All about the books!

OK, if we're honest, I've only had one book published so far. But I'm working hard to change that. So stay tuned.

But while we're at it:

Why did I write this book?   Why did I write this book? Why does anybody write a book? Because they’re idiots. I am an idiot. I have to admit that when I started this project, my thoughts were somewhere along the lines of, “This will probably take some weeks. Who am I kidding? It’ll take a month. Maybe even two.”

Ten years later, the Beast neared a state where it could finally be considered by a publisher. I was lucky to find a gracious and accommodating publisher in New Europe Books, and am eternally grateful for their patience in dealing with my hyper-sensitivity about how my baby was handled. And this experience of being published has also confirmed a sneaking suspicion I’ve had for years, which is that I have absolutely no future as a graphic artist. Next time, hire the professionals, and nobody gets hurt. Also, I’ve been a professional writer for years in the corporate world and already knew that a sort of adversarial relationship exists between writers on the one hand, and editors and production people on the other, but I may have put some folks on the New Europe Books team into advanced trauma therapy for years to come. If it’s any consolation to them, I am grateful for their work and the final product. Really.

So, to the point: Why does this book exist? Years ago, sometime in the 1980s, I was in JFK airport and waiting for a flight. I decided to buy some juice while waiting, and, happening upon an attractive lass at the juice stand, struck up a conversation. (I was single back then, in shape and actually had hair, so this wasn’t a preposterous idea then. Nowadays I would be arrested for that kind of behavior.) To my pleasant surprise, the lass did not slap me or summon security, so we chatted along until she asked me where I was going. I had mentioned earlier that I was on my way to Europe, but responded more specifically that I was flying to Poland. Her face went blank, and she said, with a slightly accusatory tone to her voice, “Poland? I thought you said you were going to Europe.” I slinked away, but not before swearing a vow then and there that someday I would write a definitive book describing Eastern Europe for those who think China borders Austria.

OK, the latter part of that statement wasn’t true. I did slink away, but only after accumulating similar experiences over the years did I finally decide to put pen to paper – or fingertips to keyboard, as we do nowadays. I once had a colleague who, upon visiting Eastern Europe for the first time in the early 2000s, reported back to me his astonishment that they had modern buildings, cars and phones. An English history professor once asked me in Hungary if “we were in the Soviet Union now.” But above and beyond misconceptions, I also found a lot of people who were interested in Eastern Europe – some for business reasons, some for personal ancestry reasons, others just because it seemed new and exotic to them – and so I decided about ten years ago to research and write this book.

Eastern Europe for a surprising many today is mysterious, remote, dark and dangerous. The number of those who think this way is shrinking – by now, thousands of Americans have lived a year or more in Prague, and Danube River cruises have become a common European vacation staple – but still, the very name ‘Eastern Europe’ evokes visions of mystery, misery or adventure. For many Americans, Eastern Europe looks like the Transylvania in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, where people walk around in 19th century garb and it’s always night with constant lightning flashing in the background. (And a young Teri Garr beckons you to “Roll, roll, roll in ze hay!” I’d better change the subject before this gets sidetracked on some old pipe dreams.) Anyway, in ze…I mean “the” Harry Potter series, dragons were trained off in Romania. In Bram Stoker’s original 1897 Dracula, Eastern Europe is the deep, dark, remote – medieval, in fact – past, reaching out to terrorize the bright, modern future (i.e., London). In the 2009 horror film The Orphan directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, the adoptive parents recoil in horror when they discover their little murderous adoptee, the film’s antagonist, is actually from …Eastern Europe. Why didn’t the adoption people tell them this?  

This would all be academic, except that Eastern Europe is a real place filled with real people, and they generally don’t wear 19th century garb unless tourists are around. They drive cars, try to get the latest apps on their smart phones, work often boring jobs in offices or shops, and also wonder why Kim Kardashian has a TV show. Eastern Europe has been around for a couple thousand years, about as long as Western Europe has, in fact. In fact, some parts of Eastern Europe are older than Western Europe – much older. It only occurred to Western Europeans to begin make a distinction between themselves and Eastern Europe at the end of the 18th century, as a way to sort of lay the tracks for being able to point to Eastern Europe as “the other side of the tracks.”

