Click here for Rose’s reflection on Met’s Opera House Season of ABT.
I was very excited in December when I was offered an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The best thing about my internship at The Met is that it makes me better aware of the opportunities at the museum available to the public, opportunities I can take advantage of even after my internship ends. I now have more knowledge about Watson Library and I am more aware of museum events open to visitors. Additionally, information about exhibitions that I would likely come across anyway, but then forget, is at the forefront of my mind.
Take, for example, the exhibition Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe, which recently closed. During my lunch break, I can leave the building’s office section and amble through the galleries. While walking to look at some impressionist paintings, I came across the exhibition space. Though the exhibition was widely advertised, I had not previously thought about visiting it. As I was there anyway, however, I walked through it. I’m delighted that I did. It was full of objects that fascinated me, including multiple writing automatons, impressively elaborate clocks, and the Picture Puzzle of Christian V.
Shortly after, the other interns and I were invited to go on a tour of the exhibition in the morning before the museum opened. Without so many other visitors around, I could get a much better look at the objects, and the research assistant guiding us drew my attention to details and items that I had not previously noticed.
Leaving the tour, I was even more entranced than before. I called my mom, saying that she and my dad had to see it and bring my younger brothers. The next weekend, the five of them ventured into Manhattan to meet me at the museum. My internship, therefore, not only gave me a richer experience of the exhibition but encouraged me to spend quality time with my family so I could share that experience with them.
Click here for Esmé’s reflections on Design in the “Real World.”
It’s true what they say, that it’s hard to work in the same place where you relax; that you should have a dedicated space for productivity which is separate from the space for rest and recreation, but this is easier said than done even under more normal circumstances. As students, it’s hard to remember a time when we weren’t expected to do work at home already, but this still feels different. During the semester, I often go to school on weekends because it’s a place I associate more with getting work done than my house, but last spring and summer I made do with my kitchen table.
The student newspaper I work on continued to produce issues through the summer, which helped me stay grounded and even remember what day of the week it was because we had a consistent schedule.
For my internship, I was given assignments to work on and attended the occasional virtual meetings, but I didn’t have specific hours that I worked each day. At the time, my sleep schedule was on the rocks and I found it easiest to get things done around 1:00 in the morning, so it was helpful to be able to work when I wanted. In hindsight, however, I think it would have been beneficial to hold myself to consistent hours.
For the future, I need to be able to set those hours and guidelines for myself because no one else can form habits for me. I’m glad to have had the experience of allowing myself to get by with a lack of structure because it showed me that I do actually want that structure in my life.
Remote work, whether for classes or otherwise, is tricky because distractions are right at your fingertips. While in zoom class or a meeting, you have other people to reign in your attention, but working on your own is overwhelming in the amount of freedom available for that attention to wander in.
Everyone is different, but I find that I have to allow myself a certain amount of distraction, within boundaries. It’s like when you purposely try not to think about something, which only makes you think about it more: the more I try to shut out completely anything distracting, the less I am actually able to focus. Therefore, it helps to listen to music or to switch back and forth between tasks.
I am far from perfecting the art of Working From Home, but I think it will become a lot more present in our lives from now on. Therefore, I’m glad to have gotten some experience with it while still in school, before I’m totally thrown to the wolves later this year (to be Dramatic about it).
Click here for Esmé’s reflections on a theater production experience at the YMCA.
Last summer I worked as a remote graphic design intern for a company that does affordable data visualization and management for nonprofit organizations. It did not turn out to be exactly what I expected, but nothing ever does. At the end of the day, I think it was an important learning experience, and I’m glad to have gotten a taste of the potential professional applications of design.
I learned that while an eye for color and shapes is helpful, the real necessity in creating promotional materials and social media content is a gift for effective marketing strategy. In hindsight, I should definitely not have been surprised by this, but I’ll admit I did sort of expect to be drawing pretty pictures. In fact, it’s all about simplicity and using the right keywords to attract attention quickly and from the intended target audience of potential clients. I tend to be overly wordy, which is great for filibustering and little else in life.
