Showing posts with label Velvet Revolution. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Velvet Revolution. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

"The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain" by Peter Sis

Yesterday I read a children's picture book that took me right back to the nine months I spent in Prague, Czech Republic.

Peter Sis, a Czechoslovak immigrant to America in the 1980s, wrote about what it was like to be born at the start of the Communist regime and grow up in a totalitarian system.

When I lived in Prague, I had listened with extraordinary intent to Czech friends who had gone through this history. I loved hearing their experiences, their wisdom from what they had been through, and learning from them how people and families cope with a dystopian reality.

Peter Sis has compressed his own history and his nations' history into this graphical history that can be read in less than an hour. He bore witness! He warned! It's as if he is handing the reader at home the conversations we expats got to have in Prague with our Czech friends about what it was like.

I can't recommend the book enough. It would make a wonderful book to read together as a family for an intergenerational discussion about freedom.

This book has been widely acclaimed both as a Caldecott Honor book for distinguished illustration (the author's wonderful drawings help tell the story), and as the winner of the Siebert award for the most distinguished informational title in America, for children, in the year it was published.

Here is a short interview with the author.

From "The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain"

“When my American family goes to visit my Czech family in the colorful city of Prague, it is hard to convince them it was ever a dark place full of fear, suspicion, and lies. I find it difficult to explain my childhood; it’s hard to put it into words, and since I have always drawn everything, I have tried to draw my life— before America—for them.”                 —Peter Sis

You may be interested in these other reads:

The Restoration of Order: The Normalization of Czechoslovakia" by Milan Simecka

How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed by Slavenka Drakulic

In Prague, You Can Enjoy Reading "Café Europa" at the Café Europa

WWII was worse for Central Europe than even our histories and memories tell us

Heda Kovaly, Czech Who Wrote of Totalitarianism, Is Dead at 91  

Understanding Iran: The Power of One Graphic Novel named "Persepolis"

The 'Empty Nest Expat' blog is on Facebook! Follow my adventures there.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The perfect tribute to Václav Havel : the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent

The Goddess of Democracy
from Tiananmen Square
circa 1989
Václav Havel and the Czechs inspired my 'Empty Nest Expat' adventure. I knew people who could elect a playwright as President were different in a way I couldn't define than me and my countrymen. The Czech Republic seemed like such a delightfully highbrow non-warlike society. I wanted to learn all about the Czechs by moving overseas and seeing what they were like.

To this day, I'm inspired by Václav Havel. This week, I discovered that one of the most beautiful tributes has been created to honor what he did so well: creatively dissent from the State.

Havel, for years a dissident at odds with the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, led the challenge that eventually overthrew the regime, and consequently, he became the first President of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic.

Many credit Havel with the fact that both the Velvet Revolution resulting in the overthrow of Communism and the Velvet Divorce separating the Czechs and the Slovaks were violence-free.

The inaugural Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent will be awarded to Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, Saudi women’s rights advocate Manal al-Sharif, and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

I am particularly delighted that Saudi citizen Manal al-Sharif has been recognized. At a time when human beings have walked on the Moon, it seems so strange that other human beings still aren't allowed to drive a car on a particular part of our planet just because of their gender.

Showing breathtaking courage and speaking plain common sense, Manal al-Sharif posted a samizdat video of herself on Youtube driving in Saudi Arabia while she described to the camera all the different reasons a woman needs to be able to drive to fulfill her different duties. The video was swiftly removed. I was one of the 600,000-1,000,000 people who got to see it before it was gone. Awed by her courage, I also thought her reasoning was undeniable.

Manal al-Sharif is an internet security consultant in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia working for Aramco. I predict someday she'll have her own statue in her nation.

These three Havel Prize laureates will receive an artist’s representation of the “Goddess of Democracy,” the iconic statue erected by Chinese student leaders during the Tiananmen Square protests of June, 1989.

To learn more about the prize, here is the web page.

To see additional posts about Václav Havel

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Checking Out the History of Dissidents: New Vaclav Havel Library to Open in 2013

A Force for Good
Vaclav Havel

Modeled after the American Presidential Libraries, the new Vaclav Havel Library will be a repository for Vaclav Havel's published works and unpublished papers. Unlike Presidential Libraries, this Library will carry the samizdat of years of repression and the official papers of years of expression.  The unique gathering of that collection makes for an interesting juxtaposition and the final triumph of Prague dissident voices from repression - to rule  - to Presidential level archives. It's a fairy tale, really.  A political fairy tale.

