History. What is it Good for.

I’ve been in Prague just over a week now, staying in a giant family home on a hill in a little village called Řevnice, about half-an-hour outside of the city by train. Think Sanderingham from Melbourne, or Fremantle from Perth – that sort of distance and separation from the main city. The ‘burbs, but European style; so instead of being a suburb, Řevnice is a village.

Outside it snows and snows but in here it’s t-shirt weather. I have my own room and the run of the pantry and the bathrooms have HEATED TOWEL RACKS. In the living room, draped across the floor or over pieces of furniture, are two very ugly but extremely luxurious cats.

The family is wonderful. Johana, the girl who invited me to stay, is around my age, softly spoken and lovely. She’s been taking me to the doctor and translating for me (going from 30 degrees to –10 can make you pretty sick, apparently), explaining to the pharmacist what I need, organising my public transport card, the list goes on. I think her sister, 14 year-old sister Estelle, is afraid of me though she seems to be loosening up some now that I’ve been here a while. She doesn’t know enough English to make up a conversation so I haven’t been able to talk to her or get to know her at all.

The girls’ father, Doučan, likes books and stability, while the mother, Martzella (that’s wrong but I’m not sure how to spell it), is restless and constantly travelling. She’s always apologising for the state of her English but when she speaks, she gestures with her whole body. I think she likes having me here because I’m from somewhere else. She jokes that if it weren’t for Doučan the house would be an international hostel.

Doučan is a banker or economist or something along those lines, and one of those men with the weight of the world on their brow. I think he likes having me around because I’m someone new to talk history and politics with, and he sits and shares his white wine with me and we talk about the shambles that is the Czech government, or the faltering state of the European economy, or the unusually long and snowy winter we’re having and how there will probably be problems with flooding when it all melts at once.

We were having one of these conversations the other night, talking about how communism has left a lot of Eastern Bloc countries with struggling governments and problems economically. They’ve had to relearn how to do everything. Even now, twenty years after the wall came down, after Gorbachev and Glasnost and Perestroika, the Czech Republic is still having political crisis all over the place. Doučan was telling me how their many parties keep similar policies but disagree on the smallest of things, how the country’s in debt, how difficult it is to move things forward and away.

We moved on to history. It is after all what I came over here to study and I like talking about how Australia doesn’t really have any, and how great it is to be in a place with a legacy and a study-able story that goes back hundreds and hundreds of years. How you can walk around the city among these old buildings – buildings that really are old, not just made to look that way. There’s so much more depth here than in Australia, influences that have resonated right through to now, that can be traced back and looked into.

Doučan just sighed, leaned back in his chair and said, “Yes, but what good is it?”

Which stopped me right in my naïve, young country tracks. He was thinking, no doubt, about the damage that a history can do, that those old influences aren’t just something to be studied – they’re something that has shaped and determined his country.

What history Australia does have it’s often pretty guilty about, but in comparrison we’re a young, mostly unburdened sort of place. We started anew a hundred-odd years ago, destroying any sense of the old the previous inhabitants had as we went. We have little history, but we’re lighter for it.

Doučan expressed in those few words something I’ve been sensing since I arrived, and something Alex and I discussed a bit when I was in Berlin: the burden of history. Here, in the Central/Eastern parts of Europe, there’s a strong feeling of long recovery. Germany, the Czech Republic, probably most of the countries in the region (though I haven’t been to them yet to see for myself), are recovering from their histories. Berlin’s got a divided city to knit together, Prague’s got a regime to bury. There’s a lot of weight in that and it shows in the people. They’re a long way along now, of course, but the effects do still perpetuate.

I’ve always just seen history as this amazingly intricate story that I get to unravel and examine and write essays about at school. Because the histories I’ve studied have never been mine (when I can avoid studying Australian history I do) they’ve never been able to take on much more significance. I understand it’s non-fiction, of course, but without experiencing the effects first hand, it’s hard to conceptualise them as much more than stories.

Coming here has so far had the exact effect I was hoping it would – it’s making history real. It’s giving me a better idea of why it should be studied, and how. It’s not just a story now, it’s the occurrences and influences that have lead up to and shaped the present.

– Zoe Barron


1 Response to “History. What is it Good for.”

  1. 1 Kath February 12, 2010 at 10:07 am

    Hey Zoe, I often feel the same way about Aus history (as a history major I think about this a lot). It was good to see another perspective.

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