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Getting to the Edge of Europe

Posted by Tom Haines, Globe Travel Writer  November 30, 2007 12:15 PM

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There were so many moments never put in print. Turkish men steeped in tea and talk about changing times in a border town set a few miles north of Syria. A Norwegian fisherman dragging traps deep from the Barents Sea in search of king crab. Nuns in Sucevita serving soup to villagers outside a stone monastery near Romania's border with Ukraine. The young mother pushing a stroller through a manicured park in central Minsk.

And countries never visited. Bosnia. That was an early consideration as this year's "At the Edge of Europe" project began to take shape. My goal, simply, was to explore the figurative and literal edges of the continent. It was not to be scientific. Rather intimate. To connect with places and people in a way that could, perhaps, show readers back in Boston and around the world some of the joys and hardships, simple rhythms and complex contexts of life in dynamic and diverse terrain.

There is often a sense that travel should be an escape. I have long preferred to see it as a chance to engage with the world. At the least, it is interesting. At the best, it brings understanding.

I wrote about this in more detail six years ago in an essay, my first piece for the Globe travel section.

Part of my thinking stems from an idea captured by Alex Tizon, a friend and mentor who once described the world to me as having "multiple layers of reality." His point, as I took it, was that there are many truths to any one incident, or event, to any one place, or life.

While journeying toward the edge of Europe, I tried to consider and capture those multiple layers, to find real scenes and recast them in a new perspective.

I decided to follow the four seasons, beginning in winter and returning three times as land and lives warmed through summer then prepared for winter again.

First came the forested mountains of Bucovina, in northeast Romania. An old friend, Alessandro Gori, was heading there from his home in Italy in the weeks before Romania joined the European Union. Together with a new friend who translated and illuminated the culture from the inside, we motored through remote valleys to monasteries with exterior frescoes painted five centuries ago. My goal, though, was to meet the people living near the monasteries today. There was plenty of study and planning. But also intentional room for serendipity. While walking from the stone surrounds of the monastery in Voronet, we heard the crack of a pick breaking cold earth. Over the wall was Vasile Lucaci, 60, digging a grave.

Sometime before spring it became clear that Turkey, not Bosnia, was a more urgent edge, straddling as it does Europe and Asia. I teamed with the Globe's Essdras Suarez, good friend and photographer with whom I have crossed other divides in remote regions in South America, Africa, Asia and the Arctic. We have sought scenes in Mexico and China and closer to home, in the western United States. We would complete the Edge of Europe project together.

In Turkey, Essdras and I flew from Istanbul to Sanliurfa for an overland journey that arced eastward into Asia and on to the border with Iraq.

turkeywalk3.jpg

Cultural collisions loomed large, and by summer solitude seemed necessary. Plans for Estonia, to have become part three of the project, were scrapped in favor of the northern edge of Norway, and tales of isolation. A changing climate became a central character there.

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Finally, in autumn, it was time for Belarus and the slow swing from communism to capitalism in the land-locked nation at the very center of the continent.

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At every point along the way, we met grace and generosity. Strangers stopped and invited us into cafes and homes. They talked about politics and history, the weather and soccer scores. They recounted jokes and dreams, fears and frustrations. They offered meals and couches for a bed.

The exchanges were often simple things, such as when I took a seat in eastern Turkey with men in the tea shop.

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Or they were more involved, such as when we spent the night in the three-room farmhouse of Olga Ivanova and her husband Sergey in eastern Belarus.

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(All photos: Essdras M Suarez/Globe staff)

Now back from the edge, I think of the translators who became friends - Ben in Romania, Mustafa and Mahmud in Turkey, Anders and Katrine in Norway, Ilya in Belarus. I remember the many, many people who let us enter their lives, such as Garip Kan, 22, in a Kurdish village in eastern Turkey. And Lillian Frantzen, 73, in her living room on the Arctic island of Vardo. Lucaci, the grave-digger in Romania, and Anton, the resting revolutionary in Belarus.

To those who shared so much, thank you.

To the many colleagues at the Globe and boston.com who helped bring these experiences into print and online, thanks as well.

To those who read of these multiple layers of reality at the edge of Europe, I hope the stories and photos engage and inform, bringing understanding of the wider world, and of your own life close to home.

Click here to arrive again "At the Edge of Europe".

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