Amazon.com: Customer Reviews: Cafe Europa: Life After Communism
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on May 13, 1999
Drakulic delivers another series of short essays, in the style of her earlier "How We Survived Communism". In "Café Europa", the reader is carried from Croatia across western Europe during the few short years since Croatia emerged from war as an independent state, caught somewhere between its Balkan history and its European ambitions. She ruminates on subjects as far afield as her distaste for the word "we" because of its communist overtones, which leads to the verdict that the western concept of "I", of self-reliance and modernity in a civil state, is a notion still to be embraced in eastern Europe. It is for precisely the same reason that she admires Americans their fetish for perfect teeth, because they represent self-respect and independence from shoddy state-sponsored dental care.
Many of the essays in the book deal with the peculiar talent in eastern Europe for hiding and forgetting the past, thereby evading responsibility and missing the opportunity to learn from it. This flair for forgetfulness causes Drakulic's mother to fear for the sanctity of her husband's grave, marked by a communist star vulnerable to those who would destroy symbols of forty years of communism. It is this same talent that allows fascist "Ustasha" symbols from the 1940s to be revived in the 1990s under the guise of nationalism. The same phenomenon that impels each generation of politicians to rename streets and plazas in order to avoid any public recognition of historical figures whose views place them, at least temporarily, on the wrong side of today's political fences. It is this same failure of history that forces a Croatian journalist to mince words and ask facile questions during an exclusive interview with Dinko Sakic, the notorious concentration camp commander.
Drakulic is a bit exasperated when, on a visit to Israel, she is barraged with questions about Croatia's fascist role during World War II. "To grow up under communism means to live forever in the present. Once the final social order had been established, there was no need to look backwards - or forwards, for that matter.... Perhaps this is the reason why we are now, with this recent war, sentenced to live in the past. Sometimes I ask myself whether this is the punishment for our lack of interest in history, for our fear, silence and irresponsibility towards ourselves. For our ingnorance." She realizes that Croatia as a society has failed to examine and integrate the lessons of its fascist period, and this failure, this willful forgetfulness, is itself a type of evil complicity perpetually spawning new crises, including the high-tension ethnic conflicts that yielded the 1991-1995 wars.
The only jarring note is the essay titled "Why I Never Visited Moscow", in which Drakulic bemoans the fact that she has been categorized as an eastern European writer. This seems a bit hypocritical given that all of "Café Europa" including the very cover blurbs, much like her previous books, is premised on the fact that she is a particularly talented eastern European writer and astute social critic who has interesting and insightful things to say about the region. Perhaps Drakulic, who has won awards, fame, and money with her admirable accounts of eastern Europe, is being a bit self-righteous when she complains about being viewed as an eastern European writer.
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Subtitled "Life After Communism", this is a collection of articles by Slavenka Drakulic, a Croatian journalist who has become a spokesperson to the West about life in Eastern Europe. Raised in the 1950s, she grew up in a tightly controlled world under communism. She's a product of that system as well as a witness to all the changes that have occurred in her world. Privileged because of her many trips to Western Europe, and married to a Swedish journalist, she has a unique perspective which she shares on the pages of this short but very eye-opening book. I was so intrigued that I read it all at one sitting and rushed to my computer to print out a map of the Balkans so that I could see for myself where the places were.
Her native land of Croatia has gone through many changes recently and yearns to be considered part of Western Europe. Several cafes have opened called "Café Europa" which try to imitate those in Vienna. But the coffee is served in heavy utilitarian cups and the pastries lack the taste and delicacy of what can be found just a few miles, but yet a world away in Austria. Ms. Drakulic writes with humor and as well as irony and passion as she discusses this and other aspects of life in her part of the world. Such as that it is impossible it is to find a clean toilet, equipped with soap, toilet paper and running water anywhere in Bucharest, the capital of Romania.
There are the constant humiliations of having to cross borders and have to show her Croatian passport. And the way she and other Eastern Europeans are distrusted reach farther than just the border crossings. She talks about consumer goods and how she and others constantly have to smuggle them across the border. One especially interesting story is how she and her husband argued about whether to smuggle a vacuum cleaner to Croatia or be willing to buy it at home and pay an inflated price.
She travels a lot and picks up details of the character of a place. For example, when she visits Sofia, which is the capital of Bulgaria, she is very aware that nobody smiles. To smile, in that culture, is perceived as a sign of subservience and weakness. This is just the opposite in the United States, where everyone smiles and thanks you for your business even though a phrase like "how are you today" doesn't mean that anybody cares. She also was impressed with the way that Americans value their perfect and well-kept teeth. When she returned to Croatia, she looked at the teeth of her fellow Croatians and discovered that many people had missing or rotten teeth. Even the people who could afford dental care didn't get it. It just wasn't important to them.
But have no allusions. This book is not just about these rather enlightening cross-cultural social discoveries. She goes deeply into the history of Croatia and the war crimes during WW2. And her trip to Israel and how she was constantly asked about whether or not she carried any guilt even though she was born after the War. She talks about an interview by another journalist with a former concentration camp commander who is living in Argentina. Ms. Drakulic is angry because the other journalist never made him answer any hard questions or confront him with his crimes.
She also discusses the Muslims of the area and ethnic cleansing. And she talks about Tito and other dictators and how so many people feel displaced by all this new freedom and yearn for a return to communism.
I really learned a lot from this book even though I wasn't familiar with all the names of the political figures. It made me want to learn more. And I plan on doing just that. This is a great beginning though. And, even if I never get a chance to read any more about this area, it certainly made me understand and appreciate the Eastern European world and some of its contradictions and complexities. And she did this all in a mere 213 pages.
I highly recommend this book for everybody. Read it. It will gently and firmly open your eyes to this very interesting part of the world.
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on June 20, 1999
Slavenka Drakulic is unquestionably a perceptive and keen observer of what is happening in Easter Europe today. However, in my opinion, she is an even better observer of the human condition in general. In fact, for me, this book went beyond the scope of the topic of Easter Europe and its people and, in a way, felt like a more general philosophical analysis of people and history.
With her detailed examination of the discourteous behavior of an Easter European hotel receptionist towards Westerners, or the ingratiation with which a Croatian journalist interviews an alleged concentration camp commander or even the true meaning behind an American "hello, how are you," Drakulic exhibits an uncanny ability to read people and cultures and to understand human nature thereby enabling us to better understand ourselves.
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on April 15, 1999
Slavenka does a magnificent job in briefing the Western public on what exhisted in Yugo. before the 1990 Balkan wars. Not the physical, but the mentality of the townspeople as well as the leaders. She sheds light on what a typical Eastern European feels and thinks while living in the West. She also correctly remarks on the difficulties of being an easterner in the west and how for the rest of her generation, that "easterner" stygmatism will not change. In conclusion, some of Slavenka's comments may seem absolutly unbelievable to the typical Western European, but for a native Eastern European, they are sadly realistic.
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on May 11, 2006
...which still applicable today, several years since the original publishing of Drakulic's amazing book.