Click on my title to read more about the project.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Czech People Overlooked Yet Again for the Nobel Peace Prize

I am sure that 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo of China is a brave and amazing person who puts mere mortals to shame. However, it made me sad this year to hear that yet another year passed without Vaclav Havel receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.  It would have been so moving for him to receive the most prestigious decoration humanity offers  - last year - when the Czech Republic was celebrating the 20-year anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.  It could have been one giant festival of appreciation between President Havel and the Czech people who helped him transform their nation.

Instead of using the prize as a carrot and a capstone for a statesman's career, it seems the Nobel committee wants to use the prize as an accelerator of change, demanding almost through recognition that winners and their governments conform to what the Nobel Committee thinks should happen.  This cheapens the prize in my opinion because it switches it from honoring the noblest and bravest among us to having a political motivation.

Last year, when Barack Obama won, I was offended, because I felt that as President he would need to make decisions that could be at odds with the Peace Prize goals.  It felt manipulative to me, as an American, that the Committee would try and influence the course of his Presidency while it happened.

My emotions conflicted, though, because I recognized that anyone who voted for Barack Obama could feel a bit of pride in the Nobel Committee's contention that no one of that particular year had done more to change the landscape than Barack Obama.  Since he had been in office such a short time, the American people could be proud that we had changed the landscape with new leadership.

I remember when I got on my half-full bus at 6 a.m.on that bleary day, I shouted out to the whole bus "how about that Peace Prize?" I was living in Madison, Wisconsin at the time where there was close to a 100% certainty that anyone on a bus in that town had voted for the President.

The Peace Prize selection glory reflects to those who followed.  No one can be a prophet without followers. Vaclav Havel was the statesman he was because the Czechs chose to follow him.  Barack Obama was elected President because the people of America chose to follow him.

Vaclav Havel's moral authority transitioned the country from Communism to freedom without violence and retribution in the Velvet Revolution and again to the stand-alone Czech Republic during the Velvet Divorce with Slovakia.  How fraught those giant changes were and how much worse they could have been!

Even in retirement, Havel's moral authority can slice through rationalizations made in the name of strategic interests. Once, meeting with an American reporter for an interview, he asked,  "Is it true Barack Obama cancelled his meeting with the Dali Lama?" (presumably to pacify China's leadership).  Havel demonstrates the courage it takes to speak truth to power when your own country's is less.

America is comng to the age where our power will be eclipsed in size by China.  Havel's success in keeping true to his values while navigating this size differential between the Czech Republic and the former Soviet Union is an example the whole world can learn from as the globe copes with China's rising, and frequently bullying, power.

One measure of a leader is how institutionalized the changes he embodied becomes;  yearly, the citizens of the Czech Republic set new attendance records at the internationally-famous "Jeden Svet (One World) Film Festival in Prague, devoted to human rights around the globe.  Czech people, having lived through totalitarianism, have a sophisticated understanding of oppression that is rarely found anywhere in the Free World. Havel, and the citizens of the Czech Republic, have something to teach all global citizens about what it is to speak truth to the larger power.

As I understand it, Liu Xiaobo and his fellow Chinese dissidents who created Charter 08, were inspired by Vaclav Havel and the Czech people who were signatories to Charter 77.  Would a science Nobel go to a scientist whose work was derivative of another's theory? Wouldn't the committee honor the original thinker of the idea? Shouldn't Vaclav Havel receive a Nobel for inspiring freedom in the Czech Republic but now also China? It seems he is becoming worthier and worthier.  Is there not time to honor that young man and not much time to honor Vaclav Havel?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

An Evening of Jazz at the Reduta

 At the Reduta Jazz Club

All of this "Obama in Prague" commotion, took me back to a wonderful memory from "Obama in Prague" weekend last year.  My President had just arrived in Prague, it was the night before his big speech and the entire city was jazzed.  What would be a better thing to do than to go hear some jazz?  Actually, that's what the last democratic American president did when he was in Prague in 1994.

A display of photos from that special night in 1994
of the "Two President's Gig"

Vaclav Havel took Bill Clinton down to Prague's most famous jazz club, the Reduta, and therein a night of magic was created.  It's gone down in history as the "Two President's Gig."  President Havel presented President Clinton with a saxophone.  In this small intimate club, so tiny it could almost be someone's rec room, Bill Clinton played "Summertime" on his new sax.  Czech musician Jan Konopásek, now living in Florida but keeping a home in Prague 1, had also created a piece of music that was a blend of the two nation's hymns.  It was played.  Our Secretary of State at the time, Madeline Albright was also there, which was fitting since she has Czech roots. This evening was beyond statecraft.  This was friendship.

