Letter From Prague

I’m in an abandoned building full of anarchist squatters,
talking philosophy with Serotonin and Siv. Actually,
Siv is doing most of the talking. He’s an English philosophy
student, and we met him wandering in the cold Prague
night, looking for a place to sleep. Serotonin and
I were catching a night tram over to the squat when
bright-eyed Siv stepped from the shadows carrying a
Siv is 23, from Portsmouth, and he’s giving me his
Hegelian explanation for why he came to demonstrate against
the imf. "History is a progression," he says.
"There’s a direction to events, and a certain
truth, or oneness, or unity, you know, underlying it
all." Siv is lying on his sleeping bag, head propped
on a hand. His sheep’s-wool shock of brown hair sticks
out philosophically. "And this imf conference, this
meeting, it’s part of a progression that I think I’ve
been seeing unfolding for awhile now." Siv is on
the floor by Serotonin. I get the couch because I’m willing
to deal with spiders.
Our room is less vile than the rest because it’s a
workspace. These anarchists produce a newspaper, and
its refuse-paper scraps, books, leftist magazines and
empty beer bottles-clogs the place. We had to squeeze
by the rusty printing press just to get in the door.

Hard-core music pounds below us. The odors of beer and vomit
waft up through dirt-crusted floorboards. They mix with
the smell of printer’s ink and Siv’s overpowering feet.
He is off from school, working on organic farms across
Europe, and he doesn’t shower much. I rub my nose, wishing
my head cold were worse, and keep listening.
"You know, there were the demonstrations in Seattle,
ones in Washington, actions in the UK. Things are
happening, I think," he says. "Things are
changing. I want to be here to be part of it. If
I can find a reason to give for why I’m here, I think
that’s it."
He doesn’t ask me why I’m here and I don’t bring it
up. I wrote for Prague’s only English weekly last summer
and struck a deal with them for the fall: They pay
airfare, and I cover the annual imf and World Bank meetings
unpaid. My qualifications are scant. A week ago I was
only vaguely aware that the imf or World Bank existed,
and my present "expertise" derives from a pile
of articles I nervously absorbed on the plane.
But the paper needs scoops, and I’m poor. This means
I sleep with protesters. As the youngest staff writer,
I simply have to "find out from those kids why
they think they’re here." So I don a black hooded
sweatshirt and try to smell the zeitgeist.
Rubbing my nose again, I ask Siv if these demonstrations
share an underlying direction, if these events have
a goal. What world-historical endpoint are we seeking?
He is quiet for some time. "Empathy," he says
finally. "People having more of an understanding
of the feelings and lives of others. If those guys
in the imf hear us, maybe it will help them see that
what they do has an effect on the lives of millions
of other people. Maybe it will make them be more careful.
Feel some empathy for the people they are hurting,
you know?"
Siv turns to Serotonin and asks, "Do you know this
word, ’empathy’?" Serotonin is 20, from Dresden,
and his English-while better than our German-is patchy.
Bent over a joint that won’t come together, he hasn’t heard
a word Siv has said. His real name is Sven, but I’ve
called him Serotonin ever since we met at a rave last
summer where, with shaky-ecstatic hands, he scrawled his
address on a napkin for me-serotonin@ somethingindecipherable.com.
He cooks in Dresden, earning just enough to rent a
flat, travel, and rave. After we parted last summer,
Serotonin rave-hopped until he ran through his money.
He told me once that, if it were up to him, he would
be a techno-gypsy.
Siv asks him again about empathy. Serotonin shrugs
and passes the joint. Siv smokes and then tries to
define the word. It takes awhile. I ask Serotonin why
he came to demonstrate. "I heard about Seattle,"
he says. "I saw on tv the rioting and I want
to see if this will turn out the same." His rave-wear
sags off his slouchy, string-bean frame as he sits on
the floor. "You weren’t in Seattle, were you?"
Serotonin is the fiftieth person to ask me that since
my arrival. No, I wasn’t there, I say. It’s too bad
you missed such a great time, he tells me. "I
hope here it will rage like it did in Seattle,"
he says, blue eyes flashing above a grin.
Two days later, it raged. Thousands of masked anarchists-our
hosts among them, I imagine-showered police with sticks, petrol
bombs, and cobblestones torn from the streets. The riotlines
shot back tear gas, stun grenades, and water cannons. Cops,
youth, fire, blood, and tears flooded the streets near
the imf and World Bank’s conference center. The protests
were the most violent an imf meeting has ever seen,
and they had the newswires squawking. "5,000 protesters
unleashed a fresh round of fury against economic globalization!"
"6,000 enemies of capitalism marched on the IMF and
World Bank summit Tuesday!"
And the like. The press numbered the crowd, gave it one
name, and one intention. From what I saw, the labels were
ill-suited and the intentions lacking.
I saw my squat-mates just before the riots. Siv was extremely
worked up. But not about cops, globalization, or even Hegel.
"My trip at the moment," he said, "is that
I have got to have a piss. Can you point me to the
loo?" Later, Siv joined a peaceful march of samba
musicians, decked out in pink, who marched to the Congress
Center simply making noise. Serotonin ducked the violence
as well. Using his video camera as a prop, he obtained
an independent media press badge to help dodge arrest.
He watched the bash of the year from the sidelines
and, with any luck, got it all on tape.
Neither I nor my two comrades can say much about globalization,
the imf, or the World Bank. We were simply country-hopping
bums, looking for a place to sleep and an event to
join. We were not thugs, and we came to Prague in
good faith. I came for a story. Serotonin for a party.
Siv, for a piece of world history. I believe we found
all three.


Eric German is a senior in Branford College

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