The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europe Can Teach Us - A Conversation with Francis Tapon '92 and Ben Lieber, Dean of Academic Support & Student Research
Ben Lieber (BL): I am Ben Lieber, and I’m the Dean for academic support and student research here at the college and previously I was Dean of students for many years. And in that capacity, I got to know Francis Tapon quite well. Among other things he was the legendary treasurer of the student government. We were just discussing how he used to launder money from the student government for all kinds of illicit purposes. He worked also with the legendary Willie Epps, who was also a member of the class of ’92 and was president of the student government.
Francis Tapon (FT): Dictator of the student government.
BL: Yeah. So they were quite a tandem, and Francis was overall one of my favorite students. And we are here today to talk about his book “The Hidden Europe: what Eastern Europeans can teach us.” Francis happens to be on campus today because he just addressed the entrepreneurs club on campus. Francis is himself an entrepreneur and has made a life for himself after leaving the business sphere, travelling and writing about his experiences in a kind of a unique way. I think our conversation today will be both biographical in the sense that Francis can talk somewhat about his own experiences and what led him to this path, and then also about the book itself, which is called The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us. So, with that introduction, let me ask Francis to start by telling us a little bit about himself and in particular, you have a fairly unique and pretty international background, the family background that you come from.
FT: That’s right. My mom was born in Chile and my father was born in France, and they met in San Francisco thanks to a slow elevator. They eventually had me, my brother and I was born in San Francisco and we went from kindergarten to a French-American International school. All my classes, history math and physics, was all taught in French. I did that all the way up until about 10th grade then I transferred my last two years to an American school. I got that international background. At home we spoke Spanish, at school we spoke French, and in San Francisco we somehow spoke English. That immediately opened my eyes to the world in that sense, and as a kid since our family was basically just my brother and my parents, that’s it, in the United States, in the North American continent, there was one cousin who lived around us, we would have to voyage all the way either to France or Chile to see anybody, and I never ever once sat down with my whole family in one table. Like Thanksgiving where you have both sides of your mom’s family and your dad’s family in one table. Never in my entire life, and it will never happen because my grandparents are all gone. So, anyway, that was my international background. And eventually from high school I went to college, which was, Amherst College was a truly transformative and an amazing experience.
BL: So what brought you to Amherst in the first place?
FT: I was in San Francisco, as I was mentioning, and in California, in the west coast in fact, there’s very few liberal arts colleges. There’s Pomona, Occidental, and that’s pretty much it. And otherwise it’s Stanford, Berkley, and they’re all big schools. If you want to have a small liberal arts college experience, which is what I wanted because I came from a small high school, you have to look east. The funny thing is I really wanted to be a neuroscience major, and so that’s what attracted to me originally to Amherst, because it’s one of the only liberal arts colleges that actually has a neuroscience department. And so I thought “Amherst is the best place for me.” In fact I didn’t apply to any of the Ivy’s except for Brown University. I was just really focused on thinking Amherst would be my best choice. And the ironic thing is that in the first week of coming into campus, Professor George…
BL: Steve George? Who is still here, I think he’s going to retire next year.
FT: Yes! Ah, I have to talk to him. But anyway, he basically splashed a little cold water on my face trying to indicate what it means to be a neuroscience major, and he wanted to test to see if I was prepared to go through the ordeal of becoming a neuroscientist or neurosurgeon. And that is a life changing conversation I had in the first week of Amherst because I realized, even though I signed up for biology and physics and all that stuff, I immediately within the first week changed it and decided to not do it. Because he really said “you know what? This is going to be a whole lot of work. Do you want to do that?” I was like “uh, actually I’m kind of lazy, so, no.”
BL: Well that shows a remarkable amount of self-knowledge for an eighteen year old.
FT: That’s right.
BL: So you came to Amherst, you majored in…
FT: Religion ultimately. I kind of cycled through economics and psychology thinking about all these things. I got a C+ or something like that in psychology or in economics, something like that. It was like, they were not great grades my freshman year so I was like, ok, I need to start with a major that I can actually get better than a C+ for the introduction class. And so I decided I’ll major in religion, because I was just curious about religions and I knew I would never have the personal motivation after college to pick up a religious text, like the Quran, or the Bible, or Bhagavad Gita or any of these Daoist stuff. I would never want to read that on my spare time. Only when someone is pointing a gun to my head, and saying “read this or you’re going to fail.” That’s when I’ll read these religious texts. But I want to read them. So this is a way to motivate my butt to actually read these.
