A Q&A with yours truly

Travel Writing, AI, 'Czechia' & Me

A postcard from my hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, when it was one of biggest steel-making centers in the United States (the 'Ostrava' of the USA). The city was settled in the early-20th century by waves of immigrants from Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, and other countries, but as a kid I was mostly oblivious to these cultural differences.
My home for what turned out to be a turning point year (1981-82) for me as a student in Luxembourg. I stayed with a host family, the Forettes. They were as welcoming as one could imagine. It's no stretch to say that this year abroad changed my life completely. Photo by Mark Baker.
The Black Sea coast in Bulgaria during our long student trip to the Eastern bloc from Luxembourg in the spring of 1982. Pictured are two of my best friends from that trip and those days: Sheila Miller (left) and Doug Conaway (right).
The Prague artist Jan Macuch created this map of that 1982 Eastern bloc roadtrip for my book 'Čas proměn' in 2021. I love the little details that he included. Jan even got the car right: a 1981 Ford Escort.

Q. How did you become interested in Central Europe? Is your background ‘Central European’?

MB: With a name like "Mark Baker," it's hard to justify any family connection to Central Europe. I grew up in a city (Youngstown, Ohio) with lots of Slovaks, Hungarians and Poles but scarcely noticed any ethnic diversity as a kid. It was only years later, in 1982, as a college student in Luxembourg, that I first thought of "Central" or "Eastern" Europe as a distinct region. For our spring break that year, three friends and I rented a car and drove it from Luxembourg to the Black Sea, passing through Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria en route, and then Yugoslavia and Austria on the way back. I wrote in detail about that road trip in a two-part post: “Spring Break With the Ceausescus.” The trip came at arguably the height of the Cold War (with both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in power), and it was an eye-opener. Looking back, it was probably because of that trip that I chose to study international relations at Columbia University. I opted for a concentration in "East European" studies and that's how it started.

What is it about Central Europe you find so interesting?

I guess I was first drawn to the literature, more specifically the great Penguin book series in the 1980s edited by Philip Roth titled "Writers from the Other Europe" (I wrote here about how important that book series was to me: “Remembering That Other Europe.”) It was a selection of 20th-century Central European writers, like Milan Kundera, Danilo Kiš, Tadeusz Borowski, and others, that blew me away. And then came the movies from that period, including the Czechoslovak New Wave and the "Man of Marble" films from Polish director Andrzej Wajda. What attracted me then, and still attracts me now, is the "different-ness" of the  region. By that I mean, firstly, the strange communist system that was so different from anything I'd seen before, and then, later, the deeply inspiring anticommunist revolutions of 1989 and transition to democracy in the 1990s and early-2000s. As I've lived here and learned more of the region's culture, history and diversity, I've discovered new interests. I'm now into architecture, history (including WWII, the Habsburg monarchy, and the Holocaust) and cycling. Part of the reason for this blog and my travel writing is to share my interests with others who are similarly fascinated by the place.

Low Memorial Library at New York's Columbia University sometime in the 1980s. I was student there for three years (1983-86) at the school's Institute for Eastern European Studies. Photo by Mark Baker.
I took this photo on my first-ever trip to Prague in 1984. It was an eye-opening visit, during which I got separated from my friend and travel companion, Matt, for three days and had no clue where he was. Photo by Mark Baker.
My first job out of grad school was reporting for (and later editing) this publication for Business International in Vienna during the 1980s. The job took me to Prague many times over the years and gave me a unique window as a non-Czech into life in communist-era Czechoslovakia.
I didn't fully grasp it in the 1980s while working for Business International that the Czechoslovak secret police were spying on me during my trips to Prague. I only discovered these creepy surveillance photos after publishing my book about those days, 'Čas proměn,' in 2021. Photo credit: Surveillance Directorate of the SNB - Operative Files, arch. no. SL-2520 MV (cover name “Inter”)

So, why Prague and not some other city?

