Saturday, 15 October 2011

Communism in Czechoslovakia - You couldn't get laundry detergent, but you could get your Brainwashed

When walking round Prague today, with it's fast food stands, big billboards and the odd strip club, it can be sometimes hard to imagine it's communist past. But if you happen to find yourself wondering in the vicinity of Wenceslas Square (Václavské náměstí), the chances are you may find Prague's Museum of Communism, located above a McDonald's and a casino (oh the irony!).
So one day, I found myself doing exactly this. As you ascend the staircase and catch your first glimpse of the museum, you are greeted immediately with gift shop items intermingled with various Soviet style artifacts. The slogan for the title was taken from a postcard in the gift shop. As you make your way around, you are taken on a journey through time, starting with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and concluding with the eventual fall of both communism and the Berlin Wall.
As well as the various artifacts on display, strategically placed plaques guide you along explaining the stories behind them as well as in depth explanations as to what happened over the years.
The highlight for me was the interrogation room. This mock office style room where various people would be interrogated was strangely eerie. Plaques on the wall describe how the secret police became the most powerful figures of this regime. By means of threats and blackmailing, the secret police managed to discredit even the top representatives of the party.
WARNING! Border Zone. Enter only on authorization.
As suspicion and paranoia rose, over 100,000 citizens were interrogated and sentenced for all manner of reasons, often they were completely innocent. By the late 80's, over 200,000 people had worked as spies. There is also a description of the trials of the party members where the 'Prague process' resulted in 11 party members being sentenced to death and executed, and a further 3 receiving life imprisonment. After the accused were executed, they were cremated and their remains were used for sprinkling on the icy roads. The head investigator Doubek was rewarded by promotion and a gift of 30,000Kc for the convictions and false confessions obtained through means of torture.
If you want to learn about Czech's communist past, the Museum of Communism is a great place to start. But there are also other places you can go.
Situated in the vicinity of Letna park, and occupying a prominent position over the city of Prague, is the monodrome. Erected in 1991, it is a replacement of the giant 30 metre high statue of Stalin that once stood there, commissioned by the party. Construction work commenced in 1950 and lasted lasted 5 years. It was finally unveiled on May 1st 1955, 2 years after Stalin had died. Not even the architect of the sculpture (Otakar Švec) lived to see the day, he committed suicide before he got to see his greatest commission complete. The monument lasted 7 years, before the party had it demolished in 1962. The locals (mostly young skateboarders) who frequent the area, often still refer to the place as 'Stalin'. 
Wenceslas Square (Václavské náměstí) staged many a demonstration during the communism era, most notably being the suicide of a young, 21 year old named Jan Palach in January 1969. In protest against the occupation of Czechoslovakia and the regime, the student set himself on fire in the square. Suffering 85% burns, he was taken to hospital where he lived for 3 days. Following this, there was a march of citizens in his honour, and was for a long time, the last mass demonstration against communism. A month after Palach's suicide, another student, 18 year old student, Jan Zajik, committed suicide in the exact same way by setting himself on fire. Initially, Palach was buried in Prague, his funeral attended by 750,000 people, but fearing that his grave may become somewhat of a shrine, in 1973, his body was exhumed by the police and moved to the country. At the top of Wenceslas Square, in front of the Czech National Museum, there is a memorial embedded in the stones, dedicated to him.
Wenceslas Square today
A peaceful demonstration (which was fully approved by the Communist party) commemorating International Students Day, and the fiftieth anniversary of the murder of students by the Nazi government was also held on Wenceslas Square on November 17th 1989. This ended in violence when the riot police intercepted the protesters on Narodni Street and beat them before they could get to the square. This was the beginning of the Velvet Revolution. Over the course of November and December demonstrations gained momentum and were taking place almost daily. By November 20th, an estimated half a million protesters had joined in the demonstrations. Victory was gained by the people on November 28th when the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia sensed its defeat and agreed to give up their monopoly on political power.
In the lesser town, under Petřín hill, Újezd Street, is a memorial dedicated to the victims of the regime from 1948-1989, unveiled in May 2002. It consists of seven bronze human figures descending some stone steps and is the work of Olbram Zoubek, a famous Czech sculptor and architects Jan Kerel and Zdeněk Holzel. The first figure is complete, but as you look at the figures further back they are gradually missing more and more body parts, and seemingly splitting open until eventually, at the back, there is nothing left. These disintegrating figures represent the gradual mental and physical deterioration of man living under the totalitarian regime.
On the stairs there is some writing on a bronze strip that runs down the middle, that shows the estimated numbers of those affected by Communism. It says that 205,486 were arrested, 170,938 were forced into exile, 4,500 died in prison, 327 were shot trying to escape and 248 were executed. The bronze plaque nearby reads "The memorial to the victims of communism is dedicated to all victims not only those who were jailed or executed but also those whose lives were ruined by totalitarian despotism".
Looking around Prague now, bustling with tourists on a late summers day, one can only be grateful to those people who helped to bring this regime to an end by toppling the government, for they are the reason that everyone walking around today no longer has to live in fear of this regime.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Roman Pula

