Friday, September 9, 2016

Belarus Tourist Visa

Most people who want to visit Belarus need to arrange a visa in advance.  It tends to be a bureaucratic pain in the arse but there's no way around it.  The easiest one to get is the 10-day maximum tourist visa.  Here's what's required for an American citizen to get one of the single-entry 10 day visas.

  1. A copy of your passport
  2. A completed application form
  3. A passport photo
  4. A confirmation letter from the hotel/hostel 
  5. Proof of travel health insurance showing worldwide or Belarus coverage
  6. Proof of payment for the visa fee
Belarus Embassy in Bratislava
Normal visa processing takes 7 - 10 business days unless you double the fee to receive your visa in 3 - 5 business days.  Two visits are required; the first to apply and the second to pick it up.  Belarus has embassies in Prague, Bratislava, and Vienna.  I would loose two full days of work travelling back and forth to Prague so this became my third choice.  The embassy in Bratislava handles visas between 9 AM - Noon on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.  This worked great because I could do what I need to do at the embassy at 9 AM and then I could work the rest of the day from the IBM office in Bratislava and catch an eventing train home.

It used to be pretty expensive for Americans to get a visa.  Something like $120 or $160 but a couple of years ago the price dropped.  The problem is that the cost seemed to vary a bit depending on where you applied.  I e-mailed the Belarus Embassy in Bratislava and they confirmed it would cost €60.  The embassy does not accept money so you have to transfer the money to their Bratislava bank account and bring proof of payment.  

So two weeks ago I caught an early train and was at the embassy by 8:20 AM.  By 9 AM there were four others in line behind me.  The clerk spoke to me in Russian but my Russian isn't what it used to be.  I asked her in Czech if she spoke English or Czech.  She grunted and nodded her head.  But she didn't actually indicate that she spoke English.  Since I figured she had to speak Slovak I decided to just go with Czech.

That's when the questions began.  Why do I want to go to Belarus?  Have I ever been to Belarus before?  Do I know anyone in Belarus?  Where will I go in Belarus?  What will I do there?  

She went through all of my paperwork.  She told me that she did not know the hotel I booked.  How did I find this hotel?  Why did I book this hotel?  

Since I have permanent residency she also wanted a copy of my Schengen ID.  I knew to come prepared so I just happened to have a photocopy of it.  I also had copies of my flight itinerary/receipt which she took even though I doubt she really needed them.

I provided a screen print showing the bank transfer to their account for the €60 fee.  No problem.  She took my passport and told me to come back in two weeks to pick up my visa.  They would hold my passport until then.

All said and done and I was done by 9:15 AM.  I wasn't thrilled about leaving my passport especially since I just got it.  I don't need to carry my passport in Czechland because I have my Czech residency card but technically I need to carry both when I am outside of Czech Republic.  I didn't have any trips planned and figured I would be fine between CZ and Slovakia with only my ID.  Besides I went through this before when I applied for my Azeri visa which required three visits - the first to apply, then once approved you go back to give them your passport and finally on the third visit you get your passport back.  I defiantly don't want to deal with that sort of drama again.  

The entry for visa services
Two weeks later and I was back at the embassy first thing this morning to pick up my passport.  It was a different clerk this morning but I explained that I was there to pick up my passport and visa.  She took out my file and went through every document.  She then asks me for my receipt for the €60 fee.  I explained that I provided a screen print with all of my paperwork.  She looks through everything again.  She can't find it.  She tells me that I need to pay €60 for the visa.  I tell her again that I provided proof of payment.  She pulls out my passport and the visa is in it but she needs proof of payment.  This is starting to feel like a shake down and I'm not rolling over for €60.

I explain to her that why would they have accepted my application in the first place, or even processed the visa, if I hadn't already provided proof of payment.  Now I'm getting annoyed and switch to Russian.  Then the supervisor comes in and she briefs the other woman what's going on.  The supervisor just happens to be the clerk I dealt with two weeks ago.  I see her look through all of the same submitted papers again and she asks me about the receipt.  I explain that I provided a screen print from my bank when I applied.  Who did you give this to?, she asks.  My response...I gave it, to you, with all of my other paperwork.  She then hands me my passport and I check that the dates on the visa are correct and I left.  The whole thing still only took about 20 minutes.  What's interesting is that on the visa itself it says how much was paid.

