Watching the Obama Inauguration, from a country deeply affected by American politics, but still outside it, has been wonderful (although I have to admit that 3 am was just too early for me to watch it live). But reading Elizabeth at Half Changed World’s description of actually being there has reminded me of the one time I really have been there for a historic occasion.
At the end of 1989, when I had just finished my actuarial exams, and Mr Penguin had just finished his law degree, I managed to persuade my employer to give me three months leave without pay so we could backpack around Europe together. Australians are very experienced European winter travellers – it’s when our long university holidays are, and everything is cheaper for our banana republic currency.
When we got to Prague towards the end of December, we’d been out of touch with real news for a few days. The Berlin wall had fallen the previous month, but for the traveller, nothing much had changed. You still had to change an extortionate (for a backpacker) amount of hard currency at the official rate every day. You still needed beautifully watermarked visas in your passport. And there was still nothing in the shops.
But in Prague, it was clear even to someone who spoke no Czech that change was in the air. Posters saying “Havel na Hrad” (Havel to the Castle) were everywhere. There was a makeshift memorial with constant attendance and new candles lit all the time in Wenceslas Square to a student who had been beaten to death a month before and whose death started a rolling set of protests. Not knowing anyone to talk to about it, we continued on our tourist way – checking out the Old Town Square, and the Charles Bridge, before taking a trip to the Castle.
And there, we ran into history. The government was about to resign, and declare Vaclav Havel the new President. The media were gathered, hoping for a defenestration (a Czech tradition) of the old government. We saw an ordinary looking bus arrive, and a distant Vaclav Havel with his new ministers get out and go inside.
And then, we went back to Wenceslas Square, absolutely packed with joyous Czech citizens, in time to catch the end of Havel’s speech after he had been announced as President. We had only a vague understanding of what was going on, and who the players were. And we didn’t understand a word being spoken. But being in that huge square (more than a square – four or five big blocks long), packed with people, all celebrating the fall of the tyranny that had been their government for more than forty years gave us a glimmering of understanding. By seeing the joy on people’s faces, we had a new appreciation of how lucky we were to live in a place that had been a stable democracy our entire lives.