31 October 2013

Counter migration: from a big city to a little village

On my first night in Greece I was hosted by Stelios, who lives in Odigitria, a little village with 30 inhabitants.

Stelios's story is an interesting one: he was born and raised in Athens (population: 4 million people). After working for 3 different companies, 5 years ago he lost his job with Vodafone. He was 35 years old and he had a higher salary than the young people they were probably going to employ on his place (ethical company, isn't it?). Tired of the city life, which he never really appreciated, he decided to dramatically change his life and move back to the village from which his grandparents emigrated many years before. A little at a time he renovated his family's old house, which had been abandoned for 20 years, he got a dog and he started growing vegetables in the garden.

Then the economic crisis hit Greece, changing the life of many people. Now Stelios has a couple of temporary jobs, but he doesn't have a regular one. However, besides the current difficulties, Stelios would never move back to Athens: in Odigitria he found priceless things that he would never exchange with his past chaotic life: following the natural rhythm of the day, listening to the sound of the breeze that blows through the leaves, having an afternoon walk with his dog on the nearby hills right before sunset... He is not even "excluded" from the rest of the world, using Internet for communicating, reading news, hosting people with Couchsurfing and buying most of the things he needs.

Yes, he would like to have some money to travel as he used to do some years ago with his motorcycle. Yes, he wishes the government didn't put such high taxes on his old house. But, on the other hand, Stelios entirely owns his life and his time. How many people can say the same?

The story of Stelios is an interesting starting point to share some thoughts and open a discussion about city life vs rural life: everywhere in the world the migration pattern goes from villages to cities. People leave their native places to go to the cities to study or work. They end up never going back to their hometown, mainly because of opportunities: the city is a magnet which inevitably attracts the "metallic" materialistic part of us (basic needs like money and food, but also "luxuries"). Our dreaming part loses power, but never disappeares, because most city people still dream about exotic deserted beaches, mountain villages and huts, rural heavens, where they usually spend relaxing holidays. Yet, if rural or even "intermediate" areas could offer the same working and social opportunities of the cities, they would not hesitate to move there.

Now, the point is: 2013, Internet, e-commerce. Could it be an opportunity for a new and different development of rural areas? Little villages have been associated with poverty, agriculture, bad education, while cities have been praised for their industry, opportunites, education. Does this make sense in the Information Age? Can the mountain villages in the Alps and the fishing villages of Portugal pursue a new model of development?

Last but not least: the human factor. More people often equals more conformity and less self-discovery. Take Milan, London, Zagreb, Belgrade, Sofia. The cities are different, but people do the same things everywhere. It's unbelievable, if you think at it.
Take Pierre (South Dakota, USA), Cornuda (Veneto, Italy), Mala Subotica (Međimurje, Croatia), Odigitria (Central Macedonia, Greece). These places are unique. There lies the heart and the culture of a country.

22 October 2013

Biking through recent History

I had read some things about the Yugoslav Wars before the begin of this trip. After seeing the places with my eyes and hearing stories from people who were actually there in the years of the war, I'll try to write a few impressions about this topic with regard to Croatia and Serbia. If the journey goes as planned, I might visit Bosnian cities of Mostar and Sarajevo on my way back.

(It's not an "easy" topic, so any comment/correction is welcome, as always)

  • Vukovar:
    I must start from here. This city is the symbol of the Serbian-Croatian war. I've been told that it was one of the richest city in former Yugoslavia. You might agree that it's true just by looking at the many big factories and industrial buildings that you see if you arrive in the city from the west.
    Then, the war. The population, which was evenly distributed between Serbs and Croats (who had lived together peacefully until then), has dropped from 45.000 to 25.000: many Serbs moved to Novi Sad or Belgrade, many Croatians started a new life in Zagreb, far from bullet-marked houses, mined fields and an atmosphere which is still filled with hate and contrasts between the two ethnical groups. For example, Serb and Croatian kids are in separated classes at school until college. The events of the past are still too recent to be forgotten, the difference is about how people look at them: someone remembers and looks at the future, many other people remember with their heads turned back to the past.

  • Breaking news: my part in the history of Vukovar :)
    I arrived in Vukovar on October 17. On the same day the Prime Minister of Croatia, Mr. Zoran Milanovic, was in the city to talk to the nationalists and to the war veterans about the issue of cyrillic signs, which are to be installed because the Serb minority make up more than 1/3 of the total population of the city. High tension. In the previous days, 2-3 policemen of the special forces had to stand in front of every plaque written in cyrillic alphabet, because of people continuously trying to tear them down (big question: why?). So... this guy (me) who arrives on the bike seems an alien in this place at this time: is he a terrorist who hides a bunch of AK-47 in his panniers and aims at killing the PM? I don't know if they followed me or what, the fact is that the Police called Zoran, my Warmshowers host for the night, to make sure I was actually a normal traveller...
    Weird story, but it exemplifies well how the situation is around there.

