applied to urban intellectuals who presumably sit in cafés and disparage
Putin-friendly policies: “We are the Coffee People!”
Then who votes for the Communist Party and the openly pro-Russian
“Those in the small villages,” her husband puts in, his wife translat-
ing. “They remember Communism in a good way. They experienced the
Second World War when we were liberated by the Soviets. When the
Russians came, the people thought it was good.”
Too, he tells me that these older people remember how the West
handed then Czechoslovakia over to the Nazis in what is referred to here
as the Munich Betrayal. It will be one of many times the infamous pact
is mentioned during my stay.
His wife translates his explanation but is not moved by it.
“They are simple people,” she says. “They are only interested in sim-
ple things. They do not like books or travel or film.”
And the young people?
“They do not know this history. They are not taught.”
For the first month of my Fulbright stay, I am mostly in Prague. But I am
glad when my teaching term begins and I can travel to a beautiful castle
town an hour’s train ride through fields and forests. I am here to teach
American literature in the Faculty of Arts and Philosophy. Though my
students are attending an institute of higher education, many are the
first to do so in families who have worked in fields such as forestry and
railroading. And they come from all over the Czech Republic. Now that
I have met the Coffee People of Prague, I’m hoping to hear—through my
students—from the “simple” people out in the country.
I am the first Fulbright fellow to teach at this university, and I find
that in a formerly authoritarian country, it is daunting to be an authority figure. I have been told that Czech students in lower grades are still
screamed at and told to shut up; understandably, students learn to keep
their heads down. I will have to work if I am to forge an identity other
than that of a compulsorily respected, feared, and no doubt a little-bit-hated professor.
And indeed, in our first sessions my students sit in silence, staring
at me without expression. I don’t know how much they understand of
our readings or what I say. I feel like I’m shouting a bunch of stuff about
Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin, and Junot Díaz into the wind.