"Notes from the Field": 
   Journal Entry # 3: 
Inside Havel's Castle 

Inside Havel's Castle

I feel like I’ve entered a new phase of life here, walked onto a new stage.  How things will be assimilated when I get back home remains to be seen.

Sharif the VIP
Whizzing across town in a police escorted motorcade two to four times a day makes a very powerful statement: I am more important than the people in the traffic jams created by our wake.  On one hand I know I’m not; on the other hand, looking out the windows of the motorcade, I find it difficult to suppress a thought:  “This is really cool!”

The VIP treatment started before I arrived in Prague; having a business class ticket on British Airways means I get to use the VIP lounges, including showers, sleeping rooms, free self-service bars and anything else you can think of to make your layover enjoyable.  In the air, 8 free channels of brand-new movies at every seat, footrests, gourmet food and wine.  (Think about that next time you sit munching a bag of peanuts in the too-narrow seat of economy (steerage), while the flight attendant tries to wring $4.00 from you for a headset cord.  However, before you think life is unfair, remember that someone paid an extra $7,000 for my headset cord.)

Since I had flown first class before (working for the UN), I wasn’t too overawed by the in-air experience.  The first reality of what VIP meant to the Czechs occurred on arrival in Prague.  The rest of the passengers were blocked from exiting the plane, while my official greeters (flowers in hand) whisked me down the jetway stairs to a waiting vehicle (complete with flashing red light) for a quick drive to a VIP lounge.  I never went through Customs, never handled my bags until I reached the hotel, never had to lift a finger.  Surreal.

On Sunday evening, for the official opening of the Conference, we were officially greeted in Vladislav Hall in Prague Castle by Vaclav Havel.  The VIP treatment is in full gear:  The motorcade with 3 police cars in the front, 4 in the back.  (As Mrs. Nandy, the wife of one of the delegates remarked, “As though someone wanted to kidnap a bunch of University professors!”).  The hall has 300-400 people in it; the forty of us were escorted to the front of the assembly.  In a roped-off area, the world press corp was taking pictures of the famous among us.  (There were no American reporters: they were saving their film for Henry Kissinger and Hillary Clinton.  I’m not upset.)

From there, we are escorted to the official reception.  Although it was advertised as “formal”, I’m glad I didn’t push too hard to try to get a tuxedo: the only folks in the room wearing tuxedos were the waiters.

Clicking champagne glasses with world leaders in the glittering Rudolf Gallery will definitely change one’s perceptions about oneself and the world.  The Gallery is a series of rooms, each one unbelievably ornate, each one completely jammed with food, most of which I can’t/won’t eat.  (I learned my lesson years ago: if you can’t identify it within five seconds, it doesn’t belong in your mouth.)  There were two rooms of meats, three rooms of desserts, a couple of rooms of chamber orchestras playing Mozart (in a room that Mozart played in!), etc.

It seems that the waiters are trained to key in on our pale blue “Delegate” badges.  If our hands are not full with drinks or food, they come over to pester you.  After the 6th room, I learn to carry a drink around so they will leave me alone.

I’m wandering around, feeling pretty overwhelmed, when one of the blue-uniformed young girls who serve as escorts came over and said, “President Havel would like to meet with you now.”  Here we go: the moment of a lifetime: coming face-to-face with one of my few living heroes.

He was only about seven jam-packed rooms away.  My escort could only lead the way for the first five or so; the last couple rooms took some old-fashioned American-style elbowing.

Havel is seated at a table with about ten other people; each one of them a current or former government official.  I knew one of them from my prior travels: Karan Singh,  Indian diplomat and a leader in the world ecumenical movement.  He actually remembered me from our encounter in Sri Lanka a year or more prior to Prague.

Havel was tied up with Henry Kissinger.  Since I think that Kissinger in general is full of shit, I thought I would be doing Havel a favor by interrupting.  He rose and exchanged pleasantries, but it was pretty clear that he didn’t have any idea who I was.  I let him go back to his conversation.