For someone such as myself who's spent a great deal of time in the post-Communist former Bloc, I indentified very strongly with the views put forth by this author. I hasten to add that such identification was instantaneous.

I also learned a heck of a lot; a great deal more, in fact than I thought I knew at the outset, and especially about Croatia and its storied past (the author is Croatian -- Istrian, in fact -- and quite impressively knows the history of her nation and of the former Yugoslavia more generally, like the back of her hand). I wish I had that kind of accessible knowledge. I'm humbled...

Were I able to speak to the author today, I'd probe her for her latest reflections on several of the ideas she put forth almost a decade ago. I'd even attempt to cajole her to pen a sequel...so much has changed, and the instability (sometimes constructive, though more often explosive) has continued to pummel and plague and thereby radically alter the identities of many of these newly democratic states. I'm sure what was the case in 1995 is no longer extant in many of these nations...

Drakulic is deliciously bold in this compact non-fictional winner. She refuses to accept Croatia's latter day nationalistic dogmas and the 'superiority slogans' bandied about by her patriotic peers. Within Cafe Europa's pages, she refuses to accept anything glibly declared by her compatriots 'for granted,' and there remain no sacred cows, and no stones unturned: everything is up for discussion, every so-called truth is up for grabs. For that reason alone, I'd personally have to say her credibility is unassailable.

