Use these stories to change the world! (III)

C. Meeting Others
But of course the test of mutual understanding and tolerance occurs when we actually meet and have to interact with people who are members of another social group or race.
So spend as much time as you can reading and responding to the many stories we’ve collected about that. Meeting Others is the longest menu here in Stories and Responses.
No wonder! There are so many stories to tell about the difficulties – and delights – of actually encountering people whom we’re much better at thinking out of existence, but with whom we must learn to live.
1. Iveta: “I too had walls in my head”
So now you can meet another Iveta: Iveta Foniokova from Usti nad Labem. She’s a student too, and made herself a more difficult assignment for a term paper than she thought she had.
But – do you remember Iveta I? If you don’t, go back and find her.
People are what this is all about: we can’t afford to lose anybody. If we stick together, maybe we’ll get where we’re going. Which is, we hope, to a place where we can all stick together.
In any event, the Stories Exchange Project is also all about looking back at where you’ve been before, where you’ve come from.
By looking back and going over and over what we’ve seen, heard, said, done, wondered about – maybe we can find out where we are now and, therefore, where we want to go next!
And remember: if you’re really paying attention to what’s around you and where you’ve come from, there are no digressions, no detours, no wrong turns. Everything can be a piece of the mirror if you’re really paying attention,
Iveta from Usti ends by saying:
“This is an open-ended story. It will all depend upon what I do with the experience I’ve gained. When I present my seminar paper, I’d like to share with my classmates what I’ve discovered about myself. But I’m afraid they won’t understand. Neither my teacher nor my classmates have had similar experiences.
They come from a small town; they’re the same as I used to be, a month ago.
I am a bit worried about whether I can handle it.”
So give Iveta some help: make her feel less alone!
Get yourself to the keyboard, and after her story in Meeting Others type in some answers to questions like these:
Have you ever been in a situation in which you’ve been in the minority, outnumbered by the – others? Not just by people of a different culture or nationality, but by people who are bigger, older, of the opposite gender
How did you feel?
Would you go to a party like the one Iveta went to? How do you think you’d feel there?
Do you have any walls in your head?
Have you ever met anyone that you were at first scared of and then changed your mind?
Do you think that Iveta has Romany friends now?
Ask her too!
2. Lucka H: “Can those boys still be considered skinheads?”
And here’s another Lucka: Lucie Hrdlickova from Prague.
In “Can those boys still be considered skinheads?” Lucka H tells about some very strange things that have been happening in the studio of a Romany boxer.
“Standa Tiser is a boxing coach. A former national champion, he has been coaching young boys, mostly Roma, for a few years now. He’s a Rom too and knows how difficult it is for Romany youngsters from Zizkov to get motivated to do any sports properly – let alone boxing – , and to turn up regularly for training. Their mentality pushes them into giving everything up after a short while if they can’t succeed quickly enough.
And why exactly has Standa Tiser chosen to coach young Roma?
He says that he resented the way those boys were just hanging around without anything to do whenever he saw them. That’s why he offered to coach them in the first place.
He knew that they would jump at his offer, because he was very popular among all the Roma in Liben and Zizkov. All the boys respect and adore him. They look up to him as a former professional boxer who has made it in the world.
When Tiser founded his boxing team he started with Roma and some time later the first whites joined in. ‘It took a while before any white guys came,’ he says.
Today he coaches skinheads, Roma, and Ukrainians alike. He also has a Nigerian and a mentally handicapped boy on his team.
The first skinheads joined as early as two years ago.
Smiling, Tiser recalls his first meeting with them: ‘They rang the bell and I opened the door. When they saw me they were flabbergasted and couldn’t say a word… I told them to come in, took them up to the bar counter, and asked whether they had come for boxing lessons or needed anything else.
They said they were interested in classical boxing.
I took another look: they were wearing military boots and leather jackets, and kept giving me weird glances.
I asked them: ‘You wouldn’t be skinheads, would you?’
They went red in the face and stared at the ground.