BL: So talk a little bit about the years subsequent to your graduation.
FT: Right after Amherst, I worked at Hitachi data systems in the Latin America department, in Silicon Valley, so I got a great chance to travel in Latin America. And again this is the testament to I think one of the strengths of Amherst. Here I was, a religion major, working in marketing, in a high tech company, in Silicon Valley. I think that just shows that the Amherst education can give you that flexibility to change career paths pretty easily. It gives you that malleability in your brain to pick up new spheres of knowledge. And I was fortunate to have done that. Part of the reason was that while I was at Amherst, I had done internships, at either American present line, Citibank and Hitachi. So I have been able to show that I wasn’t a complete idiot at business. So that skill set allowed me to get that job straight out of college which was a really great job back in 1992, to be a 22year old, 23 year old travelling to Latin America, and being a marketing person was pretty innovative at that time.
BL: You were in on the ground floor in terms of the high tech boom.
FT: That too. So it was a combination of being at the right industry and also international stuff, and my ability to speak Spanish helped, of course. And I think it’s because of that, and the Amherst education which I eventually got my grades back up, that I was able to get into Harvard Business.
BL: And then subsequent to Harvard Business School, talk a little bit about what you did after.
FT: Then I realized my purpose in life is to be a maverick.
BL: Ok that’s the interesting part. Not Harvard Business School. I don’t want to offend any of our alums that went to Harvard Business School. Not that that’s not interesting, but you didn’t write a memoir about your experiences at Harvard Business School. So talk about your life as a maverick. What brought you to that?
FT: Well, I guess I probably, I was already kind of, somewhat had that maverick meaningless even at Amherst. Even though I was in politics, I said a lot of politically incorrect things at a time period when political correctness was paramount. I had a tendency to always open my mouth and say things that were a little bit on the outrageous side, so probably it was in my blood at that point. I think I get it from my dad. While most people after getting an MBA they go off and pursue typical MBA type of careers, already there I took a job that had zero salary. I started a startup with two other people, two engineers, and it was in Silicon Valley. But I took zero salary. So when everybody was taking these nice paying jobs, I ruined the class average by taking...
BL: Which you did academically when you were at Amherst.
FT: That’s right. So yeah, basically, it was a good experience to go off there and work at a startup and build a company from the ground up. One of the things that sometimes irks me in Silicon Valley, people will say “I work at a startup” I’m like “oh yeah? What’s that?” “Twitter” “Pshh” that’s not a startup. Sorry. Yes, it’s not that old of a company, but they’ve got over 100 employees and millions and millions of dollars of funding. To me, we were in a garage, literally in a garage. Eventually we got office space like a few months later. But it was just the three of us, to me that’s a real start up.
BL: And what became of that venture?
FT: Eventually, after four years of working there, and I do regret having worked four years, that now I think I should have worked two but, I realized the CEO and I had different visions of how to grow the company. He was a classic inventor entrepreneur, somebody who wants to hold on to his little baby, and not let anybody play with it, and versus I wanted to take in venture money, give up the piece of the company, and give up some control in exchange, for getting some cash in and allowing us to grow the company to a bigger size. We couldn’t get valuations that met his, I know I could get a $5million valuation, but he wanted $10million.
BL: So you parted ways?
FT: Yeah we parted ways. He bought out my share of the company.
BL: That then prompted your travels?
FT: Yeah that was the catalyst, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. So I went and hiked the Appalachian Trail.
BL: How much time did you spend doing that?
FT: Four months, just under four months.
BL: And that gave you or intensified your travel bug?
FT: That’s right. That’s when I asked myself what I call the billion dollar question: What would I do with my time if I had billion dollars? And I realized I wouldn’t be working in this, I would be travelling.
BL: So eventually, your travels bring you to Eastern Europe. So why Eastern Europe in particular?
FT: Eastern Europe because, as I mentioned my father is French and I had this European education, if you will, French education, so I knew a lot about western Europe but Eastern Europe was a mystery to me. And I grew up in the cold war, so the wall came down when I was at Amherst and the whole Eastern Europe block kind of collapsed while I was at Amherst. Because I was at Amherst, nice isolated bubble environment that sometimes it can be, I had no clue. I didn’t really follow that much of what was going on in Eastern Europe when that whole thing was coming down. And so I was involved in classes and I had no idea. And then afterwards, although I did go to Czech Republic and I went to Hungary right after Amherst on a Western European trip, I really didn’t know much about that region, so I wanted to go explore that part of the world.
