17 November 1989 – The Fall of Communism: A Victory For The People

Police guarding the road to Prague Castle 11/19/1989 | Photo: BBC

Police guarding the road to Prague Castle 11/19/1989 | Photo: BBC

Velvet Revolution
November 17, 2014
Allan Stevo

On November 17, 1989, the people of Czechoslovakia took a decisive step away from the nanny state. The nanny state in Czechoslovakia was one that sought to control all aspects of life.

Controlling Individuals
Those aspects included: what a child studied, what career options a person would have, if an artist or writer would be allowed to participate in official culture, where a person would live and with whom, if a person would travel, how many imported purchases a person would have access to. These were directly controlled by the state, apparent for all to see.  Those are just a few examples among the many that existed.

Controlling an Entire Economy
There were many other controlled aspects of a person’s day-to-day life that were not recognized during totalitarian times to be directly caused by the failures of the state, but which certainly were failures of the state and are failures that are easily repeated wherever a state sees it best to control an economy.

In Czechoslovakia this included tangerine shortages that left tangerines as an exciting, hard to get, exotic St. Nicholas Day present for children each December 6. The popularity of the tangerine as a special gift is an indicator of how relatively impoverished Czechoslovakia was.

This included underwear shortages that left people walking around in tattered rags for underpants, causing young men embarrassment when they found themselves in a romantic encounter that they had no untattered underwear for (as depicted by Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being).

This included condom shortages that left abortion as a multiple occasion de facto method of standard birth control used by many for family planning.

This included doctor shortages that made a small bribe of a bottle of alcohol or something similar an almost mandatory aspect of rudimentary medical care.

This included the disruptive and burdensome attitude that eventually became commonplace that anyone who did not steal from the state was stealing from their own family.  The economy was largely forced into the incapable hands of the state and as many reasonable and entrepreneurial people took to one of the only methods of social advancement – pilfering – in order to provide for the family, this system became an even greater drain on the economy.

This included the lack of economic development that put Czechoslovakia further and further behind the freer parts of the world year after year. It’s the easy to miss issue of the Seen and the Unseen that Frederic Bastiat and Henry Hazlitt so effectively demonstrate. Simply put, it can be hard to recognize that missed opportunities are occurring around you. Every Slovak today was in a sense betrayed by every ancestor who allowed a less free Slovakia to exist. And every Slovak today is in a sense given a gift by every ancestor who allowed a more free Slovakia to exist.

The Good in Communism
Depending on what your definition of “good” is, there were certainly unintentional good aspects of communism. Not one of those good aspects that I can think of have a thing to do with greater personal freedom.

Communism was 40 years of individual Czechoslovaks having to deal with unnecessary burden and hardship in life caused for them by their government that insisted it was acting in their best interest. The concept of “the people” was treated as the ultimate authority and that authority was used as effective propaganda, yet it was a government that sought to take power out of the hands of the people with each passing day.

To have lived in such a time, to have realized that government was doing the opposite of what it claimed, and to have watched so many around you obediently agreeing must have been infuriating. It’s infuriating enough for me to live in the much freer United States, where I thought the arguably worst government in US history in January of 2009 was coming to an end, only to realize that things could actually get worse.

The Unaware West
Today, even in the most free market Western countries governments participate in massive economic intervention, as if the poignant lessons of Soviet-style controlled economies are somehow isolated to the Eurasian landmass.  The government’s intervention is praised in the West by those who do not have a well-read understanding of markets from multiple economic perspectives and tend to confuse the concept of a free market with crony capitalism. In allowing the debate to be defined by people with such a poor understanding of free markets, the West denies itself of what may be its most significant birthright: the unfettered human achievement that comes when freedom is allowed to exist.

Medical care, pharmaceuticals, and education are three excellent examples where the West insists on hindering itself by undermining the market.  In doing so, it almost certainly punishes the weakest members of society. Just as the statists of Czechoslovakia in the last century claimed to act on behalf of the people while acting to their detriment, the statists of the West in this century follow in those footsteps.

Personal computing, telecom, the Internet, and burgeoning technologies are areas where technology has moved with such dramatic creativity that governments have been nearly incapable of restraining the markets. Every year the government regulated industries become less effective and more expensive while the market regulated industries become more effective and less expensive. Economists for several hundred years have pointed this dynamic out.

Politically Untruthful
In politics, the wise pay attention to what a person does and to ignore what a person says. Aware of this, governments have a tendency to tell lies to those foolish enough to listen.

Many lies are told every day by many politicians and the governments that they run. One lie from history is that socialism is a government for the people and that reaching the end goal of a communist society is a great victory for the people. The two are certainly the opposite of what they claim to be.

The victory of the people, the victory of the individual took place on November 17, 1989 when a relatively small group of people in Czechoslovakia started events in motion that could not be stopped if they tried and brought an end to communist rule of their lands. By the end of the year, a dissident imprisoned many times by the regime would sit in Prague Castle (Vaclav Havel) and a beloved reformer long ago chased from power by the Soviets in 1968 and relegated literally to the backwoods of Bratislava would be chairman of the federal legislature (Alexander Dubcek).  Many small victories for the people continue to take place every day in the lives of millions of Slovaks and Czechs as they exert their wills freely over their own individual lives.

