Sanity Rally and Cold-War Public Diplomacy

All of a sudden, I felt back in Central Europe during the Cold War.

But this was Washington, D.C., on October 30, 2010.

At the Rally to Restore Sanity in the imperial capital yesterday, the mood reminded me of my postings as a U.S. Foreign Service public diplomacy officer in Prague (1983-1985) and Krakow (1986-1990).

In Prague, working with the Jazz Section, I used the small garden of my "official" residence near the Vltava river (with its then ever-present swans) as a venue for Jazz concerts. Most of the Czechs attending these events were "dissidents" -- a hard word to define, but meaning persons (mostly young) who looked beyond the narrow, parochial views of a dinosaur communist regime. Humor and irony were an essential part of their politics. Living in an Orwellian society in many ways absurd, they used as sanity tools gentle you-know-what-I-mean winks, and, above all, music. Least on their minds was violence.

Our last jazz "concert" took place in a tram. The Section somehow got hold of a city tram and off we were -- about thirty of us -- in the tram, riding around downtown Prague, in the heart of communist-controlled Central Europe, for some two hours, with jazz music blasting from a tape recorder, drinking Soviet (if I remember its provenance correctly) champagne. A great American jazz group, the Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble, happened to be in zlata Praha at the time, and took part in the on-rail festivities. Talk about a magical mystery tour!

In Krakow, home of one of Europe's oldest universities, the Piwnica pod Baranami, a cabaret full of wit and energy, was kind (and courageous) enough to establish contact with American diplomats. Its stellar cellar performances on late-night occasions were highlighted by the singing of Anna Szałapak, with whom it was impossible not to fall in love. After the cabaret returned from the United States on a tour, a reception was held in its honor at the American Consulate in Krakow. The leader of the group, the unforgettable Piotr Skrzynecki, brought his pet goat to the party.

I can see Piotr at the rally yesterday. He doubtless would have brought his goat with him.

Skrzynecki image from