Q&A With Travel Writer Francis Tapon

[Article by Adrianne Anderson]

 

Francis Tapon used to work in Silicon Valley big business before he quit his job to become a travel writer.Francis has hiked the Continental Divide Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail, and has just finished his second book, called The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us, which covers history, culture and travel tales from every country in Eastern Europe. He also maintains a website chock-full of blog posts, podcasts, and videos, and is gearing up for a 3-year adventure in Africa.

You have so much content on your website! Including some articles that launched quite a furor…

[Laughing] There are a few articles that are controversial. I felt like this latest book is about what Americans can learn from Eastern Europeans. But of course in the process of writing about that I think about things that Europeans could learn from Americans.

In Eastern Europe, the whole concept that the CIA’s behind everything is a surprisingly prevalent notion. It surprised me when I got to Eastern Europe and all sorts of people said, “Well the CIA did that…” And I’d say, “What? CIA?” I had to explain that the CIA’s not that all knowing.

And the other one is the American smile. We are heavily, heavily criticized for our fake American smile. And I do think that there’s some justification for that but again I felt it’s not nearly as strange as you might think. But to Eastern Europeans, whenever I asked them what they thought about Americans, they mentioned the “fake smile.” Bam, over and over again. It’s a common criticism.

Can you talk about your writing process?

The traditional methodology that people tell you to do is write fast and just get all the ideas down and then edit later. I’m not very good at that. I will sometimes not let a sentence go before starting the next one.

I had two editors who gave me editorial advice—this section is kinda boring, or this needs to be explained better, whatever. But I also had something, what I called Beta readers, just like you Beta test a site. So I basically said, anybody who’s interested can sign up on a distribution list & be a Beta reader. So I would send out chapter by chapter as the book was getting written.

So that’s the best type of crowd-sourcing. The readers benefit because they’re getting a sneak peak at your work and feel like they can have an influence. It benefits me because I’m getting real input. It was super valuable because a lot of my Beta readers were Eastern Europeans, and it was very important for me to have that sanity check, to have them make sure I’m not saying something super offensive, misleading, or inaccurate.

The Hungary chapter, which is the longest chapter in the whole book, is really controversial for Hungarians to stomach. I had a lot of Hungarians read it and it was an eye-opener for them, and it was great because they challenged my thoughts and it refined the chapter. So it ended up being a stronger chapter.

It was all this informal editing that I think made the book better, and made the book, not necessarily well-received by all Eastern Europeans, but at least it was fair.

 

The tone of Hidden Europe and in some of your blogs is so strongly opinionated at times—did you always have that voice or did it develop over the course of your life?

I think in my 20’s, I was a sponge. And I still am a sponge. But I’ve gotten so much evidence about certain things that I feel confident enough to say okay, this particular issue, I feel strongly enough to say this is the way this is because I’ve heard both sides of the story, I’ve heard it all, I’ve seen so many different angles, and this makes sense.

At the very conclusion of the book [The Hidden Europe], there’s an Answering the Critics’ section. [He reads] “Some may say this book creates and reinforces stereotypes. Some may say, ‘I jumped to a chapter on one country and it sucked.’ Some may say, ‘Who are you to give advice to my country?’ Some may say this book is too basic for sophisticated, knowledgeable Europeans. Some may say this book isn’t scientific.”

So I address each of these at the very end. I know there’s still going to be plenty of people that’ll give me one-star reviews on Amazon and they’re going to say those same things.

 

But it’s interesting because even though it seems opinionated, and sometimes almost irreverent, it’s objective in an interesting way because you’re laying out every part of your logical process, transparently. 

That’s right, and I was thinking recently about the whole idea of balance. In reporting, this whole idea of balance is you want to get both sides of a story, right? And sometimes people confuse balance with truth or confuse balance with reality.

For example, in my book, I sometimes point out the benefits of communism, of how there was security, everybody had a home, everybody had a job, people had social security, they had basic medical care. But there were also all sorts of horrendous problems with communism. Just huge. So in the end, my message is ‘communism sucks.’ It was a flawed system; it had all sorts of negative problems.

I’m sometimes strong on a certain issue—but if you really sit there and you have an open mind, I think it’s defensible. I don’t expect people to agree about everything I say, but I think they should read and say, ‘You know I don’t agree with all your conclusions, but I totally see how you got there.”