BL: So talk about a little bit about the time you spent, how much time, how often did you go, and at what point did you decided that you needed to write about the experience.
FT: So I knew before I even went I was going to write a book about it. So my first book was Hike your own Hike which was written about the Appalachian Trail experience. I knew going into Eastern Europe I was going to write a book. But the funny thing is, I was just going to travel there for five months and write a book. I was going to visit all 25 countries and write a book. That was my plan. So I went in 2004, spent five months there. And then I got this urge to walk across America again, and so I hiked up Pacific Crest Trail, which goes from Canada to Mexico along the western the side, you know, Washington, Oregon.
BL: How long did that take you?
FT: About four months. It was about 2,700 miles. It was about, 25-30 miles a day or something like that. It was going to the Sierras and the Cascade mountain range. Then, right after that, a few months later, I hiked the Continental Divide Trail as a round trip, which is going from Mexico to Canada, and then back along the Continental Divide which goes through Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana. That took seven months because you’re doing a round trip. And that was 35 miles a day that I was walking in the wilderness, sleeping outside in the woods. These are all fun activities, but guess what, you’re not writing a book.
BL: One would imagine.
FT: Exactly. And so, as a result, time just flew by, and before you knew it, it was 2008. And I’d be writing a book about my experience in 2004?
BL: I see
FT: And by the time the book came out it’d be five years later? Too much of a gap. Eastern Europe was already changing even more, and I had a five month experience way back in 2004. So I was like “uh, god that means I’m going to have to revisit this place?” So I decided to revisit, and then I ended up spending, I said “I’ll just go for another six months or something like that, and revisit this country.” Three years later, is when I finally left Eastern Europe.
BL: You were on the road for three solid years.
FT: That’s right. 2008 to 2011 basically.
BL: And then how long did it take you to write the book actually afterward?
FT: Well, I was writing it while I was there. So I was travelling intensely for two of those three years, and then the last year I was spending much more time writing than I was travelling.
BL: And the book itself. How would you describe its genre?
FT: Travel log.
BL: Travel log. So, by that do you mean it combines aspects of a travel guide and a memoir. Is that a fair statement?
FT: I suppose, but I really kind of scramble away from the term travel guide because I don’t want anybody to even think for a moment that they want to pick this book up to find out where the best sites to go to and what restaurant to eat at or what hotel to stay at, where to exchange your money. There’s zero of that in the book. So, I definitely do talk about the highlights of things to see.
BL: Certainly country by country you mentioned specific things that people...
FT: Especially at the end of every chapter. But it’s only just basically one sentence where I summarize these kinds of things. In the text itself, I mention things and describe certain areas. But I would say more like a travel log like a Bill Bryson who’s written several travel logs. He’s kind of like my hero for writing. I have never read Paul Theroux, but I know he writes travel logs. But I have a feeling he doesn’t inject his travel logs with that much humor. I have seen an interview with him and he looks like a serious guy. I’m more like a Bill Bryson where I try to inject a little lighter side of things.
BL: I would say you have a very breezy style, which is quite attractive.
FT: Which you need to have for a 750 paged book.
BL: One would think. Although I wouldn’t describe War and Peace, one of my favorite novels, as breezy. They’re different genres.
FT: War and Peace would never sell today.
BL: My daughter has her Ph.D. in Slavic literature, so don’t say that. So, what should readers come to the book expecting to find? If it’s not a travel guide, what would you say that the most salient feature of it is that should attract readers to it?
FT: I would say that it is information about each culture in Eastern Europe. 25 chapters, 25 countries. One chapter devoted to each country. And I think that they would go there hoping to learn a lot more so they can say “So this is the difference between a Latvian and a Lithuanian.” You want to read this book if you want to learn what’s the difference between a Slovene and a Slovakian. Because I had no clue, and most people have no clue.
BL: Certainly, most Americans.
FT: But a lot of Europeans really don’t know. You want to learn about the language, the food, the culture, the music that they listen to, the history that they have, what they think about each other, and that level of detail. And at the same time, intermingling my personal journey and my personal experiences in a way. And I think also you do need to not take life too seriously to read my book, because if you’re somebody who’s easily offended by everything, like I said I’m not politically correct, and I sometimes have a sharp tongue. So for those who are either very nationalistic or very proud of their Eastern European country that they happen to be from, then this is not their book. Because I do push people’s buttons.
