Here below are some answers to frequently asked questions about how I ended up in Prague in the first place and how it is to work as a travel writer:
Q: How did you become interested in Central Europe? Is your background ‘Central European’?
MB: No, with a name like “Mark Baker,” it’s hard to justify any family connection to Central Europe. Though I grew up in a city (Youngstown, Ohio) with lots of Slovaks, Hungarians and Poles, I scarcely noticed the ethnic diversity at the time. It was only later, as a college student in Luxembourg in the 1980s, that I first thought of Central Europe as a region. For our spring break that year, three friends and I rented a car and drove it to the Black Sea, passing through Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria en route and Yugoslavia and Austria on the way back. This was during the communist period and the trip was an eye-opener (particularly the Romania and Bulgaria parts). Looking back, it was probably because of that trip that I chose to pursue a master’s degree at Columbia University in International Relations. I opted for a concentration in “East European” studies and that’s how it all started.
Q: So, why Prague then?
MB: During that first trip to Eastern Europe in the early 1980s, we were not permitted to travel to Czechoslovakia. It was too soon after “martial law” had been declared in Poland and the Czechoslovak authorities were not letting many (or any) westerners into the country. Maybe because we couldn’t see Prague on that trip, the city retained a bit of fascination for me. I finally did get to Prague in the summer of 1984 on a trip to Europe to visit my college roommate (who was studying in Poland at the time). After graduation, I took a job as an editor with a small media company, Business International, with an office in Vienna. As luck would have it, I became the bureau’s ‘Czechoslovak’ correspondent and got to travel to Prague several times in the late ’80s. I eventually left Business International in 1991 to write a book. For that project, I could choose to live in any Central European capital. I considered Warsaw and Budapest, but by that time the die had been cast and I chose Prague.
Q: What is it about Central Europe that you find so fascinating?
MB: Looking back, I was first drawn to the literature, more specifically the great Penguin series in the 1980s edited by Philip Roth titled “Writers from the Other Europe.” It was a selection of 20th-century Central European writers, like Milan Kundera, Danilo Kis and others, that just blew me away. And then came film – the great movies of the Czech New Wave and many others. What attracted me then, and still attracts me now, is the “oddness” of the place (for lack of a better word). First, it was the strange and tragic communist system that was so different from anything I’d seen in the United States or Western Europe, and then the inspiring, historic anti-communist revolutions of 1989 and the transition to democracy that took place in the 1990s and early-2000s. As I’ve lived here, traveled more widely and learned more of the culture and history, I’ve continued to discover new interests. Lately, I’m into architecture, history (WWII, the Habsburg Monarchy, and the Holocaust), music and cycling. Part of the reason for this blog is to share my interests with others who are similarly charmed by the place.
Q: Why ‘Central’ Europe and not ‘Eastern’ Europe?
MB: Whether to refer to this part of the world as “Central Europe” or “Eastern Europe” is a semantic (and geographic and cultural) mine field. As an author for books like “Lonely Planet Eastern Europe” (with chapters on Poland and the Czech Republic, among others) and “Frommer’s Eastern Europe” (ditto), I’ve had my share of confrontations with angry Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, etc, who insist their countries are part of Central — not Eastern — Europe (a term they understandably link with the communist period and the ‘Eastern bloc’). Big guidebook publishers have a preference for “Eastern Europe” since the book-buying public is more familiar with this usage (after all, publishers are in the business of selling books). For this website, I’ve chosen “Central Europe.” First off, I’m based in Prague and it’s simply more accurate from a geographic standpoint. Secondly, Central Europe — as broadly defined by the borders (and culture and mores) of the former Habsburg Empire — is closer to the spirit and breadth of my site. That said, astute readers will notice my posts stray into areas of Romania, Bulgaria, and the Baltic countries (not to mention Moldova) where the term “Eastern Europe” might be more apt.
Q: How did you become a travel writer?