Skepticism
Skepticism towards any political and economic system is understandable in Central Europe.  There have been some unpleasant attempts at using government and economics to control the people. Many look back at 1989 critically and wonder if the right decisions were made during the transitions. Some even look at the time before that with rose colored glasses and long for what was. Some prospered in the old system and miss it.  While the old system promised comfort to some, it was not a system of individual freedom.

Greater Individual Freedom
It is impossible to look at Czechoslovakia circa 1988 and to say it was a greater place for individual freedom than the Slovak and Czech Republics circa 2014. The potential of the individual is less restrained today, as a result the wealth in the hands of the people is greater today, a boy or girl from Slovakia can grow up to be a very big deal in the world in a way that once could not have happened, the world can today be that person’s oyster.  A Slovak citizen in this time is without a single excuse of why his life dreams are unable to be fulfilled.

Twenty five years later, despite the many difficulties that freedom has brought, and the growing pains from transitioning out of the cradle to grave welfare system, the Velvet Revolution that historians tie to this date – November 17 – has proven to be a great victory for the people and a great victory for individual freedom.  While the communists long lauded themselves as the ones fighting for the people, it was their demise throughout Central Europe that was the greater victory for the people.Each day statists and individuals do battle in this place where East meets West and overwhelmingly it is the spirit of 1989 and not the spirit of 1948 that wins the battle.  From the West (sadly) and from the East (as can be expected) these people face regular encouragement to backslide into their statist past. Many, however, maintain a firm resolve. The most simple village farmer in this part of the world understands how a central bank works better than many economics students in the West and the least of the economics students of this land understand the breadth of free market economics seemingly better than the handpicked central bankers of the West.  The spirit of 89 was alive and well here long before 1989 and remains a decisive uptrend.  From this land, the West has much to learn.

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

Prague, Czechoslovakia, December 1989, after the election of Vaclav Havel as President. |  Photo: BBC

Prague, Czechoslovakia, December 1989, after the election of Vaclav Havel as President. | Photo: BBC

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How to Find the Best Public Protests in Slovakia – In 5 Simple Steps

A group of Slovak Members of Parliament holding a sign reading "Let's Strip Parliament of Its Immunity"

A group of Slovak Members of Parliament holding a sign reading “Let’s Strip Parliament of Its Immunity”

Public Protests
November 17, 2014
Allan Stevo

The US Embassy does US citizens residing locally the service of occasionally notifying them of protests to steer clear of.

This important service is one that any traveller to any region should take note of.

I cannot advise you what to do in a big public gathering in Syria (ISIS risk) or in Liberia (Ebola risk). I would not want to visit either of those places at this time. But I can advise you what to do in Slovakia.  I recommend following these five simple steps to finding awesome public protests:

  • 1.) Visit Slovakia. The best way to learn about a foreign culture is on the ground.
  • 2.) Sign up for alerts with the US Embassy. The State Department will eagerly contact you when there is an event that they think may put you in danger.  When you travel, you should be sure to keep an eye on yourself though and not trust that the Embassy will always keep you apprised of what is happening.
  • 3.) Attend every public assembly that the US Embassy warns you not to attend. The Embassy, at least in this regard, seems to mistakenly do the exact opposite of what is intended. The exact protests that they tell you not to attend are the exact protests that you will want to attend, at least in Slovakia.
  • 4.) Talk to the protestors. Engage them, especially those who speak English, or whatever other language you speak.  Ask questions. Be open minded about what they say. One reason many protestors attend public gatherings is to share their views.  From Moscow, to Jerusalem, to DC, I have learned a great deal by inserting myself in the middle of passionate groups of people and asking questions.  Some ideas can’t be found by picking up a newspaper.
  • 5.) Take the discussion elsewhere: away from the tension and sloganeering so common of protests. Plus, if they are busy protesting during the protest you should let them protest. Take them out for beers afterwards. You’ll see a calmer side. Chances are they have a passionate perspective about something that you might not.

Plus, one extra way to learn from such an event is to keep in touch with the person:

  • 6.) Before you say goodbye, friend them on Facebook. Maybe they’ll send you a link now and then. Maybe they will have some insight to offer you. Or maybe you will just meet a passionate and conscientious person. They might turnout to be an awesome friend. There are certainly many worse options of people you can find as friends.  Any other contact information is good to use as well. I always like to use the phrase “How do I keep in touch with you?” Facebook is good for this type of event because Facebook allows information to be shared fairly innocuously and for other “friends” to share opinions. Facebook is especially good if you can prevent yourself from becoming offended and defriending the person opinion sharer. Usually an opinion that you disagree with comes from a person with good reason for having a different perspective.