BL: This is kind of an interesting sideline, because some of that appears in the book, but not all that much. Would you say you were constantly offending the people you dealt with in Eastern Europe?
FT: No, I wasn’t constantly offending them. I would say in general I think I was overall culturally sensitive for the most part when I was there I watched my words carefully. That’s the good news about being a writer, you really use words carefully. You know the power they have. But the same time, I did push people’s buttons. I wanted to find out what part of the country that they really are proud of. It’s like going up to an American and saying “Hey do you mind if I burn your flag today?”
BL: That would be fairly provocative.
FT: That would be very provocative. So there are certain things that are really tight to the national things. The perfect example of that is that certain people, if they come straight out of the war they are very sensitive. So ex-Yugoslavia, with the whole Balkans, they really have to tread carefully.
BL: Sure, that must be incredibly fraught.
FT: Yeah. So you have to really watch your words and how you present. And it’s tough because a lot of people are not English native speakers, and so you have to really be careful and delicate when you’re talking about these issues. I was fortunate to meet a lot of people who were pretty open minded and open to discussing their country and admitting their flaws that their own country has. When I felt right, I would proceed with tougher and tougher questions, and try to get at the root of everything. I think ultimately I am trying to be as subjective as I can in the book. The advantage of me writing about Eastern Europe is I have no Eastern European blood. I have no Eastern European connections. I’m not some Polish guy who’s going to be writing bad things about Russia, or bad things about Lithuania just because they don’t like Lithuania and Russia that much in Poland. So I don’t have a bias. So I can see the Lithuanian perspective and the Russian perspective, but at the same time I can understand the Polish perspective. I have no little beef about any of this stuff. And, furthermore, I’m not really that much of an American either, so I don’t even take the American position that much either. In other words, I understand America’s position, but I only consider myself a third American, because I have a passport and nationality of French and Chile.
BL: So you have both Chilean and French citizenship as well?
FT: Yup, that’s right
BL: Interesting, I didn’t realize that.
FT: Bottom line, I don’t feel necessarily strongly to any country. I don’t feel patriotism and a strong attachment to any one country so I think I’m ideally suited to be a travel writer, in that sense. Because, I look at everything as Homo Sapiens.
BL: One of the things that interested me about the overall structure of the book is that you have a chapter for each country of 25 countries. Exactly how you define Eastern Europe is an important issue and not a clear issue, and you talk about this in the book. You define Eastern Europe very differently from the way Eastern Europeans do and in fact many of the Eastern Europeans according to you don’t even consider themselves Eastern Europeans. So could you discuss that issue a little bit? How did you come to the conclusion of which countries you would visit and which countries you would write about?
FT: Yeah you’re absolutely right Ben. The majority of Eastern Europeans don’t think they’re in Eastern Europe, would not classify themselves as Eastern Europe. That is because the legacy of the cold war. You can download for free the introduction of the first two chapters of the book for free on my webpage, or I think you can even get it on Amazon. And you can read that section, but I’ll summarize it briefly. Basically, the cold war, Eastern Europe was easy to define. It was all the losers on the other side of the iron curtain. All those guys in the backward communist countries, that was Eastern Europe. It was very easy. Once the wall came down, Eastern Europeans realized that Eastern Europe had that negative connotation. And so they didn’t want to be associated with Eastern Europe. You go to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, “we’re in central Europe. We’re not in Eastern Europe.” You go to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, “we’re in northern Europe.” You go down to the Balkans, “we’re in Southeast Europe,” or “Southern Europe.” Russians just kind of shrug. “Well, whatever we got 80% of Russia is in Asia. And we’re not European, we’re kind of like, we’re Russians. We’re in a class by ourselves.” I argue that there’s a good case to be made for that. Pretty much that leaves just a few countries that really have no way out of these, and that’s Romania, Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine.
FT: Bulgaria, maybe. They might argue that they’re in Southern Europe. But otherwise, it’s pretty much of a stretch. So I defined it through looking at the cold war dividing lines. I looked at geography, Finnish people, people in Finland and Greece are not happy to be in my book.
BL: So that’s what all those demonstrations in Athens are about? I was wondering what the political situation was, it all has to do with you!
