Ladislav was a trim, polite, vaguely aristocratic older gentleman who lived in a peculiarly oversized flat amid a modern suburb of Ostrava, the epicenter of communist Czechoslovakia’s steel making and coal mining industries. If I correctly recall the circumstances, he was a retired educator, discretely moonlighting as an English tutor for my immigrant Czech friend’s mother.
We had been invited to his place for a social evening, perhaps because in that particular socialist neighborhood, visiting Americans were rather rare in 1989.
Knowing there would be drinks served, we didn’t dare drive, choosing instead to board the handy tram, and wind through the industrial landscape of the municipality. Ladislav answered the door promptly, and after pleasantries and the ritual exchange of small gifts, he escorted us back outside and downstairs, to a semi-detached building with garage doors.
Right there in landlocked, socialist Central Europe, taking up precious square meters normally reserved for a Czech male’s single most prized possession (his Škoda automobile), Ladislav had constructed a genuine Tiki Bar, complete with bamboo and plasticized tropical plants. But his equatorial showplace, while initially puzzling, actually made perfect sense in the Bloc’s skewed international scheme of things.
Ladislav had traveled to Cuba as part of a cultural exchange program, and the journey made a deep impression on him. Cuban “guest” workers lived and worked in Ostrava; one afternoon, I drank beer with one of them. Like most Czechs, Ladislav grasped the irony of the enduring blockade that kept Cuban goods, which were available throughout both European geopolitical camps, safely out of American hands, and so a bottle of Havana Club rum was sitting on his back bar alongside an array of Cohibas, all earmarked for the occasion of my visit. It was a reverse black market, and a much appreciated gesture.
Sufficient storage space remained in the garage for Ladislav’s bicycles, for he was an avid cyclist. Apart from his set of metal dentures, and what appeared to be a rather hopeless nicotine addiction, he looked the lean and ruddy part of an athlete. The countryside was hilly and rolling, with mountainous areas nearby: Jeseniky to the west, and Beskydy to the southeast. Apart from Ostrava’s wretched air quality, it appeared to be appropriate terrain for challenging riding.
Specific memories of this long evening at Ladislav’s Ostrava Cubano Tiki Bar are fleeting. The revel extended so far into the cool, wet June night that we came very close to missing the last tram to the Motyčka home, located all the way across town, adjacent to the sprawling Nové hutě Klementa Gottwalda – the steel mill named for Czechoslovakia’s indigenous, long-dead, personal Stalin.
However, one part of our conversation never left my mind in all the years to follow, because after all his other guests except for my escorts had offered their goodbyes, it emerged that Ladislav – whose lifestyle plainly suggested an access to privileges of the sort enjoyed by party members – was disinterested in the past. Rather, he wanted to talk about the future.
He engaged me at length about hope, openness and reform, and about Mikhail Gorbachev’s “new” USSR, with glasnost and perestroika breaking out within the bastion of Czechoslovakia’s imperial overlord to the east. He was highly complimentary about my desire to visit the remainder of his country outside the boundaries of Prague, and thought that when westerners did so, and were able to meet normal working Czechs and Slovaks, artificial political barriers irrevocably fell no matter what his or any other government might say about it.
Ladislav, who of course spoke perfect British English, passionately believed language aptitude to be the key to furthering the fall of impediments to good relations between the diverse peoples of the world. He described his vision of the coming time when Americans exactly like me would come to Eastern Europe as English language instructors, and by doing so, further the process of reform and regeneration.
Granted, it was 1989, and the rigid and toadying Husak regime would never permit such linguistic and cultural incursions, but Ladislav was certain that Gorbachev’s revitalization movement eventually would spill out from the Soviet Union, into the satellite nations, and when it did … well, when it finally did, he fully expected to see me again, this time as a fellow teacher, working alongside him in his homeland.
I enthusiastically agreed, dumbstruck at the ease with which Ladislav, a complete stranger, managed to read my mind. While never an accredited teacher, I’d dabbled in education as a substitute. Back home in a file cabinet was a bulging folder of information on various ways to get “English as a second language” teaching certification. My long-held fascination with East-Central Europe was a given. How did he fathom my innermost thoughts?
We said our goodbyes, and a few days later, it was time to depart Ostrava on a roundabout journey to Moscow for Russian language instruction of my own. Weeks passed, life and travel went on, and by late November, I was home again in Indiana, watching CNN with amazement as the last bits of the Berlin Wall fell, and shortly thereafter, tearfully gladdened when the Velvet Revolution swept Czechoslovakia.
The playwright and intellectual Vaclav Havel, whom Ladislav had described to me in glowing terms as the impetus for Charter 77 and a hero of the opposition, suddenly became president of Czechoslovakia. It was incredible to imagine that Havel had been imprisoned as recently as April of 1989, just before I entered the country. Truly, all things seemed newly possible, and as a new year of 1990 dawned, I started wondering what Ladislav had to say about it.
I’d write to him, and find out.
(Part 2 next week. This story was originally published here in October, 2011)