Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Irish Winter

Ireland is known for it's beautiful, lush green countryside.  It's green because it rains so bloody often.  The joke is that it doesn't matter what season it is because you always need an umbrella.

It has rained every day that I've been here this trip.  Some days had quite heavy rain and some days there has only been a slight drizzle.  But rain every day none the less.

Until today!  Today was absolutely beautiful.  It was a bit chilly, it is December after all, but nothing like the cold back in Brno.  It was so nice walking around the Dublin city centre, with the sun out, and not a rain cloud in sight.

I just hope that I haven't jinxed it for the rest of the week.

Giant's Causeway Tour, Northern Ireland

After my whirlwind trip to Sweden for Eiko's birthday it was on to Dublin for some R&R.  As an early Christmas present Krasimir booked us on a day tour to Northern Ireland to visit the Giant's Causeway.  

This was a full day tour.  Our tour bus left Dublin at 6:30 AM.  After about four hours we arrived near Ballintoy, in County Antrim, to visit the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.

About 350 years ago, salmon fisherman built a rope bridge between the mainland and an island.  The bridge has been replaced over the years.  The current bridge was installed in 2008 and cost £16,000 (~$25,000).  The 20 meter (65 feet) bridge is about 30 meters (100 feet) above sea and rocks. 


I'm not a big fan of heights.  So hanging out 30 meters over the North Atlantic isn't exactly my ideal sort of fun.  But I survived.

The area is quite beautiful.  I'm told that on a clear day it's possible to see Scotland.

After the bridge, we made a brief photo stop of medieval castle ruins.  Dunluce Castle is surrounded by steeps cliffs and is accessible only via a bridge.  The castle is said to have been the inspiration for the famous castle in CS Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia.

Then it was on to see the Giant's Causeway.  On the northeast coast is an area with around 40,000 interlocking basalt columns.  The columns are the result of an ancient volcanic eruption. 


The columns form stepping stones that disappear in to the sea.  Most of the columns are hexagonal but some have only four sides and some have as many as eight sides.


Legend has it that the columns are what's left of a causeway built a long time ago by an Irish giant named Finn MacCool.  One day a Scottish giant named Benandonner challenged Finn to a fight so Finn built the causeway to Scotland. 

In the version I heard, Finn discovered that Benandonner is quite large so Finn hides.  His wife, Oonaugh, dresses Finn up as a baby and puts him in a cradle.  Benandonner sees the size of the baby and assumes that Finn must be the biggest giant in the world so he flees back to Scotland.  He destroyed the causeway as he fled so that Finn could not follow him.

The Giant's Causeway was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.  It's the only site in all of Ireland.

On our way back to Dublin, we stopped for an hour in Belfast.  Not a lot of time but it was long enough to check out the Christmas market at city hall.

It was was very nice day but quite long.  We got back to Dublin around 7:30 PM and ended up covering about 500 km (311 miles).

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Eiko's 30th Birthday Celebration

Next week is Eiko's 30th birthday but she had a party this past Saturday in Stockholm.  So on Friday I flew up to join in on all of the festivities.  Liz and James flew over from England so it was almost like a mini-Bratisville reunion.

On Friday night several of us went out to dinner.  Eiko has talked about her fiance Tommi for years so it was nice to finally meet him. 

On Saturday a bunch of us spent the day at Skansen.  Skansen was Sweden's first open-air museum and zoo.  The 75 acre (300.000 m²) site is on Djurgården island and attracts over 1.3 million visitors per year. 


Skansen was founded in 1891 and shows what life was like across Sweden prior to the industrial age.  Most to the buildings, including an average 19th century town, are original. 



It was pretty cool seeing reindeer just a couple of weeks before Christmas.

After a disco nap it was time for Eiko's party.  We started off at her flat and then a bunch of us continued the festivities at a club.  On our way, we stopped for a group photo at the Thor statue. 

It was tremendous fun.  The only downer came at the end of the evening (or rather very early the next morning).  Johannes lost his credit card in the club and would not be able to get it until the cleaning crew finished at 4:30 am.  I volunteered to wait with him and luckily he did get his card back.  By the time we made it back to our flat, I crawled in to bed at 5:30 am.  I even managed to get a couple hours of sleep before my 9:30 flight to Dublin.  Needless to say I was completely knackered on Sunday.  It's a good thing that these wild nights only happen once in a while. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Couchsurfing

A couple of weeks ago I hosted my first couchsurfer.  Couchsurfing is hospitality exchange and social networking website.

Couchsurfing is a great way to meet people and save a bit of money when traveling.  It's free and the only thing you have to do is register online.  You can search for people who are willing to host travelers in specific cities.  Profiles indicate the sleeping situation, i.e., if you can sleep on a couch, if there is a spare bed, or even a sleeping bag on the floor.  There's also information such as language proficiency, gender, age, smoking preference, etc.  Guests then send a request to the potential host to sort out the details.

