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The Poet in the Castle: How Vaclav Havel Occupied Before it Was Cool

He dared to protest a brutal regime, and his legacy will continue to inspire rabble-rousers everywhere.

Photo Credit: AFP


When I first arrived in Prague in 1994, just five years after the bloodless Velvet Revolution led by Vaclav Havel, the English instructor from the school where I would be teaching picked me up at the airport in a vehicle sporting every color of the rainbow and wires like a giant insect's antennae. “Do you like it?” he asked brightly. “I built it in my garden with stolen parts from Germany.”

I’d never seen anything like it. I hopped in and we chugged and lurched our way to the furthest corner of Sudetenland, my new home.

November of that year saw the first conference ever held on the commercial potential of the World Wide Web in San Francisco. But in this isolated land, perhaps for the last time in history, a young American could travel to a European country and feel utterly removed from home. There were two telephones in my village, both frequently out of order. The tongue-tripping Czech language ensnared me in risible mistakes, such as the time I wandered around a bar asking if anyone had seen my vagina (the word is close to that for coat).

Rumburk was poor – the deprivations of communism held fast, though the just- around-the-corner prosperity promised by capitalism had made eager converts. Rats were occasionally raised for food, and the mushrooms were radioactive. The roads were usually choked with mud and lined with Romany hookers who serviced loud-mouthed East German day-trippers. A petty mafia ran a brisk drug trade, the don of which brought his blonde moll to my apartment one day, who flung her mink on my couch, lit a cigarette, and explained, “You my English teacher.”

It was spectacularly dysfunctional. It was wonderful.

The former Communist apparatchik who headed my school muttered “prase” when he met me, the Czech word for “pig.” As in capitalist pig. Some, like he, were highly suspicious of the excesses of the West, and resentful of lost influence. But most folks ranged from shyly curious to openly embracing of my Western-ness, sharing with me their love for the Beatles and an alarming devotion to the “cowboy” Ronald Reagan, widely credited with catalyzing the fall of communism.

Over an exquisitely cold winter I read books, heaps of them, diving into Bohumil Hrabal, Milan Kundera, Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Schweik, (arguably the greatest anti-war novel ever written), and, of course, the essays and plays of Vaclav Havel. Through these works, I came to know the Czech brand of black humor, that wry and searing sensibility that permeated everything from newspaper reports to puppet shows. Having been crapped upon repeatedly throughout history, and intimately familiar with every flavor of bureaucratic incompetency, political hypocrisy, military brutality, the Czechs managed to transmute their despair into comedic defiance and a kind of fierce humanity.

No less than forty thousand young Americans had by this time made the heart-stoppingly beautiful Czech capital their home. Like me, these young Gen Xers, who were not yet called Gen Xers, were enthralled by a country where historic events unfolded in real time and beer flowed cheaper than water at home. We loved to look up from Charles Bridge to see a sight unique among European capitals, a grand castle which served as the residence of the president dominating the skyline.

Havel was an inspiration to revolutionaries everywhere. “Havel to the Castle!” had been the rallying cry of his supporters, for whom the occupation of the physical space of Prague Castle by a man who had accomplished a journey from prisoner of state to head of state was highly symbolic. Here was a man of the people -- a man who set resistance over passivity, intellect over brute force, and freedom over totalitarianism -- guiding a new democracy from the turrets of a medieval fortification.