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Life after Communism
By Slavenka Drakulic
Chapter One: Cafe Europa
Vienna seems to be very popular in Sofia, judging by the konditoreien, or coffee shops -- there are at least two named after it. Through the window of one of them, on the Boulevard of the Tzar Liberator, people can be seen sitting at small, round cast-iron tables painted white. The coffee served there is not the traditional kind, called 'Bulgarian coffee' (or Macedonian, Turkish, Serbian or Greek coffee, depending on where it is drunk), roughly ground and cooked in small brass pots. Here the coffee is prepared differently and served in big cups with whipped cream and cinnamon or chocolate on top, just like in Vienna. There are also several kinds of `Viennese' cakes and tarts sitting in a glass cupboard lit by a neon strip, which turns a yellow vanilla cream cake into a greenish one and gives a sickly grey hue to the peaches and strawberries on the tarts. They are nothing like real Viennese cakes, elaborate, rich and opulent; in fact, there is nothing in this cafe reminiscent of the big European city, except its name.
The other `Viennese' coffee shop looks a bit better. It is small and the walls are painted in pastel pink and cafe-au-lait. Youngsters are seated at round, fake-marble tables, most of them drinking tea, probably because that is all they can afford here -- the prices tend to be Viennese, too. But the nice thing about this cafe is that with your tea you get a small biscuit on a paper doily, just as, I suppose, it is served in Vienna. This kind of sophistication is very new in this part of the world.
Yet when I am in Vienna, or any other Western capital, I am not usually conscious of how tea or coffee is served, perhaps because I take it for granted that it will be presented in a certain way and therefore I don't pay any attention to it. For me it would be a surprise only if it were served in some other, strange -- say, Eastern European way -- a single kind of black tea only, or several cups produced from a single teabag, with no milk let alone lemon, spilling over into the saucer. And, most likely, the teacup would be white with a blue rim, like the ones you get at school or in a factory canteen. In Sofia, however, elegant presentation has a Brechtian alienation effect. Because it is not expected, one notices it immediately. Indeed, the whole of the Cafe Wien projects a certain image of Western Europe -- pastel-coloured, over-decorated, clean, cute, orderly, even if that image does not necessarily have anything to do with reality.
Tirana is no exception to this trend of giving foreign names to just about any place. Cafe Europa, and there seems to be more than one, is situated in the centre of the city. It is a kind of kiosk, one of 2,000 similar constructions of glass and metal that grew up there in just two years. On a sunny day you can see a lot of people sitting outside it in white plastic seats, drinking an excellent espresso. I can only suppose that these plastic seats, which would in the West be thought in bad taste, are considered both elegant and exotic in Albania, since such furniture was neither produced nor even seen in the country until recently. The customers are mostly young men, smoking heavily and listening to boomingly loud rock or disco music. Imagine a friend asking you where you are going, and you say, `I'm going to the Europa.' Sounds good, doesn't it? To sit like that, dressed in a faded pair of jeans, and wearing your hair long, must be one of the most important and most visible elements of new freedom to them.
Bucharest does not lag behind Tirana or Sofia. It has a lot of small private shops, not very beautiful or expensive, but whose names clearly suggest Westernisation. Even if it is only a hole in the wall, it will have a name like Point West. Any food shop will be a supermarket, regardless of the fact that as it stocks only about twenty products, it can hardly be considered a market, much less a supermarket. And nearby, if you want, you can enjoy your coffee in a cafe with another very evocative Western name: Hollywood.
If you find yourself on any of the main boulevards of Budapest, you will inevitably notice that almost all the shops are owned by large foreign companies -- McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Shell, Benetton, to name just a few of the better-known ones. It is hard to find any Hungarian-sounding name among them. You have the feeling that you must be in Vienna or Paris -- except that the buildings are a bit too shabby, people are dressed differently, the streetcars are a little too crowded, and there are still many old Trabant and Lada cars driving around. But I am sure that in no Western European capital can you buy sweets in a shop with a name like Bonbonniere Hemingway. The owner must be an admirer of the writer; or perhaps he is not aware that it is a writer's name, but just likes the sound of it.
In Prague, Zagreb, Bratislava or Ljubljana and other Eastern European cities, towns -- even villages -- you can eat, drink, sleep, dress or entertain yourself in places with Western European and, to a lesser extent, American names. Bonjour, Target, Four Roses, Lady, The End. This is such a widespread phenomenon that in extremely nationalist countries, such as Croatia, voices are already being raised in protest. A journalist on the main daily newspaper there expressed his serious concern, reasoning that tourists visiting Zagreb might be confused, and think that they were in England instead! This would be laughable if it was not the subject of serious discussion in the Croatian parliament, where a representative has proposed a law that would oblige all firms to use Croatian names.
But what that journalist did not understand, of course, is that this is precisely the point of Western names: to create the impression that you are already in the West. No nationalistic ideology could stamp out the desire to prove that Zagreb and Croatia belong to the West, not even the introduction of such an absurd law. On the surface, this practice seems merely a trick to attract customers. But it has a deeper significance in that it symbolises how people in these countries see themselves -- or rather, where they would like to see themselves. Nowadays, across Eastern Europe, revolution no longer consists of introducing democracy and a free-market economy; this has already happened. It might not work as was expected, but it is there nonetheless. Instead revolution is seen in small, everyday things: sounds, looks and images.
