Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Smoke Free Day

I had some errands to run in the city center today and saw something interesting on my way back home. A bunch of students were doing a cigarette exchange near some of the tram stops. If you gave them your cigarettes, then they gave you preservativ (condoms). That's an interesting trade.

I found out later on that the students were all medical students and this was part of a smoke free day campaign. I wonder just how successful they'll be? Smoking is every where over here. But kudos to the med students for giving it a shot.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Czech Statehood Day

September 28th is Czech Statehood Day and it is a public holiday here. It sounds like it would be the Czech equivalent of the 4th of July but it actually celebrates St. Wenceslas, the nation's patron saint.

Václav I (Wenceslas in English) is credited with founding the independent Czech state. He was murdered by his brother Boleslav in Stará Boleslav. In Prague, there is Wenceslas Square which has played host to the most important events in Czech history.

- The Czechoslovak state was proclaimed here in 1918. (October 28th is the Day of Establishment of the Independent Czechoslovak Republic).

- Protests against the Soviet-led invasion in 1968 took place there and in 1969 Ján Palach, a young student, set himself on fire there in protest of the Soviet occupation.

- Finally, the demonstrations of 1989 in Wenceslas Square saw the fall of the communist regime.

The Pope's Visit

Yesterday was absolutely amazing. Pope Benedict XVI gave an open-air mass at the airport for over 120,000 people. This was the first ever papal visit to the Brno Diocese since its founding in 1777. Now I can say I witnessed a part of Brno's history.

The Czech Republic is a very secular country but lots of people came from Slovakia, Poland, Austria and Hungary. There were even people at the airport when it opened at 4 AM. Way too early for me!
Claudia, a German friend from work, met Janelle and I in town at 6:30 AM and we left with others from church. The city had free buses that ran from the main station out to the airport. And we got to the airport around 7:30.

Father Josef got us great tickets!!! We were in A2, right behind the VIPs. Click the picture of the map to see where we were.

"At times one cannot help noticing, with a certain nostalgia, that the pace of modern life tends to diminish some elements of a rich heritage of faith. Yet it is important not to lose sight of the ideal expressed by traditional customs," the pope said, "and above all to maintain the spiritual patrimony inherited from your forebears, to guard it and to make it answer to the needs of the present day."

The Pope also made reference during his homily to Sister Marie Restituta Kafkova, a Brno-born candidate for sainthood who was executed by the Nazis in 1943.

Everything was incrediby well-organized. Mass started at 10 AM and lasted for about 2 hours - including welcome speeches, service in Latin & Czech, and communion for over 100,000 people. Wow!
I haven't told my grandmother yet but I got her a blessed rosary. She will flip out when she gets it in the mail. Now I just have to figure out the Czech post office.

Lots more pics and better video are already posted on Flickr.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Marcus' 25th B-Day

So Friday I was back in Bratislava for Marcus' 25th birthday party. He wanted guacamole for his party and I was able to get avocados in Brno so I made it Friday when I got there. I don't even mind bragging a bit...it was awesome!! Maybe a little too good because we wished we had leftovers the next day.

The party was a blast!! We reserved a room at the Presidentka pub. There were around 25 people that came and most were from IBM. But Eric, one of the marines from last weekend, and his girlfriend Zuzka made it to the party also.

It was also nice to have Janelle back from New York so that the 3 amigos were together again.

We even introduced everyone to Jello shots. Of course, the "downside" was that Marcus or I had to keep demonstrating how to do them. They were a big hit!!

Later on a few of us ended up at Channels in Old Town. It was so much fun dancing and acting crazy. Then Janelle had the bright idea to do flaming shots. Basically it was a buttery nipple shot with absinthe floated on top so that the drink would catch fire. You put the straw in the glass and suck down the drink before the straw catches fire and melts. Good times!!

I swear one weekend I will go to Bratislava and actually see some touristy stuff. But last weekend was the wine festival and this was an overnight visit just for the party. I had to be back in Brno on Saturday afternoon, with Janelle, so we could see the Pope on Sunday.

