Thursday, February 28, 2013

Tipping

Tipping is something that is very different over here in Euroland.  Things are a little different in every country but overall people here tip far less than we do back in the USA.

In the USA, servers and bartenders earn their livings from tips.  In many states, servers actually earn less than the minimum wage because the tips are supposed to make up the difference.  I remember waiting tables and earning only $2.13 per hour plus tips.  A standard tip is 15% and a good tip is 20% or more.  The kicker is that the government taxes wait staff 8% of their sales so if a waiter doesn't get at least 8% then they actually end up paying money out of their pocket to wait on customers.

In the USA, servers generally don't like waiting on Europeans because they don't tip.  I remember that the running joke was that the difference between a German and a canoe was that a canoe would tip.

Again, each country is a bit different so here's how it works in ČR.  Servers here don't live off of their tips and usually earn more than minimum wage.  This also helps explain why service, in general, is often so bad here as compared to back home.

In ČR, people just leave a few Crowns, normally rounding up the total to the nearest ten.  Since Czechs hate to make change, rounding up the bill is really all about making the math easier for the server.  If a bill is 90 Kč then you would tip 10 Kč.  If the bill is 97 Kč then you would tip 3 Kč.  In nicer restaurants a tip of 5-10% is usual.

You never leave the tip on the table.  You should give it directly to the server.  If you pay with a card then you will need to tip in cash because there is not an option to add the tip to your total. 

I was used to tipping at least 20% when I moved here so the thought of only leaving a 10 Kč (50¢) tip just killed me.  It took a while to the hang of tipping over here.  It will be interesting in Iceland next week where tipping is never expected.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

UK Decimalization

On February 15, 1971, the United Kingdom went through a process of decimalization of its currency.  Before Decimal Day, the money was divided in to pounds (£), schillings (s. or /-) and pennies (d.).




There used to be 20 shillings per pound.  And there were 12 pennies per shilling.  So, a pound was actually made up of 240 pennies while a penny was made up of two halfpennies or four farthings (a quarter penny).  

2 farthings = 1 halfpenny
2 halfpence = 1 penny (1d)
3 pence = 1 thruppence (3d)
6 pence = 1 sixpence (6d) Called a "tanner".
12 pence = 1 shilling (1s) Called a "bob".
2 shillings = 1 florin (2s) called a "two bob bit".
2 shillings and 6 pence = 1 half crown (2s 6d)
5 shillings = 1 Crown (5s) 

In shops, prices were given as pounds/shillings/pence.  If you saw "2/4d" then it cost 2 shillings, four pence.  If you paid 1 pound then you received 17 shillings and 8 pence back in change.  How on earth did the UK ever have an empire?  This system would completely do my head in.  

I guess if this was all you knew then it made perfect sense.  However, with the age of computers it became very difficult to deal with monetary calculations.  I believe that this was the main driver for switching to decimal.  Here's an old UK public service spot that I found out on YouTube.  



After moving to decimalization, the pound was made up of 100 pence (p).  Now when someone tells me that something costs 50p (pee) then I know exactly how much that is.  Although, at least now I can better understand the monetary situation in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.



Current UK coins
Many people I've talked have told me that by moving to decimal just caused everything to become more expensive.  I've heard the same thing in Slovakia.  Apparently when the Slovaks adopted the Euro, shops rounded up the prices in Euros so that things became more expensive then they had been in Slovak Crowns.  Unfortunately, salaries didn't get rounded up to match.

EDIT:  Ireland decimalized  its currency, the Irish Pound, on the same day that the UK did.

Monday, February 25, 2013

65th Anniversary of Communist Coup

Communist Party Poster
Today is the 65th anniversary of the communist coup that took over Czechoslovakia.  On February 25, 1948, Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš gave in to pressure from the Prime Minister, and Communist leader, Klement Gottwald, to accept the resignation of 12 non-communist government members and appoint communist party members.  The communists called it Vítězný únor, "Victorious February". 

While it was a bloodless coup, it was a coup nonetheless.  Until then, Czechoslovakia had been the last democracy in Eastern Europe.  The Czechoslovak Communist Party (KSČ) ruled the country for 41 years until the Velvet Revolution in 1989.  

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Mezi Skepy Winery

One of the guys at work organized a visit to a winery, in Čejkovice, for an evening of drinking on Friday night.  The winery, Mezi sklepy, is a small, third generation family-owned firm.

