outer wall were signs in six languages with such cheery sentiments as “We Were Like You. You Will Be Like Us.” And a long poem engagingly called “My Mother Killed Me!!” These guys must have been a barrel of laughs to be around.

A constant stream of tourists comes in, happy to hand over a stack of lire for the morbid thrill of it all. My only regret, predictably, was that they didn’t have a gift shop where you could purchase a boxed set of vertebrae napkin rings, say, or backscratchers made from real arms and hands, but it was becoming obvious that in this respect I was to be thwarted.

Reviewed by Donna Long