Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Disarming the Velvet Revolution

Text ColorVaclav Havel
waves to the crowd in November 1989

CNN has put together a whole group of videos commemorating an "Autumn of Change" when the Berlin Wall fell. I was particularly drawn to this story of the choices individuals were forced into at the time of the Czech Velvet Revolution.

CNN producer Tommy Etzler describes what it was like serving in the Czech military twenty years ago. He describes his own instantaneous organizing within the military in such a matter-of-fact way, I just want to pause a moment to honor real and true bravery. Click on my title to read his story and view the videos of "Autumn of Change."

Monday, November 16, 2009

Czechs Velvet Revolution Paved by Plastic People

The Plastic People of the Universe

Today the New York Times celebrates the rock band that started events in motion that would eventually result in the Velvet Revolution. Busy creating a second culture, because the first culture of communism was so oppressive and official, rockers chose to meet out in the country, sing in English, and get their groove on. Communism would have none of it. Click on my title to read more history created by the rock 'n roll generation in Czechoslovakia.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Real Reason Vaclav Klaus is so popular with the Czechs

Regular readers of my blog know how I have frequently savored tidbits of Czech skepticism so at odds with American pie-in-the-sky optimism.

Maybe this skepticism is the reason Vaclav Klaus is so popular with Czechs. He is skeptical of the EU and skeptical of global warming.

Ahhh, I get it now. Klaus and the Czech people have total mind meld! Skepticism is the default Czech emotion. A Czech listens to Klaus questioning the conventional wisdom on the issues of the day and completely identifies with his not giving in to political correctness.

Of course, there's probably a few Czechs skeptical of this post.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Free Beer and Chillin' with President Vaclav Klaus

One of the blogs I love to read is Czechmate Diary, by Tanja, a Czech immigrant to the United States. Tanja is in love with all things Czecho and is so proud to be Czech! Her wonderful subtitle to her blog is "Small Bohemian Steps to World Domination."

Someone in power must have recognized this because she was recently invited to a party in Washington D. C. to meet Czech President Vaclav Klaus. Tanja's enthusiasm on her blog for preparing for this party and getting to this party are a delight to read. Every woman will identify with her plaintive cry "what shall I wear???"

On her last post, she featured a link to her husband's take on the event. I enjoyed reading it so much I decided I had to link to here. Tanja's husband also got me to watch the nine minute interview Vaclav Klaus did with Glen Beck (sorry Mr. Beck can't pronounce 'Vaclav' properly, Mr. President) . It was the first interview I've seen in English with the Czech President. He made me think. And as a librarian, I couldn't help but agree with his contention that the marketplace of ideas needs all voices.

I'm also always struck by how good the President's English is each time I hear him (well actually, the only other time I've heard him was when he started the Prague Half Marathon race). The hardest thing for Czech learners of English is to understand native speakers using normal native speed when they talk. The President followed Glen Beck's English perfectly. Usually someone of his age in the Czech Republic has perfect Russian as a second language, not English. He has really invested the time in his English language. I want to give President Klaus his props for that.

Click on my title to read Tanja's husband's blog post about their visit to Washington D. C.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Remembering the Fall of the Berlin Wall

When the fall of the Berlin Wall happened, I remembered being 100% glued to my television set. I was 30 years old at the time. Old enough to have never known anything but the Berlin Wall dividing Eastern and Western Europe. It had become so institutionalized, so flat out hulking, ugly and immovable, it would never have occurred to me that it could go away. It just was. The Soviets were a great power like America and weren't going anywhere. That wall was there for good.

If you were to describe to kids today that people were so evil they would build a wall to keep their own people in (as opposed to keeping others out) and those people were comfortable enough with that they would shoot any of their own people who tried to get away, I think kids today could scarcely believe that such insanity could exist. Going to the site of the Berlin Wall, the insanity is obvious in two seconds, and yet it existed!

By 30, I had seen millions of Americans willing to pay acres and acres of tax dollars they had worked hard for to prevent a "domino effect" of further communist states without question because once a state had gone red, it had entered a static non-changeable state. It just seemed like things wouldn't and couldn't change.