Čejkovice is a village in South Moravia about +/- 40 km (25 miles) south-east of Brno.  However, with all of the snow and traffic accidents it took us almost 1.5 hours to get there.

Most people planned to spend the night there and leave the next day.  Since this was my last weekend in town before I fly out next week I made arrangements to come home Friday night, actually Saturday morning, so that I could get a few things done.

It was a really nice time just hanging out with friends and getting to sample so many different types of Moravian wine.  The blends here are different from what we have back home.  When my parents come for a visit next year I'll be sure to introduce them to all of the great Moravian wines.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Drum Circle Team Building

Yesterday, the managers in my department met offsite for a strategy session.  It was a productive afternoon and we got a lot done.  But the best part of it was that our manager surprised us afterwards with a brand new team building event.  We had a drum circle.  I love the unique team building ideas because I can only go bowling so many times.  


She had this guy come in and give us some basic instruction on the drum.  Some of us were a bit rhythmically challenged but most of us had it down in the end.  It was a lot of fun, especially after we got the hang of it.

 

We also got to listen to this guy play the fujara.  A fujara is a shepherd's flute that is played standing up.  It comes from central Slovakia and is also popular in south Moravia.  It is normally between 160 - 200 cm (5'3" - 6'6") long.  There are three holes on the lower part and you use your hand to manipulate the sound.  Here's what it sounds like... 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Marian's Going Away Party

Marian, one of the guys on my team, is leaving to pursue another opportunity.  So on Friday night a bunch of us got together to wish him well. 





We started off at The Pub which is a bar where you pour your own draft beer at the table.




After a while there many of us ended up at a local club for some dancing. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

England

With 53 million people, England is the largest country in the United Kingdom.  Along with Scotland and Wales it makes up the island of Great Britain.  England is a little smaller than Louisiana.

St. George's Cross

Thanks to the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, England became the world's first industrialized nation.  Today, its economy is one of the largest in the world and London is Europe's largest financial center.

Map of English as an official language
Considering the vast reach of the British Empire, it is no wonder that English is the 3rd most common native language after Chinese and Spanish.  About 375 million people speak English as their first language.  Even more speak English as their second or third language.

There are differences between American and British English.  What's interesting to me is that there are so many different regional accents considering that England really isn't that big.  One thing's for sure and that's that there is no such thing as a British accent.  There is English spoken with various regional accents.  For example, the Scouse accent is what you hear in Liverpool, Brummie in Birmingham, Geordie in Newcastle, Cockney in London and Mancunian in Manchester.  There are also strong accents in Yorkshire, the Midlands and the West Country.  Of course, this is also the standard London posh accent.

I've been to Portsmouth a few times for work but, aside from Heathrow Airport, I've never been to London.  Coming up, I'll have one day to check out the city before I fly on to Iceland.  Liz and her boyfriend will take the train over from Bristol and show me around the city.  So what should I try to see?  With so much to see in London, I already know that there is no way I will even be able to make a dent in the sightseeing list.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

On my way to Iceland, I'll have a couple of nights in the UK.  Officially, it is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The United Kingdom is made up of four countries – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Accordingly, the nation doesn't celebrate one particular national holiday.

The UK is between the North Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea; about 50 km (35 miles) northwest of France

The country is a little smaller than Oregon and is home to just over 63 million.  London is the capital city.

The country is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system.  Queen Elizabeth II has been the chief of state since 1952.  The head of the government is the prime minister who is the leader of the majority party or majority coalition in parliament.

video

The UK was a founding member of NATO and the Commonwealth of Nations.  It is also one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.  While the UK is a member of the EU, it has opted out of joining the Euro in favor of keeping the Pound (£).  The UK is not a Schengen member.  Instead it shares a common travel area with the Republic of Ireland.  So, for me, travel between the UK and continental Europe requires a passport stamp.

It was the world's first industrialized country and has the world's 6th largest economy; the 3rd largest in Europe after Germany and France.  The UK is the USA's 6th largest trading partner.  It is the Czech Republic's 5th largest export market.

At the height of the British Empire

They used to say that the sun never set on the British Empire.  During its height in the 19th century, the British Empire was the largest empire in history and covered 1/4 of the world.

The Union Jack is made of the crosses of three patron saints – Saint George (for England), Saint Andrew (for Scotland) and Saint Patrick (for Ireland).

video

The UK maintains sovereignty over 17 territories which are not part of the United Kingdom.  Three are Crown Dependencies – Jersey Island, Guernsey Island and the Isle of Man.  They are not part of the country but the UK is responsible for defense and foreign affairs.

