Many may not agree with his views of this part of the world, especially those who say they don’t like stereotypes, or those who, like myself, are at times oversensitive about their countries, but Francis Tapon knows more about Eastern Europe than any other American you will meet – be it a geography or history teacher. Teachers can tell you a lot about location, dates, wars, and everything else in print. People who walk the way and get in direct contact with the places they talk or – in this case – write about, can tell you much more.
Francis Tapon is such a man, and his book, The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us (or Kindle edition here) is just this:: a fresh perspective based on personal experience.
You may not agree to begin your journey through Eastern Europe in Finland (Suomi) – after all, Finland is not Eastern European, but then again, you are not Francis Tapon. For him, everything East of France is Eastern Europe and the book will not be divided in North, South, Central, West and East. Just West and East. There are solid arguments for this choice, witty presented, but if you want to “get to the core” quickly, ignore the introduction. “Get over it,” as Tapon simply puts it. Finland is the first of 25 countries in Tapon’s Eastern Europe – and what a first experience this is. The thing that would strike most prudes as odd, is Tapon’s experience in a Finnish sauna. For those of you who know nothing about Finish saunas, well… unlike what you see in movies, Finns don’t wear clothes or towels in the sauna. Nor do Germans, for that matter. Towels are used to sit on, while the whole body must be exposed to the heat, naked. And one more thing: saunas are usually mixed – naked men and women get together, chat or enjoy an “Aufguss.” There’s nothing sexual about the experience, but if it’s your first time, it might be. If so, do what Tapon did: think of the ultimate libido killer, aka Michael Moore. Then learn that Finns have the smartest kids in the world, and move on to the next country, Estonia.
Estonia comes with another sauna experience, but then not as interesting as the first-time drop of the towel. There are, however, many other things that will trigger your interest, some mere subjective perceptions based on personal experiences, but most delivered with honest awe. The author is impressed with Estonia’s love for music, and even more impressed with the technological advances in this country, and their tax system. By comparison, even Western European countries, are years behind… and have a lot to learn. Estonia may be small, but it’s proud. And so are Latvia and Lithuania, the next (and last of the Baltics) two countries portrayed in The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us.
The chapter of the Baltics ends with a summary of things we can all learn from these countries – most values that make the beauty of this part of the world: good bread, ancient solstice traditions, preserving national values and local culture, and so on. From the Baltics to Belarus and beyond, it’s like traversing the border to a different world. Even sauna experience number three in Belarus was a trip to hell, and although there are many positives to this country, one cannot go over the stereotypes: radiation, communism, too many potatoes in the local diet… and so on.
In Poland, you’ll fall in love with Gdansk and Wroclaw, after you read about Auschwitz atrocities beyond belief. Then learn to be a good friend, and move on to Eastern Germany… yes, in Tapon world a part of Eastern Europe. If you are not a German, you’ll giggle at the author’s belief that German is the ugliest language in the solar system. But then, rejoice while learning about the prettiest country in Eastern Europe. Can you guess which one that is? I am not giving any clues, instead, pack up your backpack – Slovakia, with her stunning mountain trails, is next. You’ll learn that Slovakians and Hungarians don’t get along well, but then again… most Eastern European countries have an issue with one of their neighbors. The Estonians have conflicts with the Russians, Poles still keep a grudge against Germans… and so on. Still Hungary, which is the next country visited by Tapon, is a land of mystery and awe as well, especially when it comes to human intelligence – Hungarians are Martians, and Tapon has the proof. Then the author gets pretty passionate about the Treaty of Trianon and Hungary’s obsession with Transylvania (now a Romanian territory).
Next on, you’ll learn how Slovenia changed the author’s life – another detail I won’t give, just to tease your curiosity a bit. On the positive side, Slovenians are polyglots, hardworking and humble. The rest, you’ll have to discover on your own. Next stop, Croatia from an interesting perspective, still as majestic as you expect it to be, although Tapon is convinced that another Eastern European country is the fairest of them all. From Croatia you learn how to water wine down, and how to be generous at weddings.
I am sure by now you are more than curious to learn more about The Hidden Europe – and although this is sold as a travel book, I’d consider it a travel diary. It’s personal, subjective and at times naive. But nevertheless it is a refreshing view, and by no means something you would read about in other publications. It’s not a travel guide, and it’s not a history book, although the author attempts to relate local history bits. I only introduced you to the first 10-12 countries Francis Tapon describes in his book, the next, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania (with Europe’s friendliest people), Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine and Russia are for you to discover.