As you wander through the streets of Pula, there are many striking remnants of its great Roman history, the most spectacular being the ampitheatre occupying a large space just outside the main centre.
Constructed between 27 B.C and 68 A.D from limestone, the structure is still in remarkable condition and is just as breathtaking as its Italian counterparts. In fact, it is the only remaining Roman ampitheatre in the world to still have four side towers and three Roman Orders preserved in their entirety. It is located outside the town walls on the Via Flavia, the road that linked Pula to Rome and Aquileia. It was used up until the 5th century A.D for gladatorial combat until the emporer Honorius forbade it. However, the use of convicts and wild animals were still used there up until the 7th Century A.D.
Today the magnificent structure is still being used regularly. For around 40 Kuna (5 GBP) you can take a look around for yourself, or for a little extra, some headsets to guide you around with in depth detail. Underneath the ampitheatre, there are many archaeological exhibits found in the area all of Roman origin. 
There are also concerts held on a regular basis. Many notable artists have performed shows here including Elton John, Norah Jones, Anastasia and Sting to name a few, and recently, the premiere of the latest (and last) installment of Harry Potter (And The Deathly Hallows - Part 2) was shown to a crowd of around 6000 locals (beats your local cinema anyday eh?!).

The Temple of Augustus, named after the Emperor (you guessed it!) Augustus and probably built within his lifetime around 2 B.C and 14 A.D,  resides beside the Communal Palace in the Forum square, metres from Pula's scenic harbour. It has served a variety of uses, such as a temple, church, a store and a granary. Almost completely destroyed by bombing in 1944, it was reconstructed in 1947.

Another notable structure is the Arch of Sergii (The Golden Gate). An imposing structure built around 29 to 27 B.C honours the three Sergii brothers whose family had high standing in Pola (as Pula was known in Roman days). The gate and accompanying wall was pulled down sometime during the 19th century as the city expanded outside of these walls. These days numerous performances are held in the square which is located next to Giardini.
The twin gates stand below Pula's archaeological museum. These gates and their walls were destroyed and reconstructed many times through the ages and is the oldest part of this Roman defensive system having being built around 45 B.C, roughly around the time that the Roman colony became established in Pola.

Also, an interesting Roman mosaic depicts the mythical scene of The Punishment of Dirce (Amphion and Zethus are tying Dirce to an enraged bull, since out of envy Dirce had been cruel to their mother Antiope), was uncovered shortly after the second World War underneath some houses that were destroyed. Tucked away behind a building further down the shopping street of Via Sergia, a small sign guides you to it (if your observational skills are up to scratch!). This is estimated to have been created sometime around the 3rd century A.D.

For more archaeological finds dating throughout history, highlighting Pula's rich heritage, be sure to check out the Archaeology museum located by Carrarina Ulica above the Twin Gates. Being on top of a hill, if you walk around, you can find spectacular views across the harbour (I highly recommend a picnic at this point!).
For any budding historian, or if you have children who are studying Roman history at school, Pula is definately a place not to be missed. Definately worthy of an A grade I'd say!

Sunday, 2 October 2011

The Museum of Broken Relationships, Zagreb, Croatia - Something everyone can relate to!

Starting off as a travelling exhibition, and touring over 20 different countries, this collection of exhibits grew in such popularity, it is now permanently housed in the Upper Town of Zagreb, Croatia. This year it has won the Kenneth Hudson Award 2011 for the most innovative museum in Europe and was also runner up for Museum of the year 2011.
Now I have to admit, museums aren't really my cup of tea. When I think of most museums , I envisage them as being full of the intellectual types, stood there rubbing their chins, or worse, a bunch of school kids being irritatingly loud. But the name intrigued me and I've heard about it on more than several occasions so I decided that this time, as I travel to Zagreb frequently, to see what all the talk is about.
The idea is, that members of the public are free to donate any objects that are symbolic of a previous failed relationship. To go alongside it, you write a short story describing why the object in question is important, and what happened. There is everything in there from cuddly toys to a vibrator (much to my amusement)!
Now this could have gone either way. It is described as being a 'concept of failed relationships and their ruins'. So, in other words, I could walk out feeling happy that none of my past relationships could have been as bad or become instantly depressed with suicidal tendencies suddenly emerging. Turns out, it was brilliant! Some sad stories, some light hearted, some even heartwarming.

