Renowned Journalist Slavenka Drakulić Revisits Café Europa and Post-Communist Central Europe

Her new collection of essays retakes the pulse of Central Europe 30 years after communism, and finds the optimism faded into disappointment, fueling an exodus.

Journalist Slavenka Drakulić loves spending long hours in cafés, places like the Café Europa have been the background of her writing life for some four decades. A Croatian married to a Swede and longtime resident of Vienna, Drakulić is as “at home” in a café as anywhere.

A sense of belonging is, in any case, elusive. “As a writer in two languages, you belong to your writing and to your languages; you do not belong so much to the place,” she told me when we “met” over Skype in November. Still, when you have found “your own friends, your own places, your own coffeehouse, then I think, as a foreigner, you can appropriate a city.” Which is Vienna in spades.

Now at her Istrian retreat from the coronavirus, the nearest kavana is in Buzet, population 1,600, six kilometers away. If it weren’t for the pandemic, she would most likely be there, reading and writing, or meeting friends. In Vienna, she would go to the Café Jelinek in the 6th district, where she wrote parts of her latest book, Café Europa Revisited: How to Survive Post-Communism, to be published by Random House-Penguin in January, 2021. But more of that later.

Voice From the Front

In the 1990s, after the collapse of communism, there was very little insider reporting available to English-speaking readers about life in the former Yugoslavia. A few Western journalists, perhaps, and some Central Europeans in translation. But as a Croatian ex- patriate, Drakulić stood nearly alone in being so truly a part of both worlds. A regular contributor to The Nation and The New Republic in the US and The Independent in the UK, she wrote eloquently about post-communist Central Europe and the human truths of war, in a voice that made that world real to the Anglo-American West.

Now, 25 years later, her 1996 collection of essays, Café Europa: Life After Communism, sparkles as front-line reporting on societies in transition, rich in details, thoughtful and honest – in their intimacy and candor, like letters from a friend – a re-enactment of the contradictions, confusion and change that characterized the time. When Café Europa was written, Drakulić was already dividing her time between Stockholm, Zagreb and Vienna, whose sensibility infused much of her writing – including the idea of the Viennese coffeehouse, which she sees as “symbolic for Europe,” and that doesn’t exist in quite the same way anywhere else.

So it was hardly surprising that in every capital city of post-communist Central Europe in the early 1990s, she would find a Café Wien, or Café Paris, or most likely, Café Europa. There, coffee might be served in a pleasing porcelain cup with a little glass of water, a spoon and a caramelized biscuit. Or it might just be in a mug, served with some bottled half and half and smelling of chicory. But it didn’t matter really; it was the idea that counted, of imagining you were in that mythic place called “Europe,” the place you dreamed of being, and the person you wanted in your deepest heart to become.

“Simply by using such a name, you were presenting not only an image, but a whole system of values,” Drakulić wrote. The cafés “also reveal a longing, a desire to belong to a preconceived idea of Western Europe,” and a barrier against the pull of the old communist past – as if to say, “Can’t you see that we belong to the West too?”

The collapse of the Soviet Union had been sudden and completely unexpected, she wrote, “a shock followed by euphoria and childish expectations. Not a patient people, we expected too much, too soon.”

© Simon Ballam

The Myth of Café Europa

Decades later, Drakulić was still fascinated by the hopes of those first years after 1989. “I don’t know where this optimism came from,” she said, “this naive belief that after the Berlin Wall was down, that everything would change for the better. Some things, yes, but it was naive to expect so much.”

So now, 30 years after the collapse of communism, Drakulić felt it was time again to take the pulse of Café Europa, to “catch the changing spirit” of her homeland of Croatia and its Central and Eastern European neighbors. “Is 30 years a long time or a short time,” she wondered, “when it comes to profound changes in a society?” In Café Europa Revisited, she takes us back to the proverbial café: What can we see and hear, what do we sense, that reveals the social terrain of the world outside?

“The café, or rather kavana, kavarny, kávéház, kawiarnia – as this unique Central European institution is called in different languages – used to look a bit shabby; the lights were dimmed, many people smoked. But they had loud voices and smiling faces, the glasses clanged…. You would have sensed excitement, hope….”

Now, the decorators have moved in: “There is new furniture, modern appliances, a lot of light and, not to forget, the coffee is espresso now. The people look smarter than before, too, …but there is less noise.” The young, as everywhere, are on the make, or planning to leave for the West. The older people look more familiar, and pass the time complaining about corruption, the loss of national identity, unfulfilled promises, the stripping away of illusions.

“This is how you know they are Central Europeans!”

Lost in Translation

Back on our Skype call, she described two main patterns: The first, the persistent feeling of inferiority, of being a second-class citizen. “I took one example – and this is very telling – of the big food companies that have the same product in Eastern Europe and Vienna, but the content is different,” she recounted. The fruit yoghurt had 40% more strawberries in it, the Nutella more hazelnuts, the fish sticks more fish, although the labels were the same.

