The first morning in Prague, sniffling with a cold, I looked out from my room on the eighth floor of the Hotel Panorama, a featureless skyscraper on the southern outskirts of the town. I had rained all night this late March, was still raining, drizzling down on the hunched pedestrians walking along the deserted highway to Brno, on blocks of crumbling 1950s apartment buildings, on a wooden water tower, on a single high-rise office building. In the treeless distance, a pair of smoke stacks lazily contributed to the famously polluted air.
Tomorrow I would be visiting the Olga Havel Foundation, the internationally respected human rights organisation, but today I was booked on a city tour.
The bus left the hotel promptly, myself and a few German tourists aboard, rain beating against the windscreen. The guide, a well-bundled up young woman with a cold worse than mine, held a tissue under her nose. She lowered it to describe in two languages sombre turn-of-the century edifices as we passed them, then pressed the tissue to her nose again.
We peered out through rain splotched windows. Most of the buildings were coated in grime from the brown smoke of innumerable winter. At second floor level, a spiderweb of black tram wires tied them together.
Occasionally we halted at the foot of a street too narrow for the bus to enter and our guide called out the sights to be seen in that direction….Town Square, Jewish Quarter.. At Prague Castle we left the bus and closely followed the green umbrella she held on high, through the royal courtyard, into the double-naves church. We lost her momentarily in the cobbled ‘Golden Lane’ behind the castle where Franz Kafka one lived in a tiny blue house; we’d been caught up in an opposing stream of tourists following a guide holding aloft a wooden crutch.
‘Day One’ ended for me with a a hot bath and a $9 steak and french fries from room service. I hoped the guide was warm and dry too.
The appointment with the Foundation was at noon the next day. By that time both the rain and my cold had begun to clear. The shortcut to the Metro station from the hotel ran through waste ground where an open air market was in progress. Behind makeshift stands, rickety table or opened suitcases, unsmiling vendors stood silently. Most displayed a single product…a pile of cabbages, flats of eggs, rolls of toilet paper, Heinz ketchup ($3), a fan of chocolate bars, a bin of synthetic-fibre Italian clothes. Equally unsmiling men and women moved among them, buying little.
Neither the clean Metro station nor the modern train which came so quickly seemed threatening yet, according to the Prague Post skinheads on a late night Metro had just killed another victim. At this hour there were families with children on their way to zoo, couples with skis heading for the train station and young men who readily gave up their seats to old ladies.
At Museum stop I left the train to come up in Wenceslas Square, the heart of Prague, the site of all its historic demonstrations and celebrations. The wide boulevard, no more than three blocks long, bordered with trees and pedestrian walkways, slopes downhill. Once elegant, it now runs past innumerable Bureaux de Change and scores of Italian-run jewellery shops with windows full of bangles and gold chains.
Off to either side of the square are the business and commercial buildings of the ‘new town’, many built in the short period of property following independence from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in 1918. The Olga Havel Foundation headquarters are in one of them, a building so dilapidated from the outside I checked the address several times before entering. The walls of the stairway were scaling, the door on the first floor landing was missing several panes of glass but on the next floor the Foundation’s small reception area was bright with fresh paint, new carpets and well-tended green plants.
The Foundation and its ‘Committee of Good Will’ were the initiatives of Olga Havel, wife of the Czech Republic’s first democratically elected president, Vaclav Havel. Although she had been recording the lives of Czech dissidents for years for an underground video journal, her overt identification with the human rights movement began following the Helsinki Meeting in 1977.
In Helsinki the United States had called upon the members of the Soviet Block to extend basic human rights to their citizens. Czechoslovakia agreed, but did nothing. in protest, several hundred brave Czechs, including Vaclav and Olga Havel, signed Charter 77, demanding human rights in their country. Reprisals were immediate. For Vaclav Havel it meant six years imprisonment. Olga Havel was declared an enemy of the State. (Only belatedly did the overworked Czech judicial system right this wrong to its First Lady.)
The wave of optimism that followed the Velvet Revolution of 1989 washed over every segment of the community, not least the disabled and chronically ill. To these previously marginalised citizens, the Revolution was the signal to claim their own long-denied human rights. Some started initiatives on their own, others were encouraged by hospital staff. Parents of disabled children organised support groups.
But the stirrings were chaotic, the movement spontaneous and unregulated. Profiteers moved in. A central committee was needed to help raise and distribute funds for the new self-help groups and to encourage others to form. Olga Havel founded the Committee of Good Will. Many of those who joined her had been signatories of Charter 77.
I had come to the foundation to learn about its work. I was seen by a slender woman of middle age with pale blonde hair and pale green eyes. Her title was ‘Doctor’. She received me courteously, almost formally. The effect was heightened by the stole of flat amber fur she wore over her white cotton blouse. We sat together at one end of a long, light wood table in what must have been the dining room of a prosperous bourgeois family. The doorways were framed in Turkish-inspired panelling, picked out in mother of pear inlay. Empty glass-fronted cabinets lined the walls.
A young American colleague was asked to join us in case she was needed to help translate. This was very seldom necessary.. The Doctor spoke steadily and carefully in very clear English.
She told me how forty years of neglect had devastated the health care and social service systems in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia.. Under socialism, she said, it had been common practice to separate those perceived as sick and old from the healthy and the young. Orphans, the elderly, the physically or mentally handicapped were deliberately swept away out of society’s sight, segregated from the world at large in immense ill-adapted buildings usually confiscated from the aristocracy.
‘You have seen the Congress Hall?’, she asked. I hadn’t. ‘Near it there is a home for handicapped children. Its director was warned to keep the children out of sight when party officials passed on their way to meetings.. No one wanted to admit that in a socialist country, some people were less than perfect.’
When I asked if there was progress to report the answer was yes. ‘Within the limits of our capabilities. Though we can’t see big changes in the social sphere yet, if you go deeper, you see small but significant changes. Schooling for example. Formerly, physically or mentally handicapped children are handed over to the State at birth as a matter of routine. They had no further contact with their parents. The Institution became the child’s home and family. Their schooling was totally segregated leading to segregated jobs in other institutions or in co-operative workshops producing shoddy goods.. Now some schools, many of them private, are accessible to the disabled and offer a certain degree of integration.
‘Anything that reduces segregation is progress. The Metro has installed lifts for wheelchair users and beepers to guide blind pedestrians to the entrances. Some traffic light are fitted with bleepers too. And there are wheelchair ramps at some street corners.
‘Before the Revolution there was not one such ramp in the entire country!’
Later that afternoon the rain cleared and I walked towards the Old Town, the shimmering pearl in the grey oyster of Prague.. Nearing Charles Bridge, waiting for the light to change, I realised I was standing at a wheelchair ramp. There had been no ramp at the previous crossing and there might well not be one at the next. I looked respectfully at this dip in the curb, this tiny beach head in a war I had only just heard of. I thought briefly of the pale, composed face above the Doctor’s outmoded fur. I wondered what price she’s paid to live and work perceiving the glass, not half empty, but half full.
Then a frantic electronic beeping, like a signal in an intensive care unit, told me the light had turned green.