I've uploaded all of the party pics on Flickr. And my family will be happy to know that I've finally uploaded some where I'm actually in the picture.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Pezinok Wine Festival

This weekend I made my first trip since moving to Brno. A round trip train ticket to Bratislava is only 345 Kč (~$20) and takes 1.5 hours.

It was nice to get away for the weekend but the difference was amazing. In Brno, I feel like I live in Europe. In Bratislava, I felt like I was in Eastern Europe for the first time. To be fair, I did not see much of the city but everything seemed so gray. Besides, this weekend was all about going to Pezinok. And I know that I'll be back to Bratislava often to hang out with friends and to actually check out the sights.

On Saturday, Marcus' friends Quentin & Alena joined us on our 20 km pilgrimage to Pezinok. He's French and she's Slovak and they are a lot of fun. The festival was more like a carnival with rides, games and vendors. We found this perfect wine bar with outside tables and 1 liter pitchers of wine for €3 (~$4.50). Needless to say, we went through lots of pitchers. =)

While waiting for the last train back to Bratislava, Marcus and I ended up meeting some of the U.S. marine embassy guards. They were a lot of fun to talk to and we ended up clubbing with them back in the city. I forgot what it was like to party with marines.

Marcus & I decided to go on this ride just to get the day started. It was €4 but so worth it. Thank goodness we had the sense to ride it before we had any wine.
Overall it was great weekend with lots of laughs. The rest of the pictures are already up on Flickr.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Hlavní nádraží

Hlavní nádraží is the main train station in Brno. It started operating in 1839 and is the oldest station in the Czech Republic.

This is also the main hub for the trams so if you get lost you know that you can at least always make it here.

The station has been going through renovations but I don't know how long they have been going on or how long they will last.

There used to be a second tower clock, on the right side, but it was destroyed in World War II. I'm told that there is a poll to vote if the second tower should be rebuilt. Not quite sure why they didn't rebuild it before...
There is also talk of building a new, larger station in 2010. However, given the economic situation in the world today who knows if that will happen?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

First Mail

Today was an eventful day. I finally had something in my mailbox...a letter from the U.S. It's about damn time ya'll!!! But then again, with Skype, Facebook, Sametime, and IM's it's not like I'm not in the loop. I don't know if I could have been done this whole expat thing pre-Internet.

I found a gym that I can go workout at. It is only about a block away from my flat. And I don't need a contract. It's 65 Kč (~$3.60 U.S.) per visit or 600 Kč (~$33) per month. It's going to be nice to start working out again. And once my household goods get here in about 5 or 6 weeks, I'll have my spin shoes and be back on a bike. http://www.spinningafitness.cz/

After work I went to the tram station and bought my 1st train ticket. It is always cheaper to buy a round-trip ticket and the cool thing is that the return portion is good for 30 days. So you have a lot of flexibility when traveling.

This weekend is my first road trip to Bratislava, Slovakia. Marcus and I are going to a wine festival in Pezinok on Saturday. It should be a lot of fun. Now I've been told that Bratislava is not really as bad as they portrayed it in the movie Eurotrip. Let's hope not...

First Guests

Last weekend I had my first American visitors in Brno. But they only had to travel 1.5 hours from Bratislava, Slovakia. Both are fellow expat IBMers.

So here's the background...
When I first arrived in Brno I received a message on Facebook from Marcus. He is also from Atlanta and we both had the same finance professor at Georgia State. But we never met before. Dr. Ruff gave him my name and we hit it off. Such is the power of Facebook and networking. But leave it to Craig Ruff to know two different people in Atlanta who moved to Eastern Europe for IBM.

Janelle had mentioned to him that she was thinking about coming to see Brno for the weekend. He mentioned that he knew someone who lived here and the next thing you know I have guests. Janelle lived in New York for the last 10 years so like any good Yankee, she likes Atlanta, so we all had that in common.

On Friday night we stumbled across a great Chinese restaurant by old town hall. Asian food isn't that great here. But this was awesome. We followed that up with beer, shots of slivovice (plum brandy) & hruškovica (pear brandy), and dancing. We had a blast!!

Saturday was a lot more mellow as we all recovered. We walked around the city center for a bit and had some lunch. Saturday night we went to the Greek restaurant on my street and came back for movies in the flat.

