On Non-Switching on the Light in the Corridor

In May I signed books at the book fair in Prague. There was a gentleman there who did his share of standing in line in order to tell me about an unforgivable deficiency in my book “Gottland”. You do have painful defects there, he claimed.

– Defects? – I was intrigued.

– Well yes, the most important element is missing.

– And what would that be?

– The thing which is the very essence of the Czech people. You picked for your “Gottland” figures that don’t have much in common with real Czechs. They are like a rash, which you won’t find on a healthy body.

Indeed, you may see it this way:

Baťa – a madman.

Palach – no normal person would do this.

Baarová – a good-time girl.

Kubišová – not a hero, simply a victim of communism.

Gott – a star who lost touch with reality.

Designer of Stalin’s monument – got accidentally caught up in history.

Havel – there were just a handful of people like him.

– What do they have to do with normal Czechs? – asked the gentleman. Since the line of readers was growing impatient, I urged him to tell me straight away what was the important thing which this unfortunate book of mine lacked.

– It lacks reference to the fact that Czechs like to play music in bars in the evening.

– And this is this most important element, right? – I managed to conceal my amusement.

– Yes! Do you have any clue that there are hundreds of songs which we have been singing for ages while drinking beer?! Or, for that matter, how many bars there are, not only along the Vltava river, but in the whole country. Just multiply the number of songs by the number of bars: what an outcome… And there is no mention of this in this book of yours. Not even a word about the Czechs’ passion for singing in small bars.

– Is this really the most important thing? – I repeated the question as I thought, given the noise of the fair, I must have misheard.

– And what could be more important?! – asked the gentleman candidly.

What first crossed my mind was that, miraculously, here I saw an embodiment of a stereotypical Czech and the cliché I have been fighting against for so many years. And that if he now adds anything about a love for cottages, I will drive him to different schools and present to the children as the model of a typical Czech. Nothing is important for him; what really matters is that on Friday, 4 o’clock sharp, one should head for their cottage. Living in the city during the whole week, working in public offices, managing factories, manufacturing goods; all these are nothing but a transition stage for a Czech, a waiting room for genuine living. This genuine life takes place during the weekend, in summer cottages outside the city, where you will eat well, drink, sing and rack some patches in the garden and do it all wearing socks with holes, until waiting for life in the city begins again on Monday.

But as soon as I left the hot fair hall and my mind got some fresh air, I thought that, actually, this gentleman did me a favor. His opinion was a brilliant explanation of a theory advanced by a renowned French historian Fernand Braudel (1902–1985), who created the theory of global history.

The theory introduces the idea of longue durée in history.

Political events, coups, battles or parliamentary elections all constitute a superficial layer of history. The essential processes take place at a deeper level and they last whole centuries. In order to understand the whole of history you need to focus on things which last longer than a war, and which are subject to slow evolution. Therefore, you would need to analyze the most typical behaviors of tribes and families, the way in which whole generations perceived themselves and others, what was important for them and what wasn’t.

In a word, if you want to comprehend the whole history, you mustn’t leave aside singing in bars.

In the night, one more thought on longue durée crossed my mind. It was 3 AM when I was woken up by some noises. I was staying at the Aix-en- Provence Hotel; some Italians were returning to their rooms; I heard the thumping of their shoes and their shouts. Wide-awake, I sat on the bed and immediately divided humankind into two groups.

The first group includes those who return late from the parties making noises and don’t give a damn about their neighbors.

The second group includes those who come back silently, on tiptoe, and don’t even switch on the light, for fear they might disturb their neighbors.

And I must admit straight away: I belong to the latter group. I feel that you can divide into analogous groups all nations and states. I have a hunch that Czechs, throughout history, switched groups and moved from the first to the second. Even though historians would surely object to this (claiming there are exceptions), from the perspective of longue durée, Czechs were definitely among those who did not want to annoy their neighbors.

When people ask me what made me decide to write about Czechs, I usually tell them about the kinship between us. It’s not about fear; it’s just that I am not a confrontational type. It’s about the feeling that what really counts is peace. Having it, in relations with my neighbor, in the end I will break even. And in case I don’t, my brain will swiftly rename the failure and render it as an adventure, and it will suck out some virtue from any vice.

Countries are like people. For instance, Poland is hysterical. Especially about itself. Maybe this is the reason why so many Poles like the peace and stability of Czechs? The Czech Republic is a small country and it has come to terms with this: hysteria and impulsiveness are just not their thing. Whereas Poles fear being belittled most of all. Poles don’t know if their country is big or small, if it’s perceived on equal footing with Germany and friends, or if it’s not yet the case. This keeps us, Poles in suspense and, so claims my friend Petr Vavrouška, Warsaw correspondent for Czech Radio, it will never bring us peace.

I once revealed this division of humankind into two groups in a Czech newspaper and right after, I received a reply. A Czech reader wrote to me: “You are right; this is what we, Czechs, are like. But there’s a snag: often, when you are returning on tiptoe, not having switched on the light, you will stumble over stairs, fall over and knock your teeth out. And this will cause so much noise that everyone will wake up anyway.”

Mariusz Szczygieł

Mariusz Szczygieł is a Czechophile and Polish journalist. Since 1990 he has worked for “Gazeta Wyborcza” daily. His books about Czechs, Gottland (2006) and Zrób sobie raj (Make Your Own Paradise) (2010) were translated into 13 languages. For Gottland he received the European Book Prize for best European book of the year in 2009.

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