During that first early road-trip as a student to Eastern Europe in 1982, we weren't permitted to travel to Czechoslovakia. It was too soon after "martial law" had been declared in Poland (December 1981), and the Czechoslovak authorities were not letting many (or any) Western tourists in. Maybe because I couldn't see Prague on that trip, the city retained some fascination for me. I finally did get to Prague for the first time in the summer of 1984 on a trip to Europe to visit my college roommate (who was studying in Poland at the time). I've written in the past about how harrowing that first trip to Prague turned out to be: “The Case of the Missing Roommate.” After graduating with my M.A. in 1986, I took a job as a journalist with a small media company, Business International, that covered Eastern Europe from an editorial office in Vienna. As luck would have it, I became the bureau's "Czechoslovak" correspondent and traveled to Prague several times in the late-'80s. I left Business International in 1991 with a contract to write a book on Eastern Europe for the Economist. For that project, I could choose to live in any Central European capital. I briefly considered Warsaw and Budapest, but because I had gotten to know Prague so well by then, that's the city I chose.

Why should we say 'Central' and not 'Eastern' Europe?

Whether to refer to this part of the world as "Central" Europe or "Eastern" Europe is a semantic (and geographic and cultural) minefield. As an author for books like "The Lonely Planet guide to Eastern Europe" (with chapters on Poland and the Czech Republic) and "Frommer's Eastern Europe" (ditto), I've had my share of confrontations over the years with irritated Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, etc, who insist their countries are part of Central -- not Eastern -- Europe (a term they link with communism and the 'Eastern bloc'). Guidebook publishers have traditionally preferred "Eastern Europe" (though this has changed in the past few years) since the book-buying public is more familiar with that usage (publishers are in the business of selling books). For my website, I've chosen to go with "Central" Europe. First off, I'm based in Prague and it's more accurate from a geographic and historic standpoint. Secondly, Central Europe -- as broadly defined by the borders of the former Habsburg Empire -- is closer to the spirit of my website.

My first-ever guidebook project long before I had any inkling that I'd do this for a living came in 1991 and was almost an accident. My girlfriend at the time got a commission from Fodor's to write a completely fresh guide to newly liberated Czechoslovakia and I more or less tagged along for the ride.
A funny illustration of our research trip for that 1st edition 'Czechoslovakia' guide for Fodor's that we wrote in February 1991. This map was printed in 'Čas proměn' in 2021. Again, I love all the little details here--the work of Prague-based artist Jan Macuch.
My first job after moving from Vienna to Prague in 1991 was as the business editor for the newly founded newspaper, 'The Prague Post.' Here, I'm walking from the office with my colleagues on a lunch break sometime in 1992. From left to right: myself, Douglas Lytle, Alan Crosby and Boris Gomez. Photo by Ivan Malý.
In 1993, I took a temporary leave from journalism and writing. I and four friends founded The Globe Bookstore & Coffeehouse in Prague. I stayed a partner in the business until 1999. Pictured from right to left: Marketa Janku, Scott Rogers, Mark Baker, Jasper Bear and Maura Griffin. Photo by Chris Niedenthal/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images.

How did you go from journalism to travel writing?

I don't think anyone ever starts out to be a travel writer. It something you fall into. I had no intention of becoming a travel writer when I moved to Vienna in the mid-1980s (or to Prague in 1991). As I wrote above, I began as a journalist in Vienna in 1986 for Business International (BI), which was bought out during my time there by the UK's Economist Group. I’ve written several times about Business International and what a strange place it was to start a journalism career: most recently last year in a five-part post, Introducing INTER,” after I discovered the Czechoslovak secret police considered BI to be a front for the CIA (and me personally a promising recruit for Czechoslovak intelligence).

After BI, I worked as an editor and writer for The Prague Post, Bloomberg News and then Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. I only decided to become a travel writer after I realized my day job at Radio Free Europe didn't afford me much opportunity for travel or professional growth. Travel writing is one of the few avenues that still allows freelancers to develop as a writer while also earning a livable wage.

