Today many people travel: tourists looking for fun, immigrants looking for jobs, refugees looking for peace, merchants looking for business. This is not new. What is new are the numbers. In 1961, one million people visited the Louvre; this year it was almost eight million. Writing about one’s travels is an ancient genre too. We all know about Marco Polo and some know about Arab travellers such as Ibn Battuta (1304–68).
In the 18th century, the typical traveller was a gentleman who wrote to inform other gentlemen (and ladies) of what he had seen. Major writers contributed to the genre: Goethe and Stendhal in Italy, Théophile Gautier in Italy and Spain, Dickens in Italy and America, Flaubert in Egypt. Fanny Trollope (1779–1863), for example, set sail for America in 1827, children in tow (including her son Anthony, of later fame). Her Domestic Manners of the Americans was a sensation in Europe (and, in a different way, in the USA). The tone was forthright and the sentiments high-minded, and the book confirmed British superiority. Of the Americans, she wrote: ‘The total want of all the usual courtesies of the table, the voracious rapidity with which the viands were seized and devoured, the strange uncouth phrases and pronunciation … I very seldom during my whole stay … heard a sentence elegantly turned, and correctly pronounced from the lips of an American.’ She concluded with a peremptory: ‘I do not like them. I do not like their principles, I do not like their manners, I do not like their opinions.’ The book was a runaway success.
This is unlikely to be the fate of Norman Davies’s Beneath Another Sky. The author is a distinguished historian of Poland and of the vanished countries of Europe. Having retired (in so far as historians ever retire), he decided to go round the world and look at it through