I don't know if this was an actual shake down.  I don't know if they relented because they saw that I wasn't going to give up or maybe things changed once I switched to Russian (even though it's pretty rusty).  I don't really care because the main thing is that I now have my visa for Belarus which is the only country in Europe that I have not been to.  Belarus will be #50.
My Belarus tourist visa
Update:  As of 12 February 2017, Belarus will now issue free visas on arrival to passengers flying in to Minsk.  The visas are for a maximum of five calendar days and, again, are only available to tourists who fly in to Minsk National Airport.  This is available to citizens of 80 different counties, including the USA.   

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Bratislava Penthouse

This week I was back in Bratislava.  Not a big surprise.  Sometimes I feel that I spend more time in Bratislava than I do at home in Brno.  Heck, I'm here so often that I know in Slovak the city's nickname is Blava.  Short for Bratislava.

Since July the city has been crazy busy and there is lots of security everywhere.  That's because from July until the end of December, Slovakia holds the presidency of the European Union.  Every six months it rotates to a different country.

Here's the logo for the Slovak EU presidency.  The three diacritics that make up the logo's happy face are the three different accent marks used in the Slovak language.  Pretty clever.

This week I had to attend a workshop.  The problem has been that getting a hotel room in town has been very tough due to all of the extra people here for the six month term.  So rather than stay at the Sheraton where I normally do, next to the office, this time I rented a studio flat.  I'm going to have to do this again.

The flat is practically next door to the office, I don't feel like I'm stuck in a hotel room, and at €50 a night it is much cheaper than staying at the Sheraton.
Plus it has a little penthouse vibe to it.  I'm sure that the travel department will give me a hassle for getting something on booking.com but I'll deal with that later. 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Věra Čáslavská, R.I.P.

©Blesk
On Tuesday, Věra Čáslavská passed away at the age of 74.  She was one of the most successful gymnasts of all time and bravely stood up to the Soviet Union.


Between 1962 and 1968 she won 22 international titles and is still the only gymnast to have won Olympic gold medals in all five individual events.


After her public opposition to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 she was forced into retirement, not allowed to coach and barred from international travel by the Communist regime.

Following the Velvet Revolution, she was a sports advisor to Václav Havel and later was elected President of the Czech Olympic Committee.

In 2015 she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  She was taken to a Prague hospital and died the following day.  Here's a short news video I found out on YouTube about her being remembered.

video
©SNTV

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Agile 2k16 Retrospective

One of my goals at work this year was to hold an international project management conference.  It's never been done before at IBM in Brno or in any any of our Client Innovation Centres.  So why not be the first.

The conference, on Tuesday, was a retrospective of our Agile Transformation.  We lined up presenters, both internal and external, from Czechland, Slovakia, Poland, Norway, and Malaysia.  


As a first try I thought we would get around 150 attendees but we went over that and had a wait list.  I was very proud of my team for making this such a successful event.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Czechland Gets Smaller

©Der Spiegel
It seems that Germany has gotten a little bigger while Czechland has gotten a wee bit smaller.

The Křinice River, Kirnitzsch in German, has naturally changed course.  It used to to flow in a slight loop, between the two countries, but now it flows straight.

Not a big deal except that about 40% of the border between Czech Republic and Germany is determined by waterways.

Initial findings show that the river may have straightened around 2013 when the area was last flooded.

I'm sure there must be some an official Czech-German border commission or some EU border something or other that will need to sort this out.

Until then it looks like Czechland has lost an area of about 18 x 28 meters (60 x 90 feet).

Friday, August 19, 2016

Bring Your Child to Work Day

This was the third or fourth time I've worked out of the Dublin office but this week was definitely more interesting.

The other day I'm told that my English is OK for an American.  And today was Bring Your Child to Work Day.

Hmmm...not sure why my Irish colleagues didn't warn me about this one in advance.

It seemed to be a pretty nice event with movies, colouring, face painting and more.  All of the kids seemed to have a fun time and you could see the pride on people's faces when they introduced their children around the office.

I should suggest something like this in Brno but probably on a day that I work from home.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Compliment...of sorts

Today I received a compliment...of sorts.  More of an insult but here's the story.