As far as the colors and shapes go, consistency is important; so walking into an already established brand, you are learning the design language of that particular company, which is harder in a way than making up your own from scratch. The tools existed before you and they’ll exist long after you’re gone, but your task is to figure out how to use them most effectively in the time you have.
In my graphic design class, we read a treatise that said that good design goes totally unnoticed because its purpose is only as a vehicle for the information it conveys. I think this is a little extreme but makes a good point, and while designing in “the real world” is a creative pursuit, it’s also one of utility.
Since the summer, I’ve been noticing more closely how brands and services portray themselves in the ads on subway walls, on social media and all around me. What story is the particular arrangement of words and images trying to tell, and to whom? I’m glad for the new perspective, and that I’ve come to understand a more expansive definition of creativity and its applications.
Most people don’t know what a salp is. I certainly didn’t, but when I was scuba diving off the coast of Thailand, I became fascinated with them. Scuba diving is an amazing experience that opens your mind to a new underwater world. While all noise appears muffled, you can clearly hear a crunching noise: the white noise of the coral reefs. It’s the noise of parrotfish chewing coral, barnacles opening and closing, sea urchins moving their spines along each other, crustaceans burrowing in the sand. You can only see as far as the visibility of the dive site allows. Generally, this is about 30 feet in tropical areas. While this sounds like a large distance, it is quite overwhelming to consider that there are thousands of fish and marine creatures beyond 30 feet not only in front of you, but behind, below, and above. Anxiety can only be remedied by the acknowledgment that nothing in this part of the ocean wants to hurt you, and most creatures will avoid you.
Except, of course, the salps.
The salps don’t have much control over whether they avoid you or not. They are marine tunicates, one of the earliest chordates to evolve. Many know them as sea squirts, and they are a staple in the Korean hot pot restaurants downtown in NYC. I don’t know the exact name of the species I saw in the oceans of Thailand, but they tended to appear in front of you without you even noticing. They’re clear, with barely discernible features, resembling jellyfish even though they are more closely related to humans. I refrained from poking them, as a significant rule of scuba diving is to not touch anything. They didn’t appear to move when I observed them, but I later learned that they move by pumping water through themselves in what is a most efficient system of jet propulsion. They reminded me of those squishy water tube toys from my childhood, which are apparently called “Water Wiggles.”
Salps play a much more important biological role than Water Wiggles. Apparently, when there are large phytoplankton blooms, salps asexually reproduce in chains and efficiently clear the waters of the algae. They are filter feeders, and when they “eat” too much, the filter becomes clogged. This can lead to salps covering beaches with slimy layers of dead jelly. While this seems inconvenient at best, salps sequester carbon at significant rates, enough to contribute to the carbon trapping abilities of the ocean. Their fecal pellets are heavy and therefore sink to the bottom of the ocean, pulling down carbon to a place where it won’t reenter the environment.
Most scuba divers would brush off floating salps as boring creatures. Why pay attention when there are parrotfish, sea turtles, moray eels, and barracuda? My research on salps gives a clear answer: they play more of a role in our lives than one might think. As global temperatures reach an all-time high, it is important to understand and appreciate the organisms that are actively preventing even higher temperatures. After all, our futures might be in their hands. Or, rather, their siphons.
I loved stapling to the Joy Division beat. I took off my StoryCorps headphones long enough for one of my bosses to tell me that I was a blessing for actually liking stapling. Laminating. Collating all of the colorful, user-friendly training materials for my department, Community Training. For a college student sick of the constant undivided academic attention that college demands, stapling was sweet.
My team was lovely to me and did not want me to staple very much. During my internship at StoryCorps, I also conducted independent research on the crisis of social isolation and the potential role of storytelling in its remediation, coordinated partner outreach, and wrote articles for publication on StoryCorps’ Legacy program.
But stapling put me in the moment, made me comfortable in the moment. I switched my music from Joy Division to people talking. For as an intern, I also logged interviews and marked segments ideal for production. This was the first step in the process of cutting 40-minute interviews down to 3-minute segments to be broadcast on NPR’s Morning Edition.
