Things that make sense when you say them in one city can sound unconvincing in another. You have to find other ways of saying them. It’s like taking a tune to a different key, or rather a different musical mode.
I first met Ivan Mecl two years ago. I was in Prague to do an interview with one of his colleagues for Umelec, the art magazine that Ivan founded in the early nineties. Several things he said during that conversation have stuck in my mind, and when I started thinking about resilience, I knew that I wanted to come back and talk to him.
The whole train journey, I was riding the sense of possibility that I’d felt in the Berlin that Jay took me through. By the end of the journey, my notebook is full of beginnings of things to come back to when I get through this pinball phase of the journey and find time to slow down and digest. Yet none of this feels relevant here, and the force of the difference between Berlin and Prague takes me by surprise.
It doesn’t help that I’ve arrived late, so we have missed the chance to catch the local train out to Ivan’s cottage in the woods. Last time around, he invited me, but we had to call off the trip because floods outside the city meant we couldn’t count on getting back in the next day. There’s another train later in the evening, but it’s better to arrive by daylight, he says. I can sleep in one of the spare rooms in their office, instead, and maybe we can go tomorrow.
The office is one part of a huge building, a fallen-through piece of property speculation that’s now being let in its unregenerated condition to projects like Umelec and Divus, the publishing company that Ivan runs alongside the magazine. Downstairs, they have an exhibition that is either covers of old pulp fiction novels, or art that has so thoroughly taken over the idiom of those covers as to be indistinguishable. There is also a pingpong table, a kind of children’s climbing frame, and a cafe where we are sitting over a coffee.
We talk for a while and I feel the DIY energy of Berlin running into the sand of a darker attitude to reality. It’s not so much that Ivan is questioning me, as that I find myself questioning myself mid-sentence. Yesterday, there were moments when I felt the need to act as ballast against the can-do optimism of my environment, today it’s a matter of explaining why I still feel there are some actions worth taking, actions that may not simply be lost in the absurdity of human experience. It’s a good exercise, and after a while I come to what feels like a provisional answer, something I want to come back and write about. Ivan asks me if I will write about it for Umelec.
Meanwhile, I get a message from Tomas who runs the resilience.cz website. He’s picked up on this project through Energy Bulletin and is keen to meet up.
He takes me to the Vyšehrad fortress on the south side of the city centre and, as we walk around the battlements, he tells me about the successive transformations the Czech Republic has been through over the past century and what they mean for practical resilience here today. We come to a park full of statues from Czech mythology, several of which wouldn’t look out of place in an Alan Moore comic.
Tomas laughs when I tell him about the difference I’ve noticed from Berlin to Prague.
“The Czechs are a potato culture,” he says. “We grow in the dark.”
On my way back to the Divus office, I find I’m wondering again about cultural attitudes, remembering the conversations I had in Helsinki about ‘sisu’, and what the Portuguese architect last night told us about ‘saudade’. At some level, perhaps, all cultures are forms of resilience, shelters against the overwhelming force of reality.