Tuesday, August 31, 2010

GoOverseas

Last week I was recognized by the editorial staff at GO! Overseas as one of the top travel related blogs in the Czech Republic. Of course, there aren't a lot of bloggers here but that's beside the point. But it looks like I'm in pretty good company too because some of the other bloggers recognized are ones that I used when I was researching the possibility of moving here.

GoOverseas.com is a website for studying, teaching and volunteering overseas.

This is pretty dang cool! The reason I started this blog in the first place was so that my family could get a better sense of what it's like for me over here. This way it doesn't seem like I'm so far away. The thing is that the more I blogged the more therapeutic it became.

It blows my mind at time to know just how many people, from all over the world, have viewed my blog.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Slivovice

Slivovice is a very potent clear spirit, similar to a plum brandy, which is popular here. You drink it as a shot. You can buy it in stores but the best is homemade. Many Moravians (and Slovaks too) distill their own moonshine. I get the impression that although everyone knows someone who makes their own liquor, it’s kind of frowned upon by the authorities. But the homemade version is always better than the store bought version.

It is distilled twice to keep you from going blind and is normally around 51% proof. It can pack a heck of a wallup!! It will for sure keep you warm during the winter.

Almost as popular is hruškovice which is the pear brandy version. I prefer this over slivovice. You can also find meruňkovice (apricot brandy) in the stores. I’ve yet to meet anyone who makes meruňkovice. Probably because there are more plum and pear trees here than apricot trees.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Malenovice, Czech Republic

This past weekend I met Rob’s family. His parents live near Zlín in a small village called Malenovice. The village has 540 inhabitants and is about 130 km east of Brno. We took the train there Friday afternoon. His sister Andrea, her husband Martin and their daughter drove over from Stříbrnice on Saturday.


On Saturday morning we walked to see the town’s 14th-century Gothic castle. We didn’t get to see much because there was a wedding taking place. Oh well, next time.




There is also a monument to the 18 scouts who were tortured during WWII. It also commemorates Romanian troops which I still don’t quite understand because Romania fought against the Allies. Guess I need to hit the Google to figure this one out.

The rest of the day we spent by the pool and being over fed by his mom. His dad kept the slivovice (plum brandy) and hruškovice (pear brandy) flowing. I’ll write about the moonshine later.

On Sunday, I went to church with Andrea. This was my first Czech language mass. The church was pretty but unfortunately I only got every 5th or 6th word. But at least I made it to mass.

It was nice meeting everyone this weekend. The parents speak Czech and some Russian. His sister takes weekly English lessons and his brother-in-law speaks English and German. Poor Rob had to do quite a bit of interpreting even though I did OK with my Czech. The big problem was that I kept mixing up my Czech and Russian. By the end of the weekend my brain just hurt. I think it was the language barrier but the hruškovice might have had something to do with it.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Zmrzlina

Zmrzlina looks like a tongue twister but kids learn it quickly here because it means ice cream. You can always find ice cream, especially on hot summer days.

Czech ice cream is really good. To me it tastes creamier than back in the U.S. It's probably made with 90% milk fat or something which may be why the normal scoop is smaller than back home. A single scoop normally costs around 12 Kč (~60¢).

Ice cream here always looks so pretty in the case. Of course there are the normal vanilla, chocolate and strawberry flavors you would expect to find. But there is also pistachio, green apple, caramel, black currant, lemon, mango, raspberry, mint, peach, tiramisu, cookie, and on and on. The list seems endless. There's even a Smurf ice cream that's blue. But I just don't see myself trying that one.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Merry Wives of Windsor

Every year there is a Summer Shakespeare Festival where, for a few months, people can see open-air productions. In fact, this is the 11th year of the festival with performances in Brno, Prague, Ostrava and Olšany.

Unfortunately, my Czech isn't anywhere near the point where I could attempt to attend a show. Shakespeare can be difficult enough without having to figure it out in Czech.

The good news is that this year there were productions in English too! Woo-Hoo!!!