I went on: ‘Look, I don’t care who you are. If you’re keen on sports, that’s fine with me. But you should know that there are various boys here: my kind, your kind, other nationalities. If you don’t like that, tough luck. You can see for yourself. And if you’ve brought your stuff, try a bit of boxing right now. After the training tell me whether you want to come regularly.’
At the end of the lesson they said they’d come again. They’ve been coming ever since.’
Tiser says that skinheads are usually just stupid youngsters, mostly only children. ‘They need friends – and what’s easier than shaving your head, buying a leather jacket and joining the gang! You certainly get plenty of friends in no time that way.’
The skinheads who go to Tiser´s have found many friends among Roma and other dark-skinned boys on the team.
This makes me wonder where all their old aggressiveness and hatred has gone.
Was there any hatred to begin with?
Can those boys still be considered skinheads?
Do they still think of themselves as skinheads?”
Lucka ends with questions, as any good storyteller does, really, whether she or he explicitly asks any of the – many! – questions that a good story raises.
In the Stories Exchange Project we think that ALL good stories are open-ended, as Iveta from Usti says hers is.
So join Lucka H at the end of “Can those boys still be considered skinheads?” in Meeting Others at this site and ask yourselves – and her – further questions about this strange bunch of boxers: Roms and skinheads and other nationalities together.
You won’t be alone.
A whole class at the Jan Patocka Grammar School in Prague has spent a lot of time discussing this story. And one of the students even ended up going – by chance: but there ARE no accidents! – to Standa Tiser’s studio and saw for herself what Lucka is talking about.
You can hear about all that from the students themselves, and also from their very enterprising teacher Irena Martinkova if you go to the Interviews menu here and click on “Most people condemn things they know nothing about.”
There you’ll meet somebody else, whom we hope that some of you can meet in person quite soon. Gabina Setunska is the coordinator of the Stories Exchange Project in Prague and Usti nad Labem. You’ll probably never meet anybody who will be so willing and eager to tell you all the wonderful things that you can do with the project and all the wonderful things that the project can do for you.
And you might ask Gabina to tell you some stories about her return to the Czech Republic after studying chemistry at McGill University in Montreal. She decided that she had to do something to open things up at home: to create in the Czech Republic something like the openness she had begun to take for granted in Canada.
Notice that she’s chosen to try to do that with the Stories Exchange Project.
You can begin your conversation with Gabina by sending her an e-mail:
But back to Gabina’s and Standa Tiser’s new friends at the Jan Patocka Grammar School: here are some excerpts from “Most people will condemn things they know nothing about” in Interviews.
Irena Martinkova:
The stories on your Web-page are very interesting.
They focus on a subject which is quite complicated. Even adults don’t know what they think about it. This problem has not yet been solved.
That’s why it might be good for students to discuss it.
There are no definite answers and no final solutions; students can bring new points of view.
Gabina Setunska:
Has the Project been interesting for you as a person?
Irena Martinkova
I had always thought that I would just be teaching information theory and technology, and talk about data transmission and analysis.
The Project fulfilled my secret wish for doing something like this: to discuss, to talk with students.
Gabina Setunska:
Why did you choose the story of the Romany boxer and the skinheads?
Irena Martinkova:
I thought it was interesting and up-to-date for young people.
And in my opinion it gives opportunities for discussion and response. You can talk about many things: skinheads, Roma, how to spend free time, sports. You can discuss the limits of tolerance. Or the issue of young people forming gangs.
Gabina Setunska:
Stories gathered by the Stories Exchange Project are real stories of real people.
Do you think that lessons based on the Project are different from those based on textbooks and theory?
Irena Martinkova:
That certainly has an influence.
Students of course tend simply to accept what they are taught as theory.
But the friends of one of my students took her to a boxing club and she realized that she was in the club of Standa Tiser, the Romany boxer who appears in the story we were discussing!
When she came to school she was very happy and enthusiastic and we talked about it.
She told us: “I just happened to go to the club, and I met Mr.Tiser, I could see everything with my own eyes. The atmosphere was very pleasant, and I was surprised that something like that really exists.’
Gabina Setunska:
Your students had an opportunity to discuss the story. Do you think that they know how to take part in discussions, or is it a problem for them?