FT: That’s right. But as I like to point out to people I encourage people to look at maps, and if you look at a map, you’ll see that Finland is right next to Russia and above Estonia in the Baltic. It’s clearly in Eastern Europe. This is assuming a simple, binary division of Europe, East and West, assuming you don’t have north, south, northeast and all those other stuff. It’s just like we draw the line in the Mississippi river to divide the United States, east and west. It’s amazing to Americans, like “what’s the big deal about this?” but it’s a very emotional and touchy subject amongst Eastern Europeans. So I had to fight that all the time. That’s how defined it is. It was just geography, and also for tourist reasons. For example Slovenia is certainly in Western Europe if you divide it geographically, it does fall right into the Western Europe side of things, if looking at a straight split, if you look at the Euro Mountains to Portugal or Iceland for that matter. But Slovenia is a hidden part of Europe, in other words it’s a part of Europe that tourists still are just discovering. That’s why I threw it into Eastern Europe as well.
BL: Given the lack of consensus among Eastern Europeans that they are even Eastern Europeans, in all your travels, what would you say the Eastern Europeans have in common? What are the common features that you could point to, that you do point to in fact?
FT: I tried to summarize, there’s six things at the very back of the back of the book to summarize things. One is their general toughness. They’ve went through a lot of stuff in the 20th century. It was a trying period of war, famines and genocide.
BL: The word you used was “resilience” I think.
FT: Yes, that’s right. And so I think that’s in their blood at this point. That’s a common feature that they have. I think also that they have a pretty good work-life balance. Which explains potentially, you’ll see that all over Europe, they do know how to balance family and friends’ time with their general work obligations. I think their streets geographically tend to be more pedestrian friendly. They have the biggest squares in Europe, I think the six biggest squares in Europe are in Eastern Europe. They also have declining populations by the way. They’re the fastest depopulating place in the world.
BL: And what accounts for that?
FT: There are basically three reasons that the population is going down in Eastern Europe, it’s a perfect storm of three factors. Number one, you have a declining fertility rate; number two, you have a high emigration rate, people leaving the country; and the third of all the death rate is increasing. You have, for example, Russia is the prime case, where the actual life expectancy has gone down in the last 20 years. For the man in Russia, the last survey was 59.7 years of age.
BL: I know that. In fact I spent a little time in Russia when our daughter was there in St. Petersburg. You see many elderly women on the streets and very, very few elderly men. I mean it’s quite visible, it’s striking.
FT: Yeah. It’s something that has affected Europe and so you have this increasing death rate. I think it’s just a temporary blip frankly, that’s creating this declining population but I think each country is dealing with it differently. But that’s another thing that the region has in common. The final thing I would mention is their flat tax policy. That it’s ironic that conservatives and free marketers in America have been rallying for flat tax in America and it sounds like a very capitalistic thing to do and here we have these ex-communist countries which were the ones to adopt it much faster. Most Eastern European countries have flat tax. And in general their tax system is very simple. Why is that? Well it’s because they started from nothing. They created their countries, they created new constitutions should I say, just 20 years ago. And they didn’t have taxes in communism. We have this tax code that’s like 57 bibles tall, and they have a much cleaner tax code. And that’s something that they also share in common.
BL: Actually, you mention that communist legacy, and one of the things you write is that the failed communist experiment is perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from Eastern Europe.
FT: Yeah. I haven’t spent enough time with recent Amherst College graduates and students, but I would suspect that there’s some of them, I mean when you look at the protest of “we are the 99%” and all the “we occupy Wall Street” and that kind of stuff, there is a bit of this collectivist/socialized communist thing like “let’s take money from here and redistribute it aggressively, really aggressively.” And in America we have a progressive tax code, but there’s a point where you eventually cross the line and you go to a point where the state takes so much control in this effort to do good, because communism was an effort to do good, I mean that’s the whole point of communism, it was to equalize. And it sounds very noble. Like, “Why should a doctor make so much more than a guy who is cleaning up toilets?” But in order to achieve that, you have to do things that a lot of Americans certainly and a lot of people in the world, in fact a lot of Eastern Europeans, think is unjust, which is taking property from people who have worked for it and taking it away from them and giving it to people who haven’t done anything for it. And for a lot of people, that’s unjust. So in the effort of doing justice, you often do injustice. It’s a slippery slope. The bottom line is the world has voted, people were voting even while they were in communism. There was a reason why the Berlin Wall was built. It wasn’t to stop capitalists from flooding the country; it was stopping the communists from leaving the country, because they would be voting with their feet. They were not happy with their system. And they were so unhappy they would do anything, risk their life, to go across the wall, and get shot and killed, and many did, in order to just get out of that oppressive system. Those walls were not built to stop Americans from immigrating. Lee Harvey Oswald went to Belarus. It was easy for him to go there, to immigrate. It’s hard to leave. I think sometimes we forget that we have a nostalgia, and even in Eastern Europe they still have, especially the older generation, a kind of nostalgia. So I think that’s one of the most profound lessons to just “let’s remember what communism and when a state takes strong control over the economy and people’s personal lives, and what that really feels like.” The ideals are noble, there’s no question. But the actual execution of that and doing it, all of a sudden devils in the details and you realize, “huh, there’s a lot downsides to this.” And actually, as flawed as capitalism is, as flawed as democracy is, it’s better than the alternative.
