Neither Here nor There

Bill Bryson

Neither Here Nor There.

“In winter, Hammerfest is a thirty-hour ride by bus from Oslo, though why anyone would want to go there in winter is a question worth considering. It is on the edge of the world, the northern-most town in Europe, as far from London as London is from Tunis, a place of dark and brutal winters, where the sun sinks into the Arctic Ocean in November and does not rise again for ten weeks.

I wanted to see the Northern Lights. Also, I had long harbored a half-formed urge to experience what life was like in such a remote and forbidding place. Sitting at home in England with a glass of whiskey and a book of maps, this had seemed a capital idea. But now as I picked my way through the gray late December slush of Oslo, I was beginning to have my doubts.”

Thus opens one of the earlier works by the ever-restless Bill Bryson (who, I am bound to say, is one of our favorite authors). Titled Neither Here nor There, it treats of a journey through Europe that Bryson took in the early 1990s, during which he visited places well-known and remote. Consider the following passage from his stay in Liechtenstein:

“Everything about Liechtenstein is ridiculous. For a start it is ridiculously small – barely 1/250th the size of Switzerland, which is itself ridiculously small. Liechtenstein is the last remaining fragment of the Holy Roman Empire, and so obscure that its ruling family didn't bother to come and see it for 150 years. It has two political parties, popularly known as the Reds and the Blacks, which have so few ideological differences that they share a motto: “Faith in God, Prince, and Fatherland.” Liechtenstein's last military engagement was in 1866, when it sent eighty men to fight against the Italians. Nobody was killed. In fact – you're going to like this – they came back with 81 me, because they had made a friend on the way. Two years later, realizing that the Liechtensteiners could beat no one, the crown prince disbanded the army.

Liechtenstein is the world's largest producer of sausage casings and false teeth. It is a notorious tax haven, the only country in the world with more registered companies than people (though most of these companies exist only as pieces of paper in someone's desk). It was the last country in Europe to give women suffrage (in 1984). Its single prison is so small that prisoners' meals are sent over from a nearby restaurant. To acquire citizenship, a referendum must be held in the applicant's village and, if it passes, the prime minister and his cabinet must then vote on it. But this never happens, and hundreds of families who have lived in Liechtenstein for generations are still treated as foreigners.”

For armchair and seasoned travelers alike, Neither Here nor There gives a trenchant and always amusing tourist's eye-view of some countries whose culture and history are part of our common heritage. Be sure to read all about it!

Copyright © 2005, S. Halversen.
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