I was talking to the Ambassador from India, when a Czech man ran up to me and grabbed my hand excitedly.  He was so excited that he was at first speaking to me in Czech.  He explained that he worked in the Office of the President and that he had been instrumental in arranging my participation in the Conference.  He said that he had read my book and felt that my perspective was needed at the Conference.  (He started quoting “The Power of One” to me; a sure sign of someone who has actually read it!)  He asked whether or not I had met Havel, I told him “sort of”.  He interrupted Kissinger (again!) and spoke to Havel rapidly in Czech.  Havel rose and shook my hand again, this time with a smile of recognition.  Okay, I can now die happy.

The room is full of the world’s diplomatic corp: Ambassadors, emissaries, world leaders.  They have to sit in the nickel seats during the Conference: the table is reserved for the 40 delegates.  Major politicking went on to determine who sat at the table: the representatives of many governments and  world-renowned organizations were not official delegates.  I’m sure all of them were wondering who the hell I was.

The first day of activities was dominated by Henry Kissinger; the second day by Hillary Clinton.  The only other Americans at the table was noted Harvard professor Amitai Etzioni and -- me.  I was also the only person of African descent at the table: Nobel laureate Wole Solyinka was busy returning home to Nigeria after years of exile and could not make the Conference.

Hillary’s speech was good, but her off-the-cuff comments were much better.  She was one of the few people who really thought through some of her answers and was not afraid to deviate from her script.  One interesting point:  when she sat down after giving her speech, she looked momentarily confused and about to cry.  It passed, but for a second she looked like a human being and not an incredibly slick politician.

I learned that there were levels even among the VIPs:  Kissinger was a “super-VIP”, along with Clinton, Singh, and government representatives in general.  These folks had regular and frequent contact with Havel; the other 20 “regular VIPs” did not.  Whenever I started to develop an attitude about this, I remembered just to be thankful to be somewhere in the room.

Meeting a Different Hero
I’m at yet another reception, sitting with one of the delegates from India.  Suddenly, a bear of a man, in a green shirt with no tie or jacket, drunk as a skunk, walks over to us, yells, “this must be the anti-European table!!”, pounds my back a couple of times, and reels over to another table.  He’s drinking cognac like water and seems to be having a really good time.

“Who the hell was that?” I asked Dr. Kumar, watching the figure recede.  Kumar answered slowly, his voice tinged with both sadness and awe.  “That was the great Adam Michnik.”

ADAM MICHNIK!!  A man of legend in Eastern Europe, nearly at the level of Vaclav Havel himself.  The architect and brains behind the Solidarity movement in Poland: Lech Walesa was more well known, but Michnik was the intellectual brains of the outfit.  I had no idea that Michnik was a delegate -- getting to meet him, even stumbling drunk, was the icing on my cake.

The next day, Michnik, showing no negative signs of his previous night’s activities, presents one of the most stimulating and thought provoking talks of the Conference.  He and I strike up a friendship (through his broken English and my non-existent Polish) that I hope lasts for awhile.

His absolute outrageousness (even when sober) is in marked contrast to Havel’s reserve and diplomatic decorum.  I realize that the figure that I have nearly idolized was the pre-Velvet Revolution Havel, the person who was famous for drinking, smoking and speaking from his heart.  Michnik, who never entered the government, reminded me of that figure.  Drunk or sober, Michnik was ALIVE.  Havel seems trapped by his position.

There were two types of delegates at the conference:  those who were there to share ideas on our future, and those who were there to deliver their stump speeches and split.  Michnik, Nandy, Kumar, and a few others were really stimulating (I even put Kissinger in this category).  The rest of them looked and acted like they needed a good enema.  Years ago.

The most disappointing for me were the religious leaders, with the most predictable speeches and pronouncements.  They thought it was so cool that the head of the Al-Azar Mosque in Cairo could embrace the Chief Rabbi of Israel.  The reality is that the followers of those men were not embracing, and the leaders were not talking to their own following.  So  much for ecumenism.

There was a “multi-religious” ceremony in St. Vitus Cathedral, an ancient, grand edifice, 585 years in the making.  I thought it was interesting that religious leaders could gather together, from four major traditions (Jewish, Catholic, Islamic and Buddhist) and not one of them offer a prayer.

Perhaps the most important and most sobering comment came from one of the delegates, who reminded us that, 60 years earlier, Adolph Hitler sat in the same room and had looked out those same windows, contemplating a “new world order”.  While much can change in a brief stretch of time, much also remains the same.


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