If there is a modern day heir to the great traveler/scholar Ibn Batutta – I would say that Francis Tapon is the guy. His latest book is a masterpiece of travel and will surely be quoted and referenced for the next decade- especially as the Eastern Europe that he has spent so much time coming to know, slowly goes away. The Hidden Europe:What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us is more than just a travelogue- it is a cultural and historical guidebook which is both intensely personal and incredibly helpful in coming to understand the places he has visited.
This is not a small book – it is a massive tome filled with economic, historical, and political data that somehow manages to come across as entertaining and at times even light reading – don’t expect to read even a single chapter in one session – in fact, I would say that this book is something that you will reference again and again – especially if you have an interest in Eastern Europe or if you are traveling in Eastern Europe.
Francis not only spent three years cris-crossing through Eastern Europe, hiking, making friends and coming to understand the people and the cultures – he has also walked across America four times, thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, and in 2007, became the first to do a round-trip on the Continental Divide Trail. He is the author of Hike Your Own Hike: 7 Lessons from Backpacking Across America and The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us. I can hearily recommend both – start with this interview and then get his books at WanderLearn with Francis Tapon – just cruise his site for a few minutes and you’ll be hooked.
Vagobond: I was introduced to you when I was doing research on the great vagabonds of the past. A librarian I met in Portland, Oregon told me – “Never mind the dead vagabonds – you should interview Francis Tapon.” Francis, when I looked at your site and started reading your adventures, I was simply blown away. At that time I think you were sleeping in a tent outside of Venice….Can you perhaps tell my readers how you started traveling? Was it always in this (pardon this) completely awesome style you travel in now?
Francis Tapon: I started traveling since I was born. Because I had a Chilean mom and a French father, my family would have to fly 10 hours to see a relative. My first independent trip was right after I graduated from college. It was a standard rite of passage: 75 days in Western Europe with my best high-school friend. Although we went to Prague and Budapest (which was somewhat unusual in 1992), most of the trip was pretty typical for college grads. We stayed in hostels or cheap hotels most of the way. My travel style didn’t change until after I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2001. Once I learned to camp in the wilderness for months, getting a bed/shower/roof seemed optional. And once couchsurfing.org took off, it added another dimension that helped me meet locals more easily than ever.
Vagobond: One of the things that always hits me about your writing, both on the web and in your books is the academic nature of it. I always feel like I’m there with you, but at the same time, I feel like I’m attending a lecture at the explorers club because of the history, culture, and texture that you bring to your travels. Do you have an academic background? Also, in terms of reading, what writers/authors influenced you the most?
Francis Tapon:Although I went to Harvard Business School, I don’t have an academic background (I have no PhD). In fact, I dislike how academia writes, which is why my style of writing is extremely casual. Michael Krasny called it “idiosyncratic” and “unorthodox.” While I like to tackle intellectual subjects, I try to do it in an entertaining way. Academic writing is usually boring and long-winded. I prefer a punchy style that still remains informative and profound. Whether I achieve that is for the reader to judge.
Bill Bryson has influenced me the most. I love his books. The biggest difference between us is that I tend to get more dirty than he does and I take bigger risks when I travel. His style of writing is refined than mine too–I can be more crass and controversial than him.
Vagobond: Did you always know you wanted to be an explorer and adventurer? Did you ever get blown off track? How did you find your way back?
Francis Tapon:Until I hiked the Appalachian Trail (age 31), I lived a pretty standard life. That journey transformed me. I did get blown off track twice. First was after the AT, when I consulted for Hitachi for 2.5 years. Then again after my first trip to Eastern Europe (2004), when I consulted for Microsoft for 18 months. Those four years of work weren’t wasted though: I’ve been living off the money I earned in those two jobs ever since. I always knew those would be temporary gigs, but it still takes discipline to leave a job that pays well. Income is addictive.
Vagobond: In reading The Hidden Europe, I was particularly blown away by the sections on Serbia and Russia. Russia, I kind of expected to be incredible, but with Serbia, I learned more about the country from reading your book than from traveling there myself! I had terrible experiences in Serbia, but reading The Hidden Europe made me want to go back and re-experience it. Can you perhaps explain why the Serbs are so completely misunderstood by the world? I ask because after reading your book, I certainly feel like I misunderstood many things.
Francis Tapon:Whenever we fight a war, we nearly always demonize the people we are fighting. It makes it easier to justify attacking a nation when you tell yourself that rotten things are going on there. The Western media demonized Serbia during the Yugoslav Wars instead of trying to understand them or to explain their point of view. This doesn’t mean Serbia was flawless, but I sought to understand the Serbs.
At the same time, as travelers we have to be careful about drawing broad conclusions based on a few encounters (or many encounters in a small region of the country). Perhaps I was lucky and met a bunch of wonderful Serbs while you met a bunch of jerks. I lived 18 months in the ex-Yugoslav countries so I feel that my assessment is pretty accurate, but I could have been lucky.
Vagobond: As a writer and traveler, there are a few destinations I keep to myself. I don’t want the world to know about them. Sometimes, though, I let people know about a hidden gem here or there. In all your travels in Eastern Europe, did you come across any of these gems you might be able to tell us about?
Francis Tapon:I loved Kotor, Montenegro. It’s a magical place for me.
Vagobond: Narrow escapes. Anyone who has traveled a bit has had more than a few of these, or else, they probably wouldn’t be travelling any longer. What about you? In your travels, can you tell us about one narrow escape?
