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How Havel changed my life

IT WAS a frigid evening during the first week of January 1990, as I walked through the heart of Bratislava’s Old Town with my grandfather. A man made an announcement from the top step outside the Jesuit church, and the small crowd that had assembled was buzzing. Even by the heady standards of those days immediately after the Velvet Revolution, this throng was noticeably excited.

IT WAS a frigid evening during the first week of January 1990, as I walked through the heart of Bratislava’s Old Town with my grandfather. A man made an announcement from the top step outside the Jesuit church, and the small crowd that had assembled was buzzing. Even by the heady standards of those days immediately after the Velvet Revolution, this throng was noticeably excited.

"Dedko, what did he say?" I asked my grandfather. He shuffled across the icy square to ask, then shuffled back. "Eh, Havel...will...here be...tomorrow," he said, stretching his minimal knowledge of English. "He will...make speech," he continued. "We... watch...television."

"Havel?!" I blurted. "Tomorrow?! Here?!" I could not believe my ears. Vaclav Havel had been elected Czechoslovakia’s first pos-Communist president just days earlier. I could not believe that my week-long visit would coincide with his first appearance in Bratislava as president. I had not travelled from the other side of the planet to sit in my grandparents’ cramped apartment and watch on TV the history taking place a few kilometres away.

The next afternoon, I hustled onto the tram to be among the first admirers to stake a position in Bratislava’s main commercial square, Námestie SNP. Arriving four hours before Havel was due to appear, I managed a spot in the second row in front of the temporary stage. In the hours that followed, the square burst its capacity, with onlookers climbing garbage bins, lampposts, and phone booths to get a decent view of the man.

When he finally arrived, an hour after the appointed hour, I was surprised by his humble demeanour. He did not speak in crisp sound bytes, he did not forcefully gesticulate. Yet here was the man who led the historic political, economic and social transformation that would – more than any other world event – influence the direction of my life.

It is thanks to Havel’s revolution that I was able to move and live in Bratislava. It is therefore largely due to him (although he grieved over Czechoslovakia’s split) that Dan Stoll, Eric Koomen, Richard Lewis, and I had the opportunity to co-found The Slovak Spectator. If not for the revolution, I would never have met my wife. Without Havel’s influence, I would not have grown to understand my father’s family and their background, nor sought to learn their language. I would not have become a citizen of Slovakia, and by extension, the European Union.

Of course, on that chilly January night 22 years ago, I knew none of this. On that night, I stood for hours wrapped in a woolly winter coat and hat, waiting to see a modern hero. And when he took the stage, I soaked in the post-revolutionary euphoria of tens of thousands of newly-free citizens chanting, “Nech žije Havel!” Long live Havel!

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