“This is a fantastic example,” she said, “because people are, in a sense, right to feel like second-class citizens. Also at work: They can also get a job for the same company, but not be paid the same as people who do it in the West.”

The second pattern is the brain drain, the advent of the “mobile EU citizen” – now more than 4% of the population, and very different from the guest workers of earlier decades. “For the first time, it is not only physical workers – these are not field workers or cleaners or carers – these are educated people, especially doctors and nurses.” In the last 10 years, Romania has lost 14,000 doctors – about half the total – and 28,000 nurses to the West. “Many of these countries no longer offer jobs, or the conditions for a young person to build a life, chances to live and bring up a family.”

But I wondered: Is it just a choice between disappointment or escape?

“You want some kind of optimistic…?” She laughed, leaving the sentence unfinished. Touché. “But of course there have been some benefits,” she said. It’s really a question of the generation.

“My generation feels, in part, nostalgic – not for the regime, but for the security that the socialist system could offer people, like jobs, housing, health insurance and education. Now you have to fight for everything, and the health system, as it was, is falling apart.”

The younger generation – those born after 1989 – feel much more at home in Western Europe. But she worries about what they take for granted: “The young people, and particularly women, have inherited certain rights from the previous state, and they’re not so much worried. Until it hits them, like in Poland with abortion.

“They think it is a level of civilization which cannot be taken away from them, and this is where they are very much wrong.”

© Dardis McNamee

A Sense of Belonging

Given the convulsions across Europe in the 20th century, questions of identity can become complicated: Empires have fallen, lands carved up, borders and peoples moved and moved again; forms of government and political systems have come and gone. In Austria, there were at least five systems of government and six currencies. The upheavals in Central and Eastern Europe lasted far longer – from the Hungarian uprising in 1956 through the Prague Spring of 1968 to the “Bosnian War” (1992-1995) that divided Yugoslavia.

Her husband, Richard Swartz, whom she married in 1993, was a correspondent for Svenska Dagsblatt based in Vienna, a center for correspondents covering East Europe. Thus, Vienna became their shared hometown – neither Stockholm nor Zagreb – belonging to both. For them, “Vienna was the perfect place, the real center of Europe.”

Still, that sense of belonging remains elusive. Her husband, the Swede, claims that she, as a Croatian, understands the Austrians, their habits and mindset much better than he does, “even though he speaks perfect German and I barely understand it.” Perhaps even stranger, she knows he is right.

(C) Fraktura

Talking About Taboos

Drakulić is an astute observer and willing to explore topics others don’t even dare to bring up. Like immigration, which is a very big topic in Sweden. Over several decades, she has followed the integration of those who came as war refugees in the early 1990s.

These “Yugos” proved to be some of Sweden’s best-integrated immigrants, like the Jews in WWII, the Hungarians in 1956 and the Czechs in 1968. “They were Europeans of a similar background and culture and generally much better educated than the non-European refugees, although this is not politically correct to mention.” Nor is it to raise the question as to whether Afghans or Somalis will integrate as well, which “is to risk being accused of racism.” The question of skin color is never mentioned in Sweden, ignored on purpose, as if it doesn’t matter.

“But the question still remains: Could this change once the majority of refugees entering Sweden have a different skin color? When does prejudice kick in?” Or is it about the cost in public funds? The book Invandring och mörkläggning (Immigration and Blackout) by Karl-Olov Arnstberg and Gunnar Sandelin, published in 2014 just before the crisis, presented government statistics showing, among other things, that the 15% of the population that was foreign born received 60% of social benefits, and were often not allowed to work while applications were pending, contributing little in return.

The book was ignored: “The Swedish government preferred to bury the facts generated by its own office of statistics.” Even after the initial wave of refugees in 2015, the subject remained taboo. Until 2018, when the far-right party – that had barely figured in the 2010 parliamentary elections – swept in with a full 17.5 percent of the vote.

This is difficult for the Swedes, she told me. “They do not like conflict. The Swedish media remind me of Eastern Europe under communism: They are used to covering things up.” It was all very George Orwell – a favorite author of her generation in Yugoslavia: Without the words to talk about things, it is hard to think about them, much less address them.

Integration is possible, she believes, and begins with the schools. “But you also have to have political will. But even then, you have a crisis and people start closing in again. Fear is a great tool to manipulate with – putting up fences, declaring emergency powers. Fear is very dangerous: It leads to hatred and leads to war. Maybe living together in the European Union, solving this problem together, may be a good way. An immense challenge for the EU…. She paused. “How they will deal with it, I have no idea!” Which is where we left it until she is next in Vienna, and we can meet over a Melange at the Café Jelinek.

“But first we must survive this,” she laughed. “And then we’ll see!”

Dardis McNamee
Dardis McNamee
Dardis McNamee is the Editor in Chief of Metropole. She has written for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler (NYC), the Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit in Vienna, as well as having been a speechwriter to two U.S. ambassadors to Austria. She was awarded the 2007 Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching (Media & Communications).

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