What A Protest Alert Looks Like
Before you sign up for these US Embassy alerts, perhaps you would want to know what they look like. In the run up to 17 November 2014, the twenty fifth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the US Embassy in Bratislava sent out the following:

“United States Embassy, Bratislava, Slovakia
Security Message for U.S. Citizens:  Marches, Protests and other Gatherings
November 14, 2014

“Bratislava will be the site of multiple commemoration marches and protests beginning Friday, November 14 and extending into Monday, November 17.  Expect delays and increased police presence in these areas.  See below a list of upcoming gatherings, provided for informational and situational awareness purposes only:

“Friday, November 14th
- SNP Square, 5 p.m. with no listed end time, Protest to Recall Pavol Paska, estimated attendance: 1,000.

“Sunday, November 16th
- Hodzovo Square, 3 p.m. until 5 p.m., Celebrating the Anniversary of November 17th, estimated attendance: 200.
- SNP Square, 3 p.m. until 6 p.m., Remembering November 1989, estimated attendance:  30.

“Monday, November 17th
- March from Hviezdoslavovo Square to SNP Square, 10 a.m. until 10 p.m., Commemoration of Velvet Revolution, estimated attendance: 100.
- Slobody Square, 12 p.m. until 10 p.m., Commemoration of Velvet Revolution, estimated attendance: 200.
- Main Train Station at 1 p.m., Protest of Privatization in Politics, estimated attendance: 100.
- March from Rudnayove Square to Rybne Square, SNP Bridge, Zidovska Street, Zamocka Street, to Bratislava Castle, 3 p.m. until 5 p.m., Celebrating the Family and Protecting It, estimated attendance: 300.

“We remind you that even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence. You should avoid areas of demonstrations, and exercise caution if in the vicinity of any large gatherings, protests, or demonstrations.

“Review your personal security plans, remain aware of your surroundings, including local events, monitor local news stations for updates, and report specific incidences of targeted violence to the U.S. Embassy in Bratislava at the number below.  Maintain a high level of vigilance and take appropriate steps to enhance your personal security.

“We strongly recommend that U.S. citizens traveling to or residing in Slovakia enroll in the Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) on our web page.  STEP enrollment gives you the latest security updates, and makes it easier for the U.S. embassy to contact you in an emergency.  If you don’t have Internet access, enroll directly with the U.S. Embassy.

“U.S. citizens traveling abroad should regularly monitor the U.S. Department of State’s, Bureau of Consular Affairs website, where the current Worldwide Caution, Travel Warnings, Travel Alerts, and Country Specific Information can be found.  The U.S. Embassy also encourages U.S. citizens to review the  “Traveler’s Checklist,” which includes valuable security information for those both living and traveling abroad, and enroll with the Department of State or the U.S. Embassy through the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.  Follow us on Twitter and the Bureau of Consular Affairs page on Facebook as well.  In addition to information on the Internet, travelers may obtain up-to-date information on security conditions by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll-free in the United States and Canada, or outside the United States and Canada on a regular toll line at 1-202-501-4444.  These numbers are available from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday (except U.S. federal holidays).

“The U.S. Embassy in Bratislava is located at Hviezdoslavovo namestie 4-5 in Bratislava and is open during business days 8.00 am to 4.30 pm; Telephone number: 02 5443 0861.  If you are a U.S. citizen in need of urgent assistance, outside of business hours, the emergency after-hours number for the U.S. Embassy in Bratislava is 0903 7003 666.

“For non-emergency services requiring an appointment, please visit: http://slovakia.usembassy.gov/service/make-an-appointment.html.”

My first reaction was “wow. Thanks for the awesome list of great events this weekend!” And that should be your reaction too. In a country as peaceful as Slovakia, no other reaction would be reasonable. There’s much to learn when you find the best public protests.

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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The Rufus Title – Take 2

Milan Rufus | Photo: Sme.sk

Rufus Title

November 17, 2014

Allan Stevo

Last week I asked for a helping hand with book titles. Thank you to everyone who lent a hand.  I’ve revised that list: narrowing them down and adding a few other options.

The titles are for a collection of 16 poems written by Slovak poet Milan Rufus and translated into English for publication internationally. Below are the current options that I am considering.

1. You Allow Me To Pray In Poems

2. As I Suddenly Began to Laugh

3. As Sacred As The Old Hymns That She Sang

4. Nostalgic Tenderness

5. Ask The Muse

6. Only In Poems

7. In Poems

If you’d like to lend me a hand again just let me know which title you think is best (or titles) and what you think about them in the comments section below, in this survey linked here, or shoot me an email at 52WeeksInSlovakia@gmail.com.

Thank you again for your help in choosing a title.
Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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St. Martin’s Day

VanDyck, St Martin Dividing his Cloak

St. Martin’s Day

November 8, 2014

Allan Stevo

To browse all the old classics from 52 Weeks in Slovakia just like this one, visit the Calendar section of the website.

Increasingly, advertisements for goose feasts appear at restaurants in Slovakia at this time of year and goose becomes a more popular meal as autumn turns cold. The goose (and especially it’s lard and liver) are Slovak delicacies and the same is true around Central Europe. Part of that tradition relates to relate to St. Martin and the feast day that falls at this time of year.

Click here to read more about St. Martin and the Slovak tradition of feasting on goose at this time of year.

