Cafe Europa: Life After Communism


Today in Eastern Europe the architectural work of revolution is complete: the old order has been replaced by various forms of free market economy and de jure democracy.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, ...

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Today in Eastern Europe the architectural work of revolution is complete: the old order has been replaced by various forms of free market economy and de jure democracy.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.

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Editorial Reviews

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

Michiko Kakutani
Cafe studded with...everyday observations that open out, like windows, to reveal wide-angled historical vistas. —The New York Times, 1997
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Drakulic (How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed) notes that Eastern Europeans are so anxious to become like their Western counterparts that every city and town has a Caf Europa that is a pale imitation of similar establishments in Paris and Rome. She presents here a collection of essays that explore life in various Eastern European countries since the fall of communism. As a citizen of Croatia (formerly a part of Yugoslavia) living now in Vienna with her Swedish husband, she writes knowingly as a survivor of a communist regime, as one who realizes that pitfalls still lie ahead for nations emerging from the Soviet yoke. In Albania, she observes rage everywhere in people who seem to want to smash all vestiges of the Hoxha regime. In Romania, she comments on the execrable state in which public toilets are maintained: "[T]he standard of Romanian toilets reflects the nature of the communist system of which it is a legacy"; "the absence of any improvement is... a warning for the future of democracy" there. Drakulic's pungent and insightful ruminations not only describe life in her part of the world-she makes us feel it as well. Author tour. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Drakuli'c '(How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, LJ 3/15/93) has a rare reporting talent. She observes country soil rising from beneath urban asphalt, and she knows how to explain to urbane reader the passions and desires of a marginalized Eastern culture. The specter of an international European community may be a mundane sidebar in Western newspapers, but for Drakuli'c it represents far more. Diapers, royalty, Bucharest toilets, and presumptuous cafs serve as apocryphal symbols in her collection of political essays. To the daughter of an antifascist hero, the West represents the realization that money can transcend the future and that there is more to life than the "living in the present" that communism offered. Rather than using the language of traditional economic and political analysis, Drakuli'c offers the language of everyday life to describe a momentous cultural evolution. This important book from a very talented European writer is highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/96.]-Mary Hemmings, Univ. of Calgary Lib., Alberta
Michiko Kakutani
Cafe studded with...everyday observations that open out, like windows, to reveal wide-angled historical vistas.
The New York Times, 1997
Kirkus Reviews
Drakuli's eloquent and brave essays demand that the citizens of post-Communist Eastern Europe take personal responsibility for their roles in the new civil society.

Over the past five years, Croatian journalist and novelist Drakuli (The Balkan Express, 1993; Holograms of Fear, 1992) has emerged in the English-speaking world as a consistent, honest, stylish, and canny interpreter of Eastern Europe and ex-Yugoslavia. Her latest contribution continues that tradition (some may argue to the point of repetition), offering Drakuli's trademark essays that reach for the pulse of a country or an era by homing in on everyday events and encounters. Like her previous work, Cafe Europa serves as a protest against an East European tendency, based on decades- long experience under paternalist dictators, to shirk civic responsibility. "How does a person who is a product of a totalitarian society," she asks, "learn responsibility, individuality, initiative? By saying `no.' " Although her canvas encompasses all of the Balkans and Eastern Europe, her own Croatia bears the brunt of Drakuli's penetrating criticism. One unforgettable essay depicts Croatian president Franjo Tudjman as an object of vitriolic contempt. Both the everyday and the political milieu of post-Communist Croatia are ready subjects for Drakuli's combination of wit, scorn, and introspection. From the renaming of the streets and cutting down of trees in Zagreb, to a colleague's uncritical interview with an unrepentant Croatian Fascist, to the author's own experiences as a consumer in America and as a Croat in Israel, the Croatian essays form the backbone of this collection. Nevertheless, these 24 essays, written between 1992 and 1996, are informed by the author's image of the lands of Eastern Europe as the "infantile nations of our continent," sharing a common desire—"our longing for Europe and all that it stands for."

General readers interested in understanding the gritty realities of post-Communist Eastern Europe should grab a coffee and sit down with Cafe Europa.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140277722
  • Publisher: Viking Penguin
  • Publication date: 2/28/1999
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 542,090
  • Product dimensions: 5.18 (w) x 7.76 (h) x 0.64 (d)

Meet the Author

Slavenka Drakulic was born in Croatia in 1949. The author of several works of nonfiction and novels, she has written for The New York Times, The Nation, The New Republic, and numerous publications around the world.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: First-Person Singular
Café Europa
Invisible Walls Between Us
Why I Never Visited Moscow
In Zoe's Bathroom
To Have and To Have Not
A Smile in Sofia
The Pillbox Effect
Money, and How to Get It
The Trouble With Sales

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2004

    Tourists Invade the Balkans!

    Basically, this book forms a sort of trilogy (with 'Balkan Express' and 'How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed') of life before, during, and after the demise of Jugoslavia. All three books are fascinating and enjoyable to read. As proof of her writing skills, the author possesses an ability to express the positive and the distasteful in the subjects she covers. Such ideas as why a refugee needs high-heeled shoes or a discussion of how easily a consummate politician like Tudjman escapes a confrontation are fascinating writing, and the author covers the subject, in depth, in very short, articulate essays. Anyone intersted in Jugoslavia or the formerly-communist world should read all three books.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 18, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Not exactly what it seems, but absolutely worth reading

    This book sort of bills itself as a quasi-humorous look at the culture of various Eastern European nations in the wake of the collapse of their communist governments in the early 1990's and their struggle to adapt to life in the new Europe.

    And in the first few chapters that's what it is, and Drakulic's dry wit and sarcasm make for good reading in her rather un-sympathetic examination of her fellow eastern Europeans (and she doesn't exactly spare westerners).

    As the book progresses, however, things grow a bit more serious, goes through a middle section where she spends a fair amount of time about the economic problems and the perceptions these lead to in border crossings, in shopping (there is quite a lot of discussion of the fact that in most of these nations - such as Drakulic's Croatia - the standard of living and incomes are lower, but prices are higher, so everyone shops in other countries when they can) and in working abroad.

    It is the final section of the book however which is the most serious and the most poignant (and the most controvercial), and which covers an aspect of recent eastern European history that doesn't get nearly as much coverage as it should: the resurgence of fascism in Croatia. Drakulic discusses the myths and realities of Tito, the myths and realities of the fascist Ustache government that controlled Croatia in WW2, and the myths and realities of the newly independent Croatia and its connections to the past both good and bad. There's a lot of rhetoric that had been thrown around by the various governments and forces of that split out of what was once Yugoslavia, and Drakulic is adept at cutting through it and with well researched points reveals aspects of history that nationalists and communists alike would probably rather she didn't.

    Keep in mind that most of the writing in this book is about 15 years old at this point, and many of the figures she mentions are now deceased. But still, its an utterly fascinating book if somewhat worrisome, and I strongly recommend to anyone interested in the recent history of this part of the world.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 18, 2005

    Could have been better

    The first few essays in Drakulic's book are a disappointment. You must wade through pages of materialistic babble (for example, paragraphs on all of the consumer goods she buys in western Europe for the material-hungry people back home) and shallow feelings of insecurity that she shares with her readers (as in, she feels as though her husband will question their marriage simply because her passport is not as powerful as his). But once you reach the essays further on in the book, you may find something of interest to you that falls in to the politics/essays category into which this book has been placed. Drakulic often writes with a sassy, angry tone which is unbecoming. All in all, the book is good reading but I feel as though I could have read another book and learned more about life after communism.

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