The GB Theatre Company came from England and put on two different performances at Brno's Old Town Hall. On Monday, I went with Claudia and some other IBMers to see The Merry Wives of Windsor. I had never heard of this play before but who cares? I was just happy to go watch something in English.

It was a really good comdey!! Very funny and the entire cast was awesome. They even had a couple of ringers. Former Hollyoaks star Matt Milburn and BBC 1’s My Family star Gabriel Thomson were in the show as well. Not a bad way to spend a Monday evening.


On Tuesday evening they performed As You Like It. I missed that one because I had Czech class. But who knows? If I stick at my lessons then maybe next year I can try one of the Czech performances.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Brno Zoo

This past Sunday, Rob & I decided to go to the Brno Zoo.  The zoo opened in 1953 and sits on 65 hectares (~161 acres).
In 2008, the zoo became famous for breeding two young polar bears.

The zoo is set up kind of odd. Instead of having one walking path, there are three routes you can take.  But you have to double back several times in order to not miss anything on one of the other routes.

There are 785 animals, from 210 species of amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals at the zoo.  

But to me, it's not a zoo if there's no lion, gorilla or rhino.
 
The best part was watching one of the polar bears amuse itself by continuously doing back dives in to the water. video
Although the zoo is small it does make for a good something to do. Although everything is in Czech, one nice thing is that the name of the of the every animal is posted in English and German. So you at least know what it is you're looking at. Admission is only 100 Kč (~$5) and it's a nice way to spend the day outside.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Birth Number

When I got back from vacation I had two notices in my mail box. One from the post office telling me to come sign for a letter and one from the foreign police telling me to pick it up within 10 days. I had no idea what this was all about. I wondered if I was getting deported or something. Well it turns out I’ve been issued a Czech Birth Number.

Rodné číslo is better translated as a birth registration number and all Czechs have one. This number is recorded on one’s birth certificate, is valid for life, and cannot be changed unless under certain special circumstances. They use this same system in Slovakia too.

The number is 10 digits long and it can always be divided 11. The format is YYMMDD/XXXX. The first six digits are a person’s birthday followed by a slash and four more numbers. You can tell a person’s gender because the number 50 is added to the MM for women. The first three digits after the slash indicate where the person was born and the last number makes the whole thing divisible by 11.

Kind of like a U.S. Social Security Number, Czechs use their birth number for all sorts of things. It’s used on health and social security forms, for taxes, and employment contracts. Lucky for me, work provides me with a mobile phone, but if I wanted to get one on my own I have two options. I could buy phone credits or I could get a contract for service, but the contract normally requires a birth number.

When I arrived here I asked about getting a birth number. Foreigners can apply to the Ministry of the Interior for a birth number but the application takes about 30 days and costs 1,000 Kč (~$50). Since I didn’t seem to have a need for it I didn’t bother applying for one. And I didn’t want to volunteer for more Czech bureaucracy.
I’m still not sure how I received a Czech birth number. Maybe it was part of getting my visa renewed? But that was back in April and my birth number was issued in July. Who knows? IBM HR is now updating my birth number with the health insurance and social security companies. It looks like I’ll also get a new VZP card with the updated number.

EDIT: I will only receive a new VZP, with the updated number, once I have received permanent residence in the Czech Republic. You can normally apply for permanent residency after you have been here for five years and pass a Czech language test given by the state.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Care Packages

I have the best family and friends ever!!! My family sent me a care package from the U.S. for my birthday a couple of weeks ago. And my friends, Steven and Michael, sent me a care package too. It was waiting for me to pick it up when I got back from vacation.

Sending packages from the U.S. is pretty easy. At least it is for me since I'm on the receiving side. I'm told that you can fill out the customs form online and take it to the post office. The best value is to send a Priority Mail Large Flat Rate Box which measures 12" x 12" x 5-1/2". You can send up to 20 lbs (9.09 Kg) for $55.95 (~44 €). It takes about 10 days to receive a package.

We have UPS but it costs way more than just using the post office.

