Friday, February 27, 1998

Americans or Russians, a Matter of Perception


 My Czech neighbor from downstairs was in for coffee just the other day. Among the many things we stumbled through in his halting English, because I still speak only phrases of his language, one comment stayed with me and I haven't been able to shake it.

"Americans are just like Russians," he said, "only they are rich and Russians are poor." He's a man who speaks his mind and he smiled when he said it, so I don't know if it was meant as a put-down or just an observation. I let it ride, but I gotta tell you I was stunned and it made me think about myself, not as I know me, but as I am percieved by this friendly Czech. Life is mostly perception and reality has to find its own way through the woods.

Well we're not like Russians I wanted to argue, but choked it back and thought of what I'd read and heard of the Russian 'protectorate' and their oppressive answers to everything. How was it possible for him to see me like that, as merely a strong dollar against a weak ruble? Uneasily, I wondered about the recent American incursion of goods and services, the smothering of heritage as the seventh McDonalds and the fourth Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises appeared among these Disney streets. It's so American and that oughta be great, even though this is not America.

It put me to thinking about why I'm here and I love to expound on why I'm here, because it's been a productive experience for me. I came here to write, without knowing much about Prague. Like so many others I was drawn by the beauty and thought I might afford it, at least for a time. The clock is running now into my sixth year and it's proven out, this almost-affordable beauty, but the other advantages have surprised me. The isolation of not knowing language became an asset, allowing me to sneak back inside myself, away from the hype and furious pace of my own country, allowing a kind of pleasureable clearing of the senses. That's good for writing, at least for my writing, to have the down time, the quiet time, the unravelled time away from a life that seemed too ravelled.

There've been many personal kindnesses done for me across these six years and always in an effort to meet me in my language, in their country. But it hurt when my neighbor said Americans are just rich Russians and I thought about that hurt, carried it around with me and thought about how my country seems to have marched in as though it had unique answers to Czech problems. I thought they must be glad to be free, to watch Benetton and Levi Strauss push the potravinys from Wensceslas Square.

Maybe yes and maybe no, but I've been slapped in the face by reality. Maybe, just maybe a country that was traded away at Munich and traded away again at Potsdam, might have another view of the western world. Certainly my view of the eastern bloc is not what it was, not what my government had promised.

It's all a matter of perception.