Michael Palin’s New Europe

I love travelogues. Not only can travel enable you to see the world, but the act of traveling itself can open your eyes to the world at its best. Done well, a travel documentary can take you on that same journey, open a window into a world past and present, and provide comfort and inspiration to those of us stuck at home. Over the next few months, I’ll be sharing some of my favorites. This is Travelogia.

Journey Time: various points, 2007

Countries Visited: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia, Albania, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Moldova1, Romania, Hungary, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia2, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Germany.

Yikes.

New Europe is an uncomfortable watch. If Pole to Pole captured Europe (and Africa) at a joyful moment of revolution and hope, than Palin’s jaunt across the former Eastern Bloc, as well as Turkey and the former Yugoslavia, is an embarrassing artifact of the “End of History” hubris wrought by that great shake-up, a glorified love letter to an ever-closer and ever-expanding European Union. Come and marvel at the glories of such free, forward-looking, and territorially-intact democracies as Hungary, Ukraine, and Turkey!

Okay, enough snark. Sure, New Europe today feels as off-the-mark as The Jetsons, but all travelogues are timepieces, right? Isn’t that part of the fun? Well, much like Palin’s previous adventure Himalaya, the destinations feel arbitrary and have little in common. Instead of any grand arc, countries get checked off one-by-one, and almost all of them seem caught in the middle of some story to which only the audience knows the end. It’s also strikingly dull: that same obligation to cover each of these states means that Palin and Passepartout frequently struggle to find destinations or social events which are both relevant and distinct from each other. Overall, it’s okay to skip.

Five Stars: The one episode of New Europe that’s unequivocally great– coherent, consistently engaging, and still optimistic twelve years later is the very first, in which Palin explores a rebuilt and revitalized Croatia, Bosnia, and Albania. It’s gorgeous, it’s poignant, Palin gets a lucky scoop with Albanian artist and future Prime Minister Edi Rama, and as with his best work, you’ll immediately want to go there. Ukraine is a bit interesting as well, at least in that he hangs out with Vadim Kastelli, the formerly young man from the train to Chernobyl in Pole to Pole, as well as Yulia Tymoshenko’s English heavy metal son-in-law.

One Star: Poland, I guess.

Next Time: Get your cross-country Beemers ready. It’s time go get back on the open road with Ewan and Charley in Long Way Down.

My own travelogue, An Armada of Cats: Travels in Israel will be available later this year via Amazon. You can read an excerpt here.