Book Review: The Hidden Europe

The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us, by Francis Tapon

I happened to randomly find this book while looking up works on history and cultural geography, and it is a work that does a great job in looking at the complexity of Eastern Europe (including the fact that hardly anyone wants to be a part of it) from a combination of scholarly work mixed with a lot of personal interviews as well as on-the-ground presence. It is amazing what one can learn from a country by living in it and traveling around in it [1], after all. One thing that makes this work appealing, at least for me, is the fact that I can identify with this particular writer. He has a drily ironic look at life, a certain nomadic nature, a suitably cosmopolitan background (a French father and a Chilean mother), a high tolerance for material discomforts, a love of exploring beyond the beaten track, an honest and favorable view of tourism and hard work as well as sociability, and an interest in enjoying the company of attractive young women. In other words, I can see this fellow, for all of his cultural differences, as someone not terribly unlike myself.

This is a good thing, as anyone reading this book looking to finish it is going to need to be prepared for a long haul and a somewhat complicated design to this unique travel memoir. Containing over 700 pages of core material about every country that the author views as part of Eastern Europe (including the following areas: Eastern Germany, northern Greece, western Turkey, the European part of Russia, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Romania–not in precisely that order) while talking about each country’s food food, its culture, its beauty, its corrupt politics, polls about the country, its transportation infrastructure, its history, and its people (at least those the author has happened to meet). Part of what makes this book complex is that it is organized geographically, by country, and the author took two trips to each country–a short visit in 2005 and a longer one over three years from 2009 to 2011. During this time he was involved in at least two serious relationships with Eastern European women and what appears to have been some escapades, including at least one adulterous liason with a Transdnistrian temptress. The narrative of his travels as well as his behavior is complicated because the narrative itself does not always reveal itself in a chronological fashion, which requires quite a bit of work in piecing together the author’s behavior, which he attempts to justify when it falls short of rigorously moral standards.

As might be expected for a work of such grand scope and ambition, the author manages to find out an intriguing look at some similarities and differences between various Eastern European countries. He finds out the social corruption, particularly with regards to ease of doing business, trust in government, and entreprenurial spirit (as well as work ethic) that was the result of communist rule or influence, as well as the corrosive result of Communism on the depth of religious faith and practice. Likewise, there are a lot of common elements with regards to the victim mentality of many Eastern European countries and their common tendency to glorify their past and not have a realistic appreciation of the present or the need to forgive others for their sins in order to achieve a better future. These are lessons that we could stand to learn (especially those who are prone to blame the problems of ethnic minorities on discrimination rather than focus on the need to move beyond a victim mentality and focus on personal agency and responsibility for achieving success rather than wallowing in the past). There are also lessons that capitalism and democracy are not panaceas and that appreciative friends and family and enjoying life and finding reasons to be cheerful and grateful despite difficulties and waste less and live more generously are very valuable things. Most of these lessons are not necessarily all that profound, but the narrative is exciting and the perspective of the author is often spot-on as well as humorous. For those who are curious about Eastern Europe, are not bothered by someone writing constantly about his friendly conversations with people and a focus on the attractiveness of women in a given country, and who enjoy reading about breathtaking mountains, encounters with border guards, or someone whose attitude towards sleeping arrangements is fairly casual, there is a lot to appreciate here, including a combination between a willingness to let people tell their own stories and a critical attitude towards the myths of history and culture.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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