North America’s Pacific Rim is the western edge of the West. In the east, the West fades slowly like twilight. – Michael J. Totten – Where the West Ends
In Where the West Ends, Michael J. Totten opened up a world I previously, only vaguely, knew from my childhood memories, flipping through the cable news channels. I am a child of the 80s and 90s (I claim two decades on the basis of teeth; my deciduous came in during the early 80s and left me by the early 90s). Countries with names like Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo have generally garnered memories of images of tanks rolling through cityscapes and snippets of speeches by President Clinton, but little more. Those countries were on the other side of the world and I was too young and disinterested to care. Graduating into adulthood, I began to think more about the worlds that exist outside of the realm of my familiarity — it’s now something I spend a great deal of energy dwelling upon.
Totten paints a face on those countries and many others in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Middle East, and makes them feel real to the reader; in fact, what so thoroughly drew me into his writing was how hyper-real some of his descriptions were. As evidence, I offer his words on staying at a hotel in Sarajevo’s “Sniper Alley”:
If you can see the hills, the hills can see you, and the hills loom beautifully but ominously over everything. That night I dreamed I was trapped there during the siege, scrambling to find a place where I couldn’t see hills.
At times, I found it impossible to not empathize with the subjects of war, such as in this description of the battle between Serbia and Croatia:
When you fight for your own house, your own family, believe me, you don’t see black and white. You see only black.”
But Totten is quick to highlight the beauty of these regions as well. The dull, grayish images in my mind took on a new layer of color and beauty after reading some of this descriptions. He speaks about the “perfection” of Dubrovnik, Croatia and the stand-out beauty of Kiev, Ukraine. (Both are places I have realistic plans to visit, inspired in part by Totten’s descriptions.)
I also enjoyed learning the small things that every culture holds, pinned to their hearts, that add a unique contribution to their identity. In Romania’s capital, Bucharest, an argument between a husband and a wife on a bus will quickly involve everyone else on the bus. Whereas in America, we become uncomfortable and try to ignore a lovers’ quarrel, in Bucharest you pick a side and join in!:
“You should take the bus in this city,” said Alina, my translator. “Every time there is an argument between two people, everyone on the bus gets involved. Everybody takes sides. A husband will yell at his wife, and half the bus takes his side while the other half takes hers.”
Or the compassion and tolerance of Georgians, even in the face of their “enemies”:
Georgia: I even heard that some Georgian civilians took pity on the underfed Russian soldiers and cooked meals for them in their kitchens. I don’t know if it’s true. What I do know is that many Georgians believe it is true and think it a plausible thing for Georgians to do. And I didn’t detect anything in the Georgian character that made me believe the rumors to be false.
Throughout the accounts in Where the West Ends, what resonated most with me was how he communicated the foreign viewpoints towards the United States and Americans. I knew Kosavoans had a special place in their hearts for the United States, but it was affirming to read about a statue of President Bill Clinton that’s displayed prominently in Kosovo’s capital on, of course, Bill Clinton Boulevard, or how ubiquitious the American flag is displayed in that new country.
“And I definitely think they were right,” Fana said. “We are not European, we are American! We are the 51st state!”
“People here liked President Bush more than people in other places,” Voinescu said, “but they now love President Obama. Romanians are ready to embrace any U.S. president. There is a certain kind of emotional attachment to whatever the Americans decide about their own country. I think people liked President Bush because they liked his toughness on certain issues. You know that in this part of Europe, after the whole communist era, you need sometimes a stronger approach when you talk about various issues. On the other hand, they like Obama because, you know, his charm is seductive everywhere.” I don’t know if President Barack Obama reciprocates that feeling of affection, but Vice President Joe Biden almost certainly does.
One of the most memorable moments in Totten’s accounts touches on the fall of former Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu. He describes how people publicly respected Ceaușescu, but harbored hidden ill-feeling towards him individually. The true story of Ceaușescu’s fall from power, and subsequent execution, is the type of drama that exists even beyond the imagination of the greatest of writers of political fiction:
Apostol is my age. He was a teenager when Ceausescu’s regime was overthrown, so he remembers it vividly. It began during one of the president’s outdoor speeches when thousands of people suddenly stopped applauding and cheering and started booing and jeering at him instead.
Where the West Ends is foreign-correspondent journalism at its best: travel diary kindled with observations of war and its scars, doused in politics, and set ablaze with the match of historical context.
I highly recommend you afford this book your time: