I’ve had the privilege to travel to other countries discussing freedom and human rights through a volunteer program supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.
Giving PowerPoints through a translator can be challenging; my chief memory from the seminars I’ve run is polite audience smiles and perhaps a few choked off yawns.
I’d like to think my words did a little good.
I do know I’ve met a hell of a lot of brave and cheery people on the planet who’d like very much to live with dignity and in liberty. (To be extra safe and respectful, I’ve changed some of the names here, but the stuff here really did happen. There’s even pictures to prove it.)
MIXING IT UP
A block from the hotel I stayed at in Sarajevo there is a plaque stuck to the side of a building, just by the Latin Bridge. It notes that you are at the site where the heir to the Austo-Hungarian throne was shot. That’s it. Nothing about touching off World War I or throwing Europe into decades of catastrophe.
You can’t blame people here for not getting too excited about history, I guess.
In Sarajevo, I was taken around by two guys around my age. As we passed bombed out city blocks, Zoran told of a day only 10 years earlier when he was coming home. He heard shots. He quickly hid out as he saw armed squads go from house to house. When he finally was able to walk into his home three days later, it was to discover his father’s body. His friend Davor talked of running through sniper zones to get to school.
And yet the human spirit has to find ways to joy – so often, through laughter. When the topic of a new Bosnian-Herzegovinian national anthem came up, Zoran said that the plan for lyrics is to have one poet from each ethnic group write a part of it. Yes, said Davor, each poet is going to be assigned every third word.
I spent a few days in Bucharest. It is a city lousy with dusty 19th Century estates, many of them now housing Xerox shops or cafes and stray dogs. The headquarters of The Peasants Party is housed in one of these mansions, a wondrously echoing place. For my session there, I was led through a couple of grayish and peeling rooms into a faded yellow conference hall. On the walls were tall pictures in gilt frames of aged party heroes past. The great chandelier was turned off and the room was cold. The party can’t afford to pay its heating bills any more, I was told. A middle aged woman brought in espresso in thin plastic cups and some small glasses of water. Later that day, I was lectured about economic justice by former Communists wearing new suits and psychedelic ties and sitting in their updated Brutalist Revival meeting center.
I won’t forget my walk one evening up the Boulevard Ana Ipatescu. The day was gray and windy, which only emphasized the unavoidable taste of dust and age you feel around there. Cars in Bucharest park on the sidewalk and there were lines of them at odd angles in front of the decrepit grand homes. Occasionally, in unexpected ways, capitalism happens, in the form of a billboard or protruding kiosks.
On my way back to the hotel, I happened across an outdoor bookstand. I awkwardly began to browse, and an oldish seeming man in knit cap, long coat and scarf came up. In Chicago or New York, you would have thought him merely homeless. He told me something in Romanian and I said, “Sorry, English.” He thought I was asking for English books, but I really wanted to just find some little object as a souvenir.
Then I saw Hamlet, in Romanian. He must have seen me light up. For the next half hour, he showed me book after book. He spoke fair English but not much. I picked out one from the Ceausescu era, filled with pictures lionizing the grand leader. He responded with a long “Ahhh.” I had heard that some of the old people in Romania pine for the old days, so I asked him, “Are you happy Ceausescu gone?” He smiled and said, “Yes, yes. Liberty! Conversation!”
For me, he said, 100,000 lei for the book (about $2.75.) I asked him to write his name on one of my business cards. He smiled with irony as he wrote. “Dan Andrei Neglira, Antica, Piata Romana.” Antiques, Romana Plaza; his trade and his business headquarters. He is, he told me, a poet. I left with my Hamlet, the book on Ceausescu and an English translation of short stories by Romanian writers. He charged me about eight bucks total.
When I asked to take his picture in front of his stand, he took off his cap and smiled big, and I saw he was in fact not much older than me.
WORST MEXICAN EVER
A few years back, I offered some sessions in central Mexico. The trainers made up some fun posters announcing the seminar. I was listed as the “Ponente.” My Spanish sucks; I only hoped this didn’t mean “The Droning One.” I put on several sessions about grassroots campaigning and public relations and hopefully helped people understand how we do things here in the US – for good and ill.
