Last year we were living in Bratislava on Labor Day. I taught conversational English before work. Holidays created easy class material. We consumed the first 30 minutes talking about the holiday, its history, and the local traditions. Around May first, we talked about Labor Day.
You need to keep in mind, I’m an American. For us, Labor Day means little more than hot dogs on the grill, a three day weekend, and the end of summer. It is probably the least controversial holiday of the year – right up there with Mother’s Day. So while some holidays might carry an implicit warning (Example: “End of Fascism Day”). I was pretty comfortable chatting about Labor Day.
One man in the class started to talk about Labor Day during communism – everyone came out to the square waiving flags and feigning happiness. He imitated the communist version of “Uncle Sam” – the Labor Day cheer leader. Most of the class laughed at his antics. Then, one girl became emotional and shouted, “I don’t understand how you can all laugh. It was hell and you know it was.”
As an expat – and especially an expat living behind the former Iron Curtain – I never see these things coming. And once I do see them, it’s generally too late. I’m have to glance in my rear view mirror to try to figure out what I just hit.
As it turns out, Labor Day celebrated one of the basic tenants of communism – the special place the laborer held in society. On this day, everyone was expected to come out to the square, laugh, sing, and waive the flag. If anyone noticed you weren’t having enough fun, it could be reported. Your celebration intensity was a litmus test of your faithfulness to the party.
We tend to think the worse part of communism was the lack of freedom. But many of my friends assert the worst part of communism was the core distrust it encouraged. A neighbor, friend, boyfriend could be the person who turned you into authorities for expressing doubts about the country, its leaders or the party. A casual dinner party comment could come back to haunt you.
I am reading a lot – both fiction and non fiction – about this part of the world during the period just before, during, and since communism. This theme of distrust is pervasive. One morning, while reading in the coffee shop, I stumbled upon Vaclav Havel’s New Years Day speech. He delivered this speech on January 1, 1990 – just after being elected the first president of a free Czechoslovakia. It framed behavior I noticed, but didn’t understand.
“We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore one another, to care only about ourselves…. The previous regime – armed with its arrogant and intolerant ideology – reduced man to a force of production, and nature to a tool of production. In this it attacked both their very substance and their mutual relationship. It reduced gifted and autonomous people, skillfully working in their own country, to the nuts and bolts of some monstrously huge, noisy and stinking machine, whose real meaning was not clear to anyone…. .”
I’m less surprised now when emotions bubble over, when an inadvertent question elicits an emotional reaction. A lot has happened in my life between this Labor Day and last. I won’t wish people a “Happy Labor Day” this week. While most people wouldn’t react negatively, I realize some will.
I’m learning to anticipate landmines and to step carefully around them
Categories: Insiders Budapest