I’m gonna get in so much trouble for this book, I just know it! [laughs]  I’m just waiting for the nationalists to come crucify me! Like, “You said that about my country?!”

 

The Hidden Europe offers a ton of history and context while staying entertaining. How do you incorporate historical research into your writing process?

I read a lot. I’m just an information sponge. I’ve never owned a television in my life, but reading is probably my biggest source of facts.

Now for this book, though, I talk about this whole idea of getting history through people. In other words, getting into their brains and saying, for example, You tell me what California history is like. You tell me what American history is like…

There’s an often repeated quote that victors write history. But I think that’s kind of B.S. in some ways because in the end, history lives on in people’s heads, and the victor can write whatever he wants.

I’m curious about what’s the history in people’s brains, capturing the way they see the world. And a lot of times there is a disconnect between what objective historians say.  I do want to document what people on the streets say and teach their children. But at the same time, I want the reader to understand when those beliefs venture into fiction.

And it’s a tricky thing. I recognize throughout the whole time that my source may not be entirely objective either, and I may be burdened by my own bias going into it. But still I think I have a competitive advantage in writing this because I’m not Eastern European in any way. I’m a third Chilean, a third French and a third American. In my house we spoke Spanish, I went to French school for 12 years, but I grew up in America.

So as a result, I’m not terribly nationalistic or one-sided about almost anything. I see multiple perspectives all the time. So I think that I can be more objective than the typical person. That doesn’t mean I’m perfect either, so I do my best and just try to explain this is what I believe, these are the facts that I’ve read and they sound more plausible…and then occasionally use something called logic! [Laughs]

 

I really enjoyed the scene with the Polish man who talked with you for hours about Poland’s history.

Almost everything he said was actually factually correct, so I let him tell the story. But other times, I let people tell the story and then I point out, after or in the middle of the conversation, that they’re incorrect.

What was interesting was it also made me re-evaluate how I see American history or French history, or even Chilean history.  You wonder, am I looking at these things fairly and honestly and un-biasedly? So I think it was also helpful for me on a personal level.

 

So with your earlier mention of the CIA theories in the Balkans, did you trace that to a deeper fear?

I did. Eastern Europeans are quick to believe conspiracy theories because they lived through communism and war. Communism restricted the information flow and an entire generation grew up with the belief that anything the media and the government tells you is a lie. That’s an axiom that they have in their brain, in their DNA, and of course they had good reason to believe that.

Furthermore, they had a double-whammy. Communism was replaced by a war-time situation. So governments always tightly control the media during times of war. Even governments with long traditions of the free press, like the U.S., clamp down on the media during intense wars.

So until the 21st century, Balkanians have always lived in a society of misinformation. The problem is, now that Communism and wars are over, Balkanians haven’t adjusted. They’ve kept the habit of doubting everything and having more confidence in whatever their drunken buddy dreamed up at the BBQ!

 

Can we step back and talk about your time in college & graduate school? Can you talk about why you chose to major in religion for your undergraduate degree?

I thought it was the most important question we can ask ourselves—in other words, is there a supernatural force, power, God? And if so, of all these different religions, is there one of them that is tuned into the right frequency? I came in as a Christian but I had an open mind, and so as a result, I studied Islam, Buddhism, Sufism, Taoism, and Confucianism. And the more I studied the more I saw of course the common bonds religions have between themselves, but I also found inconsistencies, things that didn’t really make sense or I didn’t agree with.

 

And then you moved to Harvard Business School. When you were sitting in class, did your comments, as a religion-major, differ from those of, say, economics majors?

In business school, especially in the first year, I had the reputation of being kind of a goofball. I was one of the only people in the whole class who didn’t have a study group. Everybody was quite paranoid about passing and getting good grades, and I just didn’t worry about it at all. My grades were just average, but I was hoping to be average. I just wanted to graduate and I’m happy.

It was a great experience. The best thing about it was the people you meet—from all over the world, twenty-five percent of people were foreigners. I’m a big believer that: surround yourself with people who bring you up, not bring you down. That give you energy as opposed to take your energy. And I think that’s one of the benefits of HBS [Harvard Business School] is that people really have this positive influence.