MB: I don’t think anyone starts out as a travel writer. I certainly had no intention of becoming a travel writer when I first moved to Central Europe in the mid-1980s (or moved to Prague in 1991). I began my career as a journalist for a small media company called Business International, which was eventually bought out by the UK’s Economist Group. After that, I worked as an editor and writer for The Prague Post, Bloomberg News, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. I only decided to become a travel writer relatively late in my career after I realized my “day job” at Radio Free Europe wasn’t affording me much opportunity for travel and I felt the stagnation and loss of enthusiasm one experiences when he or she has been working in the same position for years and has ceased to learn and grow. Travel writing enabled me to choose my own travel, to stay in Prague and, most importantly, to continue to use the writing skills I developed over 20 years in professional journalism. Since 2006, I’ve been working as a freelancer and guidebook author for many well-known publishers, including National Geographic, Fodor’s, Frommer’s, DK Publishers, and most recently Lonely Planet. I’ve written about 15 books on Central & Eastern Europe, including guides on Prague & the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Vienna, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovenia. I’ve enjoyed the travel writing immensely and it’s given me ample opportunity to indulge in my fascination with all things Central European.
Q: What’s it like writing or working on a guidebook?
MB: Whenever I tell people I work for Lonely Planet or Frommer’s or some other guidebook, it’s usually followed up by exclamations of how great that must be or even “that’s my dream job.” People are understandably curious about how the system works, whether writers receive money to review places, and whether a person can actually make a living from writing a guidebook. The short answer is yes, I enjoy it; no, writers don’t usually receive freebies to include places (I never take them for guidebook writing); and yes, with careful budgeting, one can indeed make a living from it. The longer answer, though, is more nuanced. Writing a guidebook is an incredibly complicated undertaking. To do it right requires an almost fetishistic attention to detail, broad historical knowledge, the ability to write concisely (but yet in an entertaining way), and a monk-like tolerance for spending hours, days, even weeks on your own. It can get pretty lonely. Moreover, as a freelancer, you’re not only the author of your texts, but you’re also your own marketer (pitching your expertise to overwhelmed commissioning editors who are drowning in pitches from other writers), your own travel agent (planning routes and booking accommodation for trips that can last as long as eight weeks at a time) and your own bill collector (dinging your editor for “lost” payments in strings of emails that can go on for months after a project is finished). Thankfully, most of my publishers are good about payment, but the “check is in the mail” syndrome is a dispiriting fact of life that all freelancers must deal with. The positives, though, far outweigh the negatives, and travel writing (specifically guidebook writing) has helped me to deepen my knowledge of the countries and cultures I’m interested in, to develop and nurture new interests, and to grow as a person and as a writer.
Central Europe is a complicated region that remains riven by competing historical and territorial claims, lingering national grievances (both feigned and real), and persisting cultural rivalries (I’m thinking here of tensions between Hungarians and Romanians or Hungarians and Slovaks, or even Czechs and Poles to some lesser degree). While most people go about their day-to-day lives in these parts without giving these issues much thought, it’s relatively easy to say or write something that someone somewhere will find offensive or one-sided. It’s worth pointing out here that I come to this region with a deep admiration for all of the various cultures and nationalities. This blog is not a place to play favorites, and I will do my best to approach my themes and topics with respect, detachment and objectivity. As an American, I see strength in diversity, and one of the characteristics of Central Europe that fascinates me the most is the overlay of different cultures, ethnicities and histories.
I won’t revel in controversial or potentially painful topics (after all, this is a travel website), but nor will I consciously avoid them. Central Europe has seen more than its share of tragic history, and any meaningful discussion of the region will have to acknowledge this. I certainly welcome input from readers (and please feel free to point out where I have inevitably gone astray), but at the same time I reserve the right to moderate comments or reactions that are overtly nationalistic, hurtful or insulting in their intent. This is not a place to air grievances, but rather to cherish remnants of a shared history, culture and geography.