In Mexico City, there was dinner at a 400-year-old colonial hacienda now called San Angel Inn, where I was fed escamoles – fried ant larvae – and what the English menu referred to as “pasta with corn fungus,” known locally as huitlacoche. For lunch one day I was taken to El Gran Hotel Cuidad de Mexico, glimmering with a Tiffany ceiling, overlooking the central Zocalo square. The help wore blue bellhop caps as if costumed from the Thirties. There is something not quite right about enjoying a fine meal on a trip when you’re using the word “equality” a lot. But I was too polite to say anything or to stop wedging food and drink into my mouth.
On our way to one presentation, the driver got pulled over by customs police in a big white Ford pickup. Bribe time, apparently. It all seemed pretty pro forma. The driver told me earlier the way it usually works:
Cop: Woo woo woo woo.
Victim: (Pulls over.)
Cop: Papers? You know you were committing XYZ, which will mean a huge fine of —- pesos and impounding your car.
Victim: Oh. What can we do about this?
Cop: Let’s see. How about half?
Victim: (Provides half the named fine amount, in cash, to law enforcement.)
Over martinis at the hotel bar afterward, my two local guides engaged in a discourse on how one fights corruption. Juan, who holds a US passport, said he always stands his ground and by doing so, he stands up for the dozens of victims that came before. He acknowledged that by using the power of his passport, he was not only fighting but also accepting an alpha dog system. Ivan counseled a more supple tone. Ivan comes a mountain town in Chiapas, evidently as part of an isolated social set. Ivan loves sushi and hates mariachi. “I’m the worst Mexican ever,” he announced at one point.
With a free night, I walked toward the towering Monument to the Revolution. I heard the thrum of the drums and went to look down into a plaza at the sight of dozens of Mexicans in their daily clothes – all ages and size – twirling and dancing synchronously to an Aztec beat. Possibly it was a form of Mexican Zumba; I don’t know. But I cried at the site. There was a wonderful dissonance to the vision: the aged, louring statuary high above – presidents, angels and priests – while people lug and live and dance on a different plane. I had read of the Aztecs having no use of wheels and draught animals, and even the Spanish did not seem to feel the need to find any other cartage besides the wide backs of the poor.
Next day, I watched costumed dancers move to a similar beat near the sinking cathedral – Mary of the Cockeyed Apses, as it might be called – suggesting that those I saw the night before in civvies were indeed moving to something ancient.
The buildings near the cathedral lack zoning. They press against each other in eclectic ambivalence: Art Deco, modernist, baroque. As I witnessed in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, so many people are physically broken. And everywhere, men and women in uniform with ineffective straw brooms fighting, with some energy, against the jetsam of 20 million people. At one point, a heavily uniformed cop passed me and dropped an empty water bottle into a planter, not bothering to hide his act from view.
We went to Puebla for a session. Ivan showed me the local paper. It had a photo of the flabby governor. There was something of a controversy because he recently had his police kidnap a troublesome journalist in Acapulco, throw her in the trunk and brutalize her. An audio recording of the governor was discovered, boasting of this to a local millionaire and promising a bottle or two of cognac to “throw over himself” in celebration. There would be, Ivan explained, no ultimate consequences to any of it.
We had lunch after the session. The mole sauce of Puebla, where it was invented, is arguably one of the best things ever made, richly chocolate and gritty and spicy. Puebla feels European, with delicately fired tile facades and graceful arcades.
When I left Mexico, it was with a book in my suitcase. The day before in the Zocalo, a book fair was in full flower. Like in Eastern Europe, I found a Hamlet in the local language. It cost twenty pesos (about two bucks). The first passage I opened to was: “palabras, palabras, palabras.”
Words, words, words.
I do hope my talks helped some people think about different ways they can do freedom. As I say in all my seminars, we Americans don’t have all the answers but maybe we can offer some usable ideas. I do know for sure that in any case, I have learned, on these trips, a lot more than I taught.