Again, you don't pay anything to stay with someone.  But you should not look at it as just a free hostel or hotel.  The point of couchsurfing is to meet other open minded people, to learn a bit about other cultures and to get a more local experience.  The travelers leave feedback online about the hosts and the hosts do the same for the travelers.  So if you get a bad review then other people will be less willing either host you or to stay with you.

There are many couchsurfing groups that meet up locally for monthly social events.  I've never surfed, but several times during my travels I've met up with locals via couchsurfing for coffee, advice on things to see and do, and even to have a local show me around.

I've received other requests over the years to stay at my flat in Brno but it has always been when I'm unavailable.  At least until a couple of weeks ago.  Glenn, from Australia, was passing through Brno on his way to Vyškov and asked if he could spend one night with me.  We arranged a time for us to meet up in the center after work and we then came back to my flat.  I cooked dinner, he offered to do the dishes, and we swapped travel stories for a few hours.  The next morning he caught his train and I went in to the office.  

The thought of staying with a complete stranger can be rather daunting.  And I'm sure that many people would never want to invite a total stranger in to their home but I know many people who have surfed and hosted before and everyone has had nothing but good experiences.  Glenn was a great guest to host and I'm looking forward to hosting again.

Here's a BBC story I found on YouTube about couchsurfing.  
video
©BBC

Friday, December 5, 2014

Mikuláš 2014

The Christmas season in Czechland begins with Mikuláš.  Once again, Mikuláš made a visit to the IBM office.



I've been the angel before but that's not as much fun as being the devil. 

Besides, I'm probably more convincing as a devil than as an angel.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

I've Applied

This morning I applied for Czech permanent residency.  Permanent residency; not citizenship.  There's a difference.

As a non-EU citizen, living in the European Union, I'm required to renew my work permit and my residency permit every couple of years.  Every time I apply I have to provide a form and lots of notarized documents.  IBM picks up the application fee for the renewals.

Now that I've lived in Czechland for the required five years, and passed my language exam, I am eligible to apply for permanent residency.  Permanent residency allows me to live and work in Czech Republic without having to obtain future permits.  For the past five years I've paid in to the social system but without permanent residency, I'm not allowed to claim unemployment benefits.  If I quit or lost my job then I would have 30 days to find a new firm to sponsor my visa or I would have to leave the Schengen area.

With permanent residency, I will now get treated the same as Czechs except that I don't get to vote.  For that you need citizenship and I can't apply until I've been a permanent resident for at least five years.  Bureaucracy is so much fun to figure out.

I was eligible to apply back in July when I hit my five year anniversary but I couldn't apply because I hadn't completed my Czech language test at the time.  I basically lost five months but no problem.  My application has been received and, due to the upcoming Christmas holidays, I should receive the results back in about 10 weeks. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

2014 World AIDS Day

Today is World AIDS Day.  I wrote about this last year but it's something that people need to think about more than just once a year.  Especially considering that HIV is on the rise in Czechland.  I've said it before and I'll say it again, people need to put on a raincoat before they go outside.




Sunday, November 30, 2014

Obřany Textile Factory

The old 1922 factory
Earlier today, Nat and I were in Brno's Obřany district and came across this old textile factory.  After a bit of research here's what I found out about it.

Ernst Eduard Essler bought a mill in 1900 but the factory burned down in 1913.  A new textile plant was built and in 1915, the firm was passed down to Ernst's son Adolf.  In 1917, the factory's hydroelectric power supplied the local village with electricity and public lighting.

In 1922, a new four-story factory was built and by the 1930's it employed 600 people.  When the Germans invaded, the factory was seized as Jewish property and Adolf Essler was deported to a concentration camp.  After the war, the communists claimed Essler was a collaborator and the factory was confiscated and then nationalized.  Essler managed to emigrate to Austria in 1949. 

Over the years, the textile factory changed names a few times.  Operations closed in 1992 and the building has remained unused since then. 

Czechsgiving

So yesterday was the 6th annual Brno Thanksgiving celebration.  After six years I think it's time to start calling it "Czechsgiving".  

Uncle Chris babysitting so parents can eat
But what a difference six years makes.  It used to be that after the party many of us would check out the Christmas market before ending up in a pub or nightclub.  


Now Thanksgiving looks more like a day care center.  This year we had five kids, and one is on the way for next year. 

Turkey and pumpkin soup


Unlike previous years, there was no adventure when it came to getting the turkey.  This year Tomáš one of the birds from his farm.  It made things so much easier.  

Besides the turkey, ham, and pumpkin soup, we had all of the traditional side dishes such as cornbread dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, glazed carrots, cornbread muffins, cranberry sauce, corn casserole, macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes with marshmallow, green bean casserole, broccoli and rice casserole, deviled eggs, pecan pie, pumpkin pie, and red velvet cake.

Of course, much of this would be very difficult to pull off if it weren't for the very generous care packages I get from home.  Thanks Mom & Dad!  Thanks Steven & Michal!  At some point I really do need to covert all of my recipes to metric.  It would keep me from having to look at my temperature cheat sheet all of the time.  It would also make it much easier when people here ask for specific recipes.

