Friday, September 12, 2008

New Europe

New Europe
Author: Michael Palin
Phoenix (UK) 2007
306 pages

Depending on your age and interests, you might know Michael Palin as a comedian (he was a member of the British Monty Python comedy group, and appeared in some of their more famous bits such as the Lumberjack and Spam) or the host of a number of travel documentaries, like Pole to Pole or Hemingway or Sahara. Or maybe you think he's the guy married to a certain Alaskan hockey mom (he's not.) Or maybe you don't know him at all. You should.

This book was given to me by a friend in Vienna just before I left to come back to the States. I wanted a book for the flight home and had several to choose from, including some good fiction. But I chose this one because it seemed appropriate, since I was leaving Europe. 

What a read! First off, Palin is an excellent writer (assuming he, not a ghostwriter, actually wrote the book.) The content supposedly comes from notes he took while filming the documentary of the same name (now available on DVD). By New Europe we're talking mostly about Eastern Europe - specifically that part of Europe which was behind the "Iron Curtain" until the early 1990s. So this book covers the trip that Palin and the documentary crew made through these countries: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Serbia, Hungary, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Kaliningrad (Russia), Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and the former East Germany. (And I know that Turkey wasn't behind the Iron Curtain and that's why I emphasized mostly above.)

Of these countries, I have only been to the Czech Republic. Except for the time I walked about a quarter or a mile into Hungary from Austria. And I'm not counting Germany because I've only been to the part that used to be West Germany.  So really, for me, this was new territory.

When I was in Austria, there were lots of TV commercials promoting tourism of some of these places, especially Albania, Macedonia, and Turkey. Regarding the first two, I'm still not convinced even after reading this book that I would want to go there. But Turkey is high on my list. Palin spends quite a bit of time lingering in Turkey, and there are a couple of reasons for that. First, Turkey really wants to be a part of the European Union, although only a small part of that country is (geographically speaking) in Europe. Secondly, there's lots to see in Turkey. From the beautiful city of Istanbul with its incredible Ottoman architecture and the scenic Bosphorus, to Cappadocia with its amazingly strange land formations, to historical places like Ephesus (as in the book of Ephesians in the Bible). Sounds to me like Turkey's got it going on.

Other places I'd like to visit, especially after reading this book, are Slovenia (specifically Bled), Croatia (especially the cities of Split and Dubrovnik), the mountains of Romania, and the cities of Budapest (Hungary) and Krakov (Poland).

Of course, Palin has some interesting adventures along the way, like the time he meets up with the White Brotherhood (a very large group of spiritualist paneurythmic dancers) at a camp site in Bulgaria , and visiting Bran Castle in Romania (where writer Bram Stoker got the idea for the Dracula character - no, Dracula wasn't real.) There are plenty of humorous situations, too. Like watching the Turkish oil wrestlers. Or having the massage in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic by a female massage therapist who told him she was going to "control his liver."

You just have to read it. Or maybe see the DVD.

Palin set out to discover this strange "new" old land and to see how the people who once lived behind the Iron Curtain are faring now as players in New Europe. Some, like Slovenia and the Czech Republic, are doing exceptionally well. Others are having a hard time making the transition from communism to capitalism. But all are unique and interesting in their own way.

Rating 4.5 stars.