Foreign names are an excellent shorthand for conveying the message of this revolution. Simply by using such a name, you are presenting not only an image, but a whole system of values, too. They also reveal a longing, a desire to belong to a preconceived idea of Western Europe. At the same time they serve as a kind of a barrier, because they seek to deny the old communist Eastern Europe. In fact, there can never be enough signs to indicate and emphasise that indeed this is not the old, communist, poor, primitive, Oriental, backward Eastern Europe any longer. Can't you see that we belong to the West too, except that we have been exiled from it for half a century?
If you asked a child riding a broomstick what it was doing, the child would answer, without hesitation: 'I am riding a horse.' For that child, a stick is a horse. It is as if by merely calling something by another name, you are able to transform it into what you want it to be. By usurping God's power, you create an illusion of an instant Paradise. And no one has yet told the infant Eastern Europe that a wooden stick is not a horse.
Imagine the opposite situation, a sudden flood in Paris or in London, of names like Tirana, Durres, Belgrade, Orient, or even Napredak (progress) or Pobjeda (victory) -- typical communist names. It is not that such establishments don't exist in Europe's capitals, but the very few that do are sad meeting places for nostalgic emigrants. They in no way represent a desire to be different, to be a part of Eastern Europe. In Vienna, one Cafe Europa, in the Karntnerstrasse, the city's main pedestrian zone, is a part of The Hotel Europa. The other Cafe Europa is an obscure bar near Mariahilferstrasse, dark, noisy, stinking of beer. There is also a third one near the Belvedere Palace. None of them represents any kind of culture, because there is no need for a special kind of representation. There are no extraordinary cultural values attached to either the name or their decor.
In 1990 -- when Croatia, as a newly independent state, wanted to distance itself as far as possible from the other, non-European part of former Yugoslavia, from the Serbian enemy -- the most beautiful cinema in Zagreb was renamed the Europa. Its previous name, for many decades, had been the Balkan. All of a sudden, the old name was seen as a symbol of the past, of primitivism, of the war, of something 'non-European'. The new name is heavily loaded with a complexity of positive values. In the first place, it is a symbol of a more distant past. It indicates that Croatia was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until the end of the First World War, while Serbia, situated deep in the Balkans (Croats don't view their country as being part of the Balkans), was under Turkish rule for 500 years. It is also intended to suggest that Croatia always belonged to the more developed part of Europe, and to the Catholic religion, as opposed to the Orthodox religion of their neighbours. It represents Christian tolerance, civilised behaviour and bourgeois values. `Europa' encapsulates what the people aspire to, not what they really are -- as if by changing the name of a cinema we can at a stroke remove ourselves from the Balkans and enter 'Europa' whatever that means.
In using such a name as Europa, there is an assumption that everyone knows what we mean by Europe. One thing is sure: it is no longer the name of an entire continent. It describes only one part of it, the western part, in a geographical, cultural, historical and political sense. Europe has been divided by the different historical development of its component parts, communism and most of all by poverty. Some formerly western countries, like Czechoslovakia and Hungary, found themselves in the Eastern bloc. Now it looks as if all of the ex-communist, Eastern European countries have the same almost palpable wish to push that dividing line as far to the east as possible, so that eventually Europe will be a whole, undivided continent. Yet it is this desire itself which forms the current dividing line. The West does not feel the need to belong (it just is) or to allow the countries standing at its threshold to enter. It waits to pick the lucky ones who will meet its standards and join the European Council, NATO or some other of its institutions.
So, what does Europe mean in the Eastern European imagination? It is certainly not a question of geography, for in those terms we are already in it and need make no effort to reach it. It is something distant, something to be attained, to be deserved. It is also something expensive and fine: good clothes, the certain look and smell of its people. Europe is plenitude: food, cars, light, everything -- a kind of festival of colours, diversity, opulence, beauty. It offers choice: from shampoo to political parties. It represents freedom of expression. It is a promised land, a new Utopia, a lollipop. And through television, that Europe is right there, in your apartment, often in colours much too bright to be real.
Yet all this doesn't get us very far in terms of definition; it simply explains the desire itself. The negative approach is perhaps more useful: Europe is the opposite of what we have, and what we want to get rid of -- it is the absence of communism, of fear and deprivation. The Bosnian writer Djevad Karahasan describes Hotel Europa, an old Austro-Hungarian establishment in the middle of Sarajevo, as a geographical and cultural point where West and East met. The hotel was destroyed in the shelling; Europe thus disappeared from Sarajevo. It left Sarajevo because most of the country, the city, and its people left, too, deceived by Europe. So Europe has many faces, and we should not forget that.
Is anyone today able to say where Europe, and all it stands for, begins, and where it ends? Does the new political reality call for a broader definition? Perhaps the idea that an Eastern European country has to deserve Europe, that it has to qualify for it in some way, is now becoming too conservative. After all, in the United States a hundred years ago, black people were a priori excluded from the definition of that continent. Today, the Afro-American population and its contribution to the United States cannot be separated from America itself. Perhaps there is something positive and valuable that the Eastern European nations have to contribute to the Europe of today. Is it arts, multi-culturalism, diversity in general? Is it the model of the moral politician, represented by Vaclav Havel? Or is it the most important human skill of all: the ability to just survive in impossible conditions?
Europe is not a mother who owes something to her long-neglected children; neither is she a princess one has to court. She is not a knight sent to free us, nor an apple or a cake to be enjoyed; she is not a silk dress, nor the magic word 'democracy'. Most likely, Europe is what we -- countries, peoples, individuals -- make of it for ourselves.
W.W. Norton & Company
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