And here’s the other thing I remember is that business school is about relationships. Ultimately it’s about interpersonal relationships and walking out of school with a bunch of connections. There you could potentially argue about the fake American smile! [Laughs] People just wanting to be friends and network. I think it’s less competitive than medical school, than law school, than engineering school—it’s more about the relationships than anything.

 

So then you graduate and start working with major tech companies in California, but ultimately choose to leave that career for long-distance hikes across the U.S. You were hiking thousands of miles, sometimes alone. What do you think about when you’re walking for such an incredibly long period of time?

I think when you walk for a long time, your mind eventually gets into a rhythm-like, meditative state. Eventually it’s all mechanical so your brain gets fired up—not having to think about the laborious uphill climb or the bear attacking me, or the where to go on the map. Eventually you get into a groove, and so once you’ve walked for a few weeks, all of a sudden the issues disappear. You have a serenity in your brain that allows you to contemplate your life, the world, the universe, just everything in a way that I think is hard especially in the modern life of people who life in cities. With the internet, cell phones, it’s really hard to get that kind of time out.

Even on the Appalachian Trail today it’s different than when I did it ten years ago. I think there’s a lot more people using smart phones and tweeting along the way and keeping connected. I didn’t have a cell phone on any of my long hikes. So I was truly disconnected on the Continental Divide Trail. I went 2,000 miles without seeing one backpacker. It’s incredible. The whole state of New Mexico, 700 miles, I saw one guy with a dog, out for a day hike.

 

But you’ve also done some trips with a partner. Which do you prefer?

Having done both, I would say I enjoyed my experiences more when I was with someone. When I was traveling through Eastern Europe for three years, I was alone most of the time, but people were always around, so I would have the interaction. So it’s better to have a travel partner, but when you’re going to touristy places, outside the wilderness, the downside is that you’re less likely to interact with locals. If you and I are on the bus together, we’re gonna talk to each other. But if I’m by myself, I’m gonna look at my neighbor and start talking to him.

But overall anyway, to answer your question, it’s better to be with somebody. I don’t want to do Africa alone, that’s for sure. I will postpone my journey until I find someone who’s appropriate who’d want to go on that trip.

 

How will you find someone that wants to leave for Africa for 3 years? I suppose there are tons of adventurous people in the Bay Area.

All over the world, actually. But there are two levels of adventurous people. There’s adventurous and then there’s really adventurous. A lot of people say, ‘Oh I wanna travel the world,’ but then all of a sudden, when they’re faced with the reality of it, they kind of shy away. But I think as I publicize the event and plan more, more people will become aware who have serious wanderlust.

But every single time I go on a long trip—whether it’s every time I’ve walked across America, those two times I walked across Spain, or five months in Eastern Europe and then later three years in Eastern Europe—every single one of those journeys just…it changes you in some way.

For me at least, it feels like, wow, I’m really living, I’m alive! Yeah a little of it’s adrenaline but it’s just fulfilling and feels like your life has so much more meaning. You’re beyond the drudgery, beyond the kind of routine-ness that so many people have, just kind of living their programmed existence— and then all of a sudden you’re really engaged with the world, you understand the environment and it changes your perspective.

And then of course, the worst thing is you become addicted to it! (Laughs) But it’s the first leap, I think, for many people—the first initial one that seems so scary.

 

Do you think people get afraid that if they leave they’re giving everything up?

Of course! A lot people say, “Francis, don’t you get homesick when you’re traveling?” and I say, “No. I’m carrying home inside me.” In other words, I feel comfortable anywhere, any place, it doesn’t matter whether I’m sleeping outside or in a nice hotel, or in some strange country where I don’t even speak the language. Anything that’s important you’re taking it with you.

It’s incredible, these days we’re just completely spoiled. You can replace the physical stuff, but relationships you can actually maintain a decent amount. Free video chats, social networks, and email allow us to not completely abandon our friendships. Never before had travelers had such an ability to stay connected with their friends back home. Technology allows us to give up less than travelers in the past.

So you’re not giving up much. It’s also about what you gain. You can focus on what you lose but then you don’t think about all you’re gaining. And to me the net-net is no contest.

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You can contact Adrianne Anderson at adrianne@cemproductions.org.

 

 

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