No. 15: “Europe, Europe” by Hans Magnus Enzensberger
Travel Blog • Frank Bures • 05.17.06 | 5:50 PM ET
To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Territory covered: Sweden, Italy, Hungary, Portugal, Poland, Spain, Germany, Holland, Finland, Romania
Once upon a time, Europe was fascinating. There was much more to the continent than the endless pension and immigration debates we hear so much about today. In Europe, Europe: Forays into a Continent, Hans Magnus Enzensberger captured some of that old fascinating place. His book is filled with the rich, complicated, maddening, exhilarating patchwork of cultures that have mixed and clashed on the continent for thousands of years. Visiting just before the fall of communism, Enzensberger was concerned with politics, but mainly as a window into culture. He explored and skewered national character without reverting to stereotypes. In fact, he investigated stereotypes, turned them inside out, and made them at once amusing and insightful. Enzensberger has a gift for this, and for identifying minutiae that make even the most boring country in the world (Sweden) riveting. “Europe, Europe” is one of the few books written about the continent before the fall of communism that remains as relevant, vibrant and hilarious as when it was first published. What’s more, it’s one of the best travel books written about Europe in any era.
Outtake from “Europe, Europe” (about Sweden):
However, I picked up a glass of port, and while the last guests were buttoning up their coats, I fell deep into thought. I probably stayed too long. The longer I thought about the evening, the more exotic this Northern country seemed to me. Everything I’d heard during the election campaign suggested that I had arrived in the kingdom of reason and good sense, of solidarity and consideration. I had been able to observe a noble contest in which all the contestants were racking their brains about just one thing: how to help the unemployed and the disabled, the pensioners and the needy. No one appealed to the lower, selfish instincts that obsessed other societies. When I thought of my own country, the Federal Republic of Germany, I experienced an ugly feeling of envy. My compatriots seemed like a horde of egoists and delinquents surrendering themselves to extravagance, ostentation and aggression.
—Frank Bures is the books editor of World Hum.