BL: Would you describe your politics as fundamentally libertarian?
FT: It is solidly, it comes across in the book, and I don’t behind that. At the same time, in the book, I do spend a lot of time extolling the virtues of communism. I do try to point out some of the benefits and why people are still fans of it. You have to admit, I have to admit, even as a libertarian, there’s advantages to the police state. People in Albania told me that women can walk out around at night in 2 o’clock in the morning, no problem. Nobody worried. If somebody assaulted a woman back in Albania, you would be thrown in jail, tortured, it would just be horrible. And in Belarus, even recently, there’s very little crime, you can walk around in the street. There’s policeman all over the place. And even if there weren’t policeman, just a word of mouth, it’s just that it’s tough. Nowadays, in Russia, there’s much more crime. Much more crime and delinquency. That’s one thing. It really did work in communism making sure that people had the same standard of living everywhere. People had very similar houses, nobody had to worry about having enough food, everybody had healthcare, everybody had a house, everybody had a job. It really did work in that sense. The problem was, that the healthcare was lame. The problem was that the jobs were crappy, the pay was terrible, the food was horrible, and the selection of clothes to pick was mediocre. It did all those things, it gave you your basic necessities, but compared to capitalist societies, the middle class people in the capitalist societies, they were doing much better. So that’s the question you have to ask yourself. Is it ok that 10% of people are in poverty and 90% of people doing really well, or would you rather have 90% of people doing so-so, barely, and 10% doing really well, but nobody doing bad. So that’s the dilemma that you have to decide on , and I think, of course, democracy rules in a sense that most people would rather bank on “I’m going to be part of that 90% that’s doing pretty well.” I don’t want to make it sound like I’m blind to the benefits of communism. I certainly recognize them and point them out in the book. But I think the biggest lesson is not to forget what those downsides are. As you and I die off…
BL: Me sooner than you!
FT: I’m going to Africa next!
BL: Oh let’s hope!
FT: Those lessons might be lost.
BL: Clearly. I think, the current generation of Amherst students know very very little about, you know, communism.
FT: They were born when the wall was already down.
BL: Well after. I think the current freshman class was born in 1994?
BL: It’s interesting you talk about inflow and outflow of people and people voting with their feet. And one of the things you talk about in the book is the way that your experiences in Eastern Europe influenced your own view of immigration to the U.S. Do you want to talk about that?
FT: Yeah. My parents are immigrants. My mom came here with $300 bucks in her pocket. She didn’t have enough money to fly back to Chile. She got a job within a couple of weeks with Bank of America as a clerk. She didn’t speak much English, but she could be doing some simple jobs as a clerk. My dad came here. He did speak a little bit of English. They were both immigrants but they both worked hard, and paid for my expensive Amherst College education. So immigration, I kind of understand that. But it wasn’t until I got to Eastern Europe, and I started hanging out with people who could have been in my class at Amherst College, bright young people, and there was no way in hell that they could come to America. And I thought “this is so stupid.” Here they are, these are doctors, these are educated, sharp people, scientists. They cannot for the life of them immigrate to this country. How stupid is that? When’s the last time a Slavic person was a terrorist in America? Never! It just doesn’t happen. Unfortunately, we fear immigration, but it’s something that I think is lifeblood. Summarizing it perfectly as I can, I would say: “Think about it this way. The cost of having a baby, and raising them until about 25 years or so when they get college educated or maybe graduate school and all that stuff, is an enormous strain on society and a person. It costs a lot of money, and they produce nothing. Jack squat, nothing. All they do is take, take, take, take, take.”
BL: Are you explaining why you don’t have children.