 I knew President Obama wouldn't be there on the eve of his speech.  Lightening doesn't strike in the same place twice -- or at least so I'm told.  But I had a very special invitation from Czech bandleader and clarinetist Pavel Smetáček to come hear his Traditional Jazz Studio band play at the Reduta on a breathtakingly beautiful springtime evening.

 Reduta Bandstand

The evening to me was a celebration of deep roots.  Pavel Smetáček's band has been in existence for 50 years.  When you think of how fashions in music come and go, and personnel come and go, and then you add a totalitarian regime harassing musicians on top of all that -- it's hard to underestimate the accomplishment.

The crowd forming - 
music begins at 9:30 p.m.
Pavel Smetáček's band was not the only Czech jazz institution to have lasted for so long and with such a grand reputation.  The Reduta jazz club has also continuously operated as a jazz club for 50 years as well.  Sometimes I think jazz is celebrated more here in Prague than at home! What wonderful memories Pavel must have created over the years at this club.

Vojtech Hueber
Announcer for the Evening

So there was not only Pavel's 50 years of musical leadership present, and 50 years of Reduta jazz history present, there was also the incredible long-standing friendship between Pavel Smetáček and his friend Vojtech Hueber, PhD present. Spending time with them, it's obvious to see how lucky these two men are to have each other as friends.

Vojtech, associated with Czech Radio's jazz department, also has a lengthy career history in international affairs.  These men have their love of jazz to discuss and also global politics.  Pavel helped represent the Czechoslovakian government with new democratic faces after the Velvet Revolution, having served as the Ambassador to Italy in the early days of democracy.

 The dreamy Smetáček brothers.
Pavel on the left, Ivan on the right.
this picture is better.

Pavel on the left, Ivan on the right,
and me chillin' with the dreamy Smetáček brothers!

Oh, and one other long-standing partnership was on display. Pavel's brother Ivan, was also present that evening.  Ivan played the trumpet for years and no longer plays since his embouchure has taken a well-deserved retirement. Both Pavel and Ivan carry themselves with an urbanity quite uncommon in today's world. Can we bring it back?

 I asked Pavel, "where did you learn to be so elegant?"

"From my father, Václav Smetáček; he was a symphony conductor.  He died in 1986 at the age of 80.  He was known for his handsomeness."  He wrote a piece of music for Pavel's band called "Ragtime Echo."

 I haven't met Pavel's son Stěpán, representing a third generation of musical leadership, but he has his own modern band called the New Orchestra of Dreams (Pavel plays traditional dixieland jazz although he says he's a "tolerant traditionalist!"). Dasha, Pavel's wife, is a flautist.  She played in Pavel's band for 10 years.  She now teaches and has a chamber music ensemble with flutes and cellos.

The depth of all these connections was moving!

The band began to play with a power that just blew those of us in the front row away.  Wow, I want to be like this when I'm his age.  It was so fantastic.  They started off the first set with the song Nobody's Sweetheart. and continued with:
Careless Love,
Some of These Days,
I Can't Give You Anything But Love,
and Oh, Lady Be Good.

I was touched when Vojtech introduced me to the crowd as a special guest of the band.  While many of the people were local, quite a few in the crowd were Asian tourists.  Would I be as hip to their fabulous music if I went to their countries?

The trombone player was adorable.  Anytime he did an extended solo and the crowd clapped he did this very cute "aw shucks" schtick that did not get old. He not only played the trombone, he had a trombone 'kazoo' that he would bring out for fun.

The second set, the band played:
All of Me
Pennies from Heaven
Burgundy Street Blues (arranged by George Lewis)
When You're Smiling
Strutting' With Some Barbecue

The third and final set the band played:

I've Found a New Baby
C-Jam Blues
St. Louis Blues
Sweet Georgia Brown 

I especially appreciated hearing St. Louis Blues because one of the seminal jazz moments in my life was hearing Count Basie's band accompany Joe Louis on that number in Nice, France when I was 17 years old. I remember it like it was yesterday! It was yesterday, wasn't it?

Band members on stage:

Armin Reich - drums
Ondřej Cernil - bass
Antonin Bílý - piano (not pictured but jamming in full force!)
Jaroslav Zelený - trombone et al.
Vitězslav Marek - trumpet et al.
Jan Chvosta - tenor sax
Pavel Smetáček - clarinet

Pavel and Vojtech also gave me some tips on who I should listen to in European jazz. I'll keep those recommendations to myself.  I wouldn't want to say anything that harms a diplomatic legacy.   Thank you gentlemen, for an unforgettable evening of music and terrific fellowship!

