Starting in the perpetual daylight of Finland’s Arctic Circle, Francis Tapon, 42, wove his way through 25 countries in Eastern Europe.
Three years and hundreds of pages of copious notes later, he emerged with a travelogue revealing a region of the world little explored by most Americans.
Tapon’s The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us officially launched Saturday, April 28 — a date that coincided with the 20th anniversary of the fall of Yugoslavia.
Tapon will present it at Book Passage from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 6.
Part witty travel tome, part colorful ethnographic study, the book is broken up into chapters on countries and subsections on subjects such as language, history, and the different people Tapon encounters everyday.
“I don’t feel like it reads like a big, fat book. It flows pretty easily,” said Tapon, a Harvard MBA who left the Silicon Valley tech world after more than a decade in 2008, devoting himself to travel and writing.
As the second book in Tapon’s self-created WanderLearn series, The Hidden Europe also describes takeaway lessons Americans can glean from the various countries at the end of every chapter.
Some are concrete actions like using a dual-flush toilet as Romanians do to save water and money or reciting a poem to receive a gift — a Lithuanian tradition to show gratitude. Others are general behavioral codes to live by — for example, Belarusians’ thick skin and resilience amid adversity, or the attitude in Serbia of not judging citizens the same way they judge their government.
Throughout the book, Tapon dismantles stereotypes, for example photographing ostentatious houses of rich Roma — often notorious in the media for being poor beggars. “There are a smidgen [of Roma] at the top, much more wealthy than the average person in their country,” said Tapon.
At the same time, he does not shy away from humorously categorizing countries. For example, Tapon explains that Estonia — a small, tech-savvy Baltic nation where Skype was created — is often dubbed E-stonia. He writes that “Balkanians are suckers for conspiracy theories,” with each country believing different versions of what started recent wars.
While Tapon explores what sets each Eastern European country apart, he also writes about themes — such as materialism — that are becoming more pervasive throughout the whole region.
“This notion of comparing yourself to the West is prevalent in Eastern Europe,” he said. “That’s part of the reason why they all seem to have a slight chip on their shoulder because of this fact that they’re struggling to catch up to the standard of living of Western Europe.”
Wanderlust Becomes WanderLearn
Tapon founded a successful robotic vision company in San Jose in the late 1990s. He had a good life, he said, but not a great one. So he sold his stake in his company in 2001, and shed his creature comforts to embark on a round-trip journey on the 2,181 miles long Appalachian Trail. The journey inspired Tapon’s first book, Hike Your Own Hike: 7 Life Lessons From Backpacking Across America.
“During the hike, I thought, ‘Ok, I can turn this into a way of life, and I need to do that’,” he said. “I thought being a writer of books would give me the maximum amount of flexibility to do whatever I want.”
But to fundraise, he worked for a few more years in technology companies like Microsoft, Hitachi, and Booknolia in Redwood City, creating a safety net to pursue his passion full time.
Starting in 2013, Tapon will be spending three years visiting every country in Africa — allotting himself three weeks per country. He’s planning on penning his third book in the WanderLearn series, and is looking for a video production company to record the journey.
“I’m willing to go up a strange mountain, or to do things that are physically rigorous,” he said. “So to capture that on video would be a next first step.”
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