Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe

All the light switches in the hallways were timed to go off after ten or fifteen seconds, presumably as an economy measure. This wasn’t so bad if your room was next to the elevator, but if it was very far down the hall, and hotel hallways in Paris tend to wander around like an old man with Alzheimer’s, you would generally proceed the last furlong in total blackness, feeling your way along the walls with flattened palms, and invariably colliding scrotally with the corner of a nineteenth-century oak table put there, evidently, for that purpose.

and let's face it, the French Army couldn't beat a girls hockey team

began to feel that queasy guilt that you can only know if you have lived among the English—a terrible suspicion that any pleasure involving more than a cup of milky tea and a chocolate digestive biscuit is somehow irreligiously excessive.

Bulgaria, I reflected as I walked back to the hotel, isn’t a country; it’s a near-death experience.

But that's the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I don't want to know what people are talking about. I can't think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can't read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can't even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.

I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.

I don’t know why religious zealots have this compulsion to try to convert everyone who passes before them – I don’t go around trying to make them into St Louis Cardinals fans, for Christ’s sake – and yet they never fail to try.
Nowadays when accosted I explain to them that anyone wearing white socks with Hush Puppies and a badge saying HI! I’M GUS! probably couldn’t talk me into getting out of a burning car, much less into making a lifelong commitment to a deity, and ask them to send someone more intelligent and with a better dress sense next time, but back then I was too meek to do anything but listen politely and utter non-committal ‘Hmmmm’s’ to their suggestions that Jesus could turn my life around. Somewhere over the Atlantic, as I was sitting taking stock of my 200 cubic centimetres of personal space, as one does on a long plane flight, I spied a coin under the seat in front of me, and with protracted difficulty leaned forward and snagged it. When I sat up, I saw my seatmate was at last looking at me with that ominous glow.
‘Have you found Jesus?’ he said suddenly.
‘Uh, no, it’s a quarter,’ I answered and quickly settled down and pretended for the next six hours to be asleep, ignoring his whispered entreaties to let Christ build a bunkhouse in my heart.

I had a hangover you could sell to science,

I hate asking directions. I am always afraid that the person I approach will step back and say, ‘You want to go where? The centre of Brussels? Boy, are you lost. This is Lille, you dumb shit,’ then stop other passers-by and say, ‘You wanna hear something classic? Buddy, tell these people where you think you are,’ and that I’ll have to push my way through a crowd of people who are falling about and wiping tears of mirth from their eyes. So I trudged on.

I sat on a toilet watching the water run thinking what an odd thing tourism is. You fly off to a strange land, eagerly abandoning all the comforts of home and then expend vast quantities of time and money in a largely futile effort to recapture the comforts you wouldn’t have lost if you hadn’t left home in the first place.

Isn´t it strange how wealth is always wasted on the rich?

I soon learned that everyone in Paris was like that. You would go into a bakery and be greeted by some vast sluglike creature with a look that told you you would never be friends. In halting French you would ask for a small loaf of bread. The woman would give you a long, cold stare and then put a dead beaver on the counter. “No, no,” you would say, hands aflutter, “not a dead beaver. A loaf of bread.” The sluglike creature would stare at you in patent disbelief, then turn to the other customers and address them in French at much too high a speed for you to follow, but the drift of which clearly was that this person here, this American tourist, had come in and asked for a dead beaver and she had given him a dead beaver and now he was saying that he didn’t want a dead beaver at all, he wanted a loaf of bread. The other customers would look at you as if you had just tried to fart in their handbags, and you would have no choice but to slink away and console yourself with the thought that in another four days you would be in Brussels and probably able to eat again.

Is that dog shit on the bottom of your shoe?’
I sat up a fraction. ‘What?’
‘Is that dog shit on the bottom of your shoe?’
‘I don’t know, the lab report’s not back yet,’ I replied drily.
‘I’m serious, is that dog shit?’
‘How should I know?’
Katz leaned far enough forward to give it a good look and a cautious sniff. ‘It is dog shit,’ he announced with an odd tone of satisfaction.
‘Well, keep quiet about it or everybody’ll want some.’
‘Go and clean it off, will ya? It’s making me nauseous.’
And here the bickering started, in intense little whispers.
‘You go and clean it off.’
‘It’s your shoes.’
‘Well, I kind of like it. Besides, it kills the smell of this guy next to me.’
‘Well, it’s making me nauseous.’
‘Well, I don’t give a shit.’
‘Well, I think you’re a fuck-head.’
‘Oh, you do, do you?’
‘Yes, as a matter of fact. You’ve been a fuck-head since Austria.’
‘Well, you’ve been a fuck-head since birth.’
‘Me?’ A wounded look. ‘That’s rich. You were a fuck-head in the womb, Bryson. You’ve got three kinds of chromosomes: X, Y and fuck-head.

Is there anything, apart from a really good chocolate cream pie and receiving a large unexpected cheque in the post, to beat finding yourself at large in a foreign city on a fair spring evening, loafing along unfamiliar streets in the long shadows of a lazy sunset, pausing to gaze in shop windows or at some church or lovely square or tranquil stretch of quayside, hesitating at street corners to decide whether that cheerful and homy restaurant you will remember fondly for years is likely to lie down this street or that one? I just love it. I could spend my life arriving each evening in a new city.