You might enjoy this earlier post about Pavel's band:

I Could Have Danced All Night

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.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Havel Recalls Days of Revolution

The 20th anniversary of that bloodless regime change known as the Velvet Revolution occurs this year. Click on my blog post title for memories of some of the revolutionaries involved, including President Havel. This article made me realize what I don't know about the Velvet Revolution. Why did the Slovak people feel unaccommodated during this time? What happened then that fed into the Velvet Divorce between the Czechs and Slovaks later? Teach me, Central Europeans.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Czech government denied my visa

This week I got the bad news that the Czech government denied my visa. I shouldn't have been surprised. They've denied the visas of my fellow Americans in my TEFL class, not once but twice. I was devastated. It's taken me several days to write about it without crying.

The Dream

I fell in love with the Czech Republic back in 1989 watching the Velvet Revolution on TV. Ever since then, I've wanted to experience this culture that seemed to have brought down communism nonviolently with raised BIC lighters in Wenceslas Square, not cold war spending (the Czechs actually credit the cold war spending -- not the BIC lighters, but that's another post).

The more I found out about Czech people, the more I wanted to know. I wanted to know about people who have so beautifully kept a highly human and highly cultured "second culture" alive when the official totalitarian culture was anything but human. What intriguing people. I vowed to live among them someday.

A newspaper man in Minnesota, suggested that Americans back then should help Eastern Europeans adjust to capitalism. I happily signed up for two pen pals, specifically requesting they be from the Czech Republic. We wrote long letters back and forth, way before the Internet, and I cheered them on as they started up small businesses in their respective communities. We wrote back and forth for years. Finally, the daughter of one of my pen pals came to live with my family for a summer and eventually settled in America.

I also met a lovely Czech couple in my hometown of Ames, Iowa from the Czech Republic. Kate Sladka was doing graduate studies in plant pathology and Josef Kedlecek, her husband, was putting her through school while working at a locally-beloved Ames restaurant (now that I've read Bohumil Hrabal's "I Served the King of England" I appreciate his job choice even more).

Kate grew up in this
beautiful apartment building
right off Old Town Square

Kate and I spent hours talking and she told me about all of the beautiful architecture where she lived in Prague in a very special part of town called Old Town. When I found my apartment in Prague, I was less than 10 blocks from her home! Now that I've gone and tried to find her and knock on her family door less than 100 feet from Old Town Square on Celetna, I realize how much her eyes must have ached for that mediaeval, Gothic, and art noveau architecture! I was stunned by the actual beauty of where her family lived. It was even more exquisite than I could ever have imagined. Her view was out of a fairy tale.

I was stunned to learn
that my friend Kate
had this incredible view of the back side
of the House of Tyn

I finally got here Kate!
Seventeen years after we talked.

The Reality

I finally figured out how I could come to the Czech Republic and experience it by reading Rolf Potts book "Vagabonding." His premise is that Americans vastly overestimate how hard it is to see the world and support themselves as they do it. I saw that, I too, could do this. All I needed to do was get a TEFL degree and begin teaching English. Teaching English is the easiest and fastest way to get into a country because there is so much need. Czechs working and moving up in multinational corporations need English because it's the international language of commerce.

So I choose a language school that promised: a guaranteed job after attending the TEFL course, full VISA support, health care, and free Czech lessons so that I could quickly integrate into the culture. Not a single word of it came true. I don't know why my school didn't follow the law. Maybe it's more profitable to have places opened up for the next TEFL class coming in, I don't know. I had relied on them to know the paperwork of their own country. I made an error in taking them at face value and trusting. Frankly, I'm proud to have "some trust in me" because you know how closed down people can get when they feel betrayed.

My fellow TEFLers and I loved Prague so much, that we were willing to give our school a second chance. "We applied for your visas incorrectly the first time, but this time will be different." It took me a month and a half to find work in America when I came back with only two days notice. I only looked for temporary work at a reduced pay level so that I would be fair to a potential American employer. After all, I was going to race back to the Czech Republic at the end of the summer!

I had invested over $5,000 to sell everything in America and move to the Czech Republic the first time. I happily shelled out the money for another Czech visa because this time it looked like my school had educated itself about how to follow the law and we would not be penalized for their past actions. Indeed, the administrators told us that many times. "Come back! You will not be denied."

My unfinished Czech Business:

I am completely and totally head over heels in love with the Czech Republic and it's culture. I feel like I was just starting to scratch the surface! I loved to share my excitement in my blog over each wonderful discovery. I only went out of town twice in six months because I wasn't focused on seeing all the tourist sites at first, I was focused on setting up my life. I intended to live there for years.

