Star Rating: **
First published in 1991
After years of others raving about Bill Bryson and his novels I took the plunge and added a couple of his titles to my Christmas List. To say I am a little disappointed is probably an understatement. Other than his occasional comic interludes, the frequent references to sexual thoughts and preconceived, stereotypical ideas of different nationalities really didn’t appeal to me.
Retracing his steps, Bill Bryson reminiscences over his college backpacking days of 20 years ago. We hear about the hilarious incidents and the trial and tribulations of Bill and his friend Katz; how they bickered their way around Europe, falling in love with some countries, hating others. What needs to be remembered is that this novel was written in 1991 and therefore some of the stories are now over 40 years old and perhaps hold inaccuracies relating to the countries visited.
If you were to follow Bill Bryson’s recommendations Bruges, Aachen, Haarlem near Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Rome, Capri and what was Yugoslavia would be the only stops on a European tour. He very quickly dismisses countries and cities often based on previous experiences or the way people come across during his visit. Now, normally I would agree that if people appear hostile then being positive would be difficult however, when he mentions at the beginning of his novel that he doesn’t speak any words in another language and therefore needs people to speak to him in English straightaway I hold a small dislike for him. He then goes on to highlight when a particular nationality has lived up to all of his stereotypical expectations of them potentially forgetting to mention that as an American he may come across as brash and slightly overwhelming or, after living in the UK for so long, may appear pompous and have an air of superiority about him – I know that these are also stereotypes and for everyone now reading this post you may feel that I have been somewhat hasty with my description but I am trying to get a point across.
This is not a book you could pick up and read in order to make a decision about where to visit. If that is the case you will never experience the historical delights of Florence or the arty, relaxed areas of Paris. Istanbul would be all but a city far away that is full of dirty side streets rather than a Turkish city full of wealth and iconic landmarks dating from an era when it was better known as Constantinople.
He describes Amsterdam as dirty; a city full of litter and dog poo, seedy side streets where certain women parade their skills and hippies smoke copious amounts of dope. I don’t know what is worse, the fact that this does help to cement my worst fears of a city I have yet to visit or that it is a city that, other than the litter, Bill Bryson actually likes to visit. Copenhagen makes the list because of the fact that when he travelled there back in 1973 blonde females would bathe naked during their lunch breaks in the local parks. Maybe this helps to highlight our different travel requirements.
The only thing that truly saves this book is the author’s natural ability to describe, in a comic manner, the situations that he and Katz, his backpacking co-pilot, find themselves in. I did find myself laughing out loud – which is unusual – when reading about the unrelenting pooing pigeons in Paris or the need to run away from a pack of Austrians, fearing for their lives.
I feel that some people reading this book will find it hilarious with every turn of the page, others will only ever feel offended. It is not a book to add to your travel reading list in order to find out about the true nature of Europe but, if read as a semi-biographical novel you may enjoy it.