BRUSSELS, Belgium — When my 16-year old son Samuel started a new school year five years ago at the European School, he returned home with some news: His new classmates included five Czechs and two Slovaks.
I was surprised. During the 1980s, I often visited communist Eastern Europe. None of my friends there could imagine having their children study in the West; few even managed to cross the Iron Curtain to visit Western Europe.
Once communism collapsed, travel was freed and a Czech friend even managed to attend my wedding in Paris in 1992. He drove — it’s only about a 10-hour ride. But my friends who worked in the European institutions in Brussels resisted the idea that the Czechs and other “East” Europeans soon would be ready to join the European Union.
It took until 2004 for the Czech Republic and Slovakia to gain membership and begin sending officials to Brussels. The European School educates the children of European Union officials: High school students take half their courses in their mother tongue and half in a second language. But the school still was not ready to offer to provide a “Czech” and “Slovak” mother tongue section, so the new Czech and Slovak students were bundled into my son’s “English” section.
The transition was difficult. Many of the newcomers spoke poor English and struggled to understand and be understood. The science teacher, Alison Newman, grew frustrated as the new students babbled away in Czech or Slovak. “Speak English,” she thundered.
Yet, it soon became clear that the East Europeans were above-average students. Their math and science training was superior. “It’s like they have calculators in their heads,” my son said.
Socially, bonds soon formed with the English language students. The Czechs and Slovaks were, on average, taller than their fellow students in the English section and strong basketball players. A Slovak boy invited Sam to his birthday party and language differences vanished as the boys and girls smothered each other in paint-ball warfare. A timid Irish boy, often the butt of teases, gained crucial confidence after he began dating one of his Czech classmates.
But I was surprised that little discussion occurred among parents or children about the past. During a party for class parents, I explained how I had covered the collapse of communism. Few of the Czech or Slovak parents expressed interest. Some even seemed embarrassed, an embarrassment that I took, perhaps incorrectly, to reflect that most had been apparatchiks and few dissidents under the old regime.
I had kept in touch enough with my old contacts in Czechoslovakia's Charter 77 movement to know that the two former secret service agents assigned to track me during my reporting trips had thrived: One had become a multimillionaire public relations agent and the other a quite comfortable spokesman for a bank. After all, the old communist apparatchiks had the linguistic and political skills to thrive in the new European Union.
One mother did ask to read the book “Lighting the Night: Revolution in Eastern Europe” that I wrote in 1991 about my reporting experiences. I lent a copy. When she returned it, I could tell she did not agree with my account of gray, oppressive, communist Czechoslovakia. “It was not so black,” she insisted.
The students spoke even less about communism. All had been born after the installation of a democratic government and none had memories of the Iron Curtain. To them, this was ancient history. Three years ago, the school organized a weeklong trip to Slovakia. I asked the teacher whether the students could learn about communism and even meet a dissident contact in Bratislava. “That’s not interesting,” she said, seeming almost ashamed at or unaware of her country’s history.
By this time, Slovakia was prospering. A new leadership had installed a low flat tax and succeeded in attracting billions of dollars of foreign investment, particularly from automobile companies attracted by a highly skilled, inexpensive work force. Sam and his friends visited a school in Bratislava. “It seemed just like our school,” he reported. They saw medieval, cobblestone streets and glorious Hapsburg-era monuments.
What impressed them most, however, was the city’s shiny new shopping mall — and how it remained open until late at night. In most of western Europe, including Brussels, shops must close early by law, usually by 7 p.m. at the latest. In the east, regulations remain looser and shops can stay open later. “The shops were the coolest — almost as good as the malls in the U.S.,” Sam said on his return. Not only were the Slovaks more capitalistic than their west European cousins, they also seemed, like most nations formerly in the Soviet sphere, grateful for American help in standing down the Russians and more pro-American, supporting the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now Sam’s class is applying to colleges. Most of the English language students from the European School want to study in the U.K.. Amazingly, so do most of the Czechs and Slovaks. Some are applying to Cambridge or Oxford. Their grades are good enough, particularly in science and math.
Integration remains far from perfect. Out of a class of about 20, there now are some eight Czechs or Slovaks. That’s enough to form a clique. The English language students tend to stick among themselves and the Czechs and Slovaks among themselves. “They just prefer to speak Czech among themselves,” Sam reported.
In Brussels, within the European Commission, the same officials who resisted taking in the east Europeans still complain about the newcomers. The Czechs held the European presidency for the first six months of the year and they just became the last country to sign the new Lisbon Treaty. Their last-minute delay in adopting the treaty and their tumultuous tenure at the top of the Union ruffled many among the more established Europhile members. But no one doubts that the newcomers are in to stay.