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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2 Wild and Crazy Ways That “Ben & Jerry’s” Betrayed the Slovaks

The Festrunk Brothers of Saturday Night Live

 

The Festrunk Brothers

November 8, 2014

Allan Stevo

Any American of a certain age seems to remember the slightly creepy and very funny skit that featured Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd as the swinging, heavily-accented, plaid-pants-wearing Festrunk Brothers. They were “Two Wild and Crazy Guys.”

The Festrunk Stereotype
The fictional Festrunk brothers were European and seemed to fit some stereotypes of quite a few over-the-top gentlemen from the Eastern Bloc who lived in America in the late 1970s and early the 1980s. The Festrunks could have been Polish or Ukrainian or Hungarian or Romanian. The Festrunks really could have been from anywhere in the Eastern Bloc and actually there are people in Western and Central Europe or Turkey or even the central Asian “stans” that act a lot like those guys from the 1970s, even to this day.

The Borat-Festrunk Overlap
While an older generation was entertained by Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin playing the Festrunk brothers, a younger generation was entertained by Sasha Baron Cohen playing Borat, a character based on a similar concept. Each captured the attention of their audiences in a way that their audiences found funny. Borat, likely would be seen as distasteful to those used to the cleaner standard of entertainment that the Festrunks emerged from, but they are similar in that both skits found lasting national prominence as a comedic portrayal of ethnic visitors to America. Both routines were so successful that the generations that came of age as each of those routines were part of the national milieu will reference them casually to their peers throughout life and be able to trust that their peers will immediately understand the reference.

The movie Borat, not entirely inaccurate, seems to be based on such a person who lives in one of those countries somewhere between France and China that Americans don’t usually know too much about and whose people, when immigrants to the US, generally just get grouped into one category described commonly as “ethnic.”

There are aspects of Borat’s personality that seem true to life and aspects of the Festrunk Brothers’ personalities that do as well. They are each flat characters who are an amalgam of a dozen ridiculous stereotypes from cultures that exist in that amorphous region that Americans might also define as “unAmerican” or “non-Western.” This lack of distinction makes sense, since from the perspective of many Americans it’s difficult and almost pointless to keep all of those cultures straight.

From a different perspective, often the perspective of people who live in that space between France and China, especially in smaller countries, there is a very dense cultural consecration in many areas in that vast region that would allow locals to differentiate distinct speech or culture or ethnicity in distinct areas as close as a few dozen miles apart inside of a nation or cultural group. This is even more pronounced when a person is situated along a border with another culture.

While Borat or the Festrunks make fun of some people from that large amorphous region for being so easy to stereotype, there’s the more subtle butt of the joke as well. Sketches like Borat or the Festrunks also make fun of Americans and Western viewers for being so capable of somehow stereotyping such a vast group of people despite the existence of these many different cultural intricacies. The Festrunk brothers are a ridiculous representation of how some people actually act while also being a ridiculous over-generalization of how outsiders perceive ethnic people as actually acting.

In defense of Americans, it’s not only Americans, my travels have taught me that many Westerners have such a problem: many French people, as just one example, seem to have just as difficult of a time with geography in that large region between France and China as Americans do. French people ignorant of such topics should theoretically be more to blame, since they are closer geographically to that amorphous region. It doesn’t stop in the West however.

People across the globe are generally failures at geography, even if they are from countries that seem to have the national hobby of being astute observers of the world. This is a more common hobby in tiny countries. Curiously, prominent countries and cities tend to be most likely to display the provincial behavior of seeing their corner of the world as the center of the world while backwater inhabitants tend to know a great deal, often quite accurately, about the outside world. Outside of having such a hobby fascination, most human beings on the planet properly recognize that such data about far off cultures brings them no value in life.

Recognizing these multiple perspectives, just as I don’t expect most Americans to know distinctions between nations inhabiting that large space between France and China, I also don’t expect either a simple Austrian potato farmer or a sophisticated Ukrainian media mogul to know the demographic, political, or cultural differences between Minneapolis and Cincinnati, or the linguistic intricacies of the Boston accent verse the New York accent or how the culinary influences of BBQ in KC is different than NC. In all likelihood that data is entirely meaningless in their lives. I offer little judgment on this topic. It is perfectly natural for people not to understand far off lands.

Bratislava: Home of the Festrunks
With so many Americans viewing the world in this way, all those countries were capable of producing immigrants to the US just like the Festrunks. They could have been from any of those in between places like: Poland or the Ukraine or Hungary or Romania.

There was definitely a funnier option though. The funniest country name in Europe at the time was Czechoslovakia and a funny city name in that Republic was Bratislava.

The Festrunks are from present-day Bratislava, Slovakia, formerly known as Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. I don’t know the reason that place was chosen. For the purposes of this article,  I don’t care about the reason, though it would be fun to know some story of how I don’t know, maybe Gilda Radner mentioned to Martin Short one late night that she had a grandma that passed through Bratislava and how for a week he was obsessed with the word Bratislava and its culture before Steve Martin took the inspiration for a standup routine that turned into an SNL skit. A story like that would be a cool story.   If I am to look to the wise advice of William of Occam, often called, Occam’s razor, in the absence of any other data suggesting otherwise, I would be led to the simplest answer. The simplest answer is: I have a feeling that Bratislava was just a humorous place name. That is a good enough reason for Bratislava to find its way into an SNL skit.