Over 99% of StoryCorps interviews never hit the airwaves. The dozens of interviews to which I’ve listened do not scrape the tip of the iceberg of the StoryCorps archive. The real point of SC isn’t to broadcast, it is to record hundreds of thousands of pairs of people and allot them all the same respect — undivided attention for 40 minutes.
As I listened to the halting, interrupting melody of this interview, I stilled, stilled, stopped stapling, started listening completely, with my hands that I stopped moving and my fingers that I stopped cracking and my head that I stopped nodding and my eyes that I let smart a little bit — a highly uncharacteristic display of emotion. The interview was between two siblings who were children when their mother died. Now in their late 20s, Luna and Gabriel spoke of never being able to tell anyone that they were hurting. They spoke of how much anger they had. They spoke of the healing nature of time. And the violence with which time takes one’s memories. They spoke of how it is impossible to close oneself off to one emotion — in trying to do so, one closes oneself off to all emotions. And they spoke of coming full circle. They spoke many things I needed to hear from a stranger’s mouth, far from my own life. They spoke, and I listened. They spoke, and I listened, and only listened, listened with complete presence, complete absence of self.
My internship confirmed to me things that I have believed in forever, things that I worried I had begun to believe more out of habit than out of genuine feeling. Things like, simply listening to one another has real and immediate impact on the world. Things like, it is actually possible to step out of one’s own experience and try to understand someone else’s. Things I can only write if I preface them with self-deprecation in order to protect myself — stupid, idealistic, true things like, we can come to know one another though storytelling.
I worked in a quick-paced professional place where it was normal to listen to 40-minute interviews in full.
Did you know that a male echidna has a four-headed penis? How about the fact that female wallaroos can mate with multiple male partners but hold onto the fertilized embryos until the previous baby has left the pouch? What about the reproductively senile dasyurids who stress themselves out to the point of starvation and death if they do not mate successfully?
There’s a lot to know about Australian wildlife. I did a two-week veterinary study abroad program in Australia two summers ago, and it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The program that hosted the trip is called Loop Abroad, and they have a variety of veterinary study opportunities available around the globe. The Australia trip was hosted at the Walkabout Wildlife Park, which is an education-based wildlife reserve in Calga. I went with a group of students from all over the United States, and we learned animal handling, conservation, and care. There was a classroom component to our training, wherein three amazing veterinarians provided lectures, as well as hands-on training directly from the park rangers.
Now, back to the important matters. We met and learned about many animals, but the most interesting are the marsupials and the monotremes. The distinctive characteristic of marsupials is that they carry their young in a pouch. Monotremes, on the other hand, lay eggs. The only extant (not extinct) monotreme species include the platypus and the echidna. While there are many species that are included in these groups, I will only focus on two.
Macropods, as the name suggests, are marsupials that have large feet. Other characteristics include prominent ears, herbivorous eating behavior, and a strong tail. The most famous macropods are kangaroos, though other notable groups are the wallabies and the wallaroos. When an egg is fertilized in a female macropod, the gestation period is much shorter than that of a placental mammal—generally one month. After this period, the tiny jelly bean joey climbs out of the three-in-one exit (cloaca), across the fur, and into the pouch (which covers the nipples). From there they finish development, sustained by the milk produced by the mother (which, by the way, has four different phases of lactation with varying nutritional compositions). If the mother undergoes extreme stress, she will eject the jelly bean joey from the pouch to conserve energy. At Walkabout Wildlife Park, a ranger told me that sometimes they duct tape the joey back to the nipple so the mother is forced to accept it again.
If you’ve never seen an echidna, they are adorable. Their large spikes might seem dangerous, but they are non-venomous and do not detach. When stressed, they curl up into a sphere and hope for the best. They have a few other strange anatomical features, including the ability to lay eggs and lactate without nipples. The eggs laid by echidnas are soft and stay in the mother’s pouch for almost two months. The hatching itself takes place about a week and a half after fertilization, producing a baby echidna called a “puggle.” When lactating, the puggle simply sucks milk out of the pores of the mother, kind of like sweating milk. Reproduction is equally bizarre. The male echidna penis has four heads, but only ever uses two at a time. This is because the female echidna has a two-branched reproductive tract. One scientist we visited at Taronga Zoo was studying the spines on an echidna penis in a petri dish with a microscope.
