Totalitarianism leaves its mark on a population in many ways, some quite small.
For example, today I taught my second TEFL class. The only student was a lovely woman older than 60. She is mostly self-taught in English, she said, and had had very little practice speaking it. She was quite good at it and her intelligence shined through in her quick pickup of corrections and analysis of the texts we were studying.
After the class, the moderator, a young Czech woman maybe in her late 20s (it’s hard to tell how old people are over here), the woman and I discussed learning languages. Turns out my ‘student’ already spoke some German and needed English from time to time in her job.
Her job? A masterpiece of bureaucratic nightmares – she devised labels (probably listing ingredients, quantities, and countries of origin) for various kinds of packaged foods. The labels had to conform to European Union regulations. The companies risked massive fines if they did not comply with the regulations. They also would have had to throw out all the offending labels.
At some point, either before or after doing this compliance work – she still has some difficulty with verb tenses – she also worked for the Czech Ministry of Health, where in addition to those labeling requirements, she was responsible for nutrition information.
As we talked about learning languages, my student mentioned that when the Russians were ruling Czechoslovakia, as it was known then, all of the citizens were forced to learn Russian. With a delicate shrug and mild, smiling grimace, she said they all hated learning Russian.
Just think 20+ years ago, and the memory is still fresh.
Since she was born after WW II, she had no memories of the Nazi occupation. Interestingly, I haven’t seen any memorials relating to the Second World War, except an extension to a list of names of the dead from the First World War chiseled into marble tablets in a church in a small suburb of Prague.
On my way back to the apartment, a group of English speakers got on my tram. Several were Americans. One man was talking about his daughter who was living and working in St. Petersburg. She told him the city had been built to emulate Paris – with lovely views, beautiful buildings from the early 18th century, and graceful gardens.
When the Communists came to power in 1917-1920, they immediately began to put up huge, ugly, gray buildings, deliberately blocking the lovely views. I’ve posted about this ugly building phenomenon in earlier notes about Warsaw.
It’s clear they did it in Prague as well. The Czechs seem to have masked as much of the ugliness as they could with colorful plaster and stucco decorations.
Now, it’s true that the mid-1900s were not a highlight of beauty in buildings anywhere in the world. But some countries during that time as well as the clunky 1900s, Italy comes to mind, managed to aim for ugly … and miss.
More tomorrow. My ‘student’ said she’d come to our next class this Thursday. The classes are free to give us practice teaching, but when the weather is fine, it’s hard to snare any willing students.