Friday, February 28, 2014

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland sits on 1/6th of the island of Ireland.  It's about the size of Belgium; a littler smaller than Connecticut and a little bigger than Maryland.  Northern Ireland is one of the four countries which makes up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  It is home to just over 1.8 million people.  Belfast is both the capital and the largest city.

Northern Ireland was established in 1921 when Ireland was split between the 26 counties which would eventually become the Republic of Ireland, and the six (out of nine) Ulster counties which wanted to remain with the UK.

In Northern Ireland there are two primary groups - Protestants and Catholics.  Then there are unionists and republicans.  Unionists identify themselves as being British and want to maintain the union with the UK.  Republicans want to end the union with the UK and see a united Ireland.  Most Protestants are unionists and most Catholics are republicans.  Then there are the loyalists and nationalists.  Loyalists are hardcore, extreme unionists and nationalists are hardcore, extreme republicans.

There was a Protestant majority in Ulster when Northern Ireland was established.  There were some very shady laws and the Catholic minority there were discriminated against in employment, housing, voting rights, etc.

In the late 1960s, conflicts broke out between the two communities which led to a period of violence, known as "The Troubles" which lasted for three decades.  During this time more than 3,500 people were killed and over 50,000 injured.

The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 paved the way to peace.  There is still a good deal of segregation between Protestants and Catholics.  Here's a video I found on YouTube which shows how some things have changed.



Northern Ireland £5 and £10 banknotes
Northern Irish are UK citizens and travel under British passports.  In 1998, the parliament was devolved within the UK.  Like Scotland, Northern Ireland issues its own pound (£) sterling banknotes.

Ulster Banner

The British Union Jack is the official flag in Northern Ireland.  The Ulster Banner was the flag of Northern Ireland until 1972 and since that time is has no official status.  However, it is used heavily by unionists and loyalists.  It is used as the "official" flag for Northern Ireland during football matches and other sporting events.

Here's a CNN report on rioting which took place over the British flag.



Today, there is almost an even split between the number of Protestants and the number of Catholics in the country.  There is a lower birth rate among Protestants, and Catholics will eventually be the majority.  I would not be surprised to see a united Ireland within the next 20 to 30 years.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Republic of Ireland

The Republic of Ireland occupies five-sixths of the island of Ireland.  The country is a little bigger than West Virginia and is home to 4.83 million people.  Dublin is the country's capital and its largest city.

Ireland was ruled by Britain for over 700 years, during which there were many rebellions and repressions.  In 1916, the failed Easter Rising kicked off several years of brutal guerrilla warfare.  Following WWI, in 1922, 26 of the island's counties declared independence as the Irish Free State.

Six counties in Ulster province became Northern Ireland and remained part of the United Kingdom.  There was a brief civil war and then over the next 20 years, Ireland adopted a new constitution, phased out the duties of the British monarch and in 1948, was declared a republic. 

The country is predominantly Catholic and the church has had a major influence on the state.  Possessing and using contraceptives was not illegal.  However, from 1935 - 1980, it was illegal to sell them or to import them in to the country.  It wasn't until 1993 that contraceptives were available to everyone without a prescription.  That's way too much church influence for me.

The Gaeltacht where Irish is predominantly spoken
Éire is officially a bilingual country.  The first official language is Gaeilge, followed by English, and it is an official EU language.  All of the road signs are in both languages.  Irish is a mandatory subject in school and proficiency exams are required in order to work in government service.  Only about 30ish percent of the population identifies themselves as proficient in Irish.  The Gaeltacht are a small number of rural areas where Irish is the primary language.

Ireland joined the European Community in 1973, which later became the European Union.  Like the UK, Ireland is not a member of Schengen, which means that non-EU citizens need a passport to enter the country.

From 1995 to 2007, when it's economy was referred to as the Celtic Tiger, Ireland became one of the richest countries in the world.  Unfortunately, the boom didn't last and 2008's global financial crisis hit hard.  By 2010, Ireland had the world's largest budget deficit at 32.4% GDP.  The country received an €85 billion ($117.1 billion) bailout from the EU and the IMF.  As a condition of the financial rescue package a number of harsh austerity measures were put in to effect.  In December 2013, Ireland became the first European bailout country to exit the program.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Show of Support for Ukraine

There was a show of support earlier today, in Brno, for the Maidan protesters in Kyiv.  The people there are protesting against the current pro-Russian president and there have been violent clashes with police.

The show of support should not come as a surprise.  Obviously, because it is the right thing but also given the huge Ukrainian population in Czechland.  At 30%, Ukrainians make up the largest group of registered foreigners in the country.  There are more Ukrainians here than Slovaks.

Many people were at náměstí Svobody (Freedom Square), waiving flags and holding candles.  There was an Orthodox priest and a video was shown.  Everything was in Ukrainian so I didn't understand much.

I know the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag but I hadn't seen the red and blag one before.  I found out later that the red and black flag is that of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) which fought a military campaign against the Nazis and later against Soviet forces. 

Ukrainians aren't getting support only in Brno.  Someone painted the Soviet War Memorial in Sofia again.  This time in support of Ukraine.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Shirley Temple Black, R.I.P.

On February 10th, Shirley Temple Black passed away, of natural causes, at the age of 85.  She was an actress, singer, dancer, author, dedicated public servant, as well as, an American icon.

Her film career began in 1932 when she was only three years old.  From 1935 to 1938 she was Hollywood's top box-office draw.

Later on, she served on the board of directors for several organizations.  In 1969, President Nixon appointed her as representative to the United Nations General Assembly.  President Ford appointed her as the U.S. Ambassador to Ghana in 1974.  In 1976, she became the first female Chief of Protocol of the U.S.

With Václav Havel in 1990
Having been nominated by President Bush, she was the 1st female American Ambassador to Czechoslovakia and served from 1989 to 1992.  It must have been an exciting time to serve as ambassador during the Velvet Revolution.

She was a lifelong smoker but she didn't smoke in public because she didn't want to set a bad example for her fans.

In spite of all the good work she did throughout her life, she will always be remembered as the little girl singing On the Good Ship Lollipop.  Here's the clip I found on YouTube. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

British Museum

The British Museum in London is one of the best museum's in the world.  It was established in 1753 and opened to the public in 1759.  Since it is a national museum in the UK, entry to the museum is free.  While there can be fees for special exhibitions the museum's main collection of around 8 million works, is free.  Nice! 

The Younger Memnon statue dates back to 1270 BC
The main collection comes from every continent and is dedicated to human history and culture from its beginnings to present day.

The Rosetta Stone is a big granite slab from Egypt.  It was created in 196 BC and discovered in 1799.  In 1801, a French expedition surrendered it to British troops.

It's massive.  It weighs 760 kg (1,680 lb) and contains text written in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Egyptian demotic script and in Ancient Greek.  This is the stone which provided the key to understanding ancient hieroglyphs.



Back in November 2012, Natalie and I visited the Acropolis Museum in Athens.  So we for sure had to check out the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon.  
Today only about ½ of the statues from the Parthenon have survived.  Roughly 50% of the surviving pieces are held in the British Museum.

It's actually controversial.  Since 1983, the Greek government has been campaigning for the works to be returned to Athens.  The British Museum refuses. 

The museum's reasons are (a) the work is cared for and far too delicate to transport and (b) if museums had to send works back to places of origