Sunday, March 8, 2015

Eurasian Economic Union

The Eurasian Economic Union is an economic union between Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.  The EEU; not to be confused with the EU, became effective on 1 January 2015.  Kyrgyzstan officially joins in May 2015. 

In 1994, the Kazakh President made a speech in Moscow suggesting the creation of a regional trading block.  This is basically the Eurasian version of the European Union, just with fewer countries and consumers.  The EEU provides a single market of 176 million people.


Russian President Vladimir Putin would like it expanded to all of the post-Soviet republics, except for the Baltics.  Some people think that this is Putin's way of recreating the Soviet Empire.  However, a country can't be a member of both the EU and the EEU.  The Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are all EU members so they won't join the EEU.

Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine were all offered EEU membership but all three countries have signed association agreements with the EU instead.  The EU vs. EEU debate is what helped bring down Viktor Yanukovych's government in Ukraine and led to the current problems in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

It appears that the only real future candidate who may join will be Tajikistan but who knows when that would happen.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

European Economic Area

Not every country in Europe is a member of the European Union.  However, just because a country isn't a member of the EU doesn't mean that it is off on its own.  There's also the European Free Trade Association and the European Economic Area (EEA).

The European Free Trade Association is made up of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland.  For one reason or another these four countries do not want to be a member of the EU.  Remember, any new country that joins the EU must eventually adopt the Euro as its official currency. 

The European Economic Area brings the EU countries and the EFTA countries together so that they participate in a single market.  The EEA allows for the EFTA countries to remain independent of the EU but still reap most of the benefits.  So even though Norway isn't an EU member, Norwegian citizens can work anywhere in the EU, just like EU citizens can. 

The EEA countries adopt a majority of EU legislation except for laws on agriculture, fisheries, taxation, common foreign or security policy. 

While Switzerland is a member of the EFTA, it is not part of the EEA.  Although Switzerland has signed a number of bilateral agreements, including a free trade agreement with the EU.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk

Czechs feel the same way about Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk as Americans do about George Washington.  He was the founding father and first president of Czechoslovakia.

He was born in in 1850, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Specifically in Hodonín, Moravia to a Czech mother and a Slovak father.  He went to grammar school in Brno and went on to earn his Ph.D. from the University of Vienna. 

Masaryk wanted to reform the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a democratic federal state but eventually favored establishing an independent country for Czechs and Slovaks.

During World War I, he went into exile where he gave lectures and lobbied for an independent state.  He organized Czechoslovak Legions in Russia which fought for the Allies.

Masaryk statue in Praha
He obtained support from President Woodrow Wilson and when the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell in 1918, the Allied Powers recognized Masaryk as the head of the Provisional Czechoslovak government.  He was then elected as the first president of an independent Czechoslovakia.  He was reelected three times.  He resigned in 1935 due to old age and poor health and he passed away on 14 September 1937.

Masaryk University
Under his leadership Czechoslovakia was not only a functioning democracy but it was one of the world's 10 most industrialized states.

To this day, Masaryk is regarded as a symbol of democracy.  Almost every Czech town has either a Masaryk street or Masaryk Square dedicated to him.  Brno is home to Masaryk University which is the second largest university in Czechland.

Here's a short video I found out on YouTube.
video

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

PF 2015

Photo: Šťastný nový rok!!PF 2015!  Šťastný nový rok!!

It's hard to believe that in a few wee hours that it's going to be 2015.  This has been a great year and there's lots that I am very thankful for.  Of course, a major highlight was that my parents finally came and visited me in Euroland.  I can't wait to see what 2015 has in store. 

 
2014 was also another great year for travel adventures.  So Happy New Year to all of the places I got to visit this year. Šťastný Nový Rok! Shona Bhliain Nua! С Новым Годом! Gott Nytt År! Head uut aastat! Glückliches Neues Jahr! Onnellista uutta vuotta! ! לְשָׁנָה טוֹבָה! سنة جديدة سعيدة Buon Anno! Godt Nyttår! Feliz Ano Novo! Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku!