There are so many fabulous things in the Czech Republic I never got to see. I never saw the beautiful square of Telc, I never saw and experienced drinking spa water at Karlovy Vary, or the romance of Cesky Krumlov, I wanted to see Jan Kaplicky's stingray building in Cesky Budovice when it was finished, and modernist and cubist buildings in Brno. The Sumuva! Mushroom hunting! Czech skiing! I wanted to eat pickles in Znomo and marvel at the aqueducts and pretend I'm a partisan in the Znomo underground. What does Moravia look like anyway? I wanted to go to a Moravian wine festival and call up my friend Sher a little tipsy and tell her how much fun I'm having! Insert scream of dismay here! I wanted to see it all.

The people I care about there that I will miss. I dread having to explain to my pen pal in Western Bohemia that I traveled half way around the world to spend time in her country because of how she and others described it but hadn't yet come to her city to see her. I was waiting until I spoke Czech better so we could have real conversations face-to-face. I wanted to knock on her door and surprise her by greeting her in good Czech.

I did get to see my other pen pal in Plzen, (a future post), but since I visited her she has since become very sick, close to losing her life. I would love to go back and see her and cheer her on to a full health recovery. I never did find Kate Sladka despite knocking on her family door at 10 Celetna over and over again. I have no idea where she is.

What was so wrong with us being there?

I know governments have to look at things from a macro level, and one should never take things personally. It's not personal. That hurts too! The impersonality of it all. But how could excited and enthusiastic English teachers bring harm to the Czech Republic? Teaching English felt like our gift to the Czech people. We felt like we were doing out part to bring you into the global community as fast as possible after forty years of repression. We sure weren't doing it for the money. The work was damn meaningful to us.

I can't imagine Czech tourism advertising budgets are very big. At a time when tourism is down 20% (Prague Post, 6/3/2009) and Prague hotel room occupancy is down 8.5%, and now half of the hotels in Prague are expected to go bankrupt (Prague Post, 8/25/09) wouldn't the enthusiastic blogging of expats talking to the folks back home about how amazing the Czech Republic is be a welcome development to the Czech government? My friends would have resulted in seven week long room rentals at the small family hotel near my apartment over the course of 2009, but I know that expat bloggers are great for business beyond the immediate impact of their own families and friends.

I never heard of Cesky Krumlov from Czech Tourism advertising. I heard of Cesky Krumlov through an amazing English-language blog written by a Brit skilled in community development who constantly celebrates the specialness of that place. That one woman is probably responsible for more foreign visitors to Cesky Krumlov than Czechs know.

I don't know what my next move is. I'm honestly in mourning and it's going to take some time to deal with the disappointment. I would have loved to come back to Prague with the free ticket I have but the Czech consulate in Chicago could give me no solid advice. "It's all up to the foreign police, you may get in as a tourist, you may not. They might turn you back at the airport." Without solid guidance that my money in the Czech Republic wouldn't be wasted this time, I'm staying home. See, I can learn. Stay home. Sadly, there is no welcome mat out in the Czech Republic.

The beginning of this sorry saga:

What Just Hit Me?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Is it the Velvet Revolution or Normalization in Iran?

The bravery of Czechs in their Velvet Revolution and Ukrainians in their Orange Revolution has been referred to again and again in news coverage of the Green Tsunami (the reform slate) in the Iranian elections. Raman Ahmadi writes in Forbes comparing the current crisis to what's happened before in Czechoslovakian history. Below is an excerpt; you can click on my title to read the entire article.

There are at least two possible outcomes for the current crisis. If the Ahmadinejad's coup is successful, we will witness another post-1968 Prague spring, crushing the reform movement and including a military attempt at "normalizing" society. Mousavi will be forced to appear on television and play the role of an Iranian Dubcek, expressing regrets and calling on people to stop resisting the military regime.

If this coup fails, on the other hand, Tehran may experience the Prague spring of 1989, and the country will be wide open to the possibility of substantial reforms and liberalization, well beyond what was seen in the Khatami era. In either case, the Islamic Republic we have known for the last three decades is gone. That strange, fragile and contradictory 1979 newborn, a hybrid of clerical theocracy and Western-style republic, has long been dead. Some have argued it was a stillbirth. Others have insisted on its potential. Either way we evaluate the regime, it's clear today that only brutal military force can sustain the theocratic element.
If you don't know what normalization is, there's a chilling book that describes the entire dehumanizing process. Normalization is so draconian that it seems it just makes the eventual political explosion that much bigger because no human being can live that way for long. The book is called "The Restoration of Order: The Normalization of Czechoslovakia" by Milan Simecka. You can read my review of it here.

