Tag Archives: Prague

Stories for my Father: Edinburgh and Prague

New Orleans  My father, as longtime readers recall, would often greet me when I would return from an international trip, with the challenge to tell him “stories” that he “would want to hear.”  Though he died just short of five years ago, I still find myself making mental notes as I travel, of the kinds of eclectic, but vital, pieces of information, he might find interesting.

  • The men’s bathroom in the basement of our meeting rooms at the stately, revered University of Edinburgh were decorated in dazzling blue lights that were so distinctive that I couldn’t help snapping a picture.  Later I found out that there was a less than decorative reason.  The blue lighting made it difficult for heroin users to locate a vein, thereby discouraging addicts from using the university water closets as a shooting gallery.
  • Virtually all of the public buses in Edinburgh are double-deckers, which locals cite as a claim to fame for the city compared to elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
  • In Prague there are no workers in the toll booths for the Metro.  On buses and the subway, no one pays tolls except for the occasional tourist I would see trying to navigate how to use the ticket machines.
  •  At the end of the reception after I arrived in Prague, the organizer Michal Ulver encouraged people to enjoy the food and eat hardily as they were doing and then mentioned that all of the food was “recycled,” as it was translated to me.  What he meant was that the food had been collected by him with the help of a friend at a local grocery store from the rubbish bins after closing.  I stayed with Jon Black and his roommates in Edinburgh my last few days in Scotland, and they generously offered me to enjoy any food I saw handy.  Jon told me later that they practiced what they called “skipping,” which turned out to be the same dumpster diving routine that Michal had mentioned in Prague.  He and one of his roommates alternated every other week going to the local grocery store at 11:30 PM after it closed and “shopping” for what they needed from the bins, washing it off later, and voila.  If there is a breakfast of champions, skipping seems to be setting the dinner table for ACORN organizers in Europe.
  • At a community kitchen in the Edinburgh housing complex I let the volunteer worker convince me to have a “stovie” for lunch, which he described as a local Scottish dish.  Turned out it was corned beef and “mash” (mashed potatoes) all mixed together with no vegetables allowed.
  • The most ubiquitous retail establishment I saw in Edinburgh anywhere near where we were organizing as well as everywhere downtown and elsewhere were “charity shops” featuring 2nd hand clothing and other goods, run by all manner of nonprofits as a way to develop resources to support their work from Save the Children to the Salvation Army.  Incidentally, I also was taught the term “chuggers” which stands for “charity muggers” and describes street canvassers that highjack debit and credit card information for fake causes.
  • A vote on Scottish independence from the United Kingdom is upcoming but polls are saying that currently voters are 60-40 against.
  • A scheme to privatize social or public housing has foundered in many parts of the UK.  My colleagues favorite paradox was a picture we all took of a vast track of land in Pilton, where we are planning an organizing drive for ACORN Scotland, promising development, which has not happened, on vacant land where social housing was torn down for private interests whose plans didn’t develop anything due to lack of financing.
  • In a humbling cross cultural note, I learned that the choice of cold or warm beer that I have often noted in Kenya and speculated that it came from lack of refrigeration facilities, actually comes from colonization by the British there and the fact that some of them prefer warm ales.  More embarrassingly, when our folks were talking at a pub about the different ways that some things were pronounced in various parts of Scotland, I cited the example from India of urinal being pronounced by ACORN India organizers as ur-i-nal.  Calmly, they informed me that they all pronounced the term ur-i-nal.  Whoops!
  • My father used to enjoy a bottle of Glenfiddich for Christmas, but over in Scotland they claim that they grow fonder over time for scotches with a stronger taste of peat.   They gave me a bottle of Aberlour.  Cheers!

Stories for My Father Audio Blog


Chaos and Revolution versus the Hard Grind of Organization


Activists from Citizens Initiatives

Prague   Having been to Prague before in the winter and the fall where rain, cold, and snow were the default conditions, a sunny spring day was a surprise.  Looking out the window from the 13th floor of the cooperative apartment block where organizer Michal Ulvr lived the endless buildings in yellow, blue, and green were somehow beautiful now where they had seemed depressing before. 

             All of which left me in good mood although unprepared for the contrasts of the day.  After a brief visit to the site of Occupy Prague last year and a walk by the national government building where normally there is a daily protest, although it seemed to have been called off for spring, our first meeting was with a group of four women activists who were pushing initiatives around corruption, which they saw as a central, core issue in changing government.  Talk of organizing and alliances with ACORN Czech were a hard slog.  There experiences had been hard and their patience was exhausted.  One woman, an accountant, said they were working towards a revolution that came from the streets.  The others with experience in coffee roasting, beauty salons, and organic farming, were equally adamant.  They proposed what they called “chaos.”  An eruption for change that would come from the streets, cleanse government, and let them start anew.  The problems of building a popular democratic base in an organization seemed a waste of time to them.  They were in a hurry.  People were afraid and apathetic.  The notion that in chaos, others who were better organized would organize the new government and direct it, were a diversion. 

             And, of course who was I to say.  I might have felt I was in a time-warp back to the 1960’s, but these women had seen governments in Prague rise and fall in the streets before, so talk of revolution was more a part of common conversation for them than I could have imagined.  They occasionally were putting a couple of thousands of people on the street to follow their call.  We would just have to see.

             On the other hand we were meeting in the space of the Alternatives Below, essentially an organization that worked with many of these groups, that advocated change coming from the bottom and in the words of Professor Illona Svihlik, our last meeting at close to 9pm, was more of a “think tank” working with mayors, groups, and anyone who would try something different be it a cooperative, green space, or participatory budgeting plan.  She was a bridge to many diverse forces.  I had seen her 18 months before advising a group of labor and party leaders.  We listened to a discussion of the problems of debt where she was on a panel speaking before our visit. 

             ACORN Czech could be a bridge to all of these groups as well, but that would take a clearer focus, and their core of 55 activists were being pushed and pulled in all sorts of directions between all of these various forces and their own struggles with the gallery, sustainability, and the challenges that are formidable for a volunteer group of organizers.  It was exciting to spend time with all of these folks for a couple of days, but while there I couldn’t help wondering if ACORN or any of the others would be able to hunker down sufficiently to the daily grind of building a base, community by community, member by member, so that people in Prague could win day to day, even as so many seem to be waiting for the revolution next time.

Chaos & Revolution Audio Blog