Sunday, March 21, 2010

Freedom '90

George Michael is everywhere. In the cafe at my school, in the grocery store, in the pivnice I go to after classes to drink cheap pilsner and eat pickled cheese. "Freedom '90" in particular, a song I enjoy, but not as much as "Faith" or even "Father Figure."

I wrote it off as "one of those things," the aftermath of jokes about "being big in Europe"; the inexplicability of why some acts take off in foreign lands. Jerry Lewis in France, David Hasselhoff in Germany, The Eagles in Vietnam. George Michael in the Czech Republic, why not?

It's funny what stands out in a culture that's foreign to us. For me, in Prague, it is things like: the number of people who get on escalators and just stand there. The crazy burgundy hair color on what appears to be one of every five women over 40. The oddity of how in a country known for its beer, you're lucky if a place offers more than three varieties, draught or not. The funky eyewear. I absorb it, and then eventually, through conversation and reading and deduction, the cultural reasons behinds these little "huh" moments become clear.

In the Czech Republic, those reasons often circle directly back to the communist era. The escalators: Time is much less useful as a commodity when your activities are restricted or you're literally forced to do a job that has nothing to do with your interests; why not stand on the escalator, and why give up space to those uppity types who are in a hurry? The hair color: The chemical industry would go through times in which they wouldn't have the supplies to make any kind of hair dye other than--you guessed it--burgundy. The fashion stuck. The choice of beer? Fairly obvious. (The funky eyewear remains a mystery. I chalk it up to that European je ne sais quoi.)

I've never known anything but utter democracy, so I'm fascinated by these stories. The details of day-to-day life in the Bolshevik era rivet me. All a Czech person has to do is say the word communist and I'm a puppy-dog at their feet, waiting for morsels of life under that exotic era, that time when our schooltechers told Americans that "people 'over there' have to wait in line eight hours just to get a loaf of bread." I can't get enough of hearing the places my teachers' visions intersect with reality and the places in which they wildly diverge. "The old women at the grocery stores will look at you like you're a low-life if you tell them you didn't bring your own bag. In the communist days there weren't bags; why should there be bags now, they think," my landlady tells me. A classmate on the blander parts of the Czech diet (i.e. knedlicky): "Under communism, food was just something you ate to get by. You didn't want to be seen taking pleasure in it--that was decadent. That would get you noticed."

I'm a good listener; I'm not the sort who will top your tale with one of my own, eager to make the conversation all about me. But in my head, eventually that's exactly what it becomes: I immediately contrast these exotically grim experiences with my innocence of democracy. I picture my classmate growing up eating stale bread dumplings in shades of gray, while I remember slumber parties at which we'd sort M&Ms by color before funneling them into our mouths by the handful; I imagine how his bread dumplings affect him to this day, and how my overfed rainbow youth affects me still. I like to think that I'm respectful of people's experiences, but in my reverence of What It Must Have Been Like, and trying in my paltry way to compare and contrast my own experiences with those of whose culture I've only skimmed--well, I know I can't deeply research every culture on the planet, but let's face it, I'm sort of playing cultural hopscotch here.

I went to the Popmuseum, which is dedicated to Czech rock and pop music. "We made the best guitars," the long-haired, aging rocker dude manning the place said to me. "George Harrison's first guitar was Czech." He fires up his computer and finds a photo of the Beatle playing a Futurama. "The Bolsheviks think rock was shit, though." He grins. He's showing me around the exhibit--a punk-rock-style collection of photocopied images and cut-and-pasted captions of the rock music of 1990. Every Western musician wanted to hit up the newly freed countries. In 1990, Prague saw: Paul Simon, the Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa, Frank Black, Joan Baez, Michael Stipe, Iggy Pop. More; I can't remember them all.

The exhibit was well-done, if low-tech, but I was amused by what seemed to be a secondary showpiece of the exhibit: a wall listing dozens of albums of the era, no commentary. Jesus Lizard, Pure. Cocteau Twins, Heaven or Las Vegas. Fine Young Cannibals, Young Raw & Cooked. Girl You Know It's True, Milli Vanilli. I laughed inwardly, picturing this curator--whose English was broken but who still managed to liberally sprinkle his speech with slyly enunciated expletives--printing out lists of albums of 1989 and 1990, cutting them into strips with his scissors, gluing it onto construction paper. It seemed charming in its simplicity.

So today, when "Freedom '90" came on while I was looking at the enormous variety of yogurts in the Albert supermarket, I laughed again, noting that I couldn't escape this damn song. And only then did it hit me: This song is from 1990. This song has Freedom in its title. This song is important. I blinked, looking at the yogurt, spoiled for choice--hazelnut, passionfruit, espresso, pear, cream top or no cream top, mix-ins or no mix-ins, rice-based, for kids, chocolate, tiramisu, strawberry, blackberry, kiwi, pineapple, peach, cinnamon, banana, Balkan, plain.

But you can't buy a roll of paper towels.

The relationship of the past to the present is difficult enough to figure out in your native culture. Maybe in some ways it's harder; how am I to notice the things we Americans do that are peculiar? Europeans used to spot us by our jeans; yesterday in my class, all the Czech students but two were wearing jeans. But at least I always have a wealth of knowledge to turn to. Friendly, suspicious pioneers, we are, eager to save the world but too interested in getting somewhere bigger and better to bother with the skills to do it properly; at ease around foreigners--after all, they've invaded our country, right?--but wearing our money belts because you know how those people are. (And they are, at least in our country--look at our crime.)

Here, I don't have that information. I try my big, floppy, Muppet-like American best to get it right. I'm trying to understand whether the people in the apartment above mine play the same song over and over and over again because once upon a time they didn't have options, or because they're just those kind of people.

The Czechs say that Prague was founded by Princess Libuše, when she stood at the fortress of Vyšehrad and had a vision: I see a great city whose glory will touch the stars. Archeaological evidence shows that the timelines don't correspond; the princess was nowhere near Vyšehrad. It didn't even exist during her reign. But it's legend, therefore it stays. So when I read of the Velvet Revolution and think of the students being beaten but showing up again day after day to fight for their freedom, I see Princess Libuše pointing skyward. And then I talk with a classmate who tells me that her husband was one of the protesters. "You want to know what Velvet Revolution was? Velvet Revolution was a bunch of students in the pub, going to visit a bunch of other students in the pub, then doing it again the next day. They were beaten, yes, but they came back because they knew that Communism was on its way out. Every year my husband goes out and drinks to mark the anniversary," she says, then rolls her eyes. Archaeological evidence.

At first this makes me sort of laugh, thinking of how my history books are just like me: wanting to take this Second World story and make a sort of darkly romantic tale, when it was really just the wheels of history chugging along. But then: To her, the fact that her husband was beaten and went out again the next day to protest all over again was a sign that it wasn't a big deal, because "Communism was on its way out." She thinks that because during the time of the Velvet Revolution, she implicitly knew--at age 14--that not long ago there were people who had protested and had much worse things happen to them. Just a beating? Why wouldn't you go out again the next day?

Shall I believe the legend or the evidence? Or is the legend unfinished, waiting to be impressed upon by the living evidence at hand? Perhaps it's not a legend at all, just a collection of bits and dates and hair-dye boxes, Princess Libuše nowhere in sight.

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