I've received several packages and I've never had any problems. Knock on wood. The boxes have never been opened by customs. Some folks in Slovakia have told me that more than half of the packages they've received from the U.S. have been opened. And sometimes things are missing. Again, luckily I've never had any problems with Česká pošta. It's like Christmas when I get a care package. And it sure helps to have things from home when you're feeling homesick.
Steven and Michael hooked me up with some good provisions for my birthday. I got Jif Extra Crunchy Peanut Butter, French's Yellow Mustard, enchilada sauce mix, ziploc sandwich and freezer bags, Mach III razor blades, BBQ seasoning, lots of Hidden Valley Ranch dressing mix, pickle reslish, fried onion straws, black beans, Goya Sofrito, Mac n' Cheese, and sliced almonds. Thanks guys!!!

EDIT:  Postage rates increased and the price of a care package went from $55 to $77.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Brač, Croatia

Brač (pronounced Brach, “ch” like in church) takes about 50 minutes on a ferry to get to from Split. It is the largest of the central Dalmatian islands and the third largest island in the Adriatic. Brač is known for its wine, olive oil and figs. But it is most famous for its white stone has been used in many famous buildings, including Diocletian's Palace and the White House in Washington, DC.

The main town is Supetar which is on the northwest coast with only about 3,000 residents. The town is set around a harbor with plenty of gravel beaches. The town is a quieter vacation alternative to Split.

Near the harbor there’s the 18th century parish church of Annunciation. The church was built on the site of a previous basilica dedicated to St Peter - which is where the town's name "Supetar" comes from. The monumental stairs were built in 1733 and extended in 1887. At the side of the church is a courtyard with a sculpture of Mother Theresa.

The big attraction is the famous Zlatni Rat (Golden Horn) beach at Bol. It’s one of the most photographed beaches in the world. Unfortunately, it’s on the other side of the island so I didn’t get a chance to see it this time. Next time…for sure!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Bosnian-Herzegovinian Money

The money is this country is apparently worthless. Here's what I mean...

Since I had to purchase a bus ticket back to Split I knew that I would need some local currency. The money in Bosnia and Herzegovina is called the Mark. And 100 Fennings make up 1 Mark.

I stopped by a bank just to find out what the exchange rate was. They told me $1 U.S. = 1.46 Marks. So I pulled out some money from the ATM. This gives you a better rate but banks still charge you a conversion fee.

I went to a pharmacy to purchase some cold tablets and the pharmacist told me the total was €5. I thought that this was kind of strange but I just happened to have a €5 bill on me so no worries.

Later, I grabbed some lunch. Everything on the menu was priced in Euros and the waiter brought me the bill in Euros. Did I mention that this country is not in the Eurozone and that it has its own currency - the Mark? I had to ask the waiter how much the bill was in Marks so that I could pay.

I went to a souvenir shop and picked up something small. The woman told me how much it was in Euros. Again, how much is it in Marks? She told me but then she could not make change for a 20 Mark bill unless she gave me change in Euros. WTF?!?! So I had to give her exact change.

When it came time to purchase my bus ticket, the driver could not make change for Marks. He asked if I had Euros? Nope. I asked he would take Croatian Kuna? Sure, no problem. When I made it back to Split I had about $50 in Marks that I couldn't do anything with so I exchanged them for more Croatian Kuna.

So I ended up paying money to get Marks but once I had them the people in the country didn't want them so I had to pay money to convert the Marks in to something else.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Međugorje, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Last year during the Pope’s visit to Brno, I was given a blessed charm for my grandmother by a nun from Međugorje. I had never heard of the place before but here’s what I found out.

In 1981, six children from Međugorje, Yugoslavia (today it is Bosnia and Herzegovina) claimed to be visited by the Virgin Mary. The visions have continued almost daily since 1981 and many others have claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary as well. Originally she was seen on a hilltop near town where there is a large cross commemorating the Redemption.

This has become one of the most popular pilgrimage sites for Catholics as a Marian shrine. Around 30 million pilgrims have come to Međugorje since 1981 even though it is not officially recognized by the Vatican which makes this one of the world’s largest illicit Catholic shrines.

