Letter from Prague How to treat a virus
As is customary at the close of every year, the press draws up lists and analyses in an attempt to summarize the year that has passed. Many Czech publications seemed to strike a fairly sombre tone this past week, as they looked back at the corruptions scandals, disappointing elections, embarrassing fall of the government and so on. Even the massive floods that hit the country in the summer took the backbench to unpleasant yet glaring political affairs of the country this past year.
I was glad, though, as I read one newspaper this week, to see that with all the disappointments, Czechs have not lost their semi-dry, oh-so-slightly self-deprecating sense of humor. The newspaper carried out a poll asking their readers what word best defined 2013 for them. The word ‘viróza’ scored a landslide victory. ‘Viróza’ normally means a viral infection, and is often used to mean a common, run-of-the-mill cold or flu. This year, the word gained in popularity when Prague Castle officials used it to explain the peculiar behaviour of the newly elected Czech President Miloš Zeman during an inspection of the crown jewels in May. The televised broadcast of the event showed the head of state as he had to hold on to the wall while waiting for his turn and had considerable trouble staying upright throughout the whole ceremony. Since then, many of the president’s blunders have been jokingly written off as ‘viróza’, and some people have even started to call their own or their colleague’s inability to focus at work after a long night out as – ‘viróza’.
Of course, there is nothing funny about public figures and even the hint of possible alcohol abuse, but to me there is something endearing about people being able to poke fun at their leaders in this way. We could write it off as part of a proud Švejkian legacy, but it is hard to ignore the disillusion that is part and parcel of viróza’s victory. The past year seems to have caused disappointment to form even deeper roots in Czech society. Whereas two years ago, when Vaclav Havel passed away in December 2011, many people in my surroundings seemed to be empowered by the sad reminder that a vital moral compass is missing and needs to be found immediately. Today, those same people are mostly back to grumbling about politics in the local ‘hospoda’.
Unlike in other countries, where social discontent and disappointment with the ruling elites can lead to an explosive release of pressure – protests, sit-ins, what have you - in the Czech Republic, steam usually escapes slowly through small gaps. To me, this was partly embodied in 2013 by the increase in violence against the Roma minority, but also by more positive events, when regular citizens attempted to resolve problems by themselves, without waiting for authorities to step in.
One of the examples that stayed with me was the unexpected success of the first nation-wide drive for Czech Food Banks, during which people donated over 60 tonnes of non-perishable food, which goes to children’s homes, asylum housing for single mothers and homeless shelters. I was also struck by a number of different campaigns aimed at transforming public spaces in Prague. Artists, civil activists and architects not only debated about, but also showed in practice that public spaces like the I. P. Pavlova area, Wenceslas Square or the embankments of the Vltava in the city center, should and can be made more pleasant and functional for the locals, instead of being taken up by parking lots or tourist traps.
So maybe all is not lost, and the ‘viróza’ of gloom can be somehow treated. In this first weekend of the new 2014, I would like to voice cautious hope that this year might give us more reasons for optimism, and fewer for disappointment.