A YEAR IN EUROPE
I’m working on a book examining the state of Europe through the lens of three, contrasting cities.
Each of the three cities illustrates an aspect of the trends and challenges facing the Europe of 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. What was this this geographical-cultural entity that I was missing already? 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 at Europe’s edges, geographically, historically or politically. Crucially, all were entirely unknown to me: I arrived in each city 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 what I was experiencing. How each place 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. Both Tallinn and Tirana surfaced from communism in the same year, yet while one has been forging ahead politically and technologically, the other lacks basic infrastructure and a fully-functioning political and legal system.
And yet, and yet … the troubled Albanian capital has an innocence that I never expected. In all the cities, contradictions abounded: the famously fun-loving Cadiz turned out to be just as friendly as I’d heard, but had its own distinctive ways of keeping those it deemed Other as outsiders. In short, ‘Europe’ is even more colourful and a bit madder than I anticipated.
I’ll be spending the rest of this year gradually marshalling the material I’ve gathered into a book that will (probably) be called A Tale of Three Cities, writing the odd blog and article about my findings along the way. Subscribers to my newsletter will get (occasional) updates about publication and access to exclusive material.