Of course, I learned more during this experience than just mating habits and reproductive anatomy. We took care of dozens of animals, learning about their nutrition, habitats, and endangerment. I shadowed zoo veterinarians and pathologists, learned how to make a blow dart for administering medications from a distance, and performed autopsies on kookaburras. Understanding the lives of unique animals is crucial for their survival and protection, especially in these times of extreme global warming. My summer in Australia opened my eyes to just how important these animals are. And, of course, how weird they are.
I try not to be a walking cliché. I abhor most tourist practices. Yet in my first months in Granada, Spain, I couldn’t help but want something to take home. Luckily, it wasn’t an ill-fated trip to a tattoo parlor at 3 am, nor was it a magnet of the Alhambra. I was looking for an authentic, hand-made, flamenco guitar. Classical guitars are a culture apart from your average Sam Ash Shredder, and Spanish classical guitars are even more revered. Further into niche-guitar-culture is the flamenco guitar, a lighter, less reinforced instrument that is known for its punchy, percussive sound. I set my sights on a flamenco guitar because my plan was to perform live gigs with it, and a punchy guitar with a bright sound will communicate to an audience in even the worst of sound setups.
So, I had the ideal instrument in mind, and absolutely no way of finding it. After some preliminary research, I set a miniature itinerary for myself to explore the various guitar stores and luthiers dotted throughout Granada. A few family names kept showing up: Bellido, Perez, and Ferrer. There were plenty of google reviews, in a handful of languages, almost all positive about each luthier. The problem with searching for an instrument based on other people’s opinions is this: people are dumb. The English reviews were mainly British tourists buying a guitar to put on their wall, not a practical instrument. Many were focused on visual aesthetics, and whether or not the service was nice. None of those variables mattered to me. At all. Some of the Spanish reviews were made by people with last names that were strikingly similar to the owner of the workshop- all five stars. There was no other option but to go in and see what I could find.
My first stop was “The Guitarrería: Miguel Angel Bellido Guitarrero”. A cosmopolitan shop just off of Carrera de la Virgen, Bellido was mainly a reseller. He would find guitars he liked from factories or workshops throughout Andalusia and buy them at wholesale. Slapping his sticker on it, he then sold them higher in downtown Granada. He also had a workshop in the back.
“Podría ayudarte con un instrumento personalizado, pero no tengo tiempo libre para construcción hasta el otoño.” (I’d be able to help you with a custom instrument, but I’m booked until the fall).
Great. I only had until May to find an instrument. I tried a handful of his midrange guitars, and while they were perfectly fine, none of them spoke to me. Since I was looking for a flamenco guitar for stage performances, I had a question for each luthier that would test whether or not they saw me as someone in need of an instrument or a price tag.
“Puedes poner una correa allí?” (Can you put a strap there?). I pointed at the heel, also known as the neck joint. It’s a very common place for steel-strung acoustic guitars’ straps. It would also require a bit of surgery to put a peg at the bottom of the body. Surgery that would ruin the thin body’s integrity and the character of the guitar.
“Cierto.” (Certainly.) I had my answer. Next.
My next run-in was an appointment with Señor Daniel Gil de Avalle. His shop was in the rambling medieval part of the city, right by school and my host family’s apartment. Very well decorated, it screamed ‘old, established’ as its biggest aesthetic character. Similar to Bellido, Avalle was a reseller, but also with a bigger workshop and multiple projects in progress. I tried a few of his resells. One particularly mustard number, pictured, had a nice sound. Compared to the four or five from Bellido, it certainly was an improvement. It was trebly, and painfully light. It too, didn’t speak to me. It was a mere fancy. I asked him the question.
