From what I remember, to fulfill my psychology requirement at Marquette University, I chose an Ethics in Political Science class. We spoke of things like when or if torture is ever “acceptable” or if it is okay to deliver the death sentence to someone who accidentally killed his son while protecting their home during a robbery. We also dove into the politics of being democratic or republican, how some bills aren’t so black and white, for example, and how you still have to choose to be either red or blue. I really enjoyed the class and it was then that I learned I would never be a political person because I can never choose a side; I always see the positive, or the ethical or the value in both sides and in politics, that just doesn’t work.
Yesterday, we sat at a lovely spot near the Parliament building in Mala Strana Praha 2. Gorgeous day, 70 degrees or so. Groups of touring students sat on the steps of an arts monument building and I was reminded of similar photos I took when I traveled to Douai, France in Junior High School for an exchange program. I wondered if and how those kids would remember this moment and how it might affect their young lives and experiences to come.
Our server, Lev, had jostled us from the street. He shifted us from the status of aloof passers-by to seated customers by merely becoming excited about my mother’s dark green, plastic Harrod’s bag she obtained at Heathrow airport and now contained copies of my book for selling that day.
“Harrod’s! Harrod’s” he exclaimed as he positioned himself in front of mom.
“Yes, yes! I love Harrod’s”, mom smiled brightly in return.
And that was all it took. As Lev expertly poured my sparkling water as though it were fine wine and made sure Nicole and Mom’s pivo’s were to their liking, we began to chat. Lev’s family actually newly owned the restaurant and he was there working, on leave from Film school (I think). He was Russian and had much to say about his government and the current state of things.
“If ve are not careful, ve vill have another Hitler on our hands,” he said.
Being American, I was happy I wasn’t too American in this moment as I had at least some knowledge of the disturbing events between Russia and Ukraine, However, I still could only nod in agreement, rather than offer some sort of fact or back up to what the Russian leaders were doing.
The other day, we’d had lunch with a Czech native who seemed maybe ten or so years younger than my mother’s sixty-two, and thanks to Nicole’s probing of what life had been like for her and her family during the fall of Communism with the 1989 Velvet Revolution and beyond, we discovered that there was a general disdain for Russians from the Czech’s…at least from those of a certain age, like our friend, who’s parents lost careers, income and livelihood due to Russian rule. Our friend was forced to learn Russian in school and to this day refuses to speak it, She spoke of how she must battle internally to get past her feelings of I what I guess we could call “hatred” as she knows this is old thought, and we live in a new world. Her daughter, in her twenties, empathized with her mother, but did not feel the same towards the Russian’s.
I thought of this as I listened to Lev denounce his government (rightly so) and in the same breath, chide the Czech people for not having any money. I thought of the irony, perhaps, that here was this Russian family possibly repeating history by commandeering Czech property and setting up shop; taking the opportunity for a Czech to make some money. Yet, Lev had such a polarizing opinion and I admired his ability to speak his mind. I could see his side. He was thin, wore a white t-shirt and black pants, most likely his uniform for working. He was like a brooding James Dean without the leather jacket. I sensed his…angst…for things to be different. His family had owned several hotels in the area along with the restaurant and over the past three years, had to sell them as Czech economy could not support their ventures. He didn’t say it, but I figured they may not have been doing as well financially as in recent past. I assumed he desperately wanted to be elsewhere, to leave all of this nonsense of running a restaurant to someone else. Yet he knew opportunity when he saw it. He could see the luring wealth of American’s, or tourists at a minimum, and was the type that would soap box to the other servers something like, “They are sheep; you must simply lead them to pasture!”
I sensed he lead diners to his parent’s restaurant not just so that he could leave, knowing that more revenue was coming in, but also out of duty to make business thrive in an environment that still allowed choice. And freedom of expression.
He told us how he went to school with children of dignitaries and children who were princes and princesses. For me, he was “that kid” who would corner you in a smoky bar over wine served in small glasses and force you to listen, to take a side, to understand the world at large and to not be a lemming or a dolt or an unthinking tourist traveling to a city that housed more than cheap beer and beautiful, pointy churches and empty castles.
I appreciated him and hoped he would get to be the filmmaker he wanted to be. I hoped he would continue to be someone that told stories through a lens that forced you to think beyond what you know or can even defend….someone that made you think about choosing sides.