Irena Martinkova:
I think it’s a problem. I’m not sure if the problem is the relation between the teacher and the student. I thoughtthey might be able to discuss better among themselves.
But apparently they have problems even when a teacher is not there. They’re not used to concentrated listening, and they can’t tolerate and respect the opinions of others.
My task is not to make conclusions but to learn to share ideas.
So we sit in a circle and I ask only one question which everybody has to answer.
And I try to make them listen to each other’s answers.
Gabina Setunska:
How do your students respond when they have a chance to express their own points of view?
Zuzka Vitova:
Well…I myself didn’t know how to take part in a discussion, and it was difficult at first. We didn’t know what to say.
And when we began to understand, we all spoke at the same moment, and interrupted each other.
But little by little we learned how to discuss things.
Tereza Stenglova:
Teachers seldom ask us our opinions. We’re taught definitions.
I think it would be much better if we could discuss things.
That’s why I liked the Project. And I think it would be good for everyone.
Zuzka Vitova and Pavel Kourimsky:
It was something new for us.
Gabina Setunska:
Was it interesting? Did it give you anything?
Zuzka Vitova:
Sure it did. It was interesting to listen to schoolmates’ opinions. It was valuable for us.
Pavel Kourimsky:
It’s about getting to know our friends: getting to know their points of view, and their responses to certain topics.
Tereza Stenglova:
I think that reading such stories can have a great influence on people.
And when they write their own stories, they think about their experiences: they think them over and over. And they might begin to understand.
Jakub Jirkal:
I think it has meaning. People tend to take only one side when thinking about Roma, and they condemn the whole group. When they read or listen to a story, they might change their minds.
Tamara Fricova:
I was surprised that there are Roma who have no prejudice.
Gabina Setunska:
Do you know anything about Romany culture, about the way they live?
Gabina Kocova:
I know now.
I didn’t know anything about them, and I wasn’t even interested I felt no need to know more.
Now I see I was mistaken. Most people condemn things they know nothing about.
Eventually you’ll want to make comments of your own about your experience of the Stories Exchange Project, right?
And exchange views with others students and teachers and anyone else who is working with the stories too.
If you have any comments so far, why not attach them to your comments about a particular story?
We always find that comments grounded in a particular, shared experience make more sense.
And if you want to communicate with anyone whose email address you don’t have, why not send your note through Gabina – the first, we mean, not Gabina K. at the Jan Patocka School. Until you get her e-mail address! Again, that’s
3. Eva B: “A lot of people have bad experiences with us Roma”
Eva in Usti nad Labem has a nice little story about how she keeps good relations going between Roms and Czechs even when the weather is not warm enough to put up a tent in the main square.
“A man started a store with machines in our neighborhood. Machines for sawing lumber and all that. He repaired the house, and had a new façade put on.
Romany kids were playing ball in front of the house, and as they were kicking all of a sudden there came a bump and the plaster was damaged.
The businessman came to me. ‘Mrs. Bajgerova, you should do something about the kids. Look, the renovation was so expensive, it cost hundreds of thousands, and now it’s being damaged by the kids.’
I said to him: ‘Mr.Kocka, have you ever thought of inviting them inside, showing them the beauty you have there?
So he invited us in.
‘I hope they won’t steal anything,’ he said. But he welcomed us warmly and showed us everything, even switched all the lights on. The children’s parents came along too.
And the children could see all themachines. They could even touch them.
After a week or two, this man came to me and told me: ‘Thank you, Mrs. Bajgerova. The kids don’t play ball in front of my house anymore.’
This happened a year ago, and there still hasn’t been any more damage done by our kids.”
We especially like it when Eva asks “have you ever thought of inviting them inside, showing them the beauty you have there?”
Everybody likes seeing what’s inside someone else’s store—- or house, don’t they?
Or what a person has inside that’s beautiful.
Remember what Helga says that she carried to Auschwitz from Terezin when she was little: beauty that nobody could take away from her, however many times they made her stand naked in front of them.
And when you’ve seen what’s inside, the beauty inside, you’re likely to respect the person and not damage him or his property.