“Cierto.” No mustard for me.
It was frustrating. I hadn’t played in about a month at this point, so I took myself to La Casa Ferrer, a guitar workshop at the foot of the Alhambra. Founded in 1875, Ana is the granddaughter of the founder, current owner, and luthier of Casa Ferrer. Not only representing a bit of workplace diversity, she had all the info on luthiers in Granada. Bellido is the third son of a former competitor of Casa Ferrer. He had a falling out with his father and opened a shop. Gil de Avalle was not trained in the Granadian school of luthiers–a bit of an actor, as it were. Her father trained and developed the body of the Yamaha standard classical guitar. To put it briefly, they knew what they were doing.
Things were looking good. Then I tried her midrange instruments. All hand-made, in the very space we were standing in. They use slightly streamlined production (not being custom), but they were made by her, not a team of factory assemblers. I found one with a booming low end and a punchy treble–an unorthodox sound quality for Flamenco, but perfect for contemporary singer-songwriter work. I had found an instrument that spoke to me. A beautiful cypress and rosewood top, and light as a feather. It was time for the real test. I asked the question.
Ana looked like I had slapped her across the face. “No lo recomiendo. Cambiará la voz de ella y la construcción no lo permite.” (I don’t recommend it. It’ll change the voice of the guitar and the construction doesn’t permit that kind of change). I made up my mind. La Casa Ferrer won out.
This meandering narrative about guitar hunting in the storied streets of Granada taught me something about commerce. Even in the most welcoming of environments, there are ways to take advantage of people. It’s a hard path to tread and by no means malicious, but it is difficult to ensure you are making the best investment. When it comes to big items like instruments, vehicles, or even homes, salespeople will always have some say in the decision-making process. This was an interesting exploration of commerce, especially given the added variable of translation. Even in the idyllic study abroad world, the specter of the free market rears its head. At the end of it all, I felt like I made the best investment I could have, and that’s enough to keep me happy.
I have had three very different internships during my time at Fordham. I have worked in different fields, in different positions, in different environments, and for different bosses. My experience with internships has taught me a lot about myself, how I work best, what I do well, and what I want to do. The most important thing that I’ve learned, though, is what my work and my talents are worth.
The summer before my junior year, I decided that I wanted to stay in the city and do an internship. I applied to stay on campus, and began sending out my resume to anyone I could find. No one responded. I didn’t get a single interview after applying to more than 15 internships. So I looked into part-time jobs, determined not to return to my hometown and my old retail job for the long summer months. I found one, and it was enough to help defray the cost of living in New York all summer, but I still wanted an internship. Finally, at the end of June, I interviewed for an internship with a start-up events company. Scott, my potential new boss, promised me tons of hands-on experience, and that I would be paid a commission. Of course, I was thrilled when he offered me the position.
I realized too late that my new boss Scott was a pretty skeezy dude. A few weeks into the internship, when I had not met anyone else on “the team,” nor had I done anything but send emails directly to people’s spam folders, I began to understand that this internship was not what I had been led to believe. Looking back, I should have quit as soon as I realized I was never going to do anything more than listen to my boss lecture about business, but at the time, the thought didn’t occur to me. I had made a commitment to work through the summer. In the end, I never did anything that even remotely resembled “hands-on experience,” and I was not paid a cent. I didn’t even get school credit. When I described the internship to my friends come fall, I was surprised to find that I was angry. I eventually realized that I was angry because I had been wasted. In my interview, Scott had been impressed with my skill, education, and work ethic, but he brought me on to copy and paste content from one document to another and hit send. My time, labor, and talent had been wasted.
During my junior year, I began the application process again. I knew that I needed credit from an internship in order to graduate, so I once again sent my resume to anyone who would take it. This time, I got an interview with a company that I actually cared about. I was hired as an intern at GLAAD, a real company, with real work to be done. I was so excited. I got to work in their beautiful downtown office, helping to further their goal of fair and accurate media representation for LGBTQ+ people. I helped plan and execute the GLAAD Media Awards, the televised award show that GLAAD has been producing for 30 years. And even as an intern, I didn’t just get coffee. I attended script readings and meetings with the CEO. I greeted celebrities and was introduced to donors. I shook so many hands. My work felt meaningful, and my effort felt justified and appreciated. Though I wasn’t paid, I had a sense that I was valued because my work was valuable.
