How complaining doesn’t explain the world

I’ve cut down on complaining. If you’re thinking, “OK, that sounds normal,” you’d be right. However, when you are born in a country like France, where the right to complain (or strike) is engraved in the constitution, and when you live in a country like the Czech Republic, where the innocent act of asking “how are you doing?” is followed by “ujde to” (“it could be worse”) and a litany of complaints about political parties and how bad the food is compared to German, it’s hard to escape the negativity.

Photo: CreativeCommons/ Marketa


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One population complains loudly in the streets, the other in muffled tones in the privacy of offices, houses and pubs. The best of both worlds! As a matter of fact, my most dreaded “oh damn, I’m going back to France,” moment was arriving at the gate at a French airport, and seeing those frowning French faces discussing their complaints du jour. You may also ask, “what is more French than a Frenchman complaining about the French?” And bingo – I guess you can only escape your roots so much.

I consider myself one of those lucky people: born to a Greek mother whose parents moved to Boston to escape dictatorship and a French father whose parents came to the US on scientific scholarships. I was raised in a multicultural and multilingual environment – in the warm embrace of my grandmothers’ spanakopita and blanquette de veau, and I even studied and worked in the U.S for a while. What did I have to complain about? But I still did; not like those #FirstWorldProblems you see on social media, instead I took that nagging Parisian approach to small things: the metro, the price of the Eurostar to London and the taxis. See a trend here? They’re all about being on the move.

So I moved myself, thanks to the wonderful meetings that can occur when your career in international affairs starts to burgeon. A beautiful Czech girl, Ivana, swept me off my feet and led me to Prague, in the process I recalled all the history books I had read, satisfying my nerdy obsession as a teenager (don’t laugh, we all have one like this) to understand everything I could about communism.

I had put this interest aside to focus on other things, but when I first visited Prague, Warsaw and Berlin I had a revelation: immediate history is right there for you to see. The Louvre is nice, but what connection does our current generation have to it? At a time when we want to be “in the now,” seeing the remnants of the Berlin Wall or the borders of the Warsaw Ghetto are painful but crucial reminders of what has been endured so that we can lead peaceful lives (like mine, admittedly).

Near my residence at Karlovo Náměstí, the Ss. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral stands, riddled with bullet holes from the men who killed Reinhard Heydrich, a mere block away from the student dorms where Jan Opletal – a man shot to death in a 1939 anti-Nazi protest – spent his formative years. I can retrace the steps he took from Jenštenjnská to Václavské Náměstíi, literally walking in the footsteps of history.

The symbolism of the virtuous old cathedral, having witnessed history so closely, still bearing the vivid marks of it, is not lost on me. I like to say that the Czech Republic is what ties my personal history together – from the cradle of democracy in Greece to the furious modernity of the US via the open air museum that is France – the Czech Republic embodies it all, and moves at its own pace, more often than not under the radar. The cathedral is the perfect symbol of all of it.

One cool May morning I awoke and stepped out onto my balcony, which overlooks a student dorm, for a cup of coffee. I was not surprised to see that PM Sobotka had just taken to a stage to extoll the memory of Jan Opletal, as the anniversary of his death kick started the Velvet Revolution in 1989. A few tramway stops away in Albertov, President Zeman had started his “little hate show” with his European pom-pom boys, 1 accompanied by scenography that, had it been shown in grainy black and white print, would have reminded me of some of the worst times the continent had experienced. That May under the lazy eyes of the police, Czech people started taking the streets more and more regularly, and with increased virulence to express their rejection of a model of society they believed would threaten their way of life. Given that Czech people typically complain in silence, I knew this meant something.

This was right about the time I had gotten used to hearing the complaints about the lazy and wasteful Greeks – words that were hard to reconcile with my knowledge of the brutal reality of a young generation eager to work, but facing salary cuts and job loss, condemned to emigrate or barely get by at home. The shock value that came from the Czechs and their Central European neighbors taking to the street to tell me that my life model was unsustainable and unwelcome in their country was not absent here.

On that cool May morning, from the perch of my balcony, I wanted to yell at Sobotka: “For the love of life, Slavek, 2 say something meaningful! Be a leader, not a follower!” And perhaps I should have. A few months later, Viktor Orbán was parading his hardline anti-immigration rhetoric at the V4 Summit, speaking in the name of the entire region.

Today Greece has become the cradle of modern crises, finding itself the victim of a migration crisis partially born from the international community’s inability to stabilize Iraq and Syria; an EU partially weakened by the V4’s efforts to delegitimize any sort of collective decision regarding that crisis’ mitigation; a populist party that no longer hesitates to take migrants hostage to achieve its political goals; and an emboldened Turkish government that has set the terms of a “deal” with Europe, a deal that Greece seemingly had little choice but to accept.

When I moved to Prague, I would never have thought that my life story would become so interconnected by history, by the crises of the moment, by what brought us together initially but is now threatening to separate us. So far, the V4 politicians have managed to escape their responsibilities by comfortably shielding themselves behind a reluctant public opinion they have not had the courage or desire to influence or change, showing more eagerness for fence-building and border-guarding than true collective problem-solving. We may dislike the concept of solidarity, but we cannot escape our responsibilities. You can only escape your roots so much.

Notes:

  1. Namely Martin Konvička, leader of the “Bloc Against Islam,” the movement that organized the rally; along with members of the far-right “Dawn of Democracy” party, and the PEGIDA and English Defence League movements.
  2. A nickname for Bohuslav, PM Sobotka’s first name.
Martin Michelot

Martin Michelot

is the Director of the Global Europe program and Head of Research at the Europeum Institute for European Policy in Prague, and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Paris office of German Marshall Fund of the United States. Michelot specializes in transatlantic security and NATO policy with a particular focus on regional security cooperation mechanisms in Europe, and French foreign policy.