Regardless of motivation, the fact of the matter is that the Festrunks are Slovaks from Bratislava as seen in a sketch from Saturday Night Live Season 3, Episode 18 when Yortuk Festrunk played by Dan Aykroyd and Georg Festrunk played by Steve Martin reveal that they are “two Czechoslovakian dudes” who smuggled a vacuum cleaner out of “Bratislava” that only high party officials could usually get.

In a fascinating Straight Dope message board on the topic, they have the same common sense conclusion that the two are Slovak. Knowing what I know about Central European culture, the fact that the fictional Festrunk Brothers are Slovak is a near certainty to me, but I will spend a few moments illustrating that point for those who are still skeptical of that matter.

Maybe The Festrunks are Czechs

In Saturday Night Live Season 3, Episode 18 they also call themselves “Czech.” The same is done in Season 3, Episode 1. This might lead one to the conclusion that they are therefore Czechs. While possible, that is not the easiest or most likely answer.

Some Czechs Lived in Bratislava
Czechs, of course, did in the 1970s and early 1980s live and continue to this day to live in Slovakia. Some Czech immigrants even speak Czech and refuse to speak even a word of Slovak as they go about their daily lives in the Slovak capital city. After all, if nearly every Slovak can understand what they are saying, why dispense with their language and go through the trouble of speaking Slovak, some would point out.

In the 1920s, when Czechoslovakia first came into being, it was quite common for Czechs to be found in Slovakia. For centuries the Czechs, ruled by the Austrians, were encouraged to develop an intelligentsia, a political class, a business class, and a bureaucratic class in a way that Slovaks were discouraged from doing under Hungarian rule. As a result when Czechoslovakia appeared on that map, this led the Czechs to find themselves in a more developed position to run a modern state. Almost like missionaries, or settlers, they were attracted to positions in the Slovak lands that Slovaks would not have been as qualified for. Many did well for themselves. Half a century later, these Czechs still lived in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia and had offspring who lived there. Additionally, new Czech arrivals were constantly coming to Bratislava. The vast majority of people in Bratislava during the time were not Czechs, but Slovaks.

To reference the Festrunks as having come from this very small minority of Bratislava residents in the late 1970s would be a very subtle distinction. Clever and insightful distinctions like that are not beyond comedy writers and when they occur can be incredibly funny for those who recognize the distinction. It is much more likely however that when the writers of SNL wrote those scripts, they settled on Czech as the common English language (and international) abbreviation for Czechoslovak, leaving the Slovaks out. This may have been done because it was the international norm, or may have been done out of some level of ignorance. The international norm of calling the people of Czechoslovakia by the moniker “Czech” would involve some ignorance as well. Technically, calling all Czechoslovaks by the ethnic group and nationality Slovak would be just as accurate, or inaccurate rather.

The year is now 2014, more than two decades since the two countries of Slovakia and the Czech Republic have left their Czechoslovak partnership and gone their own ways. That means you do not even have the internationally incorrect standard on your side that an inhabitant of Czechoslovakia is a Czech. It is today entirely inaccurate to say that “Czechs” are the default nationality that inhabits Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia. They are Slovak residents and likely ethnically Slovak. Just like the depictions on Slovak culture found in movies such as Eurotrip or Hostel make plenty of Slovaks cringe, I understand there are probably plenty of Slovaks who would prefer not have the Festrunks as part of their national canon of Slovak references from American culture. For better or worse, those fictional characters are Slovaks.

What Does Any Of This Have To Do With The Ben and Jerry’s Marketing Department

The fabulous Ben and Jerry’s has its roots in 1978, the year after the skit that birthed the wild and crazy Festrunks. The two high school friends started their ice cream business in a Vermont gas station. Eventually the brand would go into a brief decline before become among America’s most recognized ice cream brand. A friend who was an ice cream aficionado after introducing me to the brand, one day got me to sign up for their Chunkmail newsletter where they let you know about specials offers, invite you for the annual free cone day, and share news such as new flavors. Last week, in commemoration of SNL’s 40th anniversary, the company shot out an email announcing the new flavor “Two Wild and Crazy Pies,” named after the Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd Festrunk Brother skit “Two Wild and Crazy Guys.”

Two Wild and Crazy Pies

The email inaccurately referred to the Festrunks as Czech:

“Introducing Two Wild and Crazy Pies!

The pair of Czech brothers who cruise and swing in tight slacks like no other have inspired a flavor full of coconut and chocolate ice cream pie deliciousness with a chocolate cookie swirl.”

A Letter to Ben

Today, after a sale in 2000, Ben and Jerry’s is now owned by the multinational food conglomerate Unilever. From what I hear, it’s founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield remain somewhat active with the company. Though they may not have any official authority over how the company refers to the Festrunk Brothers, if Ben from Ben and Jerry’s called me on the phone at work and asked me to do something, I’m pretty sure I would. So here goes my letter of appeal to Ben of Ben and Jerry’s:

Dear Mr. Cohen,
I am a tremendous fan of quality ice cream. Parallel to the craft beer movement, you and Mr. Greenfield have expanded and encouraged the creative American delicacies that are created starting with cream and sugar and turning into flavors like Cherries Garcia or Phish Food, or the thousands of other small batch flavors that have taken inspiration from your efforts. I am, to say the least, a fan of your work.