Another successful Thanksgiving/Czechsgiving celebration.  Of course it's not complete without the group photo.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Cheers

Czechs drink the most beer per capita in the world.  Therefore it is important to know the rules when it comes to drinking.

For "cheers" you say na zdraví which means "to your health" and it is very, very important that you look at each person in the eye as you clink glasses.   

Be sure to never, ever cross your glass with someone else when you are clinking glasses.  Across Europe it is thought that doing so will bring seven years of bad sex. 

After you have clinked glasses with everyone then you can take a drink.  This goes for beer, wine or spirits.

In Moravia, the same rules apply for wine or shots but not beer.  Here after you have finished looking everyone in the eye and have clinked glasses, then you tap your beer mug on the table (or your beer coaster) before your first sip. 

If someone is drinking a nonalcoholic beverage then they do not participate in the cheers.  However in the USA, everyone cheers, even if it is with a glass of water or a cola.

Since living in Europe, I find that I say "cheers" quite often and it has nothing to do with drinking.  In British English people also say "cheers" for "thanks" and "good bye".

With so many friends here from all over, plus all of my travels, I've learned how to say "cheers" in many languages.

Czech - Na zdraví
Slovak - Na zdravie
Polish - Na zdrowie
Hungarian - Egészségedre
French - Santé
Dutch - Proost
Italian -  Salute / Cin cin (Chin chin)
Bulgarian - Наздраве (Naz-dra-vey)
Irish - Sláinte (Slawn-ch) 
Russian - Будем здоровы (Budem zdorovi)
Hebrew - לְחַיִּים (L’chaim) 
Greek - γεια μας (Yamas)
Catalan - Salut
Spanish - Salud
Portuguese - Saúde
Turkish - Şerefe
Estonian - Terviseks
Finish - Kippis
Icelandic - Skál
Danish, Norwegian and Swedish - Skål
Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian - Živjeli
Romanian - Noroc (No-rock)
German -  Prost / Zum wohl
Romanians love to cheers with Germans and Austrians because in Romanian "prost" means "idiot".

Monday, November 17, 2014

25th Anniversary of the Velvet Revolution

Happy Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day!!  Today is the 25th anniversary of the start of the Velvet Revolution that toppled the communist regime which ruled Czechoslovakia for more than 40 years.

On 17.11.1989 thousands of people came out to peacefully protest the Communist regime of General Secretary Miloš Jakeš. 

Velvet Revolution memorial in Prague

Samolové Revoluce, the Velvet Revolution, lasted a week.  The peaceful movement allowed Czechoslovakia to transition to a parliamentary republic.

 
Google's homepage doodle in Czech land and Slovakia today depicted the jingling of keys which was a symbol of the Velvet Revolution which signified the unlocking of closed doors.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Berousek Circus

Last night we went to see the Berousek Circus which put on a show in Brno.  The circus was founded in 1918 and over the years has traveled to more than 40 countries. 

The circus was quite small.  There were no lions, tigers or bears but all of the kids seemed to have a good time.   

Here's a short clip of the acrobats that I shot with my mobile.
video

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Banana Juice

After 5½ years in Czechland I finally tried banana juice today.  I wasn't missing out on anything.

There are lots of different kinds of juice at the market but I've never understood banana juice.  How on earth are you supposed to juice a banana?  With the high starch content I would think it impossible. 

I'm sure that it wasn't 100% banana juice.  It had to have been blended with other juices but I wasn't curious enough to explore it further.  It tasted kind of like a very watered down banana milkshake.  I'll stick to the multivitamin juice.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Back from Vienna

At Parliament
We spent the last few days in Vienna showing Steven's mom all around the city.  We hit all of the big highlights such as Schönbrunn, Stephansdom and Peterskirche.

At Belvedere Palace

We didn't get to see the Rathaus because the city is getting ready for the Christmas market.  Vienna has markets all over the city but the big one at the Rathaus opens early, on the 15th.  Steven and his mom missed seeing the market by a few days. 

At Aïda
We, for sure, made time to visit Aïda for coffee and cake.

They are now on their way to Salzburg for a couple of days before going to Munich, and then back to Atlanta

It was so much fun getting to spend time with them!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Mauerfall

As I get older I am amazed at how fast time flies by.  Five years ago I wrote about the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Now it's five years later and it is the 25th anniversary of the Mauerfall (the fall of the wall).

Twenty five years ago I was in the U.S. Air Force.  The Cold War was still on.  Back then, military linguists learned how to speak critical East European languages such as German, Czech and Polish.  Russian is the only Cold War language that is still taught to the military.  Now I'm working for IBM in Czech Republic.  Who would have thought that possible 25 years ago? 

Very little of the Berlin Wall still exists.  What's left is mostly for tourists which I find kind of sad.  I understand that Berlin wants to move past its divided history.  However, the Mauerfall can still be an inspiration to those people living under oppressive regimes.

video
©CBS Evening News