Sunday, June 26, 2011

Ostrava, Czech Republic

Yesterday, I took a day trip to Ostrava. With around 310,000 residents it is the third largest city in the ČR. It’s in the northeast part of the country about 15 km (~9 miles) from the Polish border and 55 km (~34 miles) from Slovakia. Ostrava is 181 km (112 miles) from Brno and the journey takes 2.5 hours by train.

In communist Czechoslovakia, the industrial city was nicknamed ocelové srdce republiky – the steel heart of the republic. After the Velvet Revolution, coal mining was shut down in 1994 and in 1998 a major portion of the Vítkovice ironworks was shut down.

Nové Radnice is the New Town Hall. It was built in the 1930s and is home to the Czech Republic’s largest viewing tower.


The Cathedral of the Divine Savior was built in the 1880s. It is the second largest cathedral in Moravia and Silesia.


Ostrava created Czechoslovakia’s first pedestrian zone in 1967. No main town square around here is complete without a Marian plague column.


One thing I noticed is that the city has a lot of socialist realism art all around which was kind of a surprise. Even the WWII memorial still has the Soviet hammer and sickle.

Ostrava is not really known as a tourist town but it did make for a good little day trip. The weather was starting to take a turn for the worse so I decided to skip checking out the Silesia-Ostrava Castle. 

There is also a coal mining museum and, from what I hear, the Ostrava zoo is a good one but maybe next time.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Stravenky

In the Czech Republic (and Slovakia), lunch is normally the most important meal of the day. Most restaurants offer a discounted lunch consisting of soup and an entree from a menu of 2 - 4 different entrees.

Around 60 - 70% of employees receive stravenky (meal vouchers) as a benefit from their employer. It is the most common benefit offered to employees in the ČR & Slovakia. The employee and the employer split the cost of the stravenky. The employee pays 45% and it is deducted from the monthly net salary. The employer pays 55% and gets a tax deduction up to 70 Kč (~$4) per voucher.

The vouchers can be used at participating restaurants including most canteens, fast food chains and some grocery stores. The vouchers can only be used for food items, so no alcohol or tobacco can be purchased. The maximum amount of change that can be given back from a purchase is 5 Kč (30¢).

Places that accept vouchers have stickers on the door similar to credit card logo stickers. There are several companies that issue stravenky in various denominations. They sell the vouchers to the employers and then buy back the redeemed ones from restaurants at a discount.

As part of the proposed tax reform, the tax breaks given to companies providing vouchers would be revoked and employees would instead receive an annual tax break of 3.000 Kč (~$178). I don't know how well this will go over because these vouchers are like "sacred cows" to many Czechs. I've never received stravenky as a benefit so it doesn't make any difference to me.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Transportation Strike

There was supposed to be a nationwide transportation strike on Monday, June 13th. However, the Prague Municipal Court banned the strike because the organizers failed to give the required three working day notice.

The unions organized the strike to protest a number of government education and health care reforms. The two biggest issues that have everyone riled up is a pension plan reform that would raise the retirement age from 65 to 69 and will level the VAT to 17,5% on most food and medicines.

The trade unions then moved the strike from Monday to Thursday, from 00:00 to 24:00. No trains ran at all across the country on Thursday. I wonder how much money this cost Czech Railways? Public transportation strikes (metro, trams & buses) were held in Prague, Brno, Ostrava, Opava, Ústí nad Labem and Zlín.

I originally planned on just working from home but it wasn't a complete shutdown in Brno. On Thursday, 4 trams, 4 trolleybuses and 3 buses ran in 10 minute intervals from 05:00-10:00 and again from 14:00-19:00. My tram line was one that was still operational so I just went in to the office.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

I'm Legal Again

Finally!! I'm legal again. I received a phone call from the Interior Ministry that my new long-term visa was ready and I went to pick it up this past Monday. I've been legal all along but now I have proof.

Czech bureaucracy is an odd thing. The clerk showed me that I'm legal in the system until 2013. However, the new visa sticker in my passport is only valid until this December. Apparently, I will get a phone call in October to return to the Interior Ministry for a biometric identity card.

