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'

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

Instead of Turkey, say/write Turkiye or Türkiye

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

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