I would like to bring to your attention, that one of your new flavors, “Two Wild and Crazy Pies,” named for the fictional Festrunk Brothers of Bratislava is being marketed incorrectly. I received an email recently calling them “Czechs.” The Festrunks, for better or worse, are Slovaks. I have illustrated that point further in this article: www.52insk.com/2014/festrunk/, which I hope you might be able to share with the Ben and Jerry’s marketing department.

If you or Mr. Greenfield ever find yourself in Bratislava, Slovakia please look me up. Even if I am not in town, I will see to it that you are welcomed as graciously and generously in my absence as if I were there.

Wishing you my best, Sir.

Allan Stevo
52 Weeks in Slovakia

Send Your Own Letter, or Just Pick Up the Phone
It seems to me if the fictional Festrunks are Slovak, they should be referenced as Slovak. The adjective for the historical country Czechoslovakia is not Czech, but Czechoslovak, and the adjective for Slovakia also is not Czech, but Slovak.

If you are a consumer of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream feel free to send this article along to them and/or write a quick note or comment of your own. If you are on social media their Twitter feed is here and handle is @benandjerrys, Facebook page is here, online webform is here (just page down to the bottom), phone number: (802) 846-1500 from inside the US or +1 802 846 1500 from outside the US and postal address: Ben and Jerry’s / Attn: Community Service / 30 Community Drive, Suite 1 / South Burlington, VT / 05403-6828 / USA

I Promise I’m Not Taking Myself Too Seriously : )

Don’t worry, I do not feel offended, I have not accepted the validity of politically correctness, I do not find myself oppressed in the world because Slovaks are being referred to as Czechs. There is real oppression in the world and this isn’t an example of it. The email from Ben and Jerry’s just gave me an excuse to write the article about the Festrunks. Every time I think about the Festrunks, I laugh, because their depiction has so much truth to it that it makes me at once uncomfortable and smiley. The weird way they walked, the weird inflections that Akyroid and Martin put in their voices, the je ne sais quoi that they brought to the characters that felt so “ethnic.” This was a damn fun piece to write, plus, it gave me an excuse to reach out to the gurus of awesome ice cream and watch a few old SNLs.

I hope your day to today is a great one. After so much writing about the topic, I think mine will include a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. If you think Festrunks are in fact Czech, I am ready to arm wrestle you in the comments section. If you don’t have anything else to say, I’d love to hear your favorite flavor. Mine depends on the mood, but in general, Cherries Garcia has to be the winner. Aside from enjoying the flavor, there’s just something about the texture of those cherries.

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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What Should the Title of This Book Be?

Slovak Poet, Milan Rufus | Photo: Cas.sk

Title of Rufus Book

November 8, 2014

Allan Stevo

Poet Milan Rufus, in his lifetime held a special place in the heart of many Slovaks.  Five years ago, he passed away.

I’ve had 16 English translations of poems from his final book (Ako stopy v snehu / Like Footprints in the Snow) published in literary magazines in the United States over the last few years.  Everyone knows, no matter how fluent you in a pair of languages, that translating still take a lot of work. Additionally, it can take a heck of a lot of work to get an editor of a literary magazine, whether large or small, to pay attention to a piece of writing, even hard to come by translations.

I put time, effort, and money into those translations because I wanted the work of this fascinating man to be accessible to the vast English speaking audience of the world. While the internationally recognized, award-winning Rufus has been translated and published in many languages, English translations of him are few.

While I am very grateful for the opportunity to have published these poems in these literary magazines, the only problem with using literary magazines to share the work of Rufus is that literary magazines tend to be a terrible way to share anything with a large audience. To illustrate the point, How many literary magazines have you read this year? If you are the average human being, the answer is between 0 and 1. The most visited page on this website (Is Slovakia Stuck in the 1950s? 13 Examples of How It Is) weekly probably gets more visitors than most US literary magazine have in annual circulation.

I’d like to make those poems a little more easily accessible to an American and worldwide English speaking audience. In a book, distributed by Amazon, forever kept in print by Amazon (or as long as Amazon exists), accessible on Kindle seems to be the best way for one to ensure that a collection like this is accessible in the times in which we live, so that’s what I’ll do.  The translations are done and a few folks are putting that book together as I write this. So, now it’s time for an important next step.  The title. The 16 poems have not appeared in a collection of their own before exclusive of others, so they do no yet have a title.

Which Title Do You Like Best?
I chose titles from excerpts of the translated poetry and have narrowed it down to five. Here they are.

