What happens when you put a Czech, a Pole, a Slovak, and a Hungarian in one room to talk? It sounds like the beginning of a joke, right? From February 2015, the new web series We Four+ Neighbourhood Talk, hosted by Nikolaus Hutter, will attempt to find out.
I spent most of my twenties and early thirties studying and working abroad and have experienced this very scenario with degrees of variation many times. Although I now count people of Latin or Scandinavian descent among my close friends, for me there is a “gravitational pull” toward Eastern Europeans in any international context. These encounters are marked by the relief that you do not have to explain the basics, and you do not need to reduce yourself to a recognizable label.
There is an implicit, shared understanding that makes it feel as though you are picking up where you left off, rather than starting a new conversation with a complete stranger.
It is this interesting quality, the mix of strangeness and familiarity, that we are going to explore in the new web series We Four+ Neighbourhood Talk, produced by four organizations from the neighborhood: Polish Res Publica, Hungarian Terra Recognita, Czech Vetrne Mlyny, and led by the Central European Foundation from Slovakia. Part nation-branding, part ethnography and oral history, and part group therapy, the series hopes to connect the region and make it more understandable for the world outside its borders.
Consider another expat life phenomenon: if you find yourself in a group of people as the only (insert nationality/country of origin), you naturally feel like an ambassador of sorts, like it is your job to explain, to clarify, and defend positions, policies, to present, to quantify. How many people live there? What’s the biggest industry? What about human rights? Do you speak Russian over there? Many people do this job often and the impression they make may forever shape what others think of that nationality or country. This effect may very well be stronger than anything our governments do or say.
We would, therefore, like to support these citizen ambassadors in their uneasy task, equip them, and give them talking points and reference materials. We want to do that by facilitating, collecting, and curating conversations based on personal stories and individual experiences, which will help people discover the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and understand the region from a human perspective, an improvement over what more commonly available statistics, fancy infographics, and glossy presentations and reports are able to do.
Let’s be honest: how much do we actually know and how much don’t we know about the world beyond our borders? How much do they know? Are they like us? Do they care? And how much don’t we know about our own countries? It is tempting to think that none of these questions really matter anymore because everyone can google anything and we’ve all traveled abroad.
We believe that regional conversations among people who otherwise would not find themselves at one table, about issues big and small, may help answer such questions. For some answers we need slow conversations; ideas need time to percolate and brew instead of quick-fix recipes or witty one-liners, although there may be a bit of both in the series.
Neighbourhood Talk is not about what you hear in official statements exchanged at high-level political meetings, expert conferences, and roundtables, or in the mainstream media. It is about what people say over coffee, at dinner tables, or at happy hour.
Such conversations shed light on what ordinary people are thinking and doing in their everyday lives. This does not mean that intellectuals, scientists, politicians, and artists will not be invited to We Four+. On the contrary, it is a space in which they can interact informally. This informal space is a safe place where contrasting, divergent, or opposing views on things that matter to all of us can be effectively dealt with and reconciled.
For example: what choices do we have in life, what is home and where do we belong, what does cross-border cooperation mean in practice, what is it like to run a business in the region? These include topics from the first episodes, and there is more in the pipeline.
The conversation will start with four people sitting in a room with a host, and will be distributed as a video podcast, but we hope it will spill over into blogs, social media discussions, and, indeed, dinner or water cooler conversation among the increasingly internationally mobile crowd across the region.
If you are from abroad and currently living in one of the V4 countries or have professional or personal ties to the region; if you are a V4 expat anywhere in the world – we have a message for you. We invite you to watch, listen in, and take part in the conversation by letting us know what you think. And if there are questions you are struggling to find answers to, let us know and we might tackle them in a future episode!
Click here for more information on the We Four+ Neighbourhood Talk show.
Štefánia Košková (@onoffstef) has been working as a manager, producer, advisor, researcher, and data analyst with many international and local organizations in Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe over the last decade and a half, on initiatives that give voice, engage and empower people in the pursuit of social change.