So my dear Czech readers, do you have advice for the Iranian people how to make 1989 happen rather than 1968? And not to be pessimistic (or as Czechs would say: realistic) what advice do you have for them on surviving normalization, if 1968 happens?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

"We are here because enough people ignored the voices who told them that the world could not change!"

What's Latin for "they came, they saw, they charmed?" That's what President and Mrs. Obama did when he spoke to the Czech people on April 5th, 2009 on a hazy Sunday morning at Hradcany Namesti (Prague Castle Square).

Beginning with Czech history from Chicago (something well-known to Czech people and hardly known outside of Chicago within America), President Obama shared his Chicago roots in a way that charmed the Czechs and Americans like me in the audience. He honored Czech people for things they love about themselves and by extension, that Czechs teach foreigners to love about them as well: their humor, their high level of culture, their "unconquerable spirit despite empires rising and falling, and the "revolutions ... led in arts and sciences, politics, and poetry. "

My very favorite part of the speech was one I did not expect. When he was establishing connection with his Czech audience, President Obama talked about the improbability of him serving the United States as President and of Czech people being free to live their lives in democracy:

"We are here today because enough people ignored the voices who told them that the world could not change."

What a perfect thing to say to a nation of skeptics who don't believe that democracy will change anything, who don't believe that corruption can ever end, and that don't believe their politicians will stop arguing and start governing. President Obama was asking Czechs to believe. It was easily the most moving part of his speech.

He was asking them to recognize their own power as citizens and visionaries if they organize and work for and believe in change. After all, it was their first democratically-elected President, President Vaclav Havel, who proved that "moral leadership is more important than any weapon." Believe, Czech people, believe!

He did not come here to argue the merits of the proposed missile defense system to the Czech people. He aimed much bigger than that. He came to propose a nuclear-free world. Now if any other politician proposed such a thing in a speech, I have to admit, I would roll my eyes that he expected me to believe such a Pollyanna vision is possible. But if there is anything I have learned about my President is that he accomplishes things that others might not even dream up. This is a man who had his credit card denied trying to get into the Democratic convention in 2000 in Los Angelas just so he could attend and eight years later was the nominee of his party. I'm not discounting the possibility that he could actually do it.

He broke the whole idea of eliminating nuclear weapons down to manageable short-term goals, any one of which would be an accomplishment in it's own right. Godspeed, Mr. President.

He even labeled the Czech Republic as a being in the heart of Central Europe, not Eastern Europe! Americans labelling the Czech Republic as "Eastern Europe" drives Czech people crazy. We Yanks can't help it, we still have that Iron Curtain line in our heads. When I talk to Czech friends my age, I realize they do too. It is a new generation, born in freedom, that has a new reality. Major charm points, President Obama. Thanks for coming to the Czech Republic!

There are great photos of President and Mrs. Obama in Prague on the White House blog dated April 9, 2009 at

Monday, March 16, 2009

Jeden Svet: One World '09

This is the 200th post on my blog! Since what I like to blog about is cross-cultural issues between America and the Czech Republic, it seems appropriate to devote my 200th post to celebrating the Jeden Svet '09 Film Festival now occurring here in Prague and outlying cities.

You know how there are some things you only do when you're out of town and aren't so harried? I realized there was a perfectly exciting film festival near my home in America and I never got around to going. By all reports, the fledging Beloit International Film Festival in Beloit, Wisconsin was fantastic. It was only 17 miles from my house. Here I am, out-of-town, so to speak, and I finally got off my butt and went to see some movies!

This is the 11th year of this film festival devoted to human rights. There are 120 documentaries from over 40 countries. In 2009, the festival has a wonderful subtheme celebrating 20 years of Eastern and Central European democracy in film. Indeed, the festival trailer (which you can link through by clicking on the title of my post) shows former Czech President Vaclav Havel helping in the maternity ward as a new generation of Czechs, born in freedom, arrive in the world. The Velvet Generation comes of age. What will they do with their freedom?

And as I looked around at each venue, it was the young people who had shown up for the films. The first movie I attended, directed by a Canadian, was called "Letters to a President." It showcased the cheap populism of Iranian President Ahmadinejad. People in Iran write him over 10 million letters a year asking him to solve their problems. Every letter is answered, which on the face of it, sounds like responsive government. It came across though as him setting himself up as a Messiah-like figure and the people, many of whom are lacking a decent education, being grateful for any little crumb. Not educating the populace is quite often in the interests of world leaders.

