Lessons from Central Europe

I’ve just returned from a two-week whirlwind through Central Europe. It was a surreal coincidence to be in this region right after the U.S. election, but it was also illuminating and ultimately redeeming.

The trip began on a discordant emotional note. Like many in the U.S. intercultural field, I sensed that everything I stood for had been run over by the electoral college. I despaired at reports of violence and felt a mounting anxiety that we could be headed toward a populist tyranny. Unpleasant thoughts for a 10+ hour flight, and when we landed in Vienna, the rain matched my dreary feeling.

If you want to shake off introspection, though, Vienna is not the city for it. One minute you are gawking at palaces and in the next you come face to face with the Monument Against War & Fascism , the Soviet War Memorial, and the Nameless Library. Nor was art an escape: while exploring impressionism to modernism at the Albertina, I found the parallels with today too close for comfort. History lurks everywhere, and if you pay attention it makes you realize that horrors can happen even in the most elegant of places. That leaders all too easily demonize minorities in times of upheaval, and artists suffer when their humanistic truths collide with the party line. And that even after the bricks and mortar are repaired, the soul of a place may never be fully restored.

So, Vienna wasn’t exactly a mental holiday. Or a physical one (I promptly came down with a cold). But I did make a point to enjoy it by going to the famed Christmas markets, where I sipped gluhwein and bought a small wooden nutcracker. And perhaps because I was feeling adrift, I looked for ways to connect on a human level.

I spoke in broken German to clerks, pantomimed about how to use museum lockers, and helped befuddled Brits figure out the process for ordering cake. (It’s Austria. Of course there is a process). My husband and I chatted with a waiter who exclaimed that he loved America and visited Los Angeles every year, and another who told us that we didn’t seem American because we enjoyed our conversation instead of rushing through our meal.

When we attended the Drucker Forum Gala, I expected criticism about American politics. However, I found the opposite: Commiseration. Austrian attendees fretted about their own elections while Britons licked their wounds over Brexit. A German working in the UK shared his fear that after years of relative peace, integration, and rising global prosperity, people have taken hard-won progress (and the institutions that made it possible) for granted. The consensus was of uncertainty: Everyone was aware that an anti-liberal upheaval was underway, but nobody felt sure about how it would shake out, how to respond, or what it would mean.

After a week of philosophical ponderings in between doses of strong Austrian medicine and mélange, we boarded a train for Prague. I left Vienna with two impressions. First, those of us invested in building bridges must stand together. Second, global business may prove to be an ally, if only because its profit depends on it. That said, at the moment they seem dumbstruck, as if gaping at the proverbial hole in the ground.

Prague

Prague was a welcome respite between conferences. We dined at a 900-year-old vineyard overlooking the red-roofed city, climbed castle steps washed by the rain, and gazed upon golden relics from medieval Bohemia (including Good King Wenceslas’s arm) at Prague Castle. And yet, like the fog engulfing the Charles Bridge, the heavy contemplations followed us.

For example: At the Spanish Synagogue, a guide explained that locals did not necessarily feel anti-Semitic before the Holocaust, but they did not speak out because these views didn’t affect them. It was impossible not to see the similarities with those who heard the Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, and racist comments by a U.S. presidential candidate but just didn’t care. Looking through the glass at registers of Jewish residents, I shuddered at contemporary calls for a mandatory registration of Muslim Americans. This is what is at stake, I thought. This is what can happen if good people stay silent.

Troubled by the question of at what point a country lurches into genocide, I tried to do fun things like visit a beer spa, eat trdelník, and listen to busking musicians (like an incongruous Dixieland Band). Yet on the final morning, we came across a plaque commemorating a 1948 student march. Suppressed by Communist police, it proved to be a turning point in the country’s slide into totalitarianism. That night, we stumbled upon the Monument to the Victims of Communism, which hauntingly depicts the regime’s human toll. Refracted through current events, these markers of a painful past offered a grim warning: We tried to stop it here, but we couldn’t – and we paid a terrible price.

So the pensive fog had turned more ominous, and as we drove east across the Czech countryside, I braced myself for more alienation. Unease with current events mixed with jitters at returning to Poland for the first time in nine years, and my inexplicable lack of preparation for the bus ride (no water for a four-and-a-half-hour journey) mirrored the lack of preparation I felt for how to approach the new political paradigm.

Wrocław

Yet when I disembarked from Polski Bus, my apprehension gave way to anticipation. As we elbowed through a crowd of frowny faces, pulled suitcases over potholed sidewalks, and detoured around a construction zone, it was reassuring to see that some things never change. We spent the afternoon ticking the homecoming list: eating a slice of szarlotka, browsing at Empik, drinking chocolate at Wedel, and wandering the Rynek. When we stood beneath a windmill in the Christmas market, my heart welled with contentment. We had returned; for a moment, in my life writ-small, that was enough.

We were also in for a treat. A city of gnomes, bridges, students, and global companies, Wrocław (pronounced vrot-suave) had a quirky vibe, unpretentious spirit, and palpable freshness. The SIETAR Polska Congress had a similar vitality and vigor, and its corridors buzzed with earnestness and collaboration. Having travelled thousands of miles, I found myself in the urgent conversations I had been craving. Over tea and sunflower seed cookies, we talked about the human side of a globalized society. What we mean by diversity, how much a community can absorb, and how best to facilitate that process. How we can engage with people who are hostile toward difference without further alienating them or inadvertently empowering racism, Islamophobia, etc. Whom and what our work is for, and how we can avoid becoming a silo of good intentions.

Not everything was perfectly translatable; after all, the intercultural situation in each country is distinct. Even so, I was repeatedly struck by the realization that we are all part of the same effort to connect across cultural differences – and help others do the same.

As I listened to my colleagues’ stories, I no longer felt alone but part of a global community. I felt freed by the (very Polish) perspective that there was room for both cynicism and creativity, that I don’t need to deny my fears nor acquiesce to them, and that I don’t need to have everything sorted out before I can speak the truth. The intercultural path might be all uphill, but that doesn’t mean we should stop climbing.

Above all, as I nestled in the embrace of Polish hospitality, I felt a deep satisfaction. We had finally returned – and had done so as part of our present-day cultural work. Some paths take longer to make sense, but when they finally do, it is that much more gratifying. We had not only come full circle, but a new circle had begun.

Dziękuję (Thank you)

If I flew to Central Europe in a gloomy state, I returned in a resolved and empowered one. So thank you, Central Europe, for your lessons. To Vienna, for showing us that grace and high culture is no guarantee that geopolitics won’t crash through the gates. To Prague, for reminding us that although the human spirit may become ensnared, it can also set itself free. And to Wrocław, for rekindling the belief that our work matters, and just for making me happy.

Auf Wiedersehen, Děkuju, & Trzymaj się. Until next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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