1. You Allow Me To Pray In Poems

2. As I Suddenly Began To Laugh

3. Like A Swallow Before The Rain

4. Even A Hill Can Be Curly

5. As Sacred As The Old Hymns That She Sang

I’ve drawn up a one question survey that you can find by clicking here if you’d like to vote there anonymously or let me know in the comments section below. If you have a strong preference for another option, please do share through the survey, in the comments section, or by email 52WeeksInSlovakia@gmail.com.  In the next few days, I will look through the results and will use them to select a title. Thank you for helping me with this.

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

 

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Eulogizing a Slovak Member of the US Congress

U.S. Rep. James Traficant (D-OH) poses for photographers before a House Inquiry Subcommittee hearing  to examine whether he violated congressional rules July 17, 2002 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Traficant was convicted in April 2002 on 10 counts of racketeering, bribery and fraud. He could become only the second member of Congress since the Civil War to be expelled. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) (Posted as lead photo on Politico's coverage of Traficant's passing)

U.S. Rep. James Traficant (D-OH) poses for photographers before a House Inquiry Subcommittee hearing to examine whether he violated congressional rules July 17, 2002 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Traficant was convicted in April 2002 on 10 counts of racketeering, bribery and fraud. He could become only the second member of Congress since the Civil War to be expelled. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images, Posted as lead photo on Politico’s coverage of Traficant’s death September 27, 2014.)

 

James Anthony Traficant, Jr. (May 8, 1941 – September 27, 2014)

September 30, 2014

Allan Stevo

Jim Traficant, a Slovak-American member of the US House of Representatives, passed away this weekend. Traficant was a political figure with a checkered past who was unabashedly in and out of trouble with the law. It appears that he took bribes a little more openly than most crooked politicians and was a little more open than most about who his strange bedfellows were. The saying “politics makes strange bedfellows” remains true nearly a century-and-a-half after American thinker Charles Dudley Warner committed those lines to print in My Summer in a Garden
in 1870.

This is politics we are talking about though, so I know enough not to expect the stories of a Congressman’s life to read like the curriculum vitae of a seven year old member of the Vienna Boys Choir. There are no ethics in politics. Experience has taught me that a just baseline for evaluating prominent politicians is to assume that they are all a little twisted if they are successfully pursuing high political office. Some politicians eventually disprove that; most don’t.

Being a Maverick Before it Was Cool

I knew little about Traficant until a few days ago. I think mention of him flashed across my radar screen a few times as I sought out writing that was divergent from the mainstream. One writer described him as a “proto-Tea Partier” who came before his time. His Democratic Party label might cause some tea partiers to challenge that claim, while his refusal to vote for a Democratic speaker would cause Democratic leaders to alienate him. US News and World Report called him “stubbornly anti-establishment” saying “Rep. James Traficant refused to compromise, but unlike today’s lawmakers, didn’t get mean about it.”

Many of the obituaries I’ve come across paint Traficant as colorful, as an adventurous and tacky dresser, and even as a guy from a working class town who wasn’t afraid of getting his nose broken or getting thrown in jail.

Blue Blood

Blue blooded crooked people don’t like blue collar crooked people, because the later can make crooked behavior feel so unsavory. Maybe Traficant was of the working class crooked variety and therefore drew animosity from his crooked peers. I don’t know. What I do know is that only some people who openly and notoriously break the law actually go to jail and if the laws were equally applied many more people would go to jail. That always makes me wonder what the guys who end up in jail did wrong to stand out. Who did Traficant make mad?

My favorite obituary of Traficant’s that I’ve read so far is by writer Vince Guerrieri of Youngstown, Ohio for Politico. He addresses that question of Traficant’s crookedness by saying “Jimbo was a crook, but he wasn’t their kind of a crook. He was our kind of crook – and that’s something nobody outside of the Mahoning Valley really understood.”

It sounds like Traficant was a crook just like so many others in DC, so many others in politics. He broke some of the rules that the average American follows, many politicians do that and as long as a political crook follows the unwritten rules of his profession everything will be okay for him. It sounds like Traficant didn’t even have a taste for that level of concealment though. Here’s Guerrieri:

“The people of Youngstown watched Jimmy Carter refuse to guarantee loans for an employee purchase of the Sheet and Tube mills – and then rescue Chrysler from bankruptcy. Traficant just demonstrated what everyone in the Mahoning Valley learned the hard way: There’s no point playing by the rules in a rigged game.

“There are people who believe that Traficant’s only crime was getting caught, and he was targeted for refusing to play ball. And when you watched Traficant get stripped of his committee assignments for voting for Republican Dennis Hastert for Speaker of the House, and then see Joe Lieberman welcomed into the Democratic caucus with open arms after speaking at the Republican National Convention, it’s not hard to believe.”

Traficant’s Youngstown

Traficant’s Youngstown is midway between New York and Chicago on I-80. It’s history is full of coal, steel, rail, river, and canal like many cities in the region. It also, has seemingly forever, hosted a significant immigrant population throughout history, based around whoever the latest newcomers were, and has occasionally played host to some level of nativist backlash at points (even surging to a KKK presence in the 1920s). That industrial past has given way to a city continuing to have a strong immigrant population, very low median income today, and a dilapidated manufacturing base. This is a common story for the once thriving cities and towns that the Central and Eastern European immigrants came to in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The coal mines of Appalachia and steel mills of the eastern US created a stepping stone for so many immigrants three and four generations ago that have allowed successful families to spring up that are now far removed from the dangerous and dirty low man on the totem pole existence that so many newcomers to a new land have known.