I also went to see "The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia" and "Paper Heads." "Paper Heads" is an especially useful movie for expatriates and young people to see because it shares what life was like under communism in the Czech Republic. Watching the movie, you can see how if you were a Czech back then, when the West had sold you out at Munich, and the Soviets were the ones that liberated you from the Nazis if you lived in Prague, communism just didn't seem like the threat we saw it as in the West. The Soviets probably saved your life.

Once communism was in place though, it was completely inhuman to those who objected. It's hard to look back and think of all the angry, nasty history that occurred here. It just doesn't square with the beauty I see around me every single day.

The festival continues until March 19th.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What was it like to be a Czech Christian during Communism?

St. Clement's Church in Old Town Prague

My church, St. Clements, is a happening place full of happening people. I like it. Nobody in the congregation takes themselves too seriously, including our very nice chaplain. I'm adding his blog to my list of Czech Expat Blogs on the side of my home page. Ricky Yates hails from Britain originally. I hope you enjoy reading about his Anglican adventures.

One of the things I enjoy most about my church is our wonderful sense of community. This week after church we had a quite fun and quite silly 'soup luncheon and bottle raffle'. Raffle tickets could be purchased for anything in a bottle. It was fun to chat up my fellow expats and see who would win the single malt scotch (which would be totally wasted on me!) and who would win the champagne and bubble bath (yea! I won these and they are not wasted on me!).

On behalf of my fellow parishioners, I'd like to invite you to join us if you live in the Prague area for a series of thought-provoking lectures about being a Christian during Communist times. Here are the details from Ricky so far with more to follow later:

Lent Seminar Series
2009 marks the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. But what was it like to be a Christian during the Communist era, particularly the period of religious suppression that followed the Russian invasion of 1968? On five Thursday evenings during Lent, we will have five different speakers from various Czech Christian Churches speaking about their experience. They will either speak in English or be interpreted into English by one of our Czech speaking members.

Venue: No. 18 Klimentska down the street from the church (take the elevator to the 3rd floor). This is our fellowship hall.

Time: 7 p.m. - 9:15 p.m.

Thursday 5th March - Bishop Busan Hejbal of the Old Catholic Church
Bishop Dusan was forced to work as a tram driver and construction worker by the communist authorities. He was also a folk/rock protest singer and he has promised to bring along his guitar and possibly sing one or two of his protest songs!

Thursday 12th March - Professor Tomas Halik of the Roman Catholic Church
Professor Halik was secretly ordained as a Roman Catholic priest during the communist era in the former East Germany. He is a well-known writer and speaker and a number of his books have been translated into English by Church member Gerry Turner.

Thursday 19th March - Professor Jakub (Jack) Trojan of the Czech Evangelical Brethren
Professor Trojan is professor of theological ethics at the Protestant Faculty of Theology of Charles University.

Thursday 26th March & Thursday 2nd April
Confirmation of final speakers to be announced later.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Two "Capitalist Running Dogs" Visit the Museum of Communism

Lenin and me -
there's something about Communist kitsch
that gives me the giggles
My friend Robin posing with
ideology frozen in a museum
like taxidermy

Soviet President Josef Stalin
and Kurt Gottwald,
the Czechoslovak Communist Premier

Gottwald was known for his drinking and his womanizing

(George Washington he was not)

Hey, isn't a decesive (sic) strike
against American Aggressors

what gets YOU up in the morning?

I practically expected this Communist victory
over Nazi, British, and American aggression
to be needlepointed!
What came first?
Young Pioneers or Camp Fire Girls?
The story of this monstrous ego trip
on Stalin's behalf was fascinating
and I was learning about it for the first time.

What's the difference between this and Mt. Rushmore?
Mt. Rushmore doesn't get dynamited with enthusiasm
when the administration changes.
This picture gives perspective on just how massive
that Stalin statue was going to be.
Communists like to make their art enormous
so the workers see it whether they want to or not.
This poster ACTUALLY SAYS:
No American agent shall get through our village!
Help the National Safety Corps protect your
United Agricultural Cooperative against Western Imperialists.

This one said:
"We know what to do with Bourgeois Imperialists!"

The interrogation room
The Communists finally messed with
that which can not be messed with:
rock and roll!

When they tried to surpress this
rock band, the Velvet Revolution started
with dissidents who signed a Charter
demanding that the Plastic People be allowed to play.
A facsimile of the Berlin Wall
The Museum of Communism was created by two Americans. It would take Americans to start it, because it will be years before Czechs are interested in the subject. They lived Communism and have no need to revisit in a museum.

