In 2004, I visited all 25 countries in Eastern Europe. You'll find the blog entries from that trip here. In 2008-2011, I returned to see what had changed since that time. With these two visits, five years apart, I accumulated enough material for my new book, The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us.
This map reflects how I define Eastern Europe. Eastern Europeans love to deny that they're in Eastern Europe. I tackle how and why I define Eastern Europe the way I do in the Introduction of The Hidden Europe.
The beauty and history embedded in Veliko Tarnovo motivated me to learn more about Bulgaria's history. Over 5,000 years ago, Thracians were the first major civilization to show up in Bulgaria. The Romans took over in the first century, establishing places like Plovdiv. In the seventh century, the Bulgars, who were descendants of people from Central Asia (near Iran), migrated to Bulgaria. They mixed with the locals and, in 681 AD, carved the first Bulgarian state out of a part of the Byzantine Empire. After a few hundred years, the Byzantines reconquered the land, but they felt the need to poke out the eyes of 15,000 Bulgarians first.
Turkey is one of only four countries that want to be associated with Eastern Europe (the other three are Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine).While every other Eastern European country stubbornly resists the Eastern Europe label, Turkey embraces it. And yet, many Europeans don’t want to give Turkey the “honor” of being in Eastern Europe, because they believe that Turkey isn’t a part of Europe.
Geographically, Turkey has only a toe in Europe (see map below). About three percent of Turkey is in Eastern Europe; the rest is in Asia. Because of this lopsided ratio, it’s tempting to exclude Turkey from this book. Still, just like eastern Germany is a legacy member of Eastern Europe, Turkey (due to the Turkish Empire’s dominance in the Balkans for five centuries) is also a legacy member. Moreover, modern Turkey is part of NATO, has strong ties to the Balkans, and is a serious EU candidate. In addition, while only a small part of Turkey lies in Europe, about 10 million Turks live in that part—that’s a bigger population than many European countries. Thus, we must consider Turkey. Nevertheless, we’ll focus on Turkey’s western side—the part that’s most connected to Europe. I plan to analyze Turkey much more thoroughly in Book Four of the WanderLearn Series, which will cover the Middle East.
Before we take our short tour of Western Turkey, let’s consider the country’s name. Several Turks told me that they hate it when their country is called Turkey instead of Türkiye (sounds like Tur-ki-yea). Of course, they wouldn’t have a problem with Turkey if the word didn’t have three unflattering meanings: a winged animal, a jerk, and a flop. If turkey meant awesome, then no Turk would complain. Hungary faces a similar problem with its name. Hungarians call their country Magyarország. Like the Turks, Hungarians are tired of people cracking jokes about their country.
Ethiopia was disappointed with the World Cup draw. They were hoping to get Turkey, but got Hungary instead. — Bad joke
According to my tastes, Greece has the most delicious food in Eastern Europe. They energize their meals with fresh ingredients like tomatoes, eggplant, feta cheese, onions, olive oil, yogurt, zucchini, nuts, and honey. During the Byzantine and Turkish period, Greeks incorporated spices like oregano, dill, bay leaves, and mint.
Today, popular dishes include souvlaki (anything marinated in olive oil, salt, pepper, oregano and then skewered), dolmathes (grapevine leaves stuffed with rice, veggies, and sometimes meat), and tzatziki (yoghurt with garlic and cucumber). Even their fast food is delicious: gyros (meat roasted on a vertically turning spit and served with sauce and garnishes on pita bread) will make you give up hamburgers. Finally, baklava (phyllo pastry layers filled with nuts and drenched in syrup or honey) is a decadent dessert to end any meal.
It’s all Greek to me
Over dinner, my four Greek hosts gave me a crash course on Greek. Niki was particularly instructive because she has a degree in the ancient Greek language. Basic phrases include yashoo (hello), adio (goodbye), puinne. . . (where is. . .), posho kani? (how much?), tikanish? (how are you?), treno (train), pote (when), tikanish? (how are you?), poli kalo (very good), katalava (understand), signomi (sorry), and, most importantly, efharishto (thank you).
About every 10 minutes Niki (whose name means Victory)loved to remind me that some English words I said were derived from Greek. She could have interrupted me more often: about 12 percent of the English vocabulary has an ancient Greek origin, including words like mathematics, astronomy, democracy, philosophy, thespian, athletics, theater, and rhetoric.
