Quick, name five countries in Eastern Europe!
Poland. Errm, Romania! Czechoslovakia. Wait, is that still a country? Ljubljana, or is that one a city? And uhh, Russia. Yeah, Russia counts. Right?
Truth is most people are confused about what lies outside of what we loosely refer to as Western Europe – myself included. Though I’ve travelled around Europe several times, I’ve only wandered as far east as Berlin, and between a concert and the Love Parade, my day there was a bit of a blur.
I am currently reading Francis Tapon’s new book The Hidden Europe, and it has introduced me to a side of Europe I’ve overlooked until now.
If you haven’t yet heard of him, Francis is a traveller, backpacker, hiker, writer and encyclopaedia on all things Eastern European. He has walked across America four times, has never owned a bed or a TV, and he once backpacked for 45 days without a shower. Yikes!
Well, back in 2004 Francis set a goal for himself: to visit every country in Eastern Europe in six months and see what he could learn. Of course, six months turned out not be enough, so he returned again in 2009 and spent two and a half years learning, revisiting and seeing how the countries had changed. In all, he covered 25 countries stretching from the Gulf of Finland to the Black Sea.
His approach: to learn everything there is to know about a country from the locals. And where do you find the locals? Well, approaching strangers at a local coffee shop or a McDonald’s seem like good places to start. Yes, Francis has a knack for walking up to people and interviewing them on the spot. In Germany, he approached a man who reluctantly offered to give him 5 minutes of his time, and this evolved into an hour long conversation with the German man offering to show Francis around the city, and drive him to a train station…which was in another country! Yeah, he certainly seems to have a way with people.
What I marvel at when reading about Francis’ travels is that wherever he goes, he usually shows up with a tent on his back and not much of a plan. More often than not, he develops friendships with people on buses or ferries or street corners, and people just invite him over into their homes! Not just for dinner, I mean invitations to spend the night and even join them at their summer cottages. This has made for some great anecdotes as well as some rather risque encounters!
But aside from being a very entertaining read, you can tell a lot of effort and research has been put into this book. The Hidden Europe is more than a travelogue; it is a crash course on Eastern European history, culture, language, economics, politics, religion and yes, even drinking habits. And of course every nation has a claim to being the true inventors of vodka.
The book is organized into chapters that profile one country at a time. At the end of each chapter Francis summarizes what he learned from each country and also suggests things to do and places to see. So whether you’re looking to start planning your own Eastern European adventure or you simply want to explore this hidden Europe via the comforts of your armchair, this book is a great read.
Be sure to check him out! The Hidden Europe comes out in hardcover on December 12, 2011, but is already available as e-book on major websites including Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble. You can download the first three chapters for free to get a taste of it!
The Hidden Europe is Francis’ second book, but certainly won’t be his last. Francis is preparing to venture off to Africa in 2012, where he will spend the next few years discovering what Africa can teach us, and perhaps also getting a tan. So keep an eye out for his adventures.