I grew up in the 80s and 90s (yes, I know I’m dating myself with that confession) and when I was young, visiting Europe meant a steady roster of familiar names – England, Italy, France, maybe even if you were a little adventurous, Spain. Although Iron Curtain fell in the late 80s and many former Soviet Bloc countries slowly began opening their borders to visitors, it hasn’t really been until very recently (maybe the last 5 years) that Central and Eastern Europe have moved high on the tourist’s wish list. What this really means is that for a travel addict (I just learned that the word for that is dromomaniac) like myself, there are now suddenly many many fascinating and ‘new’ countries to visit. And happily, for the footloose like myself, Michael Palin (of Monty Python fame, for those who are fans) sets out to do just that – visit New Europe.
Over the course of twenty two weeks, Palin travels across New Europe, spending time with the locals, eating their food, visiting their homes, understanding their traditions, and always, asking the important question – what’s changed since the fall of communism. His travels across the continent – and extended to Turkey which is not quite (or yet) Europe – paint a brief, but fascinating picture of diverse cultures in deep transition.
Written a few years ago, almost without fail, the people he speaks to sound hopeful of joining the European Union, and improving their lives thereby – an interesting note in these times of uncertainty for the EU.
Palin is a somewhat different travel writer from say Bryson or Dalrymple. Dalrymple comes across as the whimsical observer, and Bryson likes to portray himself as the bumbling visitor, but Palin tends to be more of the privileged outsider. Because of his fame, and of course the fact that he is filming his travels for a TV show, he is often allowed access to people and places you and I might not have. Of course, this makes for some great insights, but I think, to some extent, it also makes him more politically correct than those other two authors – he’s very cognizant that he’s there at their invitation.
Having said that, Palin has a keen sense of the bizarre and ridiculous. Very early on in the book, there’s a brilliant description of an omlette making ceremony in Croatia – an attempt to make the world’s largest truffle omlette:
“Crowds gather as night falls. Zigante, brow shining in the harsh strip light, fusses about, nervous in a suit and tie, whilst his team , in matching white T-shirts, fans out around the pan like Formula One mechanics at a pit stop, each clutching a large bottle of cooking oil….
Croatian TV and film stars step modestly forward to help stir the mix, and just when you thought it couldn’t get any sillier, four musicians and a singer, in blue and white striped T-shirts and red-bobbled night caps, leap into the ring to play jolly omlette-making music.“
This book will be great reading for anyone interested in travel, the erstwhile Soviet Bloc and the emergence of new national identifies or even the effects of Communism. If I have one criticism of it, it’s that is occasionally feels superficial – Palin rarely spends more than 2 days in a location so I sometimes felt like I wasn’t getting enough ‘meat’ on certain locations. That said, I guess it’s an expected failing for a book that attempts to cover so many diverse cities and cultures in 300 pages. Perhaps the only way to really know enough about those cities then is to visit them!
Maya always has three books going at the same time - a different book for every mood. She loves exploring new authors, but every now and then she sinks back into the comfort of old favourites like murder mysteries and Regency romances. A corporate butterfly, Maya lives and works in Bangalore, India.
Latest posts by Maya Chandrasekaran (see all)
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