This past summer, I began the search anew. I ended up with two part-time jobs and another internship. This time, I got to work with a small theatrical producing company as an assistant. By small, I mean the company consisted of just two people. I was wary, after my first internship with a small company, but this new job seemed legit. My new bosses had impressive experience in their field, and I had to sign a contract and an NDA before they could even tell me about their projects. And once I started working, it was clear that this time, a small company meant that I would have real responsibility. I was trusted with quite a bit of work, from research and accounting to creative choices about production and marketing. I proved to my bosses and to myself that I was good at what I did.
At the end of the summer, I was paid the stipend that we had agreed on. On my last day, we discussed my plans for the future, and when I expressed a desire to find another job for the school year, my bosses offered to give me freelance work as long as I was willing to take it. They said that I was the best editor they had worked with, and they were willing to pay me to keep producing their materials. They agreed that my skills and my labor were valuable.
I know now that I am talented, and I deserve to be paid fairly and treated with respect. Of course, that’s something that I already knew was true in theory. On paper, I’m smart, well-rounded, all the things that you’re supposed to be. But it took the negative and positive experiences that I had in my internships to help me understand that in practice.
Yes, that was me you might have seen trying to fit several large cardboard trees through the turnstile last month (and yes I know it’s not the weirdest thing you’ve seen on the subway by far).
I first got involved with the West Side YMCA theater arts department through a technical theater class for teens when I was in 11th grade. As part of the class, we helped backstage with the Kids Company productions; my first show there was “The Sound of Music.” I was assigned to assist the costume designer, who has been a wonderful mentor, and I’ve returned to be a wardrobe assistant for seven more musicals since, most recently “Newsies” this past November.
This semester I also designed props for their Teen Theater production of the Oresteia Duology (the cast wasn’t large enough to perform the whole trilogy), as well as props and costumes for the Studio Production of “The Addams Family”. These were new experiences for me because I had never worked on props before, and because I had never been in charge of any part of the production process before. It was a challenge for that reason, but a good place to start because neither show was overly demanding in terms of the cast size or volume of materials that I was responsible for.
I will return to my experience working on these particular shows, but I think it’s worth a digression to advocate for the value of a strong arts education.I was incredibly lucky to have great art teachers and art classes throughout my time in New York City public schools, and I know how much it has shaped me personally (I’m a visual arts major now, after all), but working with the Kids Company has given me a new and wider perspective on the importance of exposure to and experience with the arts at a young age. The cast members are mostly in middle school. They come from school to rehearsal; they have tests and projects due on the same day as performances. It must be exhausting, but many of them have been in every show for years now. Anyone can see it means the world to them. It’s a place where they can connect with other people their age and relate to each other through common interests and creativity.
Things can be chaotic backstage, but once the performers step out of the wings, they never fail to impress me with their level of focus and professionalism. The Studio Production cast was a little younger, mostly elementary school students. When I sat in on a rehearsal, I wasn’t sure if they were ready to use costumes and props, on top of remembering their lines, cues, choreography and blocking. For a few of them, it was their first show, and it seemed like a lot for us to ask of them, but you never know what people are capable of until you trust them with it, and I’m happy to report that they proved me wrong. The pressure of a live audience helped to focus the cast, and this group proved to be incredibly responsible and proactive about making sure that they had what they needed onstage.
Their excitement made me excited too. When I walked into the rehearsal I had been met with a flurry of questions about the costumes. Backstage the students of three different classes who were performing that day buzzed around nervously, and it wasn’t long before their giddiness had me grinning too. Energy is infectious, and one thing I’ve learned from helping with stressful quick changes is that I have to try to project a calm front, even if I’m far from calm inside, because the calmer I can be, the calmer the actors can be, and that makes things run more smoothly for everyone.