But then it did. It did change. I don't want to say out of nowhere, because I'm sure to Central and Eastern Europeans and to the Russians it wasn't out of nowhere. But back home in the states, that's exactly how it seemed. The unthinkable was happening. Kudos to Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, and Mikhail Gorbachev for the vision and leadership to demand and facilitate change. Most kudos belong to the citizenry who had the intellectual honesty not to believe.

I appreciated that when the wall fell, President George H. W. Bush was graciously muted. He didn't feel the need to crow victory for capitalism or for America. The people's voices were the ones we heard. Pure unadulterated joy. On Christmas Day of 1989, I remember the chills I got when Leonard Bernstein led Berlin musicians in an "Ode to Freedom" when they played Beethoven's 9th symphony with the word 'freedom' sung in German at the strategic moments in the final movement.

The lesson I take away from the Berlin Wall is that anything is possible. Indefensible ideas fall. The most hopelessly sclerotic ideology gets abandoned cause it's just too exhausting to defend the indefensible. Communism couldn't escape the marketplace of ideas. There are a whole host of things happening today in the world that may solve themselves, because eventually, people just get tired of defending the indefensible.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Buying Retail in the Czech Republic

The Palladium Mall
at Christmas time
Inspired by artist David Hlynsky's photos of communist shop windows, I decided to share my consumer's view of Czech retail. One of my students told me in class that Czechs don't really have a retail tradition. All of the grocery stores in the Czech Republic, like Tesco, are owned by foreigners. We had been discussing the Palladium Mall in particular, a gleaming, relentlessly upscale shopping mall two blocks from my place that had opened up in the last two years.

My student said the mall concept is a foreign idea to Czechs. I thought to myself, "you aren't missing much. You've seen one mall (even one as shiny bright and pretty as this one) and you've seen them all." My reaction to shopping in any mall is one giant big yawn.

The Palladium mall
could really be anywhere
in the world,
couldn't it?

There was one Czech retailer that predated communism, a department store called Bila Labut (white swan) which was celebrating it's 70th anniversary. Bila Labut is only two blocks from the Palladium Mall at 23 Na Porici opposite the Legio Bank building . It hadn't yet responded to the salvo of sophistication sent off by the Palladium. It better hurry. When I went inside Bila Labut, I was rushed with long-forgotten memories of the downtown Younkers department store of my childhood, a retail store replaced forty years ago. This store is 'in transition'.

Bila Labut

Bila Labut shop windows
convey what I would call
'dated seediness'

A numbering order
that must be logical
to a different mind than mine

The view from the mezzanine

These merchandising adjacencies
were fascinating;
would you have put these
items together as likely
add-on sales to each other?
I need a pair of sunglasses
because the glare from my cuckoo clock
is too much!

Or maybe there's literary appreciation at work.
Display through alliteration:
tableclothes and tennis shoes!

Need to create an instant department?
Saran Wrap does the trick.

Here's a decorating idea
that hadn't yet occurred to me.
Put an umbrella at the base of my
Christmas tree.

To paraphrase Henry Ford:
You can have any color so long as it is
beige or pink.
My grandmother would have felt
very comfortable shopping here.

Which one of these furniture colors
would you like to have in your home?

If the furniture itself doesn't give you an
idea of the need for an update -
the style names themselves might.
This is the Thelma.
You can also select the Betty and the Linda.

Nothing wrong with the view
from the big factory windows
used in the store - it's beautiful!

The end of communism
was the greatest gift ever
to the Schindler Elevator Company-

imagine country after country
full of buildings
that hadn't updated their elevators
in forty years!

I was grateful that I would be
able to call for help.

I have new appreciation for that
law in America that requires elevators
to post the date of their last inspection.

I enjoy the language used in Czech retail. Businesses often put up signage that says: "our offer:" It has such a friendly sound to it. Then what follows is a list of what they are selling. The big car-oriented shopping centers that are starting to spring up don't say they're open 24 hours a day. Instead it almost sounds like one is at the casino. Those stores want you to know they are open "non-stop." The action never ends!
A wonderful movie captures Czech retail "in transition" from communism to capitalism. I thought I would hate the documentary because it involves a practical joke played against the Czech public. I hate practical jokes. In the end I loved the movie and want to recommend you see it. If you're in the States, you can rent "Czech Dream" through Netflix.
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