The Museum has an irreverent tone which is part of it's charm (as witnessed by the title of this post).  One friend, a former Communist himself, hates this about the museum. "They don't capture the heartache and the tragedy and treat these crimes with all too frivolous an attitude." I do think that's a fair criticism.

One of the most shocking things in the museum is news footage from Wenceslas Square before the Communist regime was overthrown. Plainclothes policeman would infiltrate the crowds of people congregating to demand a better government. Then they would tell the uniformed police which ones to beat up. As to be expected, the young men in the crowd got it the worst. But there were many, many more bodies than they could possibly beat there and control was no longer in the government's hands. They couldn't beat them all.

One death is a tragedy,
A Million Deaths is a Statistic.
~Josef Stalin

I wish the nighttime footage from the Velvet Revolution was on display. I think that would interest the Czechs. They could show to their children the history of their admirable regime change. To this day, I remember it all and am inspired by it. I would like to show it to my children when they come to Prague. I would tell them this is the first of many things that I want you to know and respect about these people, the Czechs, that I'm living amongst.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Saturday Profile: Vaclav Havel

The New York Times featured Vaclav Havel today as their Saturday profile. He has a new play debuting called "Leaving." It sounds like an interesting articulation of the unintended consequences of power.

Vaclav Havel makes me appreciative of Czechs and Czech culture because his actions are incredibly admirable and brave. He modestly poo-poos this sort of admiration saying "oh people looking from afar may see a fairy-tale hero."

I disagree. My admiration encompasses the entire country and it's culture because the Velvet Revolution was not the actions of just the one man leading it. It's the entire country that fired the piercing bullet of moral authority, not gunpowder, when the Revolution happened. If that is not the best of humanity, well, I don't know what is.

Link to the title for the full article.

Friday, May 2, 2008

My History with Czechs (part one)

It's very hard to know or remember now, just how forbidden and mysterious everything was behind the Iron Curtain before it fell. Americans didn't know much about the people and places involved. All the news that seemed to come from there was always produced with a "minder" in tow, so therefore suspect.

It's also hard to remember just how completely mind-blowing it was when the Berlin Wall fell. It turned out nobody in those countries believed anything their governments were spouting. I never thought I would see the fall of the Berlin Wall, never even dreamed it was possible, and when one country after another demanded change, it was incredibly moving.

No people's story was more moving than the Czechs. I remember how they would gather in Wenceslas Square and demand their freedom. Their ability to achieve all of that, with deliberate and collective non-violence was simply awe-inspiring to me. It still is. I believe 500 years from now, 1,000 years from now, future Czechs will savor that moment of themselves at their finest.

The Velvet Revolution made me want to get to know these mysterious people, and as corny as it sounds, reach out my hand in friendship. Welcome to the world! I signed up for a pen pal exchange started by a Minnesotan who was equally inspired by the new freedoms to connect. I began a correspondence with a woman in Plzen named Hana and a woman in a small town near Karlovy Vary named Lenka. We dubbed the woman near Karlovy Vary "Big Lenka" to not confuse her with Hana's daughter.

It was deeply interesting to hear about their lives and all the changes they were going through. Instantly, entrepreneurial tendencies surfaced. During communism, the lady in Pilzen's husband had worked at the giant Skoda Works. It sounded like the sort of place that would be featured prominently in a May Day poster celebrating labor -- communist heavy industry and dreary beyond belief.

Big Lenka's husband began his own business as a truck driver. He was ripped off by a business partner and it made me sad that their first experience with capitalism was one of the pitfalls. But both couples persevered. I enjoyed being the "entrepreneur cheerleader."

We invited the oldest daughter of the couple from Pilzen to come live with us for a summer to experience American life and enjoy our daughters. I truly believe we changed her life. She came to America speaking hardly any English and learned mostly from my children. At that time, Little Lenka was 15 years old.

What I think Little Lenka enjoyed learning most, and what changed her life forever, was the American idea of delaying marriage until one had first invested in oneself with college and independent single life. She asked questions about this idea constantly. All of her friends back home would be married with babies on the way by age twenty. She decided the American way of delaying marriage was better.

Talk about entrepreneurial! Little Lenka immediately sought and received a scholarship to attend an American school when she got back home. Then she sought and received scholarships from generous Czech Americans to attend university in the United States. She went to Rotary clubs all over the American Midwest to talk about the evils of communism and how great America was. No pay involved. Just gratitude. She then married an American. I'm embarrassed to say that I have lost touch with her and her family. Nonetheless, I'm proud of the role we played in changing this young woman's life.
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