Marilyn Geewax, a Youngstown native, reporting for NPR in writing about her memories of her Congressman did not defend Traficant’s actions but had an experience with the Congressman that made her recognize why he was so loved:

“Back when Traficant was still in high office, I gave a speech in Youngstown to a large group of business leaders. I told them that Youngstown would never be able to rise above its reputation for organized crime until voters there stopped electing crooks.

“A few days later, a box arrived. It had that beautiful flag [(that had flown over the U.S. Capitol)] and a note from Traficant praising me for making my hometown proud with my achievements as a journalist. No mention of my speech’s message — just hometown pride.

“And you know, I felt proud.

“When you are from a place that has been kicked down by industry, overrun by crime, abandoned by government and treated like a pariah, you feel kind of bad. And when someone says, ‘We may be down, but we stick together’ — you feel that too.

“Unlike the big corporations, Traficant never deserted his community — except, of course, for those years in prison.

“Now, whenever I hear people wonder how a guy like Marion Barry could keep getting elected time and again in Washington, D.C. — despite the crack pipe video and his long list of legal troubles — I understand. Sometimes, even a bad guy can make you feel good.”

Geewax covering the topic in this way illustrates an important point. It deals with people sorting the world around them by relationship. “Sorting by relationship” is simply a concept present throughout history about how a person may be a real bastard, but since “he is our bastard” then all can be overlooked. There are certainly better ways to evaluate a person, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is precisely how many people evaluate a person. This sentiment is worth keeping in mind the next time you ask yourself “how can anyone like Vladimir Meciar?” (“The Father of the Slovak Republic”), or even Vladimir Putin the man most associated with post Cold War Russia, or any other popular public figure that you really don’t care for. To the dismay of some observers, there are some egregiously flawed people who can be loved widely. It’s always important to keep the Hinlicky Rule in mind before blasting an opponent as an idiot for liking a person or a set of ideas. While calling every intellectual opponent an idiot is a convenient response, there’s obviously more to a person’s feelings, and as hard as it might be to recognize, attributing opinion to idiocy oftentimes leaves you in the role of being the one who is intellectually dishonest.

Farkas

Italian on his Dad’s side, Slovak on his Mom’s side, Traficant’s mother’s maiden name was Farkas, which is the Hungarian word for “wolf” and is a common Slovak surname. It exists  in neighboring Slavic speaking countries as well. Having the name Farkas can usually mean that a person had Hungarian ancestors. Another option is that maybe his family name was changed by the both forced and voluntary trend toward Magyarization among Slovaks living in present-day Slovakia in the later half of the 1800s. The wolf is a symbol of the tribe of Benjamin, making Farkas a possible Hungarian translation of a Yiddish name. Farkas can come from a person’s first name, roughly equivalent to the German Wolfgang, a name that also has ecclesiastical history. Sometimes there’s no known explanation for why a person has the last name that they do, because the ways last names came about are so varied.

1943 Ford Tractor

The former Congressman, 73, died September 27, 2014 from injuries sustained in a farming accident in which his 1943 Ford tractor tipped over and pinned him several days earlier.  He was unconscious when firefighters came to rescue him.

Some people are barely mentioned when they pass. Obituary after obituary makes it obvious that for good or bad, Traficant has secured his place as a local folk hero in Youngstown and a legendary figure in DC, perhaps more likely to be ridiculed there than admired.

Traficant is remembered by at least some constituents as a man of the people and by at least some DC insiders as an embarrassment, which perhaps says very little, since popular opinion is often wrong and DC insiders are exactly the kind of people who a good man should hope to be despised by.

Instead of relying on any one person for the final say here, I’ll close by turning to the readers of these pages: I’m curious dear Reader, might you have any insight about this Slovak member of the US Congress?

Might any readers of these pages have had personal experiences with Jim Traficant that they’d like to share here? Were you a constituent? Was the guy a nut? Was he a genius before his time? Was he a crooked scoundrel? Was he simply a misunderstood nice guy making his way in the world?

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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This Autumn Marks 25 Years. Will You Help Me Look for Events Commemorating the Fall of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe?

Velvet Revolution Demonstration in Prague, the capital city of Czechoslovakia, Autumn 1989.

The Autumn Ahead

September 18, 2014

Allan Stevo

Dear Readers,
In the upcoming months we will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain.

November 17, 1989 is considered the day that Czechoslovakia started her peaceful Velvet Revolution and shook off a history of oppressive government.

I will be participating in a number of events on a large and small scale this autumn to commemorate that date. The date is an important milestone from the later months of 1989, a period that I consider among the most important in the history of Slovakia and the history of the world.

If you will be organizing an event that commemorates the fall of the Iron Curtain, or if you know of such an event, please keep me in mind. I always leave an audience feeling both intellectually stimulated and emotionally entertained.

Best,

Allan
52WeeksInSlovakia@gmail.com

 

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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