My first Bill Bryson book, which lead to all the others. Recently reread it on a holiday – it is holding up pretty good, though parts of Europe have moved on a bit in 25 years (the lifting of the Berlin wall and the wars in Yugoslavia have yet to happen, for instance.) Highly recommended when you need to relax and laugh a bit.
Here is a taste of Bryson’s reflective and comical style:
There is this curiously durable myth that the European trains are wonderfully swift and smooth and a dream to travel on. The trains in Europe are in fact often tediously slow and for the most part the railways persist in the antiquated system of dividing the carriages into compartments. I used to think this was rather jolly and friendly, but you soon discover that it is like spending seven hours in a waiting-room waiting for a doctor who never arrives. You are forced into an awkward intimacy with strangers, which I always find unsettling. If you do anything at all – take something from your pocket, stifle a yawn, rummage in your rucksack – everyone looks over to see what you’re up to. There is no scope for privacy and of course there is nothing like being trapped in a train compartment on a long journey to bring all those unassuageable little frailties of the human body crowding to the front of your mind – the withheld fart, the three and a half square yards of boxer short that have somehow become concertinaed between your buttocks, the Kellogg’s cornflake that is teasingly and unaccountably lodged deep in your left nostril. It was the cornflake that I ached to get at. The itch was all-consuming. I longed to thrust a finger so far up my nose that it would look as if I were scratching the top of my head from the inside, but of course I was as powerless to deal with it as a man with no arms.
You even have to watch your thoughts. For no reason I can explain, except perhaps that I was inordinately preoccupied with bodily matters, I began to think of a sub-editor I used to work with on the business section of The Times. I shall call him Edward, since that was his name. Edward was crazy as fuck, which in those palmy pre-Murdoch days was no impediment to employment, or even promotion to higher office, on the paper, and he had a number of striking peculiarities, but the one I particularly remember was that late at night, after the New York market had shut and there was nothing much to do, he would straighten out half a dozen paper clips and probe his ears with them. And I don’t mean delicate little scratchings. He would really jam those paper clips home and then twirl them between two fingers, as if tuning in a radio station. It looked excruciating, but Edward seemed to derive immense satisfaction from it. Sometimes his eyes would roll up into his head and he would make ecstatic little gurgling noises. I suppose he thought no one was watching, but we all sat there fascinated. Once, during a particularly intensive session, when the paper clip went deeper and deeper and looked as if it might be stuck, John Price, the chief sub-editor, called out, “Would it help, Edward, if one of us pulled from the other side?”
I thought of this as we went tracketa-tracketa across the endless Austrian countryside and I laughed out loud – a sudden lunatic guffaw that startled me as much as my three companions. I covered my mouth with my hand, but more laughter – embarrassed, helpless – came leaking out. The other passengers looked at me as if I had just been sick down my shirt. It was only by staring out of the window and concentrating very hard for twenty minutes that I was able to compose myself and return once again to the more serious torments of the cornflake in my nostril.