In this book I will try to introduce you to Eastern Europe through its languages, religious past and geography, and describe its history briefly – very briefly, I promise. My goal is to put Eastern Europe in some context for you, to show both its contradictions – Eastern Europe is a huge region that includes countries and peoples whose only relationship to one another is that they are not Western European – and its commonalities too. This is kind of obvious but strangely worth saying: Europe is a peninsula, with Western Europe at its very tip. That peninsula is the western-most tip of the huge Eurasian landmass, which stretches from Portugal on the Atlantic to China on the Pacific. That’s a lot of dirt. What this means is that Western Europe is connected to Central Asia, the Middle East and, by proxy, to North Africa by…Eastern Europe. That, in turn, means that Eastern Europe has been criss-crossed throughout its history by traders, merchants, diplomats, scholars, religious zealots and soldiers from the Celts, Romans, Huns, Goths, Germanic peoples, Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Vikings, countless Iranian Steppe peoples, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Italians, Turks, Jews, Gypsies/ Romany, Baltic peoples, Finnic peoples, of course Slavic peoples, Mongols, Uzbeks, ancient Turkic peoples like the Avars and Khazars, the occasional Englishman, and many, many, many more. Eastern Europe’s history is far more eclectic than Western Europe’s, and this is reflected in the region’s architecture, food and other traditions which often bear traces of Paris and Istanbul, Bremen and Baghdad, Rome and Cairo. 

But my goal is not to make you an expert in Eastern Europe’s long and messy (but very interesting!) history; it is to show you in part why Eastern Europe is the way it is today. Because that history is very present in most Eastern Europeans’ minds and plays a big role in how they view the world, I try to present that history from both an emic and an etic point of view – how Eastern Europeans see their history, as opposed to how the professional historians see it. To give you an example of why this is important, I explore in this book a concept I call “The Overlapping Regions.” These are areas where the ethnic, social or political histories of different peoples and countries overlap, but which each nation whose past is somehow connected to that region wants to claim it exclusively for their own. They ignore the reality that other peoples or countries have also been involved with that region. This, of course, has made modern history in the region very exciting, far more exciting than many Eastern Europeans would have liked, but the good news is that nowadays awareness that the cultural exclusivity of these regions may not be quite so exclusive is spreading. Mind you, this problem exists in Western Europe as well, in places like Alsace-Lorraine, Catalonia, the Basque lands, Northern Ireland, Southern Tyrol, etc., but in general there are fewer of these problematic areas in the West than in the East.      

To keep things interesting, I also include little inserts which interrupt the narrative a bit which I call “Useless Trivia.” These inserts very briefly explore some interesting historical or cultural tidbits, usually related to the surrounding text, which are designed to entertain as well as inform. These inserts discuss things like why Roman merchants were hacking their way through the dense forests of what are today Poland and Lithuania, or how Captain John Smith of Jamestown, Virginia fame got his start in Hungary, or why a medieval glass revolution in Central Europe meant that centuries later, American Indians got most of their glass beads from the Czech lands. You’ll meet an Albanian in Egypt who influenced the outcome of the American Civil War (without setting foot in America), an English king who was half Polish, and why, at the height of the Cold War, the United States kept the medieval Hungarian royal crown locked up in Fort Knox. I’ll admit that these inserts were also in part designed to show some of the connections between Eastern Europe throughout history and the rest of the world; Eastern Europe seems a little less remote or secluded when I ask you to consider whether Cairo, the capital of the modern Egyptian Republic, was founded by a Croat. Ha! Bet you didn’t see that one coming. For added marketing value, I of course had to throw in some vampires and other gory stories like Elisabeth Báthory. Hey, I gotta make a living too.

Of course, utterly shameless in my quest to get you to buy my book, I also added another inducement in the form of my wife’s pierogi recipe, which is included in Section III. Really. My wife, a native Pole, shared a basic (and easy!) recipe she uses for pierogis. So you should buy the book, because...pierogis!

So go ahead and take the book for a spin. It’s written in very accessible language, and is organized so that you can read it through or pick a thread (like Bulgarian history, or Muslims in Eastern Europe) and follow that. Even if you have no personal connection to Eastern Europe, it’s just an amazingly interesting region and this book is a great place to start to better understand a part of the world that has been both a wellspring of hope as well as a graveyard of empires – and with great food to boot!  

-- Tomek Jankowski