On Sunday, Janelle went to church with me. Everyone there wants to know when she is coming back and Father Josef was disappointed that she won't be able to see the Pope next weekend because she is visiting New York.

We all had so much fun this weekend. I can't remember the last time I laughed so much. My voice was scratchy until Tuesday. And now I've got a European Atlanta crew for some random adventures.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Czech Alphabet

Since I start taking Czech lessons this week I figure I’ll share a bit more about the language. When you first look at written Czech with all of those accent marks it looks absolutely impossible.

But they may be on to something over here because, unlike English, pretty much everything is pronounced just as it is written. After learning the letters you can, more or less, pronounce everything right away. Unfortunately, even though you can say it, you still don’t know what it means in English. The only kicker here is that the stress is always on the first syllable of a word. It sounds easier than it is.

With the 3 different kinds of accent marks, there are 42 letters in the Czech alphabet.

a, á, b, c, č, d, ď, e, é, ě, f, g, h, ch, i, í, j, k, l, m, n, ň, o, ó, p, q, r, ř, s, š, t, ť, u, ú, ů, v, w, x, y, ý, z, ž

Notice that „ch“ is its own letter and comes after „h“. Also, the letters G, Q, W and X are only used in foreign words. Here are the main differences from (American) English pronunciation..

c = ts, as in cats. My last name gets pronounced „tsamargo“ here.
č = ch, as in church
ch = is glutteral, as in the Scottish word, loch
j = y as in yellow
ň = nya, as in onion
š = sh, as in shoe
ť = tya, as in stew
w = v. When you give a website you say "ve ve ve" instead of "double u double u double u".
ž = „zh“ or how the „s“ is pronouned in pleasure
r = a rolled R sound
ř = a rolled R sound with a „zh“ sound. This sound only exists in Czech. Even Slovaks, Poles and Russians have a difficult time trying to pronouce this one. When I try to say it, most people look at me as if I'm retarded.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Gambrinus

Czechs love their pivo (beer). It is remarkable to me that really good beer is just over a dollar. Or that it is cheaper to order beer than either water or soda. For example, at lunch today I had a small bottle of multivitamin juice that cost 27 Kč (~$1.54 U.S.). I could have ordered a 1/2 liter of cold Gambrinus on draft for only 30 Kč. I should have ordered a beer but I had things to do today.

Gambrinus is one of the most popular brands and among my favorites. It is produced by the Plzeňský Prazdroj brewery...the same brewery that makes Pilsner Urquell.

I think that you can find out a lot about a culture by taking a look at its TV commercials. Here is one I found that I think aired around 2007. Plus this way, my family will be able to hear what the Czech language sounds like. Enjoy the commercial.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI is making his first visit to the Czech Republic. He will be in Brno on Sunday, September 27th and will give mass out at the airport.

The city expects around 120,000 people to be out at the airport for mass. But I think that a lot of these folks are coming from Slovakia, Poland and Hungary which have large catholic populations.

The Czech Republic is just not a religous country. Almost 60% of the population is agnostic, atheist or non-denominational. Which is odd because they have a lot of beautiful churches here. The communists must have beat religion out of them.

Sister Georgina already has us practicing our hymns in Latin. Mass at the airport is at 10 AM. But Father Josef said we need to be out at the airport by 7 AM. I guess Saturday night will not be a late one.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Burčák

I made a new discovery this weekend...burčák (procnounced bur-chák).

In the city center, I noticed four or five different street vendors all selling wine in plastic to-go cups or in liter bottles. Since the locals were buying it up, I figured I had to give it a try. All of the booths had the white (or rather brownish looking) variety while only one vendor had the red. The white is good but the red is brilliant!

Burčák is partially fermented young wine. It is cloudy, fizzy and sweet. In order to be called burčák, it must be made with Czech grapes. Moravia is the wine producing region of ČR and, since Brno is the capital of Moravia, it makes sense that it is so popular here.

