Raleigh, N.C. — Years and years ago when I managed my first steps at the early age of 10 months (thank you very kindly) I had no idea where they would take me. Here’s how it’s played out over seven decades—from toddle, to walk, to jog, to run, back to jog, to walk, to two hip replacements that whipsawed me back to a limp-like toddle.
That’s the physical history of my perambulation and I miss the walking years more than yes, even Bill Bryson, knows. I’m not motoring around in the four wheeled Rascal of cable infomercial fame yet but I’m kicking the tires and so it’s my habit today to perch on my sun deck reading Bryson’s walkabout/travel books with an addiction that would make any cocktail psychologist worth their fourth drink slur the word vicarious.
For those who loved Bryson’s A WALK IN THE WOODS, well think of me as his stationary beer sipping, page turning Katz. The man takes me on walks that are so incredibly satisfying, entertaining, educational, and downright laugh-out-loud funny that frankly these jaunts have eased the pain of this once-upon-a-time perambulator.
In that walk in the woods we climbed along the Appalachian Trail. The two of us have ambled across Britain (Notes From A Small Island and The Road To Little Dribbling), sauntered around Europe (Neither Here Nor There), hiked the outback of Australia (In A Sunburned Country) and strode manfully through Africa (Bill Bryson’s African Diary).
The man’s a marvel—curious, witty, insightful, educational and observant with a walking stick in hand that never misses an opportunity to poke deserving targets that we can relate to— regardless in what far off land he hits these bulls’ eyes. Bryson misses nothing—people, politics, weather, history, culture, architecture, art, museums, maps, language, transit, tourists, restaurants, food, waiters, weather (it rains a lot in Europe), pickpockets, prostitutes, pubs, pigeons, and hotels. Oh, all the while painting poetic word pictures of the landscape he’s crossing that make me want to climb off that deck of mine and well, take a hike!
Here’s a Bryson stroll we took through Copenhagen: “I walked along Nyhavn, a three-block-long street with a canal in the middle filled with all-master ships and lined with narrow, step-gabled seventeenth-and eighteenth-century houses, looking for all the world like a piece of Amsterdam gone astray. The neighborhood was in fact originally settled by Dutch sailors and remained the haunt of jolly tars until recent times. Even now it has a vaguely raffish air in parts—at tattoo parlors and one or two of the sort of dive bars through whose windows you expect to see Popeye and Bluto trading blows—but these are fading relics. For years, restaurateurs have been dragging Nyhavn almost forcibly up market, and most of the places now are yuppie bars and designer restaurants, but very agreeable places for all that, since Danes don’t seem to be the least bit embarrassed about living well, which is after all how it should be.
The whole length of Nyhavn was lined with outdoor tables, with young, blond, gorgeous people drinking, eating, and enjoying the unseasonably warm weather. I always wonder what they do with their old people in Copenhagen—they must put them in cellars or send them to Arizona—because everyone, without exception, is youthful, fresh-scrubbed, healthy, and immensely good-looking. You could cast a Pepsi commercial in Copenhagen in fifteen seconds. And they all look so happy.
Having just wobbled down the home stretch with Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There “Travels in Europe” I’ll offer up (below) a Bryson observational line or two from the countries and cites we traipsed and traveled through—Paris, Brussels, Belgium, Aachen and Cologne, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Gothenburg, Stockholm, Rome, Naples, Sorrento, Capri, Florence, Milan, Como, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Yugoslavia, Sofia, and Istanbul.
We began in Hammerfest where we (eventually) saw the Northern Lights (“. . . there appeared a translucent cloud of many colors—pinks and greens and blues and pale purple. It glimmered and seemed to swirl. Slowly it stretched across the sky. It had an oddly oily quality about it, like rainbows you sometimes see in a pool of petrol. I stood transfixed.”
So from North to South to our final steps along the streets of Istanbul, where after negotiating the squalor and the noise of the city (which he must do in so many European cities to find the gold his travels pan for) Bryson gives us a lovely description of the scenery from a vantage point that his one final European climb uncovered: “. . . the deep blue sky, the shining water, the white houses spilling across the burlap hills of Uskudar, two miles across the straight. Ferries plied doggedly across the Bosporus below me and on out to the distant Princes’ Islands, adrift in a bluish haze. Gulls reeled and swooped in their wake. It was beautiful beyond words, the perfect place to stop. I had come to the end of the road. That was Asia over there; this was as far as I could go in Europe.”
You’ll be the judges of course. Samplings of this sort, no matter how pithy or poignant never do a work justice, especially one like Neither Here Nor There. But when read in its entirety, the guess here is that this page turner from the past might just move you to grab that old walking stick of yours and hobble on down to your local travel office to book a flight on the Concorde.
We’ll close with some tips/insights from Bryson should you deboard in Europe. “The Brits ride in double Decker buses and don’t understand certain fundamentals of eating, as evidenced by their instinct to consume hamburgers with a knife and fork; Germans are flummoxed by humor; the Swiss have no concept of fun; the Spanish think nothing at all ridiculous about eating at midnight; and the Italians should never, ever have been let in on the invention of the motorcar. The French (still rude to Americans with a failed memory as to who bailed them out in WWII), it would seem, can’t get the hang of standing in line. As soon as the bus pulls up the line disintegrates into something like a fire drill at a lunatic asylum.”
Now, in closing, a few more Bryson gems:
“The Italians park the way I would if I had just spilled a beaker of hydrochloric acid in my lap.”
“The best that can be said for Norwegian television is that it gives you the sensation of a coma without the worry and inconvenience.”
“I’m all for McDonald’s in European cities, I truly am, but we should never forget that any company that chooses a half-witted clown named Ronald McDonald as its official public face cannot be relied on to exercise the best judgment in matters of corporate presentation. The people of McDonald’s need guidance. They need to be told that Europe is not Disneyland.”
“It should have been written in the armistice treaty that the Germans would be required to lay down their accordions with their arms.”
So should you be looking for a kick-start for your own walkabout—be it of the vicarious nature or actually putting those boots of yours into action—try Neither Here Nor There“Travels In Europe.” Ask your librarian, order through your independent bookseller, seeBryson’s website or try Amazon.com where you can buy it used for less than what Bill—reluctantly—tossed to Europe’s street people.
Bob Cairns runs the site "Page Turners from the Past," a website devoted to bringing readers reviews of older books that deserve a good dusting off! His reviews are featured once a month on WRAL.com.