You might wonder whether what awards someone such 'instant credibility' is in their willingness to lambaste the conventional wisdom of their relevant societies -- to wit, if Drakulic wasn't as willing to chisel away at what Croatians think makes them tick, would she be any less credible? I don't know. That wasn't the tack she took, therefore hard to judge her work on that basis...I suppose what I'm really trying to say in a roundabout way is that I don't have anything against Croatians, and just because she was willing to bash her compatriots doesn't make her any more credible in my eyes. It's not a prerequisite for credibility...having that said that, her candour is yet quite impressive.

Fascinating how so many inspiring factoids were contained in this short and spirited read.

It ended way too soon, Cafe Europa did...now that another decade's passed, I think the time's come for perhaps a revisiting of this theme?

Five-stars all the way.
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on February 14, 2002
If you're wondering about the impact of revolutions, falling dictotatorial regimes and the end of Communism in Eastern Europe, Cafe Europa will answer your questions. I've read third-person reportage and scholarly works on the Balkans, the region's history, and the political issues, but the daily life of those who live here has rarely been presented to me in such a personal and descriptive way. Slavenka Drakulic makes powerful associations and draws connections that allow the reader more opportunities for insights about how the people have in many ways stayed the same, and yet how the changes in government impact daily life in the tiniest and most intimate ways.
The book is easy to pick up and put down, as it has topical chapters that stand beautifully as separate pieces, but that culminate powerfully in the final chapters for a strong overall effect.
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on August 12, 2015
This book is about the 1990's in Eastern Europe, especially in the Balkans. It seems slightly outdated, but it is so well written that it definitely kept me going. It reads very fast. The book gets better and better as you go on. Some of the very pessimistic prophecies of the author were wrong, but many of her observations and thoughts seem to be very accurate and straight to the point. The relationship with her own country is very troubled and most of the Non-Croat readers, without any deeper insight into regional politics, will not be able to fully understand her point of view. Whether she is right or wrong, she always writes well. Most of the time she is very pessimistic. The book is actually completely soaked in sadness. There is in it no sign of excitement about freedom, democracy or free market economy...Instead, there is a strong conviction that the peoples of Eastern Europe are not mature enough to benefit from and build on any of these. I personally don't agree; the results of the systemic changes in the region have been mixed, with some extremely successful and some extremely disappointing and troubling cases. In fact, the 1990's were the last decade when the region could be still discussed as one item. Today, these are all very different countries.
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on September 15, 2005
Excellent book, Slavenka Drakulic is very perceptive and understands Balkan mentality better than anybody. I really enjoyed reading this book, and other books from Drakulic as well. Sometimes, it seems like Drakulic is balancing between two worlds-one of reality and the other of fantasy. Very good reading and it will give you an insight into the minds of people living in parts of Southeast Europe.
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on November 2, 2014
This book may be a nineties look at how things will turn out in Europe, so some may say it's out of date, but its perspective on history makes it that much more valid. Drakulic's experience doesn't change, what happened to the East doesn't change. This book is a brilliant, detail-oriented look at how Europe was before and after the Soviet Union, and I want to read everything else she's written. Love it.
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on April 5, 1999
I'm just now finishing reading the last essay in this book. A friend from eastern Germany passed "How We Survived Communism And Even Laughed" on to me last year. I have to say that I found both books hard to put down, though I sometimes felt that Ms. Drakulic's characterizations of ordinary life under communism -and of attitudes and motives of people living in post-communist Europe- seemed very broadly drawn.
While my own experience in post-communist Europe was limited to a year-long 'visit', my suspicions that Ms. Drakulic may sometimes go overboard in the connections she draws between the social psychology of poverty and attitudes toward civic responsibility in this context were somewhat supported by the reactions (to these two books) of friends who had been raised under European communism. The conversations we had about these books were at least, if not more, interesting than the books themselves.
Ms. Drakulic's message is an engaging one, accessible in style and intensely personal (which she openly states in her introduction to this book). Her open and direct approach was very valuable to me as a reader, even when I felt I couldn't really follow her arguments to the bigger conclusions about life (in post-communist countries and in general) that she seems to want to persuade her readers of in "Cafe Europa".
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