I had a meeting with an Irish chap in our Dublin office.  As we wrapped up he said:  "Your English is remarkable for a Czech."

I responded with:  "Thanks.  I'm American."

Leprechaun:  "Oh.  Well then it's just OK."

I'll take it as friendly banter and I'm sure my Brno colleagues will get a laugh out of the story.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Douglas, Isle of Man

Douglas is the capital of the Isle of Man.  In Manx it is called Doolish and it is also the largest town on the island with just over 28,000 people which is about 33% of the entire island's population.  It is on the east coast at the mouth of the River Douglas.

Douglas was a just a small settlement until the 18th century when shipping routes were established with Liverpool.  In 1863, Douglas replaced Castletown as the capital.  Today it is the main shopping and business hub.



Douglas' claims to fame are the annual Tourist Trophy (TT) motorcycle races and as the birthplace of Maurice, Robin, and Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees.



The busiest part of town is the promenade.  It runs for two miles with plenty of historic buildings facing the sea.  It is perfect for a relaxing stroll.



For those that don't want to walk then there's the option to take a horse-drawn tram from Spring to early Fall.  It's one of two remaining in the world but we preferred to walk.

The Jubilee Clock was donated in 1887 in commemoration of the the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria's reign.

The Gaiety Theatre was built in 1899.  It opened in July 1900 and underwent major restoration in 1976.  It has a year-round programme and seats 898 people.


The Parish Church of Saint Thomas is an Anglican church.  It was consecrated in 1849 and seats over 1,000 people.












The Manx Museum houses the National Art Collection and the National Archives.  Unfortunately it is closed on Sunday so we missed it.

The War Memorial was unveiled in 1924 in memory of the soldiers killed during WWI.  The names of those lost in WWII have were added to the monument.  The "Manxman" stands on a column of Manx granite.

Villa Marina is an entertainment venue along the promenade.  It opened in 1913 and underwent major restoration from 2001-2004.

Sir Norman Wisdom was an English actor, comedian, and singer.  He was best known for a some comedy films produced from 1953 to 1966.  He was knighted in 2000 and passed away in 2010.

St. Mary's Isle, also known as Conister Rock, is a partially submerged reef in Douglas Bay.  It is home to the Tower of Refuge.  Several vessels were shipwrecked due to the reef so the tower was built as a refuge fro survivors until help could arrive.  The tower was completed in 1832 and is designed to look like a 13th century castle.



The most famous shipwreck was the St. George in 1830. A memorial commemorating the rescue of the St. George is on the promenade.



Overall Douglas is a nice, quiet place to visit.  Two days were plenty of time to see everything and still have time to just relax.

Friday, August 12, 2016

New Dress Code Video

The IBM Client Innovation Centre in Brno has a new dress code.  It's quite simple now.  There is no dress code.  In order to simply things and empower people, we've gone to a policy where people should use their best judgement.

This was communicated today and here's the video that's been put out on YouTube.  Yes, I did get roped in to being a part of this.  And no, I would never dress like this at work.

video

Friday, August 5, 2016

Isle of Man

The Isle of Man is an island in the Irish Sea located between Ireland and the UK.  The island is 572 km² (32 miles²); almost three times the size of Washington, DC.  It is home to just over 88,000 people.  The capital, and largest city, is Douglas.

The Isle of Man, called Ellan Vannin in Manx, is self-governing crown dependency.  While its inhabitants are British citizens, the Isle of Man is not part of the United Kingdom or the European Union.

The UK is responsible for defence and diplomatic affairs.  As a Crown dependency Queen Elizabeth II holds the title of Lord of Man and is represented locally by a Lieutenant Governor.  The Chief Minister is elected by the Tynwald - local parliament.  The Tynwald is one of the world's oldest continuous governing bodies.

The Isle of Man was settled by the Celts around the 5th century and came under Viking control in 1079.  In 1266 it became part of Scotland and came under the English Crown in 1399.  In 1866, it obtained some measure of Home Rule and never became part of the UK.

Since it is not part of the UK, but its people are British citizens, the passports are a bit different.  The cover page doesn't say "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Island" or "European Union".  Instead, it says "British Islands - Isle of Man" on the cover.

Although it enjoys free access to EU markets, it isn't part of the EU, so they didn't get to vote on the UK leaving the EU.

