Don’t be afraid to use the expression “no man’s land” in reference to places where millions of people live. If anybody complains, say it’s a metaphor. You (the writer) went to Eastern Europe because you were sent by a magazine to make sense of what happens there. To establish your credentials, you have to make there sound like a distant place. Because anybody can jump on a cheap flight and travel there with relative ease (not to mention that many large cities around the world are full of Eastern European immigrants), your assignment is to show that everything in that faraway land—people, cities, history, even Facebook—is different from here.
Use words like “nostalgia,” “paranoia,” and “amnesia” liberally. If this makes it sound like millions of people are suffering from a cluster of vaguely defined mental conditions—great! You’re one step closer to showing how different they are from us.
Regardless of the topic you’re writing about, start with socialism. Most people know about it, so it should explain everything. Feel free to be vague about when it ended, something like twenty-five years ago? A lot of people think it might have been twenty-seven, but that doesn’t matter. Pretend that it all happened yesterday and the locals haven’t had time to adjust to the new conditions yet.
Don’t forget to congratulate yourself for winning the Cold War. It wasn’t really a war and you didn’t actually do anything to win it, but it doesn’t matter. Also, use the word “commies.” It makes you sound like you’ve spent so much time studying them that now they have nicknames.
Show how little access to information people had during socialism. Mention Radio Free Europe. Mention the communist-controlled media. Use the word “propaganda” many, many times. Talk about how confused the locals are now, because of Internet and multiple television channels, and how they’ve decided not to trust any of them. Try to seem fair: remind the audience that it’s a contemporary country, whatever that means, and not a backwards place at all. Then talk about medieval thinking.
When locals post their political opinions on Facebook or Twitter, call these “propaganda machines.”
Make sure you interview people who believe that freemasons rule the world, and make their opinions sound representative. Mention homophobia, but only in passing, because you’re not really concerned with that. Talk about stagnation and hopelessness and leaking roofs in the nineties. Don’t forget the European Union; it’s the only ray of hope in this devastated landscape.
Don’t hesitate to call the capital of a country a broken city. Use expressions such as “damaged society” and “the death of Europe.” Focus on destruction and demolition. Mention a cold wind, preferably howling across a vast emptiness, in the middle of a city.
When you mention nostalgia, no need to bother with specifics—like what are these people nostalgic for? Socialism? Propaganda? You can even admit, in passing, that few actually care. Time to shift gears and talk about amnesia. Nobody cares if you sound as if you’re contradicting yourself (are they nostalgic or amnesiac, after all?). If anyone says anything positive about socialism, specify that they’re confused and in a mental fog.
Point out repeatedly that these people don’t care about their own history and can’t make any sense of what’s going on around them. Show how distrustful they are of well-meaning visitors like you, then quote them telling you that nobody wants to listen to them. Once you got that, you can say anything you want. Say that their connection with the past is irremediably broken. If you quote any Eastern European writers or historians, ensure they either emigrated thirty years ago or are dead. Go ahead and tell it like it is: “amnesia is total.”
Now this might sound extreme under normal circumstances, but you shouldn’t doubt yourself. Don’t stop to consider whether the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, or structural adjustment programs might have had anything to do with poverty in Eastern Europe in the nineties. Remember, Western institutions are always the good guys.
Also, do not pause to ask yourself whether the reason Eastern Europeans seem to you alternatively nostalgic and amnesiac is that perhaps they remember their own history in a different way. If the thought crosses your mind, then dismiss it: convince yourself that they’re victims of propaganda in ways in which you are not and could never be. Do not bother to consider that if Eastern Europeans seem suspicious of you and your motives, it may be because they’re tired of being depicted as two-dimensional dimwits with short memory spans.
And never, under any circumstances, stray from the clichés you went to Eastern Europe to confirm. Imagine this: one sunny morning you’re walking down a busy street, when you slow down for a moment to feel the sun on your face. You can hear the clanking sound of a tram approaching a nearby station. You turn around, lured by the aroma of fresh baked pastries wafting from a bakery, when a teenager bumps into you. She’s texting and walking, and doesn’t stop to apologize; she’s wearing combat boots and too much eyeliner. You’re about to say something, but then you shrug your shoulders (teenagers!). You step into the warm, dark, sweet smelling space.
Moments like this shouldn’t make it into your story. You shouldn’t allow them to interrupt the continuous noise of communism and post-communism, amnesia and paranoia, the cold wind. Convince yourself that’s what your readers want, and that Eastern Europeans themselves are not among them. Avoid the thought that, in many ways, Eastern Europeans are just like Western Europeans, with less cash. And don’t feel uncomfortable discussing Eastern Europe without Eastern Europeans: they are not, and can never be, equal partners in a dialogue about their own countries. You are the expert, the only one who can explain what happens there.
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