Category Archives: Europe

Truth is less strange than fiction

Some areas have such a strong sense of place that to visit them is to halfway live in a story. These places depend on the person of course, but you can imagine the first time you visit Tokyo or Paris or Rome and feeling the surreality of being in such a famed place. Crater Lake in Oregon has always been like that for me. This fall, I found another place.

I came to Transylvania to celebrate my favorite holiday of the year. The train that goes up the country passes farms and men in horse carts. Yellow and red trees and small ponds dot the countryside In fact the descriptions that Bram Stoker used in Harker’s diary are pretty spot on. I spent four nights in the small town of Sighișoara mostly because it’s where Vlad Țepeș was born. And I gotta tell you: this place is packed a horror story clichés. Luckily, we’re talking the Act I, vaguely ominous clichés rather than anything truly terrifying.

People on the streets give me grim-faced stares. Every yard has a dog that barks like mad when I go by. One street had a dead cat splayed out grotesquely in the street, surrounded by street dogs. The smell (and sight) of woodsmoke is everywhere. There are ruins even in the city center and yellow leaves dot the cobblestone streets. The mornings and evenings are chilly and foggy and there are strange harvest effigies (not to mention a mysterious locked door to nowhere) in my hostel room.

I climbed up to a plateau behind the city today where a group of shepherds sitting around a fire had to shout at their pack of dogs, who definitely felt like I had encroached on the territory of them and their sheep. These were big dogs that are responsible for keeping the sheep safe from bears, wolves, and lynxes. It’s hyper-real to be in a place that drips with so much of the exact atmosphere you expect.

The list goes on but the point is I’m fascinated that these elements that make me feel like I’m in the beginning of a story would make such a poor story. The village with unwelcoming members is as tired as any trope can be, and barking dogs might be even more tired. But they sure feel real when you’re there.

If anyone was writing a horror story in 2022 with those elements, they would be either getting ready to subvert these ideas or writing a very unoriginal story.

But here’s the thing. Being here and experiencing these boring ass story elements is fully the experience I could. This might explain why so many stories use boiler plate templates for plot and story. But real life doesn’t need subversion. Real life is happy to stumble from one cliché to another. Real life is, in short, far more boring and far more complex than fiction.

Fairy Tales vs Reality

When I was temporarily living in Warsaw this summer I took a weekend trip to visit Krakow. My first thought upon seeing the latter was what a mistake I’d made in choosing to live in Warsaw. Krakow was so beautiful! The old buildings and the winding roads and the park that encircles the city were all a kind of magic. The evening rains just added to the atmosphere and that special je nais sais quois. Less than 24 hours later, I’d reassessed.

Krakow at night

It’s not that Krakow was any less beautiful. It was just that I had seen the entire old town three or four times. It was a great sized city to visit for a weekend, but some of the charm would be lost living there, I think.

Fairy Tale Cities

Since then I’ve seen quite a few more cities on this trip. I’ve enjoyed them all (yes, even Bratislava) but only some fit into what I’m calling “fairy tale” cities. This is inherently a subjective metric that is best defined by the old axiom “you know it when you see it.” Often, in Europe at least, these cities are historic places that almost seem to be good to be true. And in some ways, that’s what they are. Hoisted upon shaky foundations like tourism and consumerism, these cities are almost like a form of Disneyland. As much as I love them, there’s something ephemeral or pretend about them that just doesn’t feel substantial.

These cities exist not just in Europe but everywhere in the world. Look at the pictures below. From afar, Ljubljana and Luang Prabang (which are more than 8000 kilometers away from each other) look like they are the same city.

Having cobblestones and castles helps, but fairy tale cities are as much about vibe as anything else. I’d argue Te Anau, New Zealand, Launceston, Tasmania, Guatape, Colombia Jaisalmer, India and Kuching, Malaysia all fit the bill based on their charm and proximity to nature.

Mundane Cities

Other cities, like Warsaw, like Berlin, like most cities in the world, really, are more mundane. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have a long history and plenty of tourists or that they’re not beautiful. It just means that they are less defined by an imaginary past. There’s more of an emphasis on the present. Some of my favorite cities are like this: Melbourne, Fukuoka, Bogota, and Vancouver BC all fit this description.

I think cities such as Paris, London, Tokyo, Bangkok, Delhi, fit here too. Not that they can’t feel magical, but they’re so big that it’s a different experience. Fairy tales are on a personal scale that megacities overwhelm. That’s just my gut instinct though. Feel free to disagree.

Mythical & Mundane

Now there is third kind of city. It’s sort of one that splits the difference. Your first steps there may feel like walking through the past or a gateway into another world but the longer the spend there, the more you realize how much more there is to the place. Prague has a population of 1.3 million people and receives 8 million tourists a year (at least a million of which you’ll see on the Charles Bridge at any time) at least partially because it’s a perfect fusion of old and new. It’s a living theme park, you could say.

Another place that fits this description is Tallinn, where you walk along 15th century cobblestone streets next to historic Hanseatic homes along side humble food delivery robots.

Do you have a preference for one of these kinds of cities to visit? Or to live in? Where there any cities I left off? Let me know!