English is the official language and Manx Gaelic became official in 1985.  While the last native Manx speaker died in 1974 the government has been trying to revive the language.  Manx is closely related to Irish and Scottish Gaelic but the languages are not mutually understandable.  Only about 2% of the population has any knowledge of it.

£1 IOM note; £1 UK coin
The Isle of Man has its own money.  The Manx Pound is at parity with the UK's Pound Sterling.  The British Pound is accepted everywhere but the Manx Pound is not accepted in the UK.  For some reason there is a £1 note and a £1 coin.

£10 IOM note on top; £10 UK note below
In a couple of weeks I'll be working a week in the Dublin office.  It's only about a 30 minute flight from Dublin to the Isle of Man so the plan is to spend a weekend in Douglas.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

A Weekend in Amsterdam

With the IBM LGBT leadership workshop on Thursday and Friday's Workplace Pride conference finished it only made sense that a weekend city break in Amsterdam was in order.


Amsterdam is such a great city.  We spent the weekend walking along the canals, visiting a few museums and just enjoying a peaceful little getaway.


The only thing that gets on my nerves here is the smell of marijuana that randomly hits you.  It's not a constant thing but there are times when you're just walking along and all of a sudden the smell it there.  That's fine if you like it but I have always hated the stench of it.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

2016 Workplace Pride Conference

Thursday was the IBM LGBT Leadership workshop and yesterday IBM co-sponsored the 10th annual Workplace Pride conference.  The event was held at the former 19th century Amsterdam Stock Exchange.  The aim of the conference was partnering with other businesses to drive social change with LGBT inclusion.  #wpcon2016

The first speaker was Robert Biedron who in 2011 became Poland's first openly gay parliamentarian.  In 2014, he was elected mayor of Słupsk making him Poland's first openly gay mayor.  His story was very inspiring.  He was right when he said "LGBT rights are like beautiful flowers, if you don't take care of them, they will die."

Afterwards, Marianne Zwagerman, a well-known Dutch journalist, moderated an executive panel focusing on leadership in LGBTT workplace equality.  The panel was made of of the General Manager of IBM BeNeLux, the CEO of ABN AMRO, the Chief HR Officer of ING Group, and the Global General Manager for Talent & Learning at Booking.com.

Team IBM at Workplace Pride
There were interesting breakout sessions held by different companies like Ikea, ABN AMRO and Booking.com.  These two days were inspiring and defiantly made me feel proud to be an IBMer.  

Friday, July 29, 2016

2016 IBM European LGBT Leadership Workshop

This week I'm fortunate to attend a couple of diversity workshops in the Netherlands.  Yesterday was the 2016 European LGBT Leadership Development Workshop which was held at IBM Netherlands Headquarters in Amsterdam.



This was the first time that the rainbow flag was flown at the IBM HQ in the Netherlands.

It was great to meet with 50 IBMers from across Europe (and Israel).  There were people from the Netherlands, the UK, Germany, Austria, Ireland, Italy, Slovenia, France, Switzerland, Hungary, Russia, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Israel, and Czech Republic.

Studies show that being in the closet, and not brining your authentic self to work, makes a huge difference.  It can impact an employee's productivity, job satisfaction and overall engagement by up to 40%.  This 40% is huge especially when more than half of all LGBT workers hide their sexual orientation at work.  It's just good business to take care of your people.

There is a higher degree of social acceptance and legal protections available to LGBT individuals in Western Europe than in Central or Eastern Europe.  The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) has a rainbow map that shows the legal and policy developments in Europe.  The UK comes in at 81% while Russia is quite low at 7%.  Czechland is the most progressive of the former Iron Curtain countries coming in at 32%.
2016 ILGA Rainbow Europe
There were a number of interactive workshops and panel discussions.  We got to hear from the IBM General Manager of BeNeLux, who is a straight ally, and out executives from IBM, PwC, and Post NL.

I participated in a Gay Leadership workshop in Atlanta way back in 2004.  One of the speakers then was one of our out execs.  In one of the breakout sessions she said a couple of things that have stayed with me over the years and I've quoted her over the years.  She now lives in the UK so it was especially nice to see her again and I got the opportunity to thank her for her advice all of those years ago.

Today is part 2 with IBM co-sponsoring the 10th Workplace Pride conference.