Italians are entirely without any commitment to order. They live their lives in a kind of pandemonium, which I find very attractive.

I took a big draft of my beer, warmed by my reminiscences, and quietly delighted at the thought that my schooldays were forever behind me, that never again for as long as I lived would I have to bevel an edge or elucidate the principles of the Volstead Act in not less than 250 words or give even a mouse-sized shit about which far-flung countries produce jute and what they do with it. It is a thought that never fails to cheer me. In

I took off my boot and sock and examined my ankle, expecting—and indeed, in that perverse manner of the injured male, rather hoping—to find some splintered bone straining at the skin like a tent pole, making everyone who saw it queasy. But the ankle was just faintly bluish and tender and very slightly swollen, and I realized that once more in my life I had merely achieved acute pain and not the sort of grotesque injury that would lead to a mercy flight by helicopter and a fussing-over by young nurses in erotically starched uniforms.

Much as I hate to stand out in a crowd, I have this terrible occasional compulsion to make myself a source of merriment for the world, and I had come close to sealing new heights with a Russian hat. Now, clearly, that would be unnecessary.

Noting the lack of crime or security in the Netherlands, the author asked a native who guarded a national landmark. He got the replay, "We all do.

On the morning of our second day, we were strolling down the Champs-Elysées when a bird shit on his head. ‘Did you know a bird’s shit on your head?’ I asked a block or two later.
Instinctively Katz put a hand to his head, looked at it in horror – he was always something of a sissy where excrement was concerned; I once saw him running through Greenwood Park in Des Moines like the figure in Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ just because he had inadvertently probed some dog shit with the tip of his finger – and with only a mumbled ‘Wait here’ walked with ramrod stiffness in the direction of our hotel. When he reappeared twenty minutes later he smelled overpoweringly of Brut aftershave and his hair was plastered down like a third-rate Spanish gigolo’s, but he appeared to have regained his composure. ‘I’m ready now,’ he announced.
Almost immediately another bird shit on his head. Only this time it really shit. I don’t want to get too graphic, in case you’re snacking or anything, but if you can imagine a pot of yoghurt upended onto his scalp, I think you’ll get the picture. ‘Gosh, Steve, that was one sick bird,’ I observed helpfully.
Katz was literally speechless. Without a word he turned and walked stiffly back to the hotel, ignoring the turning heads of passers-by. He was gone for nearly an hour. When at last he returned, he was wearing a windcheater with the hood up. ‘Just don’t say a word,’ he warned me and strode past. He never really warmed to Paris after that.

Rome was as wonderful as I had hoped it would be, certainly a step up from Peoria.

She would only make me take my seat if I didn't act calm and Swiss about it all.

the only English-language publication on offer was the weekend edition of USA Today, a publication that always puts me in mind of a newspaper we used to get in grade school called My Weekly Reader. I am amazed enough that they can find buyers for USA Today in the U.S.A., but the possibility that anyone would ever present himself at the station kiosk in Buchs, Switzerland, and ask for it seemed to me to set a serious challenge to the laws of probability.

There is something about the momentum of travel that makes you want to just keep moving, to never stop.

This was 1990 the year that communism died in Europe and it seemed strange to me that in all the words that were written about the fall of the iron curtain, nobody anywhere lamented that it was the end of a noble experiment. I know that communism never worked and I would have disliked living under it myself but none the less it seems that there was a kind of sadness in the thought that the only economic system that appeared to work was one based on self interest and greed.

To my mind, the only possible pet is a cow. Cows love you. They are harmless, they look nice, they don’t need a box to crap in, they keep the grass down, and they are so trusting and stupid that you can’t help but lose your heart to them. Where I live in Yorkshire, there’s a herd of cows down the lane. You can stand by the wall at any hour of the day or night, and after a minute the cows will all waddle over and stand with you, much too stupid to know what to do next, but happy just to be with you. They will stand there all day, as far as I can tell, possibly till the end of time. They will listen to your problems and never ask a thing in return. They will be your friends forever. And when you get tired of them, you can kill them and eat them. Perfect. Durbuy

Traveling is more fun-- hell, life is more fun--if you can treat it as a series of impulses.

wanted to be puzzled and charmed, to experience the endless, beguiling variety of a continent where you can board a train and an hour later be somewhere where the inhabitants speak a different language, eat different foods, work different hours, live lives that are at once so different and yet so oddly similar. I wanted to be a tourist. But

What is it about maps? I could look at them all day, earnestly studying the names of towns and villages I have never heard of and will never visit...

When at last a cab arrived and pulled up directly in front of me, I was astonished to discover that seventeen grown men and women believed they had a perfect right to try to get in ahead of me. A middle-aged man in a cashmere coat who was obviously wealthy and well-educated actually laid hands on me. I maintained possession by making a series of aggrieved Gallic honking noises—“Mais, non! Mais, non!”—and using my bulk to block the door. I leaped in, resisting the chance to catch the pushy man’s tie in the door and let him trot along with us to the Gare du Nord, and told the driver to get me the hell out of there. He looked at me as if I were a large, imperfectly formed turd, and with a disgusted sigh engaged first gear.