Still, this doesn’t mean Greek is easy for us. Most Greek verbs are irregular. They have four cases. They even have three ways to write their sigma character. The first is upper case (Σ), the second is lower case (σ), and the third is used only when the word ends with the sigma character (ς). Σo σentenceς would read juσt like thiς.
There are two other annoying things besides the Greek alphabet. First, while most European countries use a word that sounds like bus or autobus, the Greeks call that vehicle a leoforio. WTF? Second, to say yes, you have to say neh, which sounds like a negation in most European languages. So when I ask, “So the leoforio leaves today?” they’ll nod and say, “Neh!” Meanwhile, to say no, you say ohhi. As William Shakespeare said, “For my part, it was Greek to me.”
There is a misleading, unwritten rule that states if a quote giving advice comes from someone famous, very old, or Greek, then it must be good advice. — Bo Bennett
After learning about my new book, The Hidden Europe, a reporter from a San Diego newspaper asked me for tips on finding a reasonably priced accomodation in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Because everyone has different definitions of what is "reasonably priced," here are 6 good options to stay in Dubrovnik in 2012:
1. Hotel Excelsior Dubrovnik. Five star hotel outside Old Town. 158 rooms/suites. Price $150-350/night. 2. Hotel Uvala. It's a 4-star hotel that has rooms that feel like the Holiday Inn. It's near the beach and not in the Old Town. It's $150-250/night.
3. Begovic Boarding House. They have dorm rooms, singles, and doubles. They have a shared terrace with a view. Prices range from $20 to $60.
4. Youth Hostel. Youth Hostel Dubrovnik resides outside the Old Town. You get there after a 20 min walk from the bus station and it takes you 15min to get to the Old Town. Roughly $20/night per person in a dorm-room arrangement.
5. Be spontaneous! This is what I like to do and it works well if you're not hauling around lots of luggage.Look for homes with signs that say "Zimmer" (room, in German) or "Sobe" (rooms, in Croatian). Knock on their door, negotiate with the owner, and then stay with them. You'll stay in a real Croatian home, and you'll usually have your own bathroom. There are hundreds of rooms available in Dubrovnik, both in the Old Town as well outside of it. So you can almost always find a place pretty easily, even during the high season. If they're full, ask them to refer you to (or call) someone else. Obviously, places outside the Old Town are cheaper than those inside the Old Town. Prices vary: $25-50/night.
6. Stay in the Old Town in a 3-star apartment. Croatians will rent out their apartment, especially during the high-season. Rates vary from $75 to $150/night. The advantage is that you're in the Old Town and the price is a great value.
Then the reporter asked, "So, do you recommend staying in the Old Town?"
I replied: I've stayed both in and outside of the Old Town - they are both good options. As you might expect, outside the Old Town you'll get more bang for your buck, because to stay in the Old Town you're paying for the convenience of being in the thick of it. Still, the Old Town is pretty quiet at night, so don't expect loud noises. If you stay in the Old Town, make sure to find out how many steps you have to take to get to your apartment (sometimes it can be over 100).
Wherever you stay in Dubrovnik, make sure you see the other surrounding jewels: the rest of the Dalmatian coast, Kotor (Montenegro), and Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Most of EU nations, like the US, are living beyond their means: their governments are spending more than they're collecting in taxes. After several years, something has to give. This week, what's giving is their credit rating.
If Europeans (and Americans) don't vote for and support politicians who cut government spending (especially on the big ticket items like military, medical care, and social security), then credit ratings will continue to plummet, interest rates will rise, and Western Europeans will suffer like Eastern Europeans suffered when they transitioned away from communism 20 years ago.
Some argue that we shouldn't just cut spending, we should also increase taxes. Some tax hikes would be good. For example, a carbon tax would be helpful at capturing externalities like pollution.
"So what? Let's tax the rich bastards even more!" you say?
The problem is that it's easier than ever for the rich to take their money and run. Let's say you're a rich guy in Paris and France increases your tax rate to 95%. Are you going to stick around? Or will you move to a neighboring country that lets you keep more of your income?
On December 29, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the USSR, Michael Krasny interviewed me on his award-winning KQED radio show, Forum. KQED is currently the most-listened-to public radio station in America, reaching over 745,000 listeners each week.
