It’s a question worth asking because it has been hard fought for and hard won.
I pass a crowd in Prague Old Town Square with a brass band playing a exotic music, then a violin and accordion and then colorfully dressed children with Indian-dark hair swaying and coin belts jingling on their little hips. The Roma! Gypsies celebrating their holiday of Romaha. Then I pass a store front proclamation – “the Roma Revolution” and have to go in and peruse this “Hate Free Fest.” There are art exhibits on their history of oppression and their current demands of basic human rights. Sad photographs of World War II internment camps and cartoons of starving children. All for being culturally and defiantly different -- a tribe unto itself. One small picture with wings – wanting to freely fly? Is this the nature of gypsy life? And am I a gypsy wanna-be, albeit with my too much luggage and credit cards?
The walk on Wenceslas Square is depressing as only name-brand consumer goods and over-priced tourist restaurants can be. Is this what freedom bought in 1989 when Communist rule was overthrown by the “Velvet Revolution”? Thousands gathered right here, listening under this very balcony, number 30, as the new President announced freedom and the crowds jingled their keys in celebration. (Watch the movie Kolya.)
I ask a waiter how things are going. He shakes his head. “They say we are going to become like Germany. But I don’t think of the past or future. I focus on right here, right now. This,” he indicates the restaurant,” is my world.” “Wise man,” I tell him and snap his picture.
It takes some doing but I find the Museum of Communism, nestled next to a Casino. Dingy, drab and unassuming, much like those 40 years of oppression. I have to see what it was like, what it took to overthrow it ... at what price the freedom. What was I doing in 1969 during the Prague Spring, when students were beaten and Jan set himself on fire. (Like the Vietnamese Buddhists?) I was getting married. And what was I doing in 1989 when students were laying flowers in front of the line of soldiers, the fall of communism inevitable? Thinking of divorce. Did we Americans even care?
The museum shows the empty store shelves, the interrogation room, the propaganda posters of happy workers. Alena, the ticket clerk, remembers what it was like. I ask, “Did you protest? What were you doing in 1989?” “Of course I was there! I was 39 with a baby. They didn’t hit me because of the baby.”
“You were a hero!” I thank her with a hug and take her picture.. Her elderly co-worker comes over from the museum store and handed me three boxes of matches, “Here.” I suppose in Communist bare-shelf times they would have been precious.
What is freedom?
I walk this square in honor of freedom and suspect it means living as we choose, trapped only by self-imposed limitations, no longer able to blame others. Alena says that the young people don’t know of the sacrifices and live freely, wanting consumer goods, etc… But isn’t that the point? To have choice?
To wander. To ask questions. To sit in the Franciscan Garden. Ah.. peace. Eaters of ice-cream stroll. Students read. Children tear around on tricycles. An oasis of fragrant beauty with twenty foot high rose walls. Clipped hedges that made me focus on the path right here, right now, because I can’t see past them. Statues show care-free women about to take off into the wind.
A park bench begs occupation. Middle-aged lovers entwine next to me. The sun warms and a breeze cools. A foreign bird trills behind me and in front, behind the hedge, an Asian tourist trio sings. I would let this be my world – hard fought for and hard won. Just this perfect moment.
May we all have to space and time to fly from our cages and settle into whatever freedom means to us.