Transatlantic Magazine Editor Robert J. Guttman Reviews Exploring New Europe

October 25, 2017

“I wanted to combine my interest in meeting new people and learning about their lives; riding my bicycle from Estonia to Albania to explore the new Europe, and writing about a part of the world rarely written about these days,” says Barry Wood, the author of Exploring New Europe: A Bicycle Journey.

The book is part adventure story, part an economic primer on the countries coming out of communism into capitalism and how ordinary people in these nations-including Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Albania and the area of Kalingrad-and a first-hand grueling look at the author’s “2,500 mile odyssey across the plains, woodlands and mountains of New Europe”.

I would wholeheartedly recommend this book as it is lively, interesting, poignant, illuminating and most of all very well written.

I should point out  I have known the author for nearly thirty years and Barry is the most outgoing individual I have met in all my years in journalism.  He loves talking to people and spending time finding out what people are thinking.  Barry combines his interest in writing and economics-he was a senior economics writer for Voice of America for many years covering the transition of Central and Eastern Europe nations from communism to capitalism, living in Prague for several years covering these events first-hand.

Only this author could ride a bike through these mostly unknown roads and byways and actually make friends with the locals after a hard day of riding in all types of weather.

Barry was able to cut down on expenses-and make his trip quite fascinating to read about-by staying at people’s houses who he met by striking up conversations along the road, at bars or restaurants or bike shops.

In an interview with Barry, the author comments on his reasons for writing this interesting and informative book about a mostly little read about region of Europe.

“I wrote this book because after a decade of reporting on what policymakers and outsiders were saying about the transformation from communism to a free market, I wanted to see for myself how the average Ivan and Jarmilla were actually doing.  Think about it. . .suddenly a low energy, substandard but predictable system was overturned.  It was replaced with a bewildering world of choices and individual responsibility.  No longer was a job guaranteed for life.  No longer was health care essentially free, rents low and old age pensions not a worry.  The old system produced shoddy goods, people didn’t work very hard, there was little opportunity for travel, corruption was rampant, but basics were taken for granted.

Suddenly after 1990 the world opened up. Borders came down. But the only people who could afford to travel of buy the luxuries suddenly available in the shops were people with money.  And you had to scramble to get money.  In short, freedom was fantastic, communism terrible, but the adjustment to the new order was rather frightening, particularly to people 35 and older.  It seemed all the opportunities went to the young, the educated and those who spoke English.

So, I wanted to put my finger on the pulse of ordinary people and hear their stories.  That’s why I traveled by bike, where you had to encounter people just to find your way.  It put me down on the ground, away from the elites, and allowed me to get a sense of what was happening.  What I found out is the content of the book,” relates the author.

As he states in his introduction, “I wanted the focus to remain solely on the journey.  So, despite the risk, I concluded  I would ride alone.”

I enjoyed reading not only about Barry’s thrilling and adventuresome bike ride across the new Europe but how he provided a historical perspective on every place he pedals through.  It is a terrific way to learn history in an exciting manner about a part of the world usually not ever talked about in the news and rarely in books.

Bicycling through Kalingrad, the author states, “Suddenly, I was in Russia, again alone in the middle of nowhere.  Would my journey across the Russian enclave be peaceful?  Or would I be set upon by bandits springing from the bushes?”

You will have to read Exploring New Europe to find out how Barry fared in not only Kalingrad but on his lengthy ride from Estonia to Albania.

What makes the book so interesting are the profiles of the diverse individuals and how they are coping with their new lives under capitalism.  When Barry gives an overview at the end of the book to recap how people he meet during his bicycle odyssey are doing today, some of the results are not so happy to read about.  But, they certainly give an honest look at real people trying to survive under a new economic and government system.  Really interesting profiles of ordinary people coping with daily life that one rarely reads about.

At the end of his journey, the author comments, “ I felt the thrill of success: I had done it-2,500 miles through 15 lands from the Baltic to the Adriatic.  Mission accomplished.   . . .Eastern Europe, the New Europe, is becoming not only accessible but normal.  Albania, sealed off for 40 years, is now becoming a tourist destination.”

So, put your pedal to the metal, and ride along with Barry, in this enlightening, intriguing and historical look at the New Europe.  You will be glad you came along for the ride.

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