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The United States Ambassador to Macedonia, Lawrence Butler, looked at me with his crystal blue eyes and said, "There's a lot we can learn from Eastern Europeans."
"Like what?" I asked him.
"First, there's the importance of family. Macedonians, for example, always come back to their family. They don't understand when Americans go to college thousands of miles away and then don't return to their homes after they graduate."
"Macedonians are no more than one generation away from the farm. They all have relatives that are in rural areas that they visit during the holidays, for instance. This keeps their connection with the land."
"Are there any downsides to these values?"
"Sure. For example, the labor markets aren't very liquid, because people are unwilling to move far from their family. This prolongs economic downturns. Also, I remember hearing about these two farmers who were unwilling to talk to each other because their GREAT-GRANDFATHERS had an argument."
"Yeah. Nevertheless, Eastern Europeans can teach us many lessons."
I had the good fortune of being invited to Ambassador's Butler's house for a gathering to promote Macedonia folk art. I was surprised by the lax security. They didn't check my bag for the grenades and uzi I was carrying. They didn't ask for my passport or notice the bazooka on my back.
Although Ambassador Butler was understandably busy, it didn't stop me from cornering him. (OK, so I had to knock down a few of his aides to get him, but it was worth it.)
But my conversation with him helped crystallize my plans...
My book on Eastern Europe
I intend to expand Ambassador Butler's thoughts on what we can learn from Eastern Europe by writing a book about it. It's tentatively titled, "What America Can Learn From Eastern Europe."
I'm sure by the time the editors are through with it, they'll modify the title slightly and call it, "What Eastern Europe Can Learn from America."
But that's what I'm calling it for now.
Wisdom from Romania
A Romanian plastic surgeon shared a wise saying from Nicolae Iorga, a historian who appears on the Romanian currency:
"One voyage is worth 10 libraries."
After receiving all my emails, you might feel like I've written enough to fill 10 libraries.
But Iorga had a point. I have learned quite a bit in the last five months of travel though 22 countries.
Eastern Europe's top 10
Visit Eastern Europe. It's an amazing region, comparable to Western Europe, and much cheaper too!
Here are my favorite spots:
1. Dalmation Coast in Croatia (Dubrovnik, Hvar, & Korcula)
2. Prague, Czech Republic
3. Krakow, Poland (with side trips to Salt Mines and Auschwitz)
4. Most of Romania
5. High Tatra Mountains in Slovakia
6. Baltic capitals (Vilnus, Riga, and Tallin)
7. Lviv (Lvov), Ukraine
8. Kotor Bay, Montenegro
9. Skocjan Caves, Slovenia
10. Budapest, Hungary
Most would put Budapest higher on the list. Lonely Planet has put it in the #1 spot for 4 years in a row. It is a great city. But I dislike the pollution and ever present cars. It's still worth checking out.
Lonely Planet has a clickable map that lets you poke into each country for details.
So you want more lists? Here you go....
1. Romania: Billed as a haven of thieves. The reality is that it's one of the best countries in Eastern Europe. Some of the best mountains and historical sights. Even the capital is like a little Paris. Super friendly people. Its Latin based language helps.
2. Montenegro: Supposed to be a war zone, but it's almost as nice as the Croatian Coast. Undiscovered.
3. Western Ukraine: Think this former communist country is a dump? Wrong. Go to western Ukraine and you'll find at least four splendid and mesmerizing cities. The people are wonderful too!
4. Warsaw: Many Poles told me not to go. It wasn't that great, but the old town was fantastic. Worth a stop if it's on the way.
Lake Ohrid: Listed in Lonely Planet's Top 10 Sites in Eastern Europe, it's on UNESCO's Heritage List, and is billed as the best lake in Eastern Europe. It probably IS the best lake in Eastern Europe, but when your competition is Lake Chernobyl that's not saying much.
Yes, Lake Ohrid is great, but just not THAT great. You should see it if you're around the area, but it's not worth a major detour.
Places to avoid
If you're one of those wimpy tourists who insist on having hot water, reliable electricity, and a low risk of being caught in a war zone, then there are a few places you might want to skip. Otherwise, every place I saw had something to offer and even the "dangerous" places are pretty tame.
The places with the least amount of traditional touristy places (e.g., Belarus and most of the Balkans) gave me some of my most fascinating cultural experiences. With few pretty things to look at, I discovered the people. This was usually tough because so few spoke English, but if you're persistent you'll find the 1 out of 100 who does.
