I’d like to be a stewardess on Czech Airlines

John ErwinDirector, The Stories Exchange ProjectNew York
"Well – I think… Really, I think I’d like to be a stewardess on Czech Airlines.”
It’s 1993, and Irina is standing in the center of her grandmother’s kitchen in Prague: tall, slender, tentative. About sixteen.
She smiles, then tosses her head – as if to free it from wanting what she too probably knows she won’t get. Already after five or six days of conversations in other kitchens in Prague, and in Most and Usti nad Labem, we know that a Romany girl in the Czech Republic would have very little chance of being chosen to represent the country on its national airline.
And just because it had taken us so little time to discover this, because there were already so many stories which led to the same sad conclusion, we knew that we would be coming back again and again to try to make it even a little bit more possible for Irina to get the job she wanted – and for which she was so well qualified.
We? We were Americans: African-, Jewish, and Irish-Americans; each of us carrying back to Europe our own stories – or at least our parents’, grandparents’ or great- grandparents’ – about not having it at all easy as late arrivals in America. That helped us to understand, even sometimes to wish that we did not understand so well.
It was tough to remember how tough it had been for our earlier families
But what suddenly seemed to us very important to do was to persuade our new friends here, both Czechs and Roms, to try to remember and to talk about their difficult memories.
After we left Irina and her family that day in their kitchen we talked about how we might persuade some Czechs and some Roms to own up: to acknowledge the pain which they and their peoples carried, the tattered baggage of many defeats.
And to hear each other out, to give each other the attention and respect that all of us need and deserve.
It was the black woman in our troika who knew best how to do that.
Robbie McCauley had grown up in Washington D.C. in the late Forties and Fifties and went for summers to Georgia in segregated trains. For ten years now she’d been going around the U.S. getting to know African-, Asian-, Mexican-, Cuban-, Irish-, Jewish- and Native Americans, helping them tell their stories to each other, working with them to make the stories into theater for their communities and to talk with mixed audiences: to try to get them to admit that they were afraid of each other because they did not know each other.
So we, Mitch Chanelis and I, had invited Robbie to come with us to Prague to see what would happen if Czechs and Roms told each other stories, and began to look at them together.
That was what started the Stories Exchange Project.

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