That may be even more likely if you’re busy making the “beauty” with those others, as the skinheads at Standa Tiser’s sports club are training with the Roms and other dark-skinned boys.
As many different kinds of people are making the beauty by exchanging stories in this project.
Whether they’re remembering Maticni Street or the ramp at Auschwitz or any place anywhere where they’ve had strong experiences.
Have you noticed that these stories about the development of mutual respect between people from different cultures – from two groups who both tend to condemn what they know nothing about, as Gabina K. at the Patocka School says—are really roadmaps of journeys we can make towards ANYbody else: even people we think we know pretty well.
Remember what Pavel at the Jan Patocka Grammar School said about the Stories Exchange Project:
“It’s about getting to know our friends: getting to know their points of view, and their responses to certain topics.”
It can even be about getting a mother and a daughter to meet each other – and themselves – in a different way.
In “Finally she realized that she wasRom” in Interviews at this Web-site, a Romany mother speaks about her daughter with a friend who also took part in the first run of the Stories Exchange Project in the Czech Republic a few years ago.
Ilona Ferkova is a prize-winning Romany writer who, after working in the project became the coordinator of a Romany-Czech kindergarten in Rokycany. Ethela is her daughter. Ondrej Gina is the Director for the Czech Republic of the Romani National Congress and was a member of the Czechoslovak Federal Parliament.
We didn’t know Ethela this way, did we, Ondrej? I’m her own mother, but I’ve never known her this way before. She has changed incredibly, her way of thinking.
I don’t know if I told you, but whenever she spoke about Roms, there was a certain distance. But one day we were in the car, and she started to talk. Ondrej looked at her and said, “Ethela: you’re completely different now.”
And she said, “No, I’m not. Why do you say that?”
“No, you are.” Ondrej said, “The way you speak about Roms. You’re not at a distance from them anymore. You’re a part of them.”
She was given a lot by the Stories Exchange Project: she started to understand Roms, and finally she realized that she was a Rom.
Ondrej: That’s the problem of the younger generation of Roms. They are cut off from everything that was before.
What had happened to Ethela in the Stories Exchange Project?
As you can see in the first video documentary of the Stories Exchange Project – excerpted in Videos here – in 1995 Ethela went to visit members of her own Romany family to collect stories of their experience during World War II, and then played some of her relatives in our stage performance of the stories in Prague at the Roxy Centre and in our commemoration of the Romany Holocaust at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum in Washington and in New York.
Ondrej: Without this experience, Ethela would have stayed in the same position, she would not have changed her attitudes. She was distant from the life of Roms; she was cut off from their life experiences. But she got the chance to get back to it, to get back to a way of perceiving that was part of her: she’s a Romany, and she never had the chance to know that way of feeling.
She got the chance. It did something: it’s perfect. She was taking it seriously, and she realized that her aunt really went through that.
She lived through what her aunt had lived through. She was absorbing her aunt’s experiences.
And that was the change. It was good.
Ethela will also speak for herself when we talk about how stories can change your relationship with yourself.
But for the moment, we just wanted to point out that the “others” whom people are meeting in these stories – and in working with the stories, in collecting them and putting them in some way into action: these “others” can also be their closest family members and their own peoples.
4. Milka: “I lost my taste for apples”
But in fact most of the stories in Meeting Others are about failures in communication between Czechs and Roms, and leave it to us and to you to make beauty – and knowledge – out of violence and pain
by opening up and taking in the experience of others whose pain we may often inadvertently increase;
by taking a cue from Gabina Kocova at the Jan Patocka Grammar School and using the stories to transform ignorance about Roms and Romany culture into a desire to know them that can make it much less likely that we will condemn them:
“I didn’t know anything about them, and I wasn’t even interested I felt no need to know more.
Now I see I was mistaken. Most people condemn things they know nothing about.”
Listening to Milka tell about one of her bad days in “I lost my taste for apples” can start us on the way to caring about the pain which can so easily and suddenly be caused by ignorance and indifference.
Like all good storytellers, Milka gets us right into her experience by giving us a lot of concrete details and by telling us in detail how she is feeling. When you tell your stories, try to give us detail and feeling as vivid as this.