FT: But the bottom line, that’s what it is. It costs society, as parents, time, money, all that stuff. That’s what it is. But then magically, at around 25, they start producing, they start giving output. So what is an immigrant? An immigrant usually comes around when they’re like 25. They’re these young people who want to get out of their country and explore and maybe they’re married but probably not. They just want to come to America to have opportunities. And they’re fully baked! It’s like getting a pizza, it’s coming right out of the oven, it’s already done! I don’t have to invest in any ingredients into it. I don’t have to do any work. It’s already done. And he’s going to jump into our society and bam, start working. That is the beauty of an immigrant. And then what happens with immigrants once they’re old farts? They often go back, right when we don’t want them anymore. They’re like what’s their dream? You talk to an immigrant, “Oh my dream is to go back to Italia and to retire in my villa,” or whatever or “go back to Russia and retire there, that’s my dream” or “live like a king in India”. That’s what they want to do. Often times they want to go back. So it’s like perfect, coming here during your 20s to 65, and then leave. And even if they stay, I mean they worked their butt off for their whole term here, and they tend to be the most industrious people around. Who are the people who are cleaning the toilets? They’re immigrants. Who are the people who are creating the 25% of the startups in Silicon Valley? They’re immigrants. They’re working their tail off. It’s just a great work ethic and they just produce. It’s just a great win-win. Open the flood gates.
BL: Great! I don’t think we’re going to go one by one through all 25 chapters.
FT: No! We’ll be here for like another…
BL: We’ll spare all the listeners that. But if you were given the chance to revisit only one of the 25 countries, that you went to, which would it be and why?
FT: I’d probably pick Montenegro. Montenegro is only the size of Connecticut, it’s a small country, but it has everything. I’ve been there three times already, but I really adore it. I almost bought a house there in fact. It has the southernmost fjords of Europe. So you can imagine Norway with good weather. That’s basically what Montenegro is like. It’s got this bay with these massive 3,000foot, 1000 meter mountains that just drop into the sea. They have these Italian, venetian villages all around the base of these mountains that are pedestrian only, especially like Kotor, Montenegro, is just a pedestrian mecca. They’re small, but the setting is precious, the weather is perfect, and the food is delicious. I’m not a big fan frankly of Eastern European food, I’m a vegetarian, but if you go to the coast of the Adriatic Sea, Montenegro, Croatia, you’ll get a lot of Italian influence. So you’ll get gelato, you’ll get pizza, you’ll get pasta, you’ll get fish, and all that stuff that is really tasty. So it’s just a great combination of all of those things so, that’s my favorite place.
BL: Let me ask you the obverse question, which is, if you were going to be forced to go back to Eastern Europe, and you were told you could pick one country that you would not under any circumstances, want to revisit, what would that be?
FT: That’d be really hard, because I would want to see them all.
BL: Metaphorically you have a gun to your head.
FT: I would say Moldova, because there’s not much to see that I’ve seen in Moldova. But the reason that I’m attracted to it is that I want to convince myself of that. I’m like “there’s got to be something to see.” And I can hit myself that I never saw the biggest winery in the world which is in Moldova. I didn’t actually go, I don’t drink alcohol so I’m not that intrigued. It would have been cool, they have the capacity to store four million bottles. It’s a 160 miles long! A 160 miles long winery! It’s enormous! I would have liked to have seen that. Never did get to see it. But if I had to pick one I would probably say Moldova, just because it’s a small country I feel like I’ve seen a lot of, but frankly, there’s not a lot to see.
BL: So let’s talk about the future for a little bit. What are your plans, and clearly you’re going to keep travelling, and you’re going to keep writing. So talk about the next steps.
FT: 2013 to 2016, for about three years or so, I plan to go to Africa, every country in Africa.
BL: Which is how many countries?
FT: 54 countries. You would start in Cairo, in Egypt, and go south into Sudan and Eritrea then Somalia, then go out to Madagascar, eventually into South Africa, work my way up the Western coast, Namibia and all that stuff, and then go to West Africa and then across north Africa, hitting all 54 in the path. I kind of lay out the journey on my website, the path that I plan to take. It sounds like a lot of time, three years, and of course in some ways it is. But when you think about it, 54 countries, that’s only about three weeks per country. And then you think about the size of these countries, Sudan is the size of the whole east coast. Imagine touring the east coast in three weeks. And that’s the east coast that has the amazing infrastructure for transportation. Going three weeks in the east coast, you’re kind of in a hurry. Algeria is the size of Western Europe. So is Congo. These are huge countries to a large extent, and the transportation infrastructure is kind of weak. I hope to do it in three years. Fortunately, there are a few small countries in Africa, especially in West Africa, like Senegal and Togo that I might be able to spend less than three weeks in. That’s the basic plan. And then after, longer term is to go to the Middle East, and then go spend a couple years there, and then go to Asia, visit all the counties there, Pacific Ocean, see all the islands, and then, maybe South America at that point, because that would be the only one. There are few countries I haven’t been to. I’ve been to 80 countries so far, and if I follow that plan, I will have seen all the countries.
