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Cafe Europa: Life After Communism

Cafe Europa: Life After Communism
Author: Slavenka Drakulic
ISBN 13: 9780140277722
ISBN 10: 140277722
Edition: 1.2.1999
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: 1999-02-01
Format: Paperback
Pages: 224
List Price: $16.00

Today in Eastern Europe the architectural work of revolution is complete: the old order has been replaced by various forms of free market economy and de jure democracy. But as Slavenka Drakulic observes, "in everyday life, the revolution consists much more of the small things-- of sounds, looks and images." In this brilliant work of political reportage, filtered through her own experience, we see that Europe remains a divided continent. In the place of the fallen Berlin Wall there is a chasm between East and West, consisting of the different way people continue to live and understand the world. Little bits—or intimations—of the West are gradually making their way east: boutiques carrying Levis and tiny food shops called "Supermarket" are multiplying on main boulevards. Despite the fact that Drakulic can find a Cafe Europa, complete with Viennese-style coffee and Western decor, in just about every Eastern European city, the acceptance of the East by the rest of Europe continues to prove much more elusive.

Stephanie Zacharek

This collection of essays by the Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic illuminates with surprising clarity a concept that could be maddeningly nebulous: that countries, like the individuals who live in them, have desires too, collective desires. In this case, Drakulic is talking about the countries of Eastern Europe, countries that have been splintered apart and hastily repatched, that are only just beginning to adjust to new ways of thinking since the fall of communism. She explains how they want so badly to be considered European that their desire is almost palpable. The book's title refers to the countless cafes and shops that have eager, "me too" Western European or American names like Bonjour, Target, Four Roses, Lady, The End -- even Bonbonnière Hemingway.

Drakulic's gift is in knowing how to map the contours of nationwide hopes and dreams by tracing the habits, the wants and needs of individuals. She's at her best when she's writing about her own experiences, describing, for instance, how difficult it is for an Eastern European to cross national borders. Automatically suspected of being a potential defector (among other things), she's invariably subjected to humiliating searches and uestioning, while her Swedish husband sails through customs with barely a flash of the passport. She explains her attitudes toward money in the context of the severe economic limitations she and the women around her faced in the mid-'70s: A friend, visiting her in Zagreb at the time, remarked on how elegantly all the women were dressed. The reason, Drakulic explains, is that "spending the little surplus money was the only fun we had. The result was that we all looked and behaved as if we were rich. We developed an easy-come, easy-go attitude to money."

Sometimes Drakulic loses steam. In a chapter on mud and its ubiquity, she writes, "It seems like a sort of plot: from time to time the soil rises from beneath us, just to remind us where we come from, to tell us that most of us are nly the first generation of urban citizens." It's an interesting enough idea, but it doesn't sustain even the short chapter Drakulic devotes to it. By and large, though, Drakulic manages to show that no matter how many times borders are reconsidered or redefined, no matter what kinds of transformation a cluster of countries is forced to undergo, a nation's true character can never be reduced to simple geography. Countries are people too. -- Salon