  • My meetings
    A girl whose family escaped from the Croatian part of Baranya because of the war and then returned when it was over. A professor in Vukovar High School who was studying in Novi Sad during the war, having his family in the middle of the conflict. Now the big old house of some of his dead relatives has almost no value, since the city is still under reconstruction and has high unemployment and very little perspectives for the next future.

  • Yugoslavia and Tito: a compendium (trying to simplify complicated things)
    - Yugoslavia as known between 1945-1991 had never been a unique country in history, although some cultural traits are common to the people of the area. Parts of its territory were controlled until WW1 by Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Empire.
    - Croatians are mainly Catholic, Serbs are mainly Orthodox. In Bosnia and Kosovo there are big percentages of Muslims as well.
    - 1941-1945: Yugoslavia is occupied by the Nazis and other Axis countries. In Croatia there is a satellite fascist government (Ustaša), responsible for killing many Serbs.
    - 1945: Partisans led by Tito send away the occupants. It's the only European country which is not freed by the Allies, thus allowing it to take a Non-Aligned position and a certain independence from the Soviet block in the Cold War. Yugoslavia is organized as a federation, in which the regions are more or less those that now have become independent countries.
    - 1970s: Despite economic difficulties and rising requests for more independence from what has always been considered a Serb-centric nation (see Great Serbia), the country remains in peace until Tito's death in 1980. Tito was a dictator, but he represented at the eyes of most of the population a positive hero and a common symbol of anti-fascism.
    - 1980s: Changed economic balance in Europe (due to USSR's collapse), loosened grip of central government on peripherical regions, contemporary growth of nationalisms in Slovenia, Croatia and Kosovo.
    - 1990s: Breakup of Yugoslavian Communist Party. Referendum on independence in Slovenia, Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia. The former 2 states obtain independence "easily", Croatia and Bosnia fight for it until 1995, when NATO intervention put an end to the conflict.
    In 1999 other NATO intervention in support of Kosovo Albanians against Serbia.
    - 2000s: Montenegro and Kosovo form independent states.

  • Consequences of the above:
    - Presence of nostalgia of Tito.
    - Serbians feel "victims" of US and Western European interests in the area (mainly regarding Kosovo, which they don't recognize as a country): good reason to "use" to raise Serbian pride, nationalism, etc.
    - Relationships among countries and among different ethnic groups in the same country are far from being stable (excluding Slovenia).
    - These problems stop Serbia from entering the EU. Macedonia has quarrels with Greece and Bulgaria as well.

  • As said by a disilluded Serbian guy at the hostel in Belgrade:
    "There are 2 political parties: one of them is the party of the football hooligans (of every team) and of the nationalist idiots, which are often the same thing; the other one is the party of the people with a little bit of brain, but it's mostly made up by idiots anyway."

5 October 2013

The beginning

Today, October 5, A European Journey has started. A few things I'd like to write at the beginning:


A couple of interviews were published: they talk a little bit about the project and about me.
You can find them on the websites of Life in Travel and Bicycle TV.

In my plans, I'm not going to write very much about the biking part of the journey: there are plenty of blogs in the net where you can read a diary of every single day of someone's journey, but IMHO they are quite boring most of the times. At least, mine would be a boring one. So, no everyday update about n° of kms, averages, where I stop to eat, time I start and finish biking, etc. :)
I'll update Facebook and Twitter as often as possible with pictures.

Instead, I'm gonna try to tell stories about the people, the places and the things that impressed me, keeping a subjective view of things.
In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.
(Henry David Thoreau, Walden)


What about YOU? Since this is all about Europe, if you have something cool to say about Europe, you can share it with everybody. I hope to get a few contributions from Couchsurfing friends, but also from any reader: I greatly appreciate and welcome things like "you have to listen to this amazing progressive rock band from Montenegro!", "let me tell you why you should visit Poland" or "I explain to you why this geopolitical situation was created after the Yugoslav wars"!
This is the purpose of the journey: VISIT. LEARN. SHARE. UNDERSTAND.
Europe gives us tons of topics to talk about, most of them unknown to me. You're right, it's not necessary to ride a bike to do that, but I'm a self-defeating person, so that's how I do it. I love cycling, by the way.

Write me cool stories about the places I'm riding through, if you wish. Send to:


I talk to many people who don't even know that couchsurfing exists. Not good! Couchsurfing is awesome, seriously. This is what I wrote about couchsurfing (and similar projects, like Warmshowers) a few months ago, in a moment in which I was deeply inspired and in love with CS:
" Couchsurfing has taught me one of the greatest life lessons: we are often warned about how dangerous the world is and how wrong it is to trust a stranger. But we forget that we are strangers in the eyes of every traveller and that our behaviour can influence his/her opinion about our own town, our country or even the goodness of mankind. By defeating fear and prejudice towards other people, we are always rewarded with some good moments which remind us that, after all, "there is some good in this world, and it's worth fighting for". Stay human. "

Where I go

Here, more or less.

To family and friends

I often feel lucky because of you. This is a reminder I'll carry with me: