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.
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.
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