The program's blurb: San Francisco native Francis Tapon has visited more than 80 countries and hiked over 12,500 miles. Along his journey he has learned many life lessons. He joins the program to share his insights about what Eastern Europeans can teach us in his newest book, The Hidden Europe.
“Francis Tapon provides us with a wide-ranging personal and historical travelogue. . . . The result is one of the world's most personal, idiosyncratic, and unorthodox cultural and historical travel guides. . . . It's really an impressive and ambitious book.” — Michael Krasny, Host on KQED's Forum
I was struck by a simple innovation, while I was washing my dishes in Belarus. The kitchen cabinet, which was placed over the sink, had dish racks embedded into the cabinet itself. Because the cabinet had an open bottom, you could place the freshly washed (and dripping) dish directly into the cabinet. Water would drip through the opening on the bottom and land into the sink (or countertop). Because there’s no need for a separate dish rack, Belarusians gain extra counter space while saving themselves the tedious task of moving dry dishes from the dish rack onto the counter. It’s a clever solution for those without a dishwasher.
Eastern Europeans aren’t known for being innovative, but in some ways the stereotype is unfair. Hungarians, for example, invented the ballpoint pen and holography. A Hungarian, John George Kemeny, co-invented the BASIC programming language with American Thomas Kurtz. Hungarians also invented artificial blood and the Rubik’s Cube. Four Estonians designed Skype. Nikola Tesla, a Serb, patented the rotating magnetic field, which led to the use of alternating current (AC). Russians were the first in space, made the biggest nuclear bomb, designed Tetris, and created the iPhone of assault rifles (the AK-47).
Places I saw and recommend in Northern Greece: Metéora. I’m sure it’s fun to climb Mt. Olympus, but I was too busy having fun in Thessaloniki.
Is Greece in Eastern or Western Europe?
Whenever you think of the founder of western civilization, you probably think of Greece:
The Greeks gave us Homer's epic poems, the Corinthian columns that are everywhere, and an early version of democracy.
Just the names of Greek places conjure up wondrous images: Athens, Thebes, Sparta, Crete, Rhodes, Mount Olympus, and the Aegean Sea.
Western companies use the names of Greek gods and heroes: Zeus, Athena, Poseidon, Hermes, Apollo, Perseus, Hercules, and of course, Nike.
Western literature and ideas were born out of text written in Greek such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, Oedipus, Medea, and the Bible's New Testament.
Western heroes include Greeks like Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Thucydides, Herodotus, Euripides, Archimedes, and countless others.
Greeks built much of our foundation in mathematics, medicine, science, and philosophy.
The astronomer Carl Sagan observed that if the repressive Middle Ages had not come and Europe had stayed on the technological path that the Greeks had started us on, then we would have colonized the Solar System by now.
Given that everyone associates Greece with western culture and civilization, it's ironic that Greece is in Eastern Europe. [I'm assuming a binary east-west split, where the idea of "southern Europe" doesn't exist. For more about this read about how I define Eastern Europe.]
Americans don't like looking at maps, so it's easy to forget that Greece's northern borders touch the Eastern European countries of Albania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria. In fact, Greece is so far east in Europe that you only have to drive two hours east from the Greek border and you'll have left the European continent and entered Asia! Istanbul, the gateway to Asia, is short drive away (see map below).
Hence, geographically, it's obvious that Greece is in Eastern Europe. Just don't tell the Greeks that, it will piss them off.
If you were looking for evidence that Hades, the Greek god of the underworld, was trying to claw his way to our plane of existence, it's in Metéora. It seems as if his stony fingers are piercing through the earth's flesh and reaching toward Zeus in defiance. In Greek, Metéora means suspended rocks. About 60 million years ago (five million years after the dinosaurs went bye-bye), Metéora's sandstone pinnacles formed. Weather carved them into their shape today. They may remind you of Monument Valley in Utah. What makes Metéora truly special is that hundreds of years ago Greeks built celestial monasteries on top of these rocks. When you see them, you'll ask yourself, "How the hell did they build that there?"
Places I saw and recommend in Macedonia: Skopje and Lake Ohrid.
If you’re like most people on this planet, you know almost nothing about Macedonia. Incredibly, for over 20 years, Greece and Macedonia have been passionately and fanatically fighting each other over Macedonia’s name. It sounds absurd (and it is), but it’s true. Welcome to the Balkans.