“It was a beautiful morning. I had had a good sleep. The sun was pouring its warmth all over the countryside, and I was in a good mood because I didn’t have to go to work. I enjoyed that feeling a lot.”
Then she takes us step by step through her day, and involves us in her planning out her next steps.
“I made some coffee and was thinking about cooking lunch for the whole family, so that they would enjoy it. At the same time I wanted to make something inexpensive and easy to cook.”
She depicts herself even deliberately slowing down the action of her in order to experience it more fully. She make her ordinary day a kind of ritual.
“I dressed slowly and went shopping. I bought all the necessary ingredients, and walked and window-shopped around town. Sometimes I would also walk in to see what they had and what I could buy for my children or myself.” Milka’s carefully constructed day is part of an ordered, regular life that has its habitual rhythms.
“I came to a square where there is a market. Vietnamese traders sell their usual stuff, but there are also Czech greengrocers and tradesmen. I saw one I know. We talk to each other from time to time. I always try to bargain with him. He is open to that, and we always cut a deal.”
But now something different begins to happen, and the flowing movement of this slow-dance of a day is broken.
“He was selling beautiful apples that day, but pretty expensive too.”
These apples turn out to be very expensive indeed: they could be apples plucked by Eve from the Tree of Knowledge. “I started to pick some out and put them into a plastic bag. I had put in almost two kilos of apples when suddenly a woman behind me who had been watching me closely for a while started saying very loudly that what I was doing was wrong and that she didn’t like it. She also wanted to buy apples, but she didn’t want any that I had touched and picked through. I was stunned. I stared at her, saying nothing.
I was very surprised. I had on a clean and neat dress and nice perfume and I couldn’t understand what her problem was. I couldn´t believe she was saying something like that. If my hands had been dirty, it would have been a different story.
I was ashamed, and my good mood and my smile were gone.
Everyone was looking at us, waiting to see what would happen next.
I live in a small town, and we all know each other pretty well, but I had never seen that woman, so the situation was even stranger.
And then the grocer lit into me, complaining that I was keeping his customers away.
That was more than I could take. I hadn’t done anything different on any other day I’d been there!
I turned to the woman and said: ‘I can buy anything I want to, and I want quality. So I can pick what I want to buy. And my hands are not dirty. Also, I wash apples at home before I eat them: don’t you do that too? In any case, I’m not the only one who picks through apples before buying them, am I?’
But I’d lost my taste for apples. I thrust the plastic bag into the greengrocer´s hands and told both him and the woman to go to hell.
My day had begun wonderfully, but it had turned gray. I was disgusted.
You know, little things like this taste bitter. And they go to show what sort of people we have around us: mean people who like conflict.
I don’t want to sermonize, but I think the Czechs still have to learn to become tolerant and respectful, to accept the fact that there are other people here too who must be given equal opportunities: people who must be treated like human beings even whenthey’re doing such an ordinary thing as buying apples.
That woman was angry with me for picking through the apples, and she added her prejudice about Roma to her anger, her conclusion being that we are just a bunch of thieves.
I walked home humiliated and disgusted.”
So have you picked up any of the apples this daughter of Eve has picked over?
Do you know more now than you did when you began reading or listening to Milka’s story?
What do you know?
How does knowing this make you feel?
Are you poorer for knowing it—- or richer?
Are you with Milka now too, as you were in the beginning as she slowly begins her day, and plans to spend it preparing a meal for her family?
When Milka tells you step by step about what has humiliated and disgusted here, what can you do with this knowledge?
Tell her, after her story in Meeting Others in Stories and Responses.
But let’s think together about this too. You can do this in class with your teacher, or after class with your friends. And maybe when you’re having dinner with your family, whether your mother serves apples or not.
There are many different ways of reading any story. But a good reading always pays close attention to each detail and tries to relate it to other parts of the story and, ultimately, to the story as a whole – and to other stories, very much including stories you tell about yourself and stories you collect from other people.
And it can be helpful to compare your responses to stories with other peoples’ responses – and with your own responses last week, last month…
Every reading – or telling – of a story can generate new understanding.