1989 Around the World

November 17, 2021

As if in self-referential meta-humour, I’ve always appreciated the fact that the name of the holiday for November 17 - the Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day - is a reflection of the long and arduous struggle for freedom and democracy itself. It rolls right off the tongue!

Marked to commemorate the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, the story should be no mystery to anyone reading this. Jan Palach, the Velvet Revolution, keys jangling, peaceful protest...it is truly more wonderful than fiction. That year, the same year I was born, marked a turning point not just in Czech national history, but in worldwide ideological and political history too.

That’s the consistent beguilement of this place. For a small nation of relative global insignificance, Czech Republic has consistently punched above its weight in world history. The world always seems to be watching this humble slice of central-eastern Europe, eager to learn more.

In past years, I’ve participated in the parades and public events on November 17 at Narodní třída. Poetry and political readings, food and drink stalls, music performances, it’s always exhilarating to see the community come together for this peaceful, noble memory.

This year, with an infant in tow and the weather turning colder by the minute, we decided to forgo the Korzo Národní to sip on hot tea at a new local cafe in our neighbourhood. We intended to stay for a quick cuppa, but ended up staying there for several hours.

Due to the cafe’s intimate size, seating was fully occupied and we had to share our table. A newly arrived couple in Prague from out of town sat with us, and we got to talking.

They introduced themselves as artists who had recently moved to Prague to study - only a few months in. Their home country was experiencing heavy censorship, with artists and performers being targeted by an increasingly hostile government. Some of their classmates had even been put in prison.

“Young people in my home, there is very little future any more. They are leaving as fast as they can.”

Národní třída,  November 17,  2021 | Photo: Martina Schneibergová,  Radio Prague International

We asked them if they saw any of the performances or art at Narodní třída earlier that day. Their eyes lit up, and they replied with genuine excitement.

“Yes! We loved it. Although we couldn’t understand any of the Czech, we could really feel the energy - the revolutionary spirit. That is what young people in our home connect with and actually, that’s why we chose Prague.”

I was amazed. The Velvet Revolution is the stuff of history textbooks. We celebrate it today in the form of Struggle for Freedom and Democracy, but with very little connection to our everyday lives. For most young people born in the 90’s and onwards, it’s a relic of their parents’ generation. Sure they may understand its significance intellectually, but our times of peace and prosperity bear little resemblance to the struggles of the past.

But sat right here in front of us were two flesh-and-blood humans, connecting with the threads of Czech history in a very real way.

The world was watching 30 years ago, and today, they are still watching the way the Czechs are doing it. In this case, not just watching, but quite literally eager to jump into the thick of local life and stories.

As this amicable couple continued to share their story of life in Prague, our conversation turned to more regular, yet enjoyable, small talk - eating and drinking tips, cultural differences to expect, Christmas plans. We found ourselves with more similarities than we thought possible, including our ages.

We were all born in 1989.

We raised our glasses in a toast to the struggle for freedom and democracy, the humble cafe we had found ourselves in, and this adopted home of ours - both old and new - far from where we had originally come from all over the world.

“Na zdravi!”

Author: Kevin Loo
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