I was kind of oblivious to what was going on in politics. I think I started paying attention to it when I was 14, 15, 16. I remember sitting in a pub in Domaša, drinking beer and having a discussion with friends. My older friends, three years older were saying ‘Communism is going to fall. I am telling you guys, it will end.’
Post-1989 emigrant Tag
It was just a few kilobytes of memory, but I was able to do a little coding in Basic. I even programmed my own little game – this little ghost moving around and collecting some goodies. Similar to one of the games at the time. But computing was certainly in its diapers. It’s come a long ways since then.
Once you grow up somewhere else and you basically go live somewhere else, I think you’ll be kind of living on both sides of the fence for the rest of your life, so it’s kind of difficult to decide where to jump. Sometimes I feel I am home only when I am on the airplane or the ocean; that way I am nowhere.
I have very fresh memories of walking by a grocery store or pharmacy and seeing empty shelves, or seeing a line of people waiting outside. The practice was that, if you saw a line in front of a pharmacy, you immediately went and stood in the line because something arrived that was never available, and it was the bizarre stuff you’d expect.
There was no need to learn the Czech language. Of course, growing up in Czechoslovakia, there is mutual understanding, so I could understand everything. I just kept speaking Slovak because I would rather speak normal Slovak than broken Czech if they can understand me, and there was no problem.
For instance, in the architecture field, I was supposed to already be very good in drawing. In order to get into architecture school, I would have to be excellent in drawing to compete with hundreds of applicants at the time. In addition, very good in mathematics and things like that. So I didn’t even try that. But then I wanted to be a journalist.
It was of course a big difference between the Czech Republic and the U.S., but as a kid – I was a junior in high school – I was quite flexible and I think I blended with the American kids very well, and this made my second trip to the U.S. much, much easier. So when I came to Cincinnati, I knew what to expect, I knew about the mentality of the people and it wasn’t such a huge cultural shock, I guess, compared many other people who had to leave and had no chance to prepare and not an exact idea of what to expect.
In 1995, I began this project where I would interview former political prisoners, people who were arrested in 1948 and spent many years, ten or more years in what were Czech labor camps, equivalent to what Solzhenitsyn writes about in The Gulag Archipelago. I first started with life histories and these portraits and then, as I was progressing towards my dissertation, I started to ask questions, not so much about their individual lives, but more about their life as a community.