The book, not the TV series.
In 2006, professional traveler Michael Palin visited all the countries of Eastern Europe, plus Turkey, and made a show and wrote a book about it. New Europe. Most of these countries wouldn’t like to be called “Eastern Europe”, not to mention “New Europe”. Palin’s journey is seen from the perspective of the UK, his own land. It’s more accurate to say that he visited the Baltics, Central Europe, the eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans and Turkey, but that is such a mouthful.
Now, in 2016, his book is already in danger of being dated. Back in ’06, it wasn’t so long after countries like Romania and Bulgaria had joined the European Union or were about to, and most of those countries saw their future in the EU. Also, the country Montenegro is missing from his map. But now, we have had the economic crisis and internal crises in the EU, Turkey is changing fast, Ukraine is in a civil war and the Balkans are struggling with large numbers of migrants. New Europe, the book, is essentially a vision of the spirit of the borderlands between the EU and Russia snuggling up and reuniting with Western Europe in an exciting new love affair.
In the last 6 years, I have done the same journey (well, most of it).
Eastern Europe is an extremely interesting and diverse region, with many cultures, beautiful cities, beautiful nature and cheap beer. History can also be sluggish in these parts. I’ve travelled to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Poland, East Germany, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Turkey, Slovenia and Croatia, and I wonder whether Palin’s impressions were the same as mine.
Palin’s writing style is very easy to read. He lays everything out in easy sentences and is frequently funny. You truly brush through his short chapters. One does get the feeling that Palin hardly spends any time in each country. For places like Slovenia, he visits two or three locations, has a chat with one or two people, tips his hat and moves on to the next country. Of course, how can we expect otherwise? For a journey through about 20 countries and taking three months, he only has so many pages for each country.
Still, Palin restricts himself to the “easier” destinations and doesn’t enter the adventure as he would have done in the past. In Serbia for example, he only spends two days in Belgrade before moving on to Hungary, and he skips Belarus entirely.
Palin takes only little space to describe a general sense of identity and character for each country. It is a shame, because while his conversations and observations are generally interesting and humorous, they feel like just that: a string of events that are not related much. There is no strong theme tying his journey together, except him asking about the old days of communism again and again. Compare this with the shows of Anthony Bourdain and you’ll notice that Bourdain tries harder to dig under the skin of places.
What’s also missing is any real sense of plan or theme behind his journey. He just arrives at places and has a conversation, but he doesn’t explain why he went there or why he chose to arrange his journey this way. In Bulgaria for example, he visits a congregation of some kind of cult in the mountains, but why? Had he planned this in advance? How does this tie in with the rest of the journey? In Estonia, instead of exploring the great city Tallinn, he does a leech therapy. Why? Some of his activities have hardly anything to do with his destinations, but he skips interesting stuff for it.
Overall, New Europe is amusing and a quick read, but too superficial and behind the times already. It has instead become an impression of a moment in time. I’d rather recommend the travel books by Bill Bryson instead.