For the people of Czechoslovakia, Christmas came early in 1989 when the communists were quietly overthrown. I arrived just in time for the first free elections since 1946 as the Prague Spring resumed on the heels of my eighteenth birthday to lead the first project of my career in a program named “English for Democracy." Unlike repetitive operations that produce the same thing over and over, a project is a temporary endeavor that produces a unique result: an adventure, if you will. This was no exception. As the wall came down in Berlin, and Slovakia seceded from its Bohemian cousins to the north, I delivered my project to deploy the first English classes by American teachers to the liberated Czechs and Slovaks.
The invasion by the Soviets twenty-two years earlier had been a nasty business, tanks rolling through the streets. Yet they were gone without a fight in '89, overthrown by mere students. It was called the "Velvet Revolution," the gentlest reversal imaginable, a feat of quiet resistance perfected in subordination to the Hapsburgs and later the Germans long before the Soviet regime. Stalinism, an era when workers pretended to work and enterprises pretended to pay them, was out. Capitalism was in, and everyone wanted greenbacks. The banks were limiting currency exchange, but you could get them on the black market at a rate of 30 korunas per dollar, which could buy plenty of Russian champagne in those days.
And where was this black market? Everywhere. I would walk down the street, and it would materialize as soon as I donned a New York Yankees baseball cap, the universal sign for "American," igniting the eyes of budding entrepreneurs. "Change?" they would ask.
A currency peddler confided in me "I don't want to do this forever."
"Do what?" I asked.
"Change" he said, as he exchanged his currency for mine. The unintended pun was not lost on me.
So much had changed, and it was only the beginning. I had skipped my high school graduation, packed a bag, and headed to the Eastern Bloc where students my age had led the revolt against the Soviets in Czechoslovakia. My first stop? Žilina, where my charter was to connect with a tourist agency and establish an ESL school.
The project's strategy was simple. A tourist agency was the perfect location to set up shop because it could arrange for students to travel from every corner of Czechoslovakia and across the border to adjacent countries. English was the language of democracy and opportunity, and people from anywhere in the country could come learn it in full immersion trips around the region. At first I held classes on a balcony of the tourist agency, overlooking a town square where the bust of Lenin was removed. Within a month I had over fifty students living with me, undergoing immersive training. As it grew, we had to move into a football stadium. I would lead busloads of students on road trips across the border with Yugoslavia, where Soviet rule was quickly unraveling. Communist soldiers would inspect the buses and scowl in disapproval, but they couldn't stop us.
These were the streets that gave us Franz Kafka, the literary icon of modernism, a German-speaking Czech Jew whose narratives depicted isolated protagonists in surrealistic predicaments. I could relate, running my project against a bizzare backdrop of clashing political systems giving birth to new realities.
In Prague there were something like 50 different political parties as soon as Communism fell. Each party was designated by a number. They displayed their numbers in windows on Wenceslas Square.
#7 won a majority.
Leading up to the election, I taught people what it meant "to vote." They looked at me with wide eyes, having never experienced democracy before, much less a republic. I realized how much I had taken for granted in America.
Graffiti broadcast the prevailing memes: Havel, OF, and 7.
"OF" (party #7) stood for "Občanské Fórum," which meant "Civic Forum." It was a political movement whose purpose was to unify the dissident forces in Czechoslovakia and to overthrow the Communist regime. In this, they succeeded when the Communists gave up power in November 1989 after only 10 days of protests.
Playwright Václav Havel, its leader and founder, was elected president on December 29, 1989. I watched firsthand as the Forum campaigned successfully during March and April 1990 in what were the first free elections since 1946. In that moment, the separate nations of Slovakia and the Czech Republic were born.
Currents of political change spread across the region as surely as the Vltava (or Moldau, to use the German name) washed through Prague before continuing to the Elbe and eventually the North Sea.
Images of past lives hidden for half a century ermerged in stoic forms. Without a word, this man sensed I wanted to take his photograph and nodded approval. His hat said "Salvation Army." The Communist Party had banned its activities in 1950 and imprisoned its members. This was the first time the uniform had been seen on the streets of Prague in 40 years.
A couple of long haired Rottweilers sat for their portrait as well.
The astronomical clock in Prague's Old Town Square, first installed in 1410, faithfully recorded Prague's march into a new era. A figure of Death (represented by a skeleton) struck the time. According to local legend, the city would suffer if the clock fell into disrepair; a ghost mounted on the front is said to nod its head in confirmation.
Some students took me into the hills. At a cabin, we sat in a sauna, then jumped in a frigid lake, as was the custom. Then they took me to a vast underground cave that opened up into a natural cathedral where people from far and wide had come to congregate.
Back in Prague days later, as if responding to a dog whistle on a frequency that only they heard, people poured into the streets in seconds, converging en mass from every direction in one of many gatherings that puncuated the revolution.
Crowds filled the public spaces.
At one point, there was a commotion. Everyone ran and hid as soldiers marched past us. There was a feeling in the air that anything could happen.
The old made way for the new.
Castro said we were American spies, which made me laugh. It was in the newspapers. I was pretty sure Castro thought all Americans anywhere were spies.
We were just people who supported the inevitable changes happening all around us.
Citizens celebrated, like these fiddlers under the Charles Bridge.
Memorials were erected to the fallen.
A sense of normalcy returned. At the end of the work day, men would huddle in bars just off the railroad platforms and drink beer in silence while waiting for their trains. Throughout the country, there was only one brand of beer, Pilsner, named after Plzeň, a place in Bohemia where it was first produced in 1842 when the Czech Republic was still the Austrian Empire. A recipe perfected for over a century, Pilsner may have been the one instance when having only one choice, a scarcity indicative of Communisim's central planning, was good enough.
Our full immersion classes continued, taking students on trips across the border to Budapest for example, where the people were afraid to have their photographs taken. While I was there, the Soviets withdrew, moving 100,000 personnel out of Hungary on 35,000 railway cars before the first free parliamentary election was held in May of 1990.
At a bookstore some customers discovered I was there to establish an English language school, one of the first in the country. So few people knew how to speak English back then that running a project to teach it to them gave me quasi-celebrity status. They saw I was holding a book of paintings by Albín Brunovský, widely considered one of the greatest Slovak painters of the 20th century, and offered to take me to his house to meet him.
Brunovský's son imparted to me a limited edition lithograph created and signed by Albín. It was titled "Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the heart V - War."
The month I arrived in Czechoslovakia marked the novaturient beginning of the end of Soviet rule in Yugoslavia. Refugees flooded Prague, Bratislava, and Zilina with uncertain faces. And more change was coming, tracing its way down the Danube, galloping headlong into a melee of bullets careering across Zenica and Brcko. Havel said "Isn't it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties?" More than 200,000 people would perish before peace returned to Bosnia. But in the Spring of '90, at least for a brief moment, Wenceslas Square glowed in illecebrous wonder, and all was right with the world.
Having established a national network of contacts, I had designed and deployed the classes that were the product of my project. I trained my successor, and we declared the project a success, the first of many project adventures to come. Although some projects are more of an adventure than others, and one's first project may not involve the birth of a nation, every project produces something new and unique. In a world where the pace of change is increasing dramatically, projects are condiciones sine quibus non, essential ingredients of the future. You can be certain that a project awaits you nearby. Are you ready for it? Where will it take you?