I found out that you have to drink this stuff quickly because it has a short shelf-life. It can only be sold legally from September through the end of November. I've also been warned that this stuff can pack a heck of a hangover.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Divadlo Kvelb - „Invaze“

On Saturday, I saw a performance art piece in the city center at Náměstí Svobody. The Divadlo Kvelb (Kvelb Theater) came to Brno from České Budějovice to perform „Invaze“ (Invasion).

This is a moving production so the crowd follows the performers though the streets with a few key stops. The entire performance was a little over an hour. It is a satirical view of communism and, even though the whole thing was in Czech, I was still able to get the gist of what was going on.

A general in his beat-down tank and four followers go up and down the steets accompanied by loud music. They use red & white tape to annex everything in sight. Along the way they start putting up signs banning jazz, flowers, freedom, etc. They eventually come to giant rag dolls that represent different characters. One puppet gives in, another resists the invaders, one is an informer and causes another puppet to be hanged, one flees to the west, etc. A couple of the puppets get dragged behind the tank and end up in prison. At the end, the invaders take on religion and a giant angel.

The production was quite good. And free!! The crowd really got in to in. I thought it was neat that the crowd and I both laughed at the same parts. Here are a couple of videos I took on my camera. Another video and other photos are already up on Flickr.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Harvest Festival Parade

On my way to the vegetable market this morning I noticed some people and horses at Česká. On my way back I went by to see what was going on. It was the start of a parade. I didn't know what it was for so I did the only logical thing on such a nice day...I followed the parade.

Even the old historic tram was part of the parade. It was cool seeing all of the traditional Czech costumes. The group went to Mendl Square where I think someone just gave a blessing and then they continued on.

Someone spoke enough English to tell me that this was folklore tradition to celebrate the harvest. Later on, I found out later that they continued from Mendl Square on to the exhibition grounds.

I was lucky to stumble across this. The rest of the pictures are already on Flickr.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Slovakia vs Czech Republic

The Czech national football (soccer) team is now in Bratislava, Slovakia for a big match this weekend.

Both teams are trying to qualify to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

The Slovaks are in the lead while the qualifying matches have been tough for the Czech team. Both teams need a win on Saturday to keep hope alive of qualifying to the World Cup. If the Czechs lose then they will be out of automatic qualification for South Africa. It should be an interesting match.

This is kind of a match between two "brother" countries. I wonder just how big the rivalry is between the two? It wasn't that long ago that they made up a single country.


vs
EDIT: It was a draw. Slovakia and ČR tied 2:2. Hopefully, the Czechs will win their upcoming matches and qualify to the 2010 World Cup. They play San Marino on the 9th, Poland on 10.10 and Northern Ireland and the 14.10.
EDIT: On the 9th the ČR beat San Marino 7:0. They play Poland on 10.10 in Prague.
EDIT: On 10.10, the ČR beat Poland 2:0 but on 14.10 there was a draw 0:0 against Northern Ireland. Slovakia has qualified to the World Cup for the 1st time in its history. I can't tell if the ČR still has a chance for a playoff spot or not.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Air Raid Sirens

I went out to lunch today, with a coworker, in Královo Pole. All of a sudden the city's air raid sirens went off. I didn't know if the Russians were invading again or what. Apparently, the sirens are tested at noon, on the first Wednesday of every month.

This came in to practice after the 2002 central European floods. The ČR had the worst floods in over a century and around 100 towns & villages were completely flooded. Another 350 were partly flooded and 220,000 people were evacuated from their homes while 15 people died. I'm told that the total losses were over 3 billion Euros (~$4.28 billion U.S.).

I wonder if they also interrupt TV & radio to test the emergency broadcast network? Hmmm...

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Prosím

Prosím (pronounced pro-seem) is definitely one of the words any visitor here needs to learn because you use it all of the time. Literally it means "I beg". So just like "bitte" in German...it means both "please" and "you're welcome".

You can also use prosím for "I beg your pardon" when you can't hear someone properly. It can also mean "here you are" if you hand something over to someone. A lot of Czechs say prosím when they answer the telephone.

If you need to address a stranger, then the polite way to say "excuse me" is by using "prosím vás" (please you).

You also use it when you offer up your seat on the tram. If you open the door and want to let someone pass...you got it...you say prosím.