I considered the Baltics, thanks to a UVA dean and Rīga native who’d encouraged me through my toughest times in college. With a mind to repaying her kindness by teaching English in her home country, I phoned the Latvian legation, the unofficial, émigré-run “embassy” of a nation still under Soviet rule. The gentleman who answered described Stalin’s cynical annexation of the Baltic States, a move never recognized by the West, and his nation’s desire for independence. But he advised against going there: “Things are too unstable.”
Romania and Bulgaria were out for the same reason. I called the Yugoslav embassy – they didn’t need English teachers, I was told, as they’d been learning plenty of English rather than Russian ever since Tito broke with Stalin. A stark, blotchy red and white Solidarity poster in my Georgetown linguistics professor’s office reminded me of the struggle of the Polish shipyard workers and, indirectly, of John Paul II’s motivating role. So I considered going there or to East Germany, which was about to merge with the West.
But I’d never thought about Czechoslovakia until that July 4, sitting cross-legged on a friend’s picnic blanket amidst the crowd of 400,000 who’d come to hear the symphony on the Washington Mall. As blackness swallowed the last purple of twilight and the final cymbal crash of Sousa’s “Washington Post March” faded, the emcee announced that we had just received a special call. Václav Havel, phoning by satellite from Prague. His gravelly voice came over the P.A. system.
“I would like to congratulate you on your nation’s birthday,” he said, haltingly, in his strong central European accent. “Your country was a beacon of hope to those of us suffering behind the Iron Curtain. And so, I am honored to address you tonight as president of a free Czechoslovakia.”
The crowd bellowed in response, clapping their hands above their heads in a display of good-natured American boisterousness.
“Oh. Well, thank you.” He sounded a bit embarrassed. “You have been an inspiration to oppressed peoples everywhere. And now it is my privilege to introduce the next song, the final movement of the New World Symphony, which my compatriot Antonín Dvořák composed while living in your wonderful country.”
After another spasm of cheering, the conductor raised his baton. The low strings played two notes a half-tone apart, like the “Jaws” music; slowly at first, then gaining tempo and volume. Violins joined in with piercing glissandos, building the tension towards an explosion of brass and tympani. The music was soon accompanied by the boom of fireworks, whose red, white and blue streams – equally valid as U.S. or Czechoslovak colors – illuminated the Washington Monument behind the orchestra.
The display of American-Czechoslovak friendship made up my mind for me.
The next morning, I called the Czechoslovak embassy and learned of Education for Democracy. I applied as soon as I got the paperwork. I got the news of my acceptance in August, after I’d already signed a short-term contract with a language school near DC’s Dupont Circle. So I had to put off the move until mid-October.
A mere two weeks after arriving, I got to see Havel from a distance of 50 feet in the Slovak provincial capital to which I’d been assigned. It felt like destiny.
I related my experience of that Havel speech in a post last October. There are pictures from the event (though the text is mostly about the history that was being commemorated).