The people from Belarus and the Balkans have lived through some extremely interesting times in the last few years. Listening to their rich (and frequently depressing) experiences makes the trip there worthwhile. And it sure feels good knowing that I'm beating the future mad rush of tourists to Kosovo.
Future of the Balkans
Check out the "Tension Index" on the upper right hand corner of this page.
You know the Balkans is not stable as long as they have such an index.
But I’m bullish about Croatia and Montenegro. Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast attracts hoards of tourists which will help fuel their rise. And for the first time, Montenegro didn’t fight along with the Serbs. They’ve adopted the Euro and have spectacular coastline they can leverage to generate massive tourist dollars.
But as for the other Balkan countries, their negativity is justified:
The future of the rest of the Eastern Europe
Except for a few regions in the Balkans, the future of Eastern Europe is bright. Although their average standard of living will lag behind Western Europe for at least 50 years, it's closing the gap. It's fun living in a place that keeps getting better. Nevertheless, some of the youth aren't interested in living through that process; others can't imagine it improving. They want out.
English = freedom
So many Eastern Europeans want the option of leaving their country, yet most don't do what it takes to make that happen. Most don't learn English (or any foreign language). If I dream of going to Germany, I would learn German no matter how much it tortures my ears.
I met so many people that (through translators) told me that they dream of going to America. If their friends could learn English, why didn't they? I know it's not easy, but I met plenty of people of humble means who pulled it off. Hell, even I learned enough Russian in just a couple of weeks that I could communicate for more than an hour with Ukrainians who spoke zero English. OK, so I used lots of hand signals, an ad-hoc form of Pictionary, and only had a 37% comprehension rate, but still...
The customer service gap
It was surprising to see the friendly smiles when I returned to the United States. Eastern Europeans criticize Americans of being fake. Yeah? Well I don't care. I love those fake smiles and phony cheerful greetings.
Besides, it sure beats the alternative, which is what I got in most of Eastern Europe's establishments: a scowl with an occasional grunt.
I still remember when a Bulgarian waitress told me that I should probably go have dinner somewhere else because the kitchen was "very busy." Only 30% of the seats were taken.
Many times in Eastern Europe I had to practically beg people to take my money in exchange for a service. It's all part of a massive communist hangover. But it's getting better. For example, I'll never forget the Moldovan border guard who actually smiled at me. I was so surprised that I wanted to kiss her! (And no, she wasn't hot.)
People don't yell at me anymore
Now that I'm back in the US, people talk to me in a normal voice. When Eastern Europeans were unable to communicate with me they frequently resorted to screaming, thinking that it helps with my comprehension. Example:
Someone would say to me, "xxxx yyyy zzzz."
"I'm sorry I don't understand."
"XXXX YYYY ZZZZ!!!!!!!!!"
"Oh, OK, thanks for yelling. Now I understand completely."
The rude awakening
Within days of returning to America, I flew to Seattle for a shocking transition. Today I'm working for the richest homo sapien in the universe. OK, so there's about 3,143 levels of management between Bill Gates and I, but ultimately he is my boss.
I'm working on a business intelligence project. No, that's not an oxymoron. These Microsoft folks do know a little bit about business. Bill is, after all, a BILL-ionaire.
"If you can count your money, you don't have a billion dollars." - John Paul Getty
So what am I really doing at Microsoft? I'm working to tie Microsoft's corporate goals with the appropriate metrics in the Operations department, thereby creating a virtual dashboard that the executives can use to gauge the health of the business.
(If you understood what the hell I just wrote, then you're doing better than me.)
Living near Seattle is a bit weird after many months in Eastern Europe. I'm not sure what's more strange for me:
(a) Walking around with a Tablet PC that reads my terrible handwriting perfectly and allows me to wirelessly surf the Internet whenever I am within sight of the Microsoft campus.
(b) Readjusting to the concept of being literate again.
For nearly 5 months I had no clue what most people were saying or what was written anywhere. I was an alien. Suddenly, I can no longer play dumb when the bus driver asks me why I haven't paid the correct fare.
What's the next adventure?
Within moments of returning to the United States my friends were already wondering when I will go on my next adventure. I'm not sure how to interpret this. Does this mean they're eager to see me leave again?
Perhaps. But they also know me well. I agree with Hellen Keller, who said, "Life is either a daring adventure or nothing."
So I'm not retiring my passport or my backpack. My next adventure may be:
Gosh, that last one sounds terribly domestic. What the hell is wrong with me? Next thing you know I'll get a wife, have 4 kids, and land a steady job.
Yeah I know that's unlikely, but it might be cool being the US Ambassador to Montenegro....