Then there are 14 British Overseas Territories.  They are Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Indian Ocean Territory, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, the Pitcairn Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Turks and Caicos, the Sovereign Base Areas of Cyprus and Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha.  There's also the British Antarctic Territory but it is not universally recognized.

Almost all of these British territories take their cue from the UK and drive on the left hand side of the road.

Measurements tend to mess me up in the UK.  They are not fully on the metric system so some things are metric and some things are still imperial.  So I never know which one to use.  For example, distance is in miles; not kilometers.  Gas, milk and most other liquids are in liters.  Yet, draft beer must be sold in pints.  UK pints are 20 oz where in the USA a pint is 16 oz.  Weight is in pounds, except for body weight which is in stones.  And one stone is 14 pounds.  Confusing.

Update:  The UK has voted to leave the EU.  Once, and if, the country invokes Article 50 then it will have two years to negotiate its exit from EU.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Republic of Iceland

My trip to Iceland is coming up and I'm getting excited.  I'm not a big fan of the cold so heading to a country near the Arctic Circle isn't exactly at the top of my bucket list.  But this is where my readers have voted for me to visit this year.  So I'll be on my way.  It's been a bit rainy there lately but Reykjavík is actually a few degrees warmer now than Brno.

The Republic of Iceland is a Nordic country, northwest of the United Kingdom, between the North Atlantic Ocean and the Greenland Sea.  It is the USA's closest European neighbor.  Iceland is the 18th largest island in the world and the second largest island in Europe after Great Britain.  At 103,000 km² (40,000 sq miles), it is a little smaller than Kentucky.  Iceland has a population of 320,000 people.  Almost two-thirds of the country live in and around the capital city Reykjavík.

Iceland was settled by Norwegians and Scottish and Irish Celts in the 9th and 10th centuries.  It was independent for more than 300 years before being ruled by Norway and Denmark.  It was given limited home rule, in 1874, by Denmark.  In 1918, Iceland gained independence and in 1944, the republic was declared.

Iceland is part of the European Economic Area which gives it access to the EU but it is not an EU member.  The country officially applied for membership in 2009 but there is no immediate outlook to join.  Iceland is part of the Schengen area.  While the country doesn't have an army it is a member of NATO.

Ten percent of the country is covered by glaciers.  It is a geologically active area.  There are 130 volcanic mountains; 18 of which have erupted since the country was settled.  In 2010, Eyjafjallajökull erupted.  The ash it sent in to the air disrupted European air traffic for almost a month.

In 2001, Iceland's banks were deregulated.  The three major banks issued debt that amounted to more than the nation's GDP.  In 2007, the Icelandic króna was ranked as the most overvalued currency in the world.  In 2008, the country's entire banking system failed causing lots of political unrest.  Relative to its size, Iceland's banking collapse is the largest of any country in history.  Things are better now but the country is still recovering from the economic crisis.  Here's a video I found out on YouTube that explains what happened.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Squash & Badminton Team Building

Last Thursday, several of us met up after work to play squash and badminton.  We reserved two squash courts and two badminton courts for a couple of hours. 




I still miss racquetball.  But squash was a lot of fun.  And it was a great way to burn off some stress after work. 

 




Saturday, February 2, 2013

USA Postage Increase

On January 27, the U.S. Postal Service raised its rates for postage.  The cost of a first-class stamp went up a cent to 46¢.  The price to mail a postcard also increased a penny to 33¢.

New 46¢ Stamp
International postage went up too.  A letter to Canada or Mexico used to cost 85¢ and it was $1.05 for everywhere else.  Now it's $1.10 across the board.  Which is about what it costs me here.  A postcard from ČR to the USA is 21 Kč (~$1.10).

American mail trucks are right-side drive
Overall the U.S. Postal Service raised prices for mailing and shipping services on average by 4%.  Priority mail prices rose 6.3%.

With e-mail and everyone paying bills on-line, the USPS has been hurting for money.  Obviously, my biggest concern is what this will do to the price of postage for my care packages?    

One way they can save money is to cancel Saturday delivery.  In the USA, mail is delivered Monday through Saturday.  In ČR, mail is delivered only Monday through Friday.  This was something I adapted to very quickly.  It's nice not receiving a bunch of junk mail on Saturdays.

EDIT:  Yikes!  The price of a 20lb care package from the USA went from $55 to $77.