New Europe by Michael Palin is the companion book to the TV-series of the same name which was filmed in 2006 and early 2007. As the name suggests, Palin visits those countries in what used to be called Eastern Europe, as they look increasingly to the west and inclusion within the European Union. Told with Palin's usual witty style, this is an enjoyable whirlwind tour that takes you through 20 countries that once were on the other side of the iron curtain.
Starting out in the Julian Alps on the border of Italy and Slovenia between what Palin has grown up knowing as the division between Western and Eastern Europe, Palin sets off to discover the countries who increasingly will hold greater sway over European affairs going forward.
Accompanied by his film crew, Palin's journey takes place over a split period of 22 weeks during a 12 month period, so as to mostly avoid the winter months. Had the journey taken place prior to 1990, Palin would've only needed to visit ten countries, but such has been the subsequent upheaval that instead his journey takes in some 20 countries. Written from diary notes taken during filming, the book presents itself in a contiguous fashion over the 123 days that he is on the road. As each day represents on average less than 3 pages, and each country roughly 15 pages, it doesn't, however, afford much time for Palin to provide an in-depth commentary or analysis.
Instead, we're left with a large number of initial impressions, and once over lightly history lessons which are intermingled with his interactions with the people with whom he meets. Of course, given the primary medium for expression being a major TV series, the majority of encounters he has with the locals are of course manufactured, rather than occurring by genuine circumstance. However, such is the strength of Palin's humour and storytelling, that this matters little to the overall quality of the offering.
Visiting such a large number of uniquely different countries ensures that there is a wide range of interesting encounters for both the book and TV series. Whether it is having conversations with transsexual gypsies in Bulgaria, watching belly dancers in Turkey or discussing important matters with Ukranian or Polish politicians, Palin serves up these offbeat experiences in an amusing, yet dignified manner.
Palin has put together quite a number of these types of TV series/book combos before, including Around the World in 80 Days, Himalaya, Full Circle and Pole to Pole. If you've actually seen any of these before, you will probably find yourself hearing Palin's very distinctive voice in your own mind when reading New Europe, which I found quite amusing. His considerable experience leads to New Europe having a slick and nicely manicured feel to it. This is PG-rated professional tourism travel literature, where the writing is extremely solid, even if slightly devoid of any genuine spontaneity. Yet, it's a real easy book to settle back in the sofa with while slipping off your slippers and a supping on a good cup of tea in the knowledge that you will be well entertained.
3.5 stars out of 5
Credit: Banner photo by Marcus Saul