Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 32
3 May 1999

B E T W E E N   T H E   L I N E S:
Shirkers of the World Unite

Sean Hanley

In July 1991, I was passing through Leningrad. I had come on the train from Kiev with my friend Oleg. We had chatted our way amicably through most of the 22-hour journey despite our rather different interests. 'Life itself will answer this question', he replied sagely to my questions about Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Soviet politics, before changing the subject back to rap, his real passion in life.

Once in Leningrad we went our separate ways. He had some musician friends to meet; I had contacts to look up. A friend of a friend living in Leningrad had promised to show me Peterhof, the 'Russian Versailles', the magnificent former summer palace of Peter the Great, just outside the city. I gave her a ring at the office at about eleven one morning.

'Sean. Great. Peterhof', she enthused, 'I can meet you in five minutes'.

I was slightly taken aback.

'Well, Inna, but that's great, but I mean, if you're busy...'

'Busy? Oh no, I'm not doing anything. I'm just at work'.

She was as good as her word. She met me five minutes later and showed me round Peterhof for most of that afternoon.

But it was our short phone conversation, that stuck in my memory as much as the fountains and architectural splendour of the Russian Versailles. It came back to me recently a few weeks ago in, of all places, the EU Information Centre in Prague. The glass and fitted carpet were, of course, no competition for the splendours of Peter the Great. And unlike Peterhof, the Centre wasn't exactly thronging with visitors. In fact, it was deserted except for myself and a middle-aged lady employee in a smart suit, sitting behind a new desk and talking on the telephone. I hovered expectantly.

I had wanted to ask for a copy of the recent European Commission report on state of the Czech Republic's preparedness for EU entry. A highly critical report according to the Czech press. The EU lady looked up briefly and continued talking. Urgent business no doubt, getting the EU accession message across to the Czech public.

Well, no, something rather more prosaic, in fact.

Her daughter had had straight As last year in school in everything except physics. This year, well, she hadn't really done so well. That friend of hers, Kveta. A bad influence...

I decided to give her time to finish her conversation. After all, I was probably her only customer that afternoon, and she was only at work. I wandered around and perused some bilingual Czech-English leaflets about the Common Agricultural Policy and Structural Funds. They proved only slightly more interesting Kveta and her physics grades. Five or tens minute later I strode purposefully back towards the desk.

To my surprise, the EU lady was now discussing some real issues. I pricked up my ears to take it every last detail, almost unable to believe my eyes.

Window fittings. Hard to know what kind would really suit their holiday home in the country. Something wooden though. They would paint them. But all so expensive these days. They had wanted... something, but would settle for... something else. My Czech vocabulary let me down. So did my patience. I turned round and walked back outside into the Prague sunshine. Finding out about the Czech Republic's preparedness for EU entry no longer seemed so important. Life itself had answered my question.

Sean Hanley, 3 May 1999


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