Cafe Slavia is to be found on the bank of the Vltava opposite the National Theatre. On the evening of my first day in Czechoslovakia nearly 20 years ago Cafe Slavia was full of people.
Cafe Slavia had long been the favourite watering hole of Prague's intelligensia - Kafka and Kundera have been among its customers. And it was also a favourite of the former Czech dissident leader and now president Vaclav Havel. Cafe Slavia then in early 1990 was a centre for those who were planning and executing the transformation of the newly democratised country. The cafe's Art Deco leather bank seating, cherrywood and onyx had been allowed to tarnish under the communists and yet the place shone with an energy that was almost palpable.
My puppeteer friend and I joined a group of her friends sitting in animated conversation, into which she soon was drawn. I sat, watched and listened to the flurry of a language I did not understand. I drank a cup of dark, thick Czech coffee and soon was intoxicated. Without language I was thrown back on my other senses, all of which seemed heightened by the apparent absence of the one.
Language is very important to me, but it exists on three levels. The first is that of conversation, the run-of-the-day exchange, and I am good at that, good at making people feel at ease, good at communicating what I wish and hiding the rest. The second is that of academic exactitude and arguing the case; three years at Oxford had honed this side of my language to a dagger point. And the last is something deeper. My parents tell me that as a small child even before I could read or write I composed poetry. This last level of language has a habit of tripping me up, starting as it does not in words but in rhythm. It is powerful and heady and something I resist until I can resist no longer. But most of the time it is drowned out by the hubbub of daily life. Here in the Cafe Slavia, drunk with the electricity in the air, I found that the conversation around me, stripped of meaningful words but full of exciting rhythyms and cadences, rang deep in that third level. It resonated inside me and something flexed like a Golem still unformed in Vltava mud.
Afterwards as we walked along the river to catch a tram to where I was staying I asked my friend about the one word I had made out in the multitude of others that evening. It had seemed to appear in every sentence, been the answer to every question. She smiled "Possibly," she said, "It means possibly." On that cold night in the early days following the Velvet Revolution everything was possible.