No matter the concern, first you respond “we’ll make sure it’s taken care of,” like a reflex, and second you worry about how to actually make that happen.
I enjoyed sourcing props and costume pieces and also getting to make a few things myself. It was a good balance of different types of thinking that went into the process. The creative side: we needed an ancient Greek libation bowl, and since the constraints of budget and era prevented authenticity, I made it from a disposable cardboard bowl and acrylic paint. The organizational side: I made a detailed Excel spreadsheet, which went unused as I reverted to my natural state of scribbling lists in seven different notebooks and carrying all of them around with me. The thrifty side: I tried my best to buy only what was necessary and take advantage of the costume closet, the prop closet and occasionally my own closet for the rest (the latter was the source of Grandma’s costume, if that says anything about my personal fashion choices).
My favorite thing about technical theater is being a small part of something bigger and getting to see from behind the scenes how it all comes together to make the magic happen during the show. When I watch a show now, I think about these things. I notice how many different costumes each person wears throughout the production, and how much time they have to change from one to another, or which side props enter and exit from and how set pieces travel from one place to another.
My favorite thing about technical theater at the YMCA specifically is getting to work with a fantastic group of people: the designers and technicians, the arts administrators, the stage crew, the parent volunteers and most of all a fantastic group of children who have taught me so much. I am constantly amazed and humbled not only by their talent, but also by their dedication and commitment, and I’m honored to play even a tiny role in this opportunity for them to express themselves and do what they love.
Click here for Elizabeth’s reflections on a weekend trip to Vienna.
Throughout the month of November, the former Eastern bloc countries commemorated the thirtieth anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. I’m in Prague this semester, and many of my classes have focused on contemporary Czech political history in advance of the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. We read the writing of Václav Havel, visited a photography exhibition from the photojournalist Jan Šibík, and reflected on the current state of this young democracy thirty years on. The Velvet Revolution took place over a period of about ten days, though it was the product of years of dissent throughout the Eastern bloc. Many of the key events took place on and around November 17th, so that day was chosen as the official anniversary.
On the 17th, my friends and I headed to the National Avenue, where a student protest in 1989 was violently suppressed, sparking the Velvet Revolution. The area was dense with booths and people of all ages, and we were given pins for the occasion – red, white, and blue ribbons and buttons that said “30 let svobody,” or “30 years of freedom.” There were Czech musicians playing, lectures from historians, NGOs like Amnesty International passing out pamphlets, and a number of different memorials. At the National Theater there is a memorial to Havel, the playwright and leader of the dissident movement, where people left candles and flowers. Further down the street, there was also a memorial to the students who were killed in the demonstration, which was so completely surrounded by wreaths and candles that it was hard to see the structure itself.
We followed the crowd from the National Avenue a few blocks over to Wenceslas Square, where many of the major demonstrations of the Velvet Revolution took place. There, the City of Prague hosted a concert of many of the bands who were blacklisted under communism, along with a number of younger Czech musicians. Politicians and intellectual leaders, including many former dissidents, spoke about their experiences and the lessons they learned in 1989, and they played a video from the Dalai Lama talking about Havel’s legacy as a leader in nonviolence and human rights. They sang “A Prayer for Marta,” a song strongly associated with the Velvet Revolution, and the Czech national anthem, and at the end the whole crowd jangled their keys, a reference to a tactic used in the 1989 protests to signal the death of the regime. Once the concert ended, there was a light show displayed on the National Theatre which honored Czech history and celebrated the progress made in the past thirty years.
It was very special for me to be able to witness this moment in Czech history, especially since I’m only here for a short time. The memory of authoritarianism is still very recent for many Czechs, and many locals don’t like to talk about their experiences under communism. During the anniversary weekend, however, people were outwardly emotional in engaging with their history and were willing and eager to share their reflections with us. There is division amongst Czechs regarding the current administration, which has been criticized for corruption and prior attachments to the Soviet secret police, but this commemorative event reflected a unified commitment to human rights and a robust civil society.