Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Tea with a Prince

I've just returned from a wonderful one-on-one afternoon tea with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, H.E. Karel Schwarzenberg, who also happens to be a prince and a descendant of the powerful clan with vast lands in what was once Bohemia. He's in Manila for two days to meet with government officials and to see how trade relations between the Philippines and the Czech Republic can be improved.

He arrived yesterday with a delegation of 30 of the most important businessmen from the Czech Republic, and he's leaving tomorrow -- so it's a whirlwind of a trip. But I'm honored to be included in the dinner the ambassador of the Czech Republic is hosting for him tonight, as well as to have had the opportunity for a one-on-one afternoon tea with him in his presidential suite.


The Minister is visiting the Philippines for the first time, and he's especially enthusiastic about finding more avenues for Czech products in the Philippines. "We have had very good relations so far," he told me this afternoon, "but so far the Philippines has been much more successful than the Czech Republic in terms of trade. I think the Philippines exports to the Czech Republic about double of what the Czech Republic exports to the Philippines."


However, the Czech Republic so far exports the most interesting things to the Philippines -- one of the main items is trams. He said: "Trams are good for urban traffic and we've successfully exported the first batch. We look forward to being able to deliver the next batch. Czech trams are very reliable."

Other potential exports include hydropower stations, products for the military and small airplanes. Apparently the Czech Republic exports a certain kind of small airplane that can seat 20 people and land anywhere. "This is perfect for the Philippines, with its many islands," Minister Schwarzenberg said.


But perhaps the most interesting part of our discussion today was about the tumultuous history of the Czech Republic in recent decades, including during World War II, followed by 40 years of Communist rule, and then this transition to a free democracy and its struggle to become a modern European nation with reasonable laws and a healthy economy.

Minister Schwarzenberg is the real thing, as far as aristocracy and nobility are concerned. Apart from being related to the Hapsburgs, he belongs to an old and very wealthy family that once owned much of the land in Bohemia. When the Communists took over, he spent much of the era of the totalitarian rule overseas, although he tried to visit his homeland often. "I tried to visit from time to time, but it wasn't easy," he shrugged. "Sometimes I got a visa, and other times I didn't."


We discussed what it was like to be under 40 years of a Communist regime. "The entire country became inefficient," he explained. "And one of the worst things was that people lost their feeling for what was wrong or right, what was black or white. The problems this brought about are still evident today." In his opinion, this is why the Czech Republic has -- in his own words -- such a high level of corruption.

A true old-fashioned gentleman and statesman, Minister Schwarzenberg had many interesting anecdotes about how life was like under the totalitarian regime. I sat open-mouthed practically the entire time, and I could have talked to him all afternoon; but I think he had a meeting with a Philippine cabinet minister after me, so I had to keep track of the time.


Once, for instance, he and his wife visited his country as tourists, and they anonymously took a tour of one of their old estates. His family had vast land holdings, you see, and many of these were taken away during the Communist rule. Apparently, while they were being shown around the place, a guide mentioned him and said that "he had died in the 1950s."

Of course, he promptly said no. The guide then asked: "Are you sure?" And he replied: "Yes, I am very sure." But that was all he said at that point.

As he and his wife were leaving the estate, someone came after him, asking: "Excuse me. Are you Mr. Schwarzenberg?" He then replied: "Yes, I am. And that's why I'm sure I didn't die in the 1950s."


In an effort to help keep up some semblance of normalcy during the Communist regime, as well, the Minister became -- in his own words -- an active "smuggler."

"What kinds of things did you smuggle?" I asked. The Minister shrugged. He'd smuggled practically anything and everything that the Communists had banned.

He explained: "For example, the Communists banned certain kinds of literature, including poetry by some of the finest Czech writers. They did not allow many of these to be published. So we would smuggle their writings out of the country, print these in Germany, and then smuggle them back in."


In the mid-1980s, as well, there was suddenly a shortage of sanitary napkins in the country -- perhaps because the Communists had failed to plan for production. This caused quite a stir as sanitary napkins suddenly disappeared from stores in Prague; instead, the government took the supply they had and rationed these to workers or to the wives of workers in their factories.
Basically, every woman working in a factory or every wife of a factory worker got one or two pieces for herself.

Unfortunately, dissidents were never properly employed during the Communist regime so the female dissidents or the wives of dissidents were excluded from this sanitary napkin ration. One day, the good Minister got a call from Prague to his home in Vienna (where one of the largest squares in the city bears his name): "Please help. We need sanitary napkins."

The Minister was so animated as he recalled: "Immediately I went to the drugstore and I filled a huge suitcase with supplies. My next problem was how to smuggle the supplies in. Just think -- if you're caught smuggling in literature, you're labeled as a hero. But if you're caught smuggling sanitary napkins in, you're more likely to be labeled as a pervert."

Once again, discarding protocol and formality, I burst out laughing here.

So he went to a magazine shop in Vienna, and walked straight to the very back of the store where they kept the pornographic magazines. He bought every pornographic magazine he could find and loaded these into the back of his car. The sanitary napkins in a suitcase went somewhere under these.

Of course, at the border, the car was checked and the border guards immediately pounced on the pornographic magazines. They confiscated these immediately, saying: "Socialist Czech does not allow such pornographic material."

This was exactly what the Minister had planned and expected, of course. He told me this afternoon: "I tried to look very sad and depressed, but the guards couldn't care less. They were too busy inspecting the confiscated goods. So I was able to close my car and drive off. In Prague, I gave the huge suitcase of sanitary napkins to my lady friend."

He continued: "She asked me: Is it full? I said yes. And this made her very happy. This was the kind of world we lived in then, where planning was everything."


Meanwhile, the Minister said that December 27, 1989 -- the day Czech President Vaclav Havel was elected -- was the happiest day of his life. He added: "I don't think I've ever had a happier day -- or will I ever have a day happier than that again."

That's the Prince earlier today,
reading the latest issue of Travelife Magazine.

Such an interesting conversation with a gentleman who was part of history and who had lived history -- it flows through his veins. I was very privileged to have a chance to talk with him alone and ask many questions without interference. In fact, breaking protocol a couple of times, I think I laughed out loud several times because of his very humorous stories.

Later that evening, I joined the dinner for him but by then there were a roomful of important government officials and ambassadors as well. But every one wanted to meet him and wherever I walked through the room, I heard whispers about him: "That's the Prince. They say he may be president someday." Another one said: "He's a walking history book," and someone else whispered: "He's living history." And still others said: "He's the grandest gentleman you'll ever meet."

When it was time to say goodbye, I walked up to him to bid farewell. I'd come from a cocktail hosted by the US Embassy before dinner, and I had one more place to go to before calling it a night. He said to me: "I'm looking forward to seeing you in Prague this June."

Over tea, I'd told him about my upcoming trip to the Czech Republic and we'd agreed to continue the stories and anecdotes in Prague. I replied: "Sir, I'd like that very much."

So it was tea with a prince and minister, cocktails with an American jazz group, a first dinner with a room full of ambassadors and a last dinner tonight -- a six-course tapas meal with family and friends. Just another day in a never-ending. and never-endingly eventful Travelife.

PS: Many people have been asking me what's the best way to get to Prague. If you don't go over land from Vienna, there are two good relatively direct flights: via Korean Airlines, there's a MNL-Seoul-Prague flight, and via Turkish Airlines, there's a HK-Istanbul-Prague flight. Both good and reliable airlines with great service.



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