Thursday, December 22, 2011

Café Slavia: Redoubt of Ideas

Credit: Martin Sutovec, via Don in Massachusetts
Ronald Reagan is credited with bringing down the totalitarian regimes of the Eastern Bloc, when in fact it was a writer. Not by himself, of course, but the playwright and scholar Vaclav Havel did more to instigate change with his typewriter and ideas than President Reagan with his bombs and secret wars.

I was reminded of that era of transition from nuclear standoff to popular uprising by On Point Radio's wonderful remembrance of Havel just after his death this week. From one of the participants in that discussion, I learned of the pivotal role of a particular Prague coffee shop in the advancement of Havel's cause. Kavárna Slavia is often cited as the most important of several of his haunts as he was writing and meeting and fomenting change in Czechoslovakia. The web site of Café Slavia (as it is also known) suggests a place much larger than a typical cafe, with an extensive menu and elegant decor that suggest "restaurant" more than "coffee shop." Visitors now flock to Café Slavia, both for its food (though some find it wanting) and for its connection to an important history.

The geography of coffee shops often puts them at the center of the local cultural geography because of their role in fostering conversations of substance. It is for this reason that wise politicians go to coffee shops to listen, opportunist politicians go to be listened to, and politicians who fear ideas seek to shut them down.

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