A TALE OF THREE CITIES
I’m working on a book about Europe by way of three of its lesser-known cities.
Each city illustrates an aspect of the trends and challenges facing Europe today. Cadiz, reputedly the continent’s first city, represents Europe the old, a microcosm of Spain in its heyday but now in economic decline. Tallinn, capital of the Baltic tiger Estonia and one of the world’s most digitally advanced societies, exemplifies Europe the new. And Albania’s Tirana, with its Muslim-majority population and desire to join the EU, embodies Europe the aspiring.
The idea crystallised out of my version of Brexit grief, a subterranean current carrying feelings of loss and yearning for something I had always taken for granted. Travel plans involving distant lands suddenly lost their allure, to be replaced by a new curiosity about the Other that Britain was moving away from in institutional, political terms. What was this continent to which the island would remain geographically and culturally connected? Did I – and my fellow Britons – really know it?
For this book, I have chosen to explore some of the continent’s lesser-known cities, all of which lie in some sense at the edges of Europe. Crucially, all were entirely unknown to me; I arrived in each for the first time, knowing no one. This approach allowed me to see each place with the fresh eyes of the travel writer, while journalistic interviews enabled me to go deeper into the forces shaping it. How each received me, a stranger and yet a fellow-European, was an integral part of the project.
Having spent much of 2019 in the three cities, I’m surprised at how the contrasts between them emerged even more sharply than I could have imagined when I set out. Both Tallinn and Tirana surfaced from communism in the same year. But while one has been forging ahead politically and technologically, the other lacks basic infrastructure and a fully-functioning political and legal system.
And yet … the troubled Albanian capital has an innocence that is as endearing as it is frustrating. Contradictions abounded in all the cities: the famously fun-loving Cadiz turned out to be just as friendly as I’d heard but with its own distinctive ways of keeping those it deems Other as outsiders. In short, ‘Europe’ is even more colourful and a bit madder than I anticipated.
I’m now marshalling the material I’ve gathered into a book that will (probably) be called A Tale of Three Cities, and writing the odd thing about my findings along the way. Subscribers to my newsletter will get (occasional) updates about publication and access to exclusive material.