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'

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

A quick tour through Bulgarian history

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.

Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

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