Since I could take a bus from Split to Međugorje I decided to see it for myself this past Saturday. The bus ticket was $20 and left at 6 AM. I wanted to buy a round trip ticket but I was told that I could only purchase a one-way ticket and would have to buy my return ticket to Split in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The ride there took 3.5 hours and it was a great opportunity to see some beautiful scenery on the Croatian coast.

When we got to the border the bus stopped and Croatian border guards checked everyone's passports. No problem. The bus drove 1 minute and came to a stop again. This time the border guards from Bosnia and Herzegovina came on and checked everyone's passports. They made one guy get off the bus and we waited for about 5 minutes. Then the guy had to remove his suitcase from the bus and we drove off without him. Who knows?

Međugorje is a small town in the Herzegovina part of the country. I noticed people there from the U.S., Poland, England, Italy, France, Canada and Lebanon. But the whole town seems to be run by Irish Catholics. I expected there to obviously be some tourist shops but it was kind of ridiculous. I really have no idea how many Virgin Mary nightlights, ashtrays and coffee mugs one town needs.
There was a light drizzle when I left Split but I had full-on rain the whole time I was in Međugorje. So this kept me from climbing up the hill to the cross. On the ride back to Croatia we sat in queue at the border crossing for over an hour. Our passports were checked before we left but they were never checked coming back in to Croatia. Due to the delay at the border, the rain and the traffic, the ride back to Split took 6.5 hours. But at least the weather cleared up by the time I made it back to Split and it never rained the again during the rest of my vacation.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Diocletian’s Palace

Split’s most famous landmark is Diocletian’s Palace. It’s over 1,700 years old and was built in ten years as the retirement palace for the Roman Emperor Diocletian at the turn of the 4th century. The palace is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The palace is built of white limestone and marble from Brač with sphinxes and columns from Egypt. From east to west it measures 215m with 26m high walls. There are four gates to the palace. The bronze gate is on the south side near the water, the silver gate is on the east side near the market area, the gold gate is to the north where a park is and the iron gate leads to the fish market and newer parts of town.

After the Romans abandoned the site it remained empty for several centuries. During the 7th century, nearby residents took refuge in the walled palace in order to escape invading forces. The palace has been occupied with residents and businesses ever since.

Within the palace is the Cathedral of St Domnius which was built at the same time as the palace as a mausoleum for Diocletion. He died in 313 AD and his remains disappeared a few centuries later. In the 7th century the mausoleum was turned into a cathedral. The bones of a Bishop, Dominus, who Diocletian had executed, were placed here.

The palace’s substructure contains basement rooms and various artifacts such as a wine press and sewer system. It is interesting but has a terrible musty smell.

On the western side of the palace is Narodni trg, the people’s square, which is where the old town hall is, which was built in the 15th century.

Just outside of the palace’s gold gate is the statue of Grgur Ninski, Gregory of Nin. He was a 10th century bishop that opposed the Pope and introduced the Croatian language in to religious services in 926. Rubbing the big toe on the left foot of the statue is supposed to bring good luck.

Split, Croatia

Split is the 2nd-largest city in Croatia and an awesome place for a vacation. I can see why so many Czechs flock to Croatia each year for their summer holidays, not to mention Australians, Germans, Russians, English, Italians and French. There’s even a Czech consulate right on the waterfront and during the summer there is Czech radio on the airwaves.

One of the great things about Split is that it's a great place to venture out from for day trips. I didn’t make it to Trogir, Bol or Šolta but there’s always next time.







My hostel was only about a 5 minute walk to a marina. I was fortunate enough to take advantage of the secluded “locals” beach instead of having to deal with the crowds at the city’s main beaches. Another bonus was the fresh seafood. I forgot just how much I missed living in a country with an ocean.
My Czech was sufficient that I could understand enough Croatian to get by. When Czech and English failed I was normally able to get by with German. Due to my accent, people asked me if I was Slovenian, Polish, Slovak or German. Kind of funny that no one asked if I was Czech considering I spoke bad Czech.

More pictures from my trip to Croatia are already posted on Flickr.