Thursday, December 22, 2011

R.I.P. Václav Havel

I was stunned the other day when Václav Havel died just three days after Christopher Hitchens.

Havel had a huge influence on me in my 20s, when I was still a college students, studying journalism and politics. I became more aware of him in about 1992, studying in a Political Journalism program at Georgetown. There I became friends with a Polish journalist, who eventually sent me a signed photo of Havel. I read Havel's writings at the time, and, yes, he too, was another huge influence on me at the time, as I was beginning my journey away from the religious fundamentalism of my upbringing. That the ancestors on my mother's side came from Bohemia - which is now part of the Chzech Republic - also deepened my interest in Havel's homeland. I eventually went to study Czech Culture for a month at Charles University in Prague and I left Prague seriously considering whether I might want to move there myself.

A brilliant, kind, creative man. A playwright, poet and essayist. A faithful and effective letter writer. A political dissident and human rights advocate. He earned the respect of his countrymen and proved too good to be a very effective President. In other words, he hung onto his soul.

To contrast him with Hitchens (if we have to), Havel seemed to be all the brilliance without the bitterness than spoiled Hitchens for so many. Something else that he had in common with Hitch, though, aside from the obvious love for literature and writing? He loved a good drink. Which reminds me of the one time I interacted, if briefly, with Havel.

In December 2006, shortly after I moved to New York, Havel was here to accept an award he'd won years earlier, but couldn't accept because he was in jail. The band Uncle Moon with Michelle Shocked was playing Velvet Underground's entire "Banana" album at Joe's Pub in the East Village in tribute to Havel, and it was rumored that the great man himself might be there. I lived walking distance away, but didn't have tickets. Nonetheless, I walked up there from 3rd Street, only for the doorman to tell me the event had sold out. Then, he told me since the event was probably mostly over, I could go in anyway and stand at the bar. I did that and noticed Havel sitting at the table immediately in front of me. I shamelessly took a photo at the time, one which didn't turn out terribly well, though I remember his profile was discernible. The show did end before much longer and as Havel filed past me, he stumbled, righted himself, and I offered a steadying hand to his shoulder as he filed by in close quarters. I never heard him speak in person, never got to speak with him (I did speak briefly with Hitch). No, the moment was entirely human, entirely anonymous. It could've happened the same way if I hadn't even known who he was.

My fiancee and I are traveling to Prague for Christmas this year and staying both in and near Old Town Square, so I imagine we'll see a few tributes to Havel. For me, it'll be a moment of coming full circle with someone, one of those few people, who rose not only to become great, but remained greatly authentic.

Na zdraví, Václav!

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