Monday, December 29, 2014

No Blog Contest This Year

Several people have asked about this year's blog contest.  Well, the answer is that there wasn't one this year.  On one hand it is kind of disappointing because it would have been nice to see if I came in 1st place again.  On the other hand, I'm kind of glad that there wasn't one because I've been so incredibly busy this year that it would have been one more thing to do.  Who knows?  Perhaps there will be another contest in 2015?

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Der Weihnactsmann

Today was Štědrý den, which is Czech Christmas (but to me it is still Christmas Eve).  With Claudia's parents down from Rahnsdorf we had a nice little German Christmas. 

As any good godfather would do I dressed up like Santa Claus and brought presents.  Tünde liked unwrapping all of her presents but she did not care for Der Weihnactsmann (German Santa Claus).  Every time she was passed to me for a photo she began to cry. 

But once Der Weihnactsmann left and Uncle Chris showed up then everything was fine.  Perhaps the beard scared her. 

Some Czech friends have already posted on Facebook that Czechs don't have Santa.  While this is true I still have two reasons for dressing up.  First, we had a German Christmas so Santa was allowed.  And most importantly, there was no way that I was going to dress up like Little Baby Jesus to deliver presents.

2014 Christmas

 Merry Christmas!!  Krásné Vánoce!! 

Today was a nice, low-key Christmas.  I had a few people over for another Orphan's Christmas dinner where I cooked my first goose.  It's hard to believe that 2015 is just around the corner.

Merry Christmas everyone!!  And to my very international team...
Veselé Vánoce! Crăciun Fericit! Geseënde Kersfees! С Рождеством! Selamat Hari Krismas! Gëzuar Krishtlindjet! Feliz Natal! Priecīgus Ziemassvētkus! З Різдвом! Vrolijk Kerstfeest! Весела Коледа! Sretan Božić! عيد ميلاد مجيد! Joyeux Noël! Frohe Weihnachten! मैरी क्रिसमस! Boldog karácsonyt! Срећан Божић! Linksmų Kalėdų! 聖誕節快樂! Feliz Navidad! Nollaig Shona! Среќен Божиќ! میری کرسمس! Wesołych Świąt! Buon Natale! חג המולד שמח! Veselé Vianoce!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

In Time for Christmas

Photo: Veselé vánoce všichni! Merry Christmas Eve back home!My Swedish and Irish vacation is over and I'm back home in Brno.  Just in time for Christmas.  I have a German house guest coming tomorrow so I had to scramble to get my little Christmas tree up and a few decorations out. 

It's a good thing that the next three days in Czechland are public holidays

Monday, December 22, 2014

Cork and Blarney Castle Tour

Yesterday we took an all day bus tour from Dublin to Blarney Castle and Cork.   

The Rock of Cashel








On the way we made a stop in County Tipperary to visit the Rock of Cashel.  The Rock of Cashel dates back to the 12th century. 

There's a 12th chapel, a 13th Celtic cathedral, and 15th century castle on a limestone hill.

This is the seat of the archbishop of the diocese of Cashel. 




Around the cathedral are many old gravestones with traditional Celtic crosses.  

Our next stop was at Blarney Castle; about 10 km (6.25 miles) from Cork.  Blarney Castle dates back to 1446.  The castle is famous for being home to the Stone of Eloquence.  Of course, it is better know as the Blarney Stone.  Legend has it that if one kisses the stone, he or she will be bestowed with the gift of gab.

The catch is that the Blarney Stone is at the top of the castle.  It was set in to a tower in 1446.  In order to kiss the stone, you have to get on your back, hold on to iron railings and bend backwards while someone holds on to you.  You're basically hanging upside down. 

Hang upside down to kiss a rock?
Somehow I have a feeling that no Irish person actually does this.  I think this is something that someone cooked up for tourists to hang upside down while they pay €5 to kiss a rock.  I was fine to skip this as I have enough gab already.

The castle gardens were quite nice and well worth an amble through them.

Our final stop was Cork in.  With a population over 119,000 it is Ireland's second largest city.  Cork was founded in the 6th century and gained city rights in 1185.  

Cork City Hall
While Cork is the 3rd largest city on the island after Dublin and Belfast, it isn't that big.  Brno is bigger.

We didn't have a great deal of time to explore but it seemed nice enough.  I think a proper future weekend visit is in order to really check it out.

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.