I'm actually glad to be getting the ID card so that I don't always have to carry my passport around. What I don't know is if I will get a new visa sticker for my passport when I get my ID card. Since I'm not an EU citizen I don't want to have any problems traveling in and out of the Schengen Zone. I'm not sure if this ID card will work outside of the ČR. When I flew from England to Germany earlier this year, the officials in Hannover held my passport for 5 minutes. They took a magnifying glass to my visa to verify that that it was legitimate. I guess they were confused by an American passport with a Czech EU visa. Who knows?

I don't know why I had to provide the government with a new photograph because they used the same picture I gave them last year. This visa, and my temporary visa, also included my Czech birth number. But at this point I don't care. I'm just happy to be legal for another 2 years.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Hitting the Gun Range

On Sunday, I went with Natalie and some of her colleagues from FNZ to the local gun range.

It was a good time. The last time I shot anything was an M-16 back 1993 during my Air Force days. From an M-16 to a Kalashnikov AK-47...what a difference 18 years makes.

We all shot a 9mm Glock, an AK-47, and a .357 Magnum. As a treat, the instructor gave us all a free shot with a Smith & Wesson 500. My favorite was the Glock. But I did hit a "10" with the S&W 500. Woo-Hoo!!

That S&W has a heck of a kickback. Here's a short video of Natalie's turn shooting it.


video

For those interested, I don't know what the fees are but, here's what it takes to get a gun permit here.
  • Must be at least 21 years old (or 18 for a "B" permit used for sporting purposes).
  • Long-term residence in the ČR
  • Absence of a criminal record in the ČR
  • A current passport
  • Medical clearance from a doctor
  • A passing score on the qualification exam - foreigners can use a certified translator since the exam is only given in Czech.
  • Non-EU citizens must also present a copy of their police record from their home country, translated in to Czech
I don't have any interest in getting a gun permit. However, it was a nice way to burn off some stress.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Věra Čáslavská

I've always been a big fan of gymnastics. One of the best gymnasts ever is Czech.

Věra Čáslavská competed for Czechoslovakia during the 1950s and 1960s. She won a total of 35 medals (22 of them gold) at the Olympics, World and European championships.

For over 40 years, she has had the distinction of holding more individual Olympic event titles than any other gymnast in history. Čáslavská is also the only gymnast in history who has won the Olympic gold medal on every individual event - all-around, vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise. No small feat...especially with that big, blonde beehive hairdo.

In June 1968 she signed a document called "Two Thousand Words" which called for rapid progress towards democracy in Czechoslovakia. In August, the Soviets and other Warsaw Pact countries invaded to end the Prague Spring. In order to avoid arrest for her political stance, she hid out in Šumperk (about an hour from Brno). She was only granted permission to rejoin the Olympic team a few weeks before the Mexico City games opened.

video

She was a heroine for standing up to the Soviets at the Olympics. The communists, however, were not that pleased with her. Upon her return to Czechoslovakia she was no longer allowed to travel abroad. She was also forbidden to participate in any public sporting events which forced her to retire and she was considered a persona non grata for years.

In the late 1980s, the International Olympic Committee presented her with the Olympic Order. This forced the government into finally allowing her to work as a gymnastics coach and to judge competitions in Czechoslovakia. Other honors followed. In 1995 she was presented with the Czech Republic's Medal of Merit. In 1991 she was inducted into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame and in 1998 she was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame.

Update:  Věra Čáslavská passed away on 30.8.2016.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Eastern Europe Expat Blog Nomination

I received an e-mail last week that I have been nominated for an award. My little blog here has been nominated in this year's Eastern Europe Expat Blog Competition.

My Czech readers should not get wound up about the "Eastern Europe" thing. We all know that the ČR is in Central Europe. By Eastern Europe they mean with respect to the EU - looking at blogs in the ČR, Slovakia, the Baltics, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, etc.

My blog is Nomination #12 the reason for my nomination was:
"Simple with regular content. Good pictures and this blog is NOT by an English teacher and therefore has a different perspective than most".

This was such a nice surprise. Sometimes it really boggles my mind to see just how many people actually read this thing. I only started it so that my family would not feel like I was so far away. A month or two ago, I was out with some people and someone I didn't know actually quoted something I had written here. Very odd and flattering all at the same time.

I'm told that voting starts in July so please be sure to visit
http://easteurblogcomp.blogspot.com/ and cast your vote for me. Thanks!!!EDIT: Thanks to everyone who voted and helped me win 1st place.