Francis Tapon:I went for a 16-mile day hike in Olympic National Park, but ended up getting lost for 3 days. I had no sleeping bag, no shelter, no light, no food. It snowed. I saved my partner’s life twice. We both got frostbite and infections.
Vagobond: The subtitle of The Hidden Europe is ‘What Eastern Europeans can teach us.” – First of all- when you say ‘us’ who are you talking about? Secondly – while I found the entire book to be thought provoking, can you perhaps point to three of the most important lessons of it?
Francis Tapon:“Us” is mainly “us Americans,” but Western Europeans don’t know much about Eastern Europe either. Even Eastern Europeans don’t know much about Eastern Europe! So ultimately “us” is “everyone.”
1. Communism doesn’t work. For over 40 years, many countries throughout the world experimented with various flavors of a tightly controlled state – none of them worked. Let’s not forget that when people declare that we need a revolution that delivers us a paternalistic government.
2. A simplified tax policy. Most Eastern Europeans have flat taxes. I never met an Estonian who took more than 10 minutes to do their taxes. This helped fuel their growth in the last 20 years.
3. Celebrate depopulation. Eastern Europe is depopulating faster than any other region on Earth. Although many countries are fighting it (by giving incentives to reproduce), a few are accepting it and seeing the benefits: more resources per capita.
Vagobond: I love that you created a section about ‘Eastern Germany’ – today it’s very easy to forget that it was just twenty years ago that Germany was two different countries. There were a few moments in this section where I actually guffawed (Evil Santa and the smell chair in the disco era) – can you tell me your funniest moment in the former East Germany?
Francis Tapon:When I asked a East German if I could interview him, he agreed to give me 5 minutes and was not pleasant at first. However, in the end, he talked with me an hour, toured me around his city, took me into a church, and dropped me off at a train station in Poland! It’s funny how much he changed.
Vagobond: Turkey – I love it. It probably comes from going to the police and being offered a cup of tea and baklava even though I was in the wrong office – but anyway, I’m curious about your thoughts on the idea that Turkey is forming a sort of ‘New Ottoman Empire’ and the perception that the Turks are becoming more Islamicized? Also, what’s your favorite Turkish destination?
Francis Tapon:Turkey is just doing what most countries have been doing after WWII: extending its influence through economics and diplomacy rather than brute military and political expansion. If someone wants to call such policies the “New Ottoman Empire,” that’s fine, but don’t expect Turkey to militarily invade other countries–certainly not Europe. However, just like Latinos have been “invading” the USA, Turks will continue to “invade” Europe through immigration. European xenophobes will continue to resist the Turks, most of whom are not Islam fundamentalists. Most Turks are continuing down the path of secularism–a journey that started nearly 100 years ago. I’ve only seen western Turkey, but my favorite destination is Istanbul–it’s the third biggest city in the world.
Vagobond: I had an incredible experience in Pernik, Bulgaria where I got to get drunk with a retired communist coal miner who regaled me with stories of the glory of the communist days. You’ve traveled much more in Bulgaria than I have, do you think there is a danger of nostalgia moving Bulgaria backwards? Also, just curious – what, in your opinion is the best thing in Bulgaria?
Francis Tapon:Yes, there’s a danger that Bulgaria (and Eastern Europe) will move backwards. However, I don’t think that will happen. Change must happen to Bulgaria, but few Bulgarians think the solution is to go back to communism or heavy government control. The best thing about Bulgaria is how they shake their head from side-to-side to say “yes” and nod to mean “no.”
Vagobond: What about family? How can you travel for three years? Vagobond readers want to know things like where do you get the funds? Do you suffer from travel fatigue? Do you get lonely?
Francis Tapon: I worked for four years at Microsoft and Hitachi, lived like a monk, and saved up enough money to travel for years. I describe my travel secrets more in my article about how to travel for years. I don’t get fatigued because I take breaks whenever I get tired of traveling. For example, I parked it for 4 months in Tallinn, Estonia and several months in Slovenia and Croatia.
Vagobond: Finally….how about three solid travel tips that people may not have heard before.
1. Always carry a tarp and a sleeping bag/pad. It weighs just 2 kg (4.4 pounds), and it liberates you from the pressure and worry of finding a hostel/hotel. It allows you to be spontaneous when you travel.
2. Consider discreet urban camping. Camp in a city park or in the city’s outskirts right at sunset and leave no trace by sunrise.
3. Always offer cash after you hitchhike. Most drivers won’t accept it, but it shows that you’re not a freeloader and that you appreciate their help. It’s better than a “thank you.” Also, when you’re a guest at someone’s house, shower them with gifts and generous actions. You’ll always be invited back.
Vagobond: Okay, one last question. If you disappear, what country should I come looking for you in so we can go drink a few bottles of wine together?
Francis Tapon:Montenegro. But here’s the catch: I’ve never drunk any alcohol in my life. So let’s get guzzle sparkling water instead. 🙂
Vagobond: Thanks Francis. Absolutely love the book – still have been jumping around with it, but it’s seriously awe-some. Hope it sells millions of copies.
Francis Tapon:Thank you Vago!
You can purchase Hike Your Own Hike: 7 Lessons from Backpacking Across America and The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us at WanderLearn with Francis Tapon – where you can learn a lot more about this incredible modern Ibn Battuta.