In 1999 we lived in Bratislava, Slovakia, working in media development for IREX-ProMedia. Prague was just a 3 hour drive from our home.
February 27, 1999
This week we drove to Prague to represent ProMedia at an opening of a photo journalism exhibition entitled “‘Ten Years After’; capturing ten years of change in post-communist countries.” An added attraction was that we were invited to a reception with Czech President Vaclav Havel. On the way out of the office Veronika, a journalism student working for us, looked me up and down in my Dockers, open color blue shirt and tweed sports coat and said, “President Havel is famous for his informal dress.”
The photo exhibit was part party, part reunion. It was stunning, the scrapbook of the last ten years of our lives. The photos ranged from Chukchi in the Russian Far East close to Alaska to Cheb, Czech Republic, the westernmost outpost of the former contiguous “Evil Empire.”
There were photos of events we didn’t see but that affected our lives, like the toppling of Enver Hoxha’s statue in Tirana; independence celebrations in Slovakia; the exodus, by tractor, of Serbs “cleansed” from Croatia, and Havel’s famous hug of Dubcek when the communist government resigned during the velvet revolution.
There were photos of events we were personally part of, demonstrations in Serbia and riots in Albania. And there were photos of things that we experienced in a different context. Suzi was reminded of her visit to a mental hospital in Elbisan, Albania by a photo taken of a similar hospital in Yugoslavia. We’ve seen the photos of Orthodox baptisms in the exhibit mirrored in Sitka and Tirana. A photo at a riverside in the Ukraine reminded me of an evangelical baptism in the Amur River on the Russian-Chinese border. There was a photo of an outdoor clothes seller with a green and white hand lettered “Benenton” sign over the rack. It was taken in a part of Belarus that could have been Tirana. There were lines of beggars, lines of Lenin busts waiting to be shipped somewhere and vandalized communist monuments. And there were photos of war’s destruction in the Balkans. Happy and sad, it was our scrapbook.
For each of us there was one particular photo. For me it was a mob crushing into a bakery in Tirana waving 10 lek notes trying to buy a loaf of bread. I have been in that mob. For Suzi it was the faces on refugees forcibly returned to Albania.
One photo prompted the “moment” of the exhibition for me. The photo was of happy Slovaks waving copies of “Slovanska Republika,” a nationalist newspaper, celebrating Slovakia’s passage of a language law that discriminated against Hungarians. As I was looking at this photo there was a stir around me. President Havel was to my right looking at the same photo shaking his head.
We wondered how others reacted to this exhibit. We’ve had the privilege of living, working and traveling throughout the entire region. We wondered how someone who had no choice but to live through it, would view the pictures.
The Czech press was critical. It said the exhibit showed too much that was bad. Some of the photos from the Czech Republic included four shots of prostitutes working along the German border. For us the collection reflected the joy, pain and irony of the last 10 years.
Prague is where we started this Eastern journey, with press credentials for the 1990 election. We saw Havel then too. He was stronger, more robust, less rambling. The job and the cigarettes have taken their toll. In 1990 I wrote that the week of the Czechoslovak elections was probably the happiest week in my life; aside my wedding and the boy’s births. We breathed hope. It was that week we decided to dedicate a part of our lives to this work. And while we’ve seen truckloads of heartache, we still breathe hope.
I wrote then that Prague was a most beautiful city, a quarts geode, a crystal heart encased in a ring of grey communist stone. Now the city is fighting a battle between finely restored buildings coming out from under 41 years of Communist grime and the march of McDonald’s, Planet Hollywood and the money exchange booths on every corner that have replaced people on every corner whispering “change money.” Havel said he wanted Czechoslovakia to become a normal country. It is becoming two normal countries.
In 1990 we discovered the Art Nouveau Hotel Pariz, a rundown place with great potential. We couldn’t afford to stay there then but we can now and we indulged. It has been beautifully restored, and for once in our lives we stayed in the room that they use for the hotel brochure pictures. The artwork in the grand staircase was a delight. The hotel offered every type of luxury including two rolls of toilet paper. That sounds normal but the two rolls, hanging one above the other, represented both the smooth western style of paper and the “studded” former communist model. Freedom of choice.
Across the street the Municipal House has also been restored. We had eaten in its dingy socialist restaurant where nothing on the menu was available. This trip we returned for a coffee in a bright cafe living in the same room as that old restaurant. A bent old man went from table to table selling the Wall Street Journal.
This has been our week for Heads of State. Slovakia still has no President, so the Prime Minister fills that roll. On Thursday we went to Banska Bystrica to celebrate the satellite interconnection of Radio Lumen’s transmitters. It’s one of our favorite stations clients. The Prime Minister threw the switch. This would never have happened six months ago, before the election. A normal country. We breathe hope.