Eastern Europe

Exploring the Hidden Europe in 2004 and 2008-2011

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 750-page book, The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us.

This blog now has many excerpts from The Hidden Europe. But who the hell reads anymore? Just look at the best photos from Eastern Europe!

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.

Eastern Europe map from Francis Tapon's book, 'The Hidden Europe'

One Ukrainian tourist website proclaims: “Ukraine is the geographical center of Europe!” And then, confusingly, the first sentence after that title is, “Ukraine is one of the mightiest countries in Eastern Europe.” 

I don't know what happened to my hair when I stood under this statue in Kyiv (Kiev).
One of those proclamations is true: Ukraine is the biggest country that is wholly in Europe. Russia’s European piece is bigger than Ukraine, while Denmark is bigger than Ukraine if you count its Greenland territory. However, if you ignore these two cases, then Ukraine is the biggest. In fact, it’s almost as big as Texas.

Starting in 1999, I visited Ukraine every five years. Each time I returned, Ukraine seemed to have taken three steps forward and two steps backward.

Traces of communism

In 1999, I flew into Ukraine’s capital, which is often called Kiev, but we will use its official name: Kyiv (pronounced Kee-v). I stayed in the Mir Hotel. I learned that mir is a cool Eastern Slavic word that has two meanings: world and peace.

Although communism had officially disappeared nearly a decade before, its remnants were everywhere. For example, every floor of the hotel had a middle-aged, overweight female gatekeeper who was in charge of the floor. Besides having the thrilling task of policing the floor, this stern woman would also hold your keys, which clearly the receptionist in the lobby was incapable of doing. Similarly, at the bottom of every subway escalator, there was a guard whose stimulating job was to verify that life around the escalator was OK. Communism’s goal was to give everyone a job, so it invented millions of useless jobs. Many of these pointless jobs remain.

Mother Motherland in Kyiv, Ukraine by Roads Less Traveled Photography on FlickrAnother example of a communist leftover was the controlling and corrupt police force. In 2004, when I saw Kyiv’s colossal titanium Mother Motherland statue from far away, I used my camera’s zoom to take a photo. While snapping the picture, a policeman ran up and ordered me to stop. He thought I was taking a photo of a nearby military building that was in the line of sight of the distant statue. I showed him the photos so that he could believe me when I said that I wasn’t a spy.

Although I never faced corruption during any of my visits, in 2010, travel blogger Justin Klein got “shaken down” by police officers on five separate occasions during a short trip.

He offered tips on how to avoid such encounters:

  • Keep quiet when the police are around (so they don’t overhear you speaking English). 
  • If they ask you for a bribe, reinforce that you’re just a poor traveler who is staying in cheap hostels and traveling on second-class trains. 
  • Say that you’ve already had to pay other officers “fees” for minor “violations.” 
  • Carry little cash in your wallet (or at least the wallet you show them); they’re unlikely to walk you to a bank to get more money, so you might get away with a small bribe. 
  • Pretend you don’t understand them and hope they get bored. 

Justin nearly left Ukraine early out of frustration, but he’s glad he stayed because he loved the people and the country overall.

Another communism hangover is that arbitrary rules are posted everywhere. Fortunately, it’s all in Cyrillic so you probably won’t understand them, although I learned to spot their favorite phrase, “Strictly Forbidden!” Ukrainians probably ignored half of the rules under communism, but nowadays they seem to ignore all the rules.

The strictness of our laws is compensated for by their lack of enforcement. — Whispered Soviet saying

What divides Romania and Moldova

Triumphal Arch - Chisinau, Moldova. Photo by whl.travel on Flickr.My bus crossed the Prut River, which divides Romania and Moldova. It’s basically the only thing that divides Romania and Moldova. Linguistically, they’re identical. In 2002, the Moldovan Minister of Justice said that Romanian and Moldovan are the same language. Moldova’s Education Minister and President agreed. Nevertheless, in 2003, a Moldovan-Romanian Dictionary was published, which is about as useful as having a New York-Texas Dictionary—a complete waste of paper.

Moldova is torn: among its population, three times more people claim to speak Moldovan than to speak Romanian. Since the only real difference between these languages is their name, this poll implies that Moldovans believe that there’s more than just the Prut River that separates them from Romanians.

A 2009 survey indicated that 47 percent of Moldovans believe that the Romanian and Moldovan identities are “different” or “entirely different,” while only 26 percent felt they were “the same” or “very similar.”

The Soviets encouraged the belief that Moldovans are different than Romanians by making Moldovans use the Cyrillic alphabet. This took Moldovans back over 200 years, when they (and the Romanians) used the Cyrillic alphabet. However, after gaining their independence from the USSR 20 years ago, Moldovans reverted to the Latin alphabet, thereby making their language indistinguishable from Romanian. Nevertheless, the notion that they are different remained. That partly explains why most Moldovans do not want to reunite with Romania.

Ethnically, 70 percent are Moldovan/Romanian and 20 percent are Russian/Ukrainian. Most Slavs live on Moldova’s eastern edge, where they make up the majority. Lastly, four percent of Moldovans are ethnic Gagauz, who are Christians that speak a Turkish dialect. The reason this tiny country is so divided is that the region has traded among various rulers more times than a stock on the New York Stock Exchange.

Francis trying to stop a soccer goal in Rîbnița, Moldova

Bucharest, Romania Triumphal Arch - Bucharest, the capital of Romania, feel like a baby Paris. It's not a coincidence. Paris inspired the Romanians.

Hallelujah! That's what I shouted when I first entered Romania.

It was September 2004 and I had spent the previous four months traveling in countries that spoke languages that were either Baltic, Slavic, or Martian (i.e., Hungarian and Albanian).

For many moons I was hopelessly illiterate: my knowledge of Romance languages was useless and my ludicrously simple Russian was futile.

Finally, I found an Eastern European language that felt familiar and easy. Sure, I only understood about 20 percent of it, but Romania felt like a Latin oasis in a Slavic desert.

The Romanian language brings up the tiresome defining-Eastern-Europe debate again. We've primarily used geography to define Eastern Europe, although we've also considered Eastern Europe's common historical connection to communism.

Still, there's another way to draw Europe's east-west dividing line: using the Catholic-Orthodox borderline. In that case, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, and Slovenia would all fall on the Catholic side, while Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, and much of the Balkans would fall in the Orthodox camp.

Religion in Europe: Map

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