Some days living abroad feels just like living it home, except you don’t know what you’re buying at the grocery store. And some days, you have no idea where you are or how you got there. Yesterday was one of those days.
For those of you playing the home game, this month marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. Last Monday, we sat in our apartment watching continuous coverage of the Berlin Wall festivities. All the main players were there to commemorate the face of the revolution. Because when you think of the end of communism, what do you think of? Berlin Wall. And there were speeches, lights, music (what Bon Jovi has to do with it, I have no idea, but he was there), and giant dominoes set up all along the original route of the wall that were ceremonially toppled by assorted players of the time. It was a huge and meticulously organized celebration that befitted the occasion. And then there was Prague.
If you are unfamiliar with the events of November 17, 1989, it was the beginning of the end of communism in the Czech Republic. Here’s a helpful video, (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPyKuGXppsA). It took 8 more days of “peaceful protest”, but the communist government resigned, and a playwright became president. So how do they celebrate this consequential event??
Well, it was very Czech. Some organized events, some question as to what exactly was going on, and police everywhere. On the Prague Post (English newpaper) web site, the info included that beer would be served at communist prices. Here’s their story (http://praguepost.com/news/2774-prague-celebrates-20-years-since-the-fall-of-communism.html) That meant 4kc beers (about $0.20), however, it was only for an hour, in Old Town Square, which was packed with tourists. There was a band playing folk songs, but apart from the tourists and the usual selection of street meat, it didn’t appear that much was going on. So we headed over to Národní třída, where the parade/march was ending up, and where the concert was taking place. All the streets were blocked off for the day, so we could wander with the crowd without the usual fears of being run down by a tram. There were food and drink stands with 17kc beer ($1.00), some games for kids, and giant bikes in the shape of bananas and toilet paper. Ah, the luxuries that were unavailable. For photos, and some explanation, here’s the link (http://picasaweb.google.com/heather.m.hartmann, 2 albums, one pictures, one with a few terrible videos).
We attempted to squeeze our way into the passage that contains the memorial to 17.11.89. It was understandably full of people lighting candles and laying flowers. Here’s the New York Times shot of former president Vaclav Havel doing so… (http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2009/11/17/world/17cnd-czech-inline1.html). Then we headed back towards the river to wait for the march. Same as on the original night, people met at Albertov near the University to hear speeches, etc. Then they marched along the river to Národní divadlo (the National Theater), and turned to come up to Národní třída. We waited and waited, wondering if they were actually coming or if we had somehow missed it. Here’s a key difference between the US and the CZR. According to the news this morning, 6000 people did this march, and I can tell you, it looked like way more than that. But we didn’t hear them coming until they were about 3 blocks down and we could see them. It was the quietest celebration I think I’ve ever heard. There was some singing, and the jangling of keys (the signal to the Soviet “landlords” to leave), but during the march and later at the concert, it was so quiet! People sang during the National Anthem, and a Czech folk song which came after that, but other than that, it was pretty quiet. So we watched the march for a bit, then joined in and followed up towards the concert. We came to a halt at an intersection when they played audio of sirens, chanting, dogs barking, etc. and had an explosion at the spot where police and the student march originally clashed. After that came the National Anthem and some other songs. We worked our way out of the crowd and around a side street to get back up near the stage, where we found some friends in time to hear some of the Czech bands sing, ending with “Hey Jude” in Czech. Again, so quiet. I think the Times article did a good job with their description, so here it is… (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/18/world/europe/18czech.html?_r=1&ref=europe).
Some people definitely looked at it as just another day off, some people didn’t know what it was for, and some were thoroughly invested in the proceedings. It was interesting to see these people, who surprise us if they laugh in public, actually showing some sort of emotion. Watching an older couple sway to “Hey Jude” while the man teared up, brings back the point that this was not that long ago for them. And yes, on more than one occasion we have said “how long are they going to blame …. on communism?”, but it’s true. (In our defense, we’re usually joking about why some people here dress completely ridiculously. But, when you aren’t allowed to wear what you want for so long, I guess you have to make up for lost time.) Hearing the cheer that went up for Vaclav Havel (Czech poet/playwright/dissident that became the first president after comm.) when he came out was amazing. Havel introduced Joan Baez, and she came out and sang “We Shall Overcome,” so it was nice to actually understand a song. I then got to explain who Joan Baez was to some of our friends. Who were American. Oy. But I digress. It was something I think we’ll remember for quite some time. I certainly never imagined myself on the banks of the Vltava watching people stream past carrying signs and babies, jangling keys and drinking beers. But, as Kundera wrote of the Vltava, “The river flowed from century to century, and human affairs play themselves out on it’s banks. Play themselves out to be forgotten the next day, while the river flows on.”
Today, there was nothing there.