BL: Do you ever plan to settle down?
FT: No plans right now, but after I’ve seen all the countries in the world, then I probably would settle down, but I would probably still enjoy travelling. It’s really hard to predict how you’ll feel in 10 years. Life throws curve balls. If you had interviewed me on graduation day at Amherst, and you had told me “Francis, in 20 years from now, you’re going to be sitting down and talking about your world” I’d be like “I don’t think so. It doesn’t sound like what I’m going to be doing.”
BL: At the time, I remember I was just stunned you had managed to graduate. I think probably a lot of people who are listening, because you come from a middle class background, you don’t come from huge family wealth, how can you afford to live this way? How have you managed for all these years, and how will you manage in the future?
FT: I live like a monk, I’m 42 now and in my life I’ve never owned a chair, bed, a table, a television, a sofa, nothing. Never. In my entire life. When I was at Amherst, they were furnished.
BL: Yes, quite elegant.
FT: After Amherst I lived with my parents for a while and then I rented rooms that were furnished. One place I subletted in San Francisco was not furnished. I just borrowed a futon from my friend and put it on the floor. So you entered the apartment and there was only a futon, that was it. I always lived a very minimalist simple existence, that’s kept my cost really low. Even when I was making six figures, and making good money when I was working Microsoft for a year and a half when I was consulting there. Even while I was making a good salary, for about four years after business school, I was still living like a student. As a result I was able to save up a lot of money. Also I made some good investments. I was lucky to buy stocks when they were low and sell them when they were high for the most part. That was a fortunate coincidence too. That allowed me to have a bunch of what I call “F.U.” money. It allows you at any point to get up and leave and go anywhere you want. That’s part one is living simply, living below your means. And you’re able to save. The second thing is that I travel below my means too. I couch surf a lot, I camp a lot, or I’ll stay in hostels if I want to splurge. Basically, it’s a very simple form of travel which has the additional benefit of allowing me to really meet the locals and spend time with locals and hang out with them in buses and trains and whatever, in that kind of stuff, and really get to stay with families and multi generations and all this other stuff. And when I did rent places, like I rented a place in Slovenia, it was really inexpensive. Croatia was like $300 a month. And yet I had a view of the Adriatic Sea from my window. It was a massive view, that’s where I was writing my book. But it was inexpensive. That allows me to have the ability to travel for the next 10 years. My trip to Africa, for example, I estimate it’s going to cost about $60,000, for three years. Most people spend $60,000 just staying in America for one year. But I think I can travel for three years with that. I also hope to film it, in Africa, I hope to document it, so that might actually raise my cost because I might have to have a film crew with me.
BL: And then you would put that on your website or release it commercially?
FT: Yeah webisodes, or maybe sell it, if I can, the real long shot would be going to cable networks and seeing if they would want to buy the episodes or making a documentary out of it. But the business side of me thinks it’s really hard to make money making documentaries. So I don’t know if it’s worth it. But maybe it will.
BL: Well, I think it’s time to mention, just the title of the book again. The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us, which is really interesting, well written, instructive piece of work. Why don’t you tell all the listeners how they can acquire it should they wish to.
FT: This is available on amazon, both in hardcover and e-book, and it’s also available on my website as a hardcover and e-book, and in my website you can get an autographed copy.
BL: Does the autograph increase or decrease the value?
FT: In this case I actually charge people a dollar for getting my autograph, so I think it’s going to increase which might explain why I don’t sell too many of them. But I like your idea. Maybe I’ll say I’ll pay you a dollar to have an autograph. But that’s where it’s available. So my website is, you can either go to wanderlearn.com or my name francistapon.com. Or if you’re really lazy, ftapon.com, and of course you can find it on amazon.
BL: Terrific. Thanks for spending time with us, and it’s great to see you again.