My personal favourite was:
2 years and 2 months, Belgrade – Zagreb
Description: a stupid Frisbee, brought in a thrift store, was my ex-boyfriend’s brilliant idea – as a second anniversary gift. The moral was obviously that he should be smacked with it in the middle of his face the next time he gets such a fantastic idea. Since the relationship is now preceded by the word “ex,” the Frisbee remains in the Museum as a nice memory and expelled negative energy. Feel free to borrow it if you like.
PS Darling, should you ever get a ridiculous idea to walk into a cultural institution like a museum for the first time in your life, you will remember me. At least have a good laugh (the only thing you could do on your own).
The frisbee in question wasn't actually on display, it was instead in London at the temporary exhibition there. In its place was a photo of said frisbee. Nearby hung a pair of ivory coloured suspenders. Its previous owners explained in the short story that she was bought them as a present from a former boyfriend but never wore them. She later came to conclusion that maybe if she had of, the relationship would have lasted longer!

I would recommend anyone with a sense of humour to go see this. Everyone can relate to the heartbreak and anger experienced both in and post relationships, which is perhaps why the exhibition has become so popular and at 20 Kuna per person (around 2.50 GBP) entry fee, its well worth it. Don't leave Zagreb without seeing it!

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Ever woken up one day and felt the need to pack all your belongings and just go?

Of course you have, we all have. Most of the time, we suppress these feelings and carry on with our lives. It was last year when I last had this urge. Although I've had these feelings many times in the past, this was different, I had an overwhelming compulsion to just get up and go. So that's exactly what I did.
Its reported daily in the news about the mass immigration that's happened in Britain, but emigration is rarely spoken about, but its on the rise. A little over a year ago I clutched my one way plane ticket to Prague. Ever since, practically on a daily basis I am asked why I decided to move here. The problem is, I don't really have an answer.
But what I do know is that I wasn't enjoying life back in Britain. As the recession took hold in Britain things just seemed to get worse. I was made redundant from a job I enjoyed, and to add to the insult, it took 6 whole long months to find another job. I'd had several jobs since then too but nothing worked out, I wasn't happy. Also, I was living near my mother who had moved there 2 years before me. She loved it but I was in no way convinced. It was a very pretty but strange town, about 40 minutes drive from Manchester, with rolling green fields, and It was difficult to make friends. Most people in the town had lived there all their lives and their friends were all from childhood, I had literally nothing in common with them. I made a remark one day to an old friend, which is when it all clicked into place, I felt like a foreigner. Rather odd considering I am British but nevertheless, that is exactly how felt.
I got talking to another old friend with whom I hadn't been in contact with for 10 years. We shared similar views and got on rather well, in fact much better than we had 10 years previously! The most important view we shared is that we felt we needed to get away. In the following months we spoke endlessly about moving away, what we could do, all fantasies really. But then one day, something changed. It had occurred to me that this could be more than just a fantasy, I could make it reality. After all, I had nothing to stop me and no responsibilities. So one night, it was decided. We moved to Prague a week later. The next day I handed my notice in at work, and my boss was surprised. "Have you got a job to go to or a place to stay"? "No"! But nothing could change my mind, I had booked the ticket the moment I decided so that I wouldn't do just that!
The next week was spent going through my belongings and throwing away or selling everything I couldn't take. As time flew I soon found myself on that plane, landing in Prague. It was a pleasant early September evening. We got the bus into the city centre and decided to go and find a hostel to stay in for the night. We would find somewhere to live the next day. Well that was the plan anyways, but shortly after the hostel idea was scrapped and a very kind person offered us lodgings for the night.  The next day we found a flat and several weeks later we had jobs. And I can say for sure, making that move was the best decision I ever made.
So, over a year later, my life had drastically changed, and for the better. I still feel like a foreigner, but the difference now is that I actually am one! I have ultimately matched my internal feelings with my external surroundings. But I have a job I love (if sometimes stressful!), a string of friends from many different countries and I lead a much more fulfilling life.
The strangest thing is going back to England to visit my family. Even though I go for only a few days at a time, it makes me extremely anxious and agitated and I honestly could not tell you why. I have thought in great depth about this for a long time now and still I have no logical answer. I even joke that Prague is my bubble, my safe place! I feel a sense of belonging here that I never felt in Britain.
After all this, I still cant think of what to say when I am asked that dreaded question, but maybe if they read this article they may understand a little better. I'm quite sure I'm not alone in having these feelings, although most people I meet usually have a concrete reason as to why they left their home country. But for now, instead of pouring over the unknown, I shall concentrate more on how happy I am that I made that important decision to move here.