A couple of early images from my first years as a full-time travel writer. I loved early Instagram and posted there almost every day. Now, I'm a bit tired of the site and rarely post more than once a week. On the left, that's somewhere in Slovenia. On the right, a classic, cherry-red Dacia in Arad, Romania. Photos by Mark Baker.
Travel-writing doesn't offer the most stable or lucrative paycheck you can find, but on the plus side you travel and learn about places you might otherwise never visit. This is a happy me a few years ago on a water taxi in Romania's Danube delta.
These 'Eastern Europe' titles have gotten me in hot water over the years. The choice of 'Eastern' here understandably puzzles people in Czechia, Poland and Hungary, who see their countries as part of 'Central Europe.' I'm happy to report that publishers no longer automatically default to Eastern Europe for these regional guidebooks.
Contrary to popular opinion, print guidebooks are still going strong. This is the last big guidebook project I worked on: last summer's six-week swing through Romania for Lonely Planet. The book will be available to buy later in 2024.

What's it like writing a guidebook?

Whenever I tell people I'm a travel writer, they often respond with some version of "that's my dream job." People are curious about how the system works, whether writers take money in exchange for favorable reviews, and whether you make a living from it. The short answer is yes, I enjoy it; no, I never take freebies to include places; and yes, with careful budgeting, one can make a living. The longer answer, though, is more nuanced. Writing a guidebook is an incredibly complicated undertaking. To do it well requires a fetishistic attention to detail, broad historical knowledge, the ability to write concisely (but in an entertaining way), and a monk-like tolerance for spending days, even weeks, on your own. It can get lonely on the road.

On the downside, as a freelance travel writer, you're not just the author of your own text, but also your own marketer (pitching your expertise to overwhelmed editors), your own travel agent (booking trips that can last as long as eight weeks) and your own bill collector (dinging editors for "lost" payments in strings of frustrating emails). Thankfully, most of my publishers are good about payment, but the "check is in the mail" syndrome is a dispiriting fact of life all freelancers must deal with. The positives outweigh the negatives, and travel writing has helped me to deepen my knowledge of the countries and cultures I'm interested in, develop new interests, and hopefully grow as a person and writer.

What does the future hold for travel writing?

Ever since smartphones came into our lives more than a decade ago, people have been sounding the death knell for print guidebooks. In spite of that fact, though, they're still going strong. The Covid years were brutal for freelance writers (with no work and no paychecks), but since the lockdowns ended in 2022, I've been busier than ever. One consequence of Covid was that it left many guidebooks -- and much of travel content generally -- out of date. Publishers are scrambling to update their travel books and websites, and work -- for the time being -- is plentiful. For the more distant future, I'm guardedly optimistic but technology poses an ever-present threat. There will come a time soon when artificial intelligence (AI) generates a lot of travel content. Already, there are reams of travel sites on the web that are "written" by bots. My hope is that publishers like Lonely Planet and others remain committed to paying real humans to research destinations on the ground.

Last question: Czech Republic or Czechia?

It took me a while to warm up to it, but I'm now firmly in camp "Czechia." Neither name will ever be quite as awesome as "Czechoslovakia," so what difference does it make?

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Photo of Mark Baker
About the author

Mark Baker

I’m an independent journalist, travel writer and author who’s lived in Central Europe for nearly three decades. I love the history, literature, culture and mystery of this often-overlooked corner of Europe, and I make my living writing articles and guidebooks about the region. Much of what I write eventually finds its way into commercial print or digital outlets, but a lot of it does not.

And that’s my aim with this website: to find a space for stories and experiences that fall outside the publishing mainstream.

My Book: ‘Čas Proměn’

In 2021, I published “Čas Proměn” (“Time of Changes”), my first book of historical nonfiction. The book, written in Czech, is a collection of stories about Central and Eastern Europe in the 1980s and early ‘90s, including memories of the thrilling anti-communist revolutions of 1989. The idea for the book and many of the tales I tell there were directly inspired by this blog. Czech readers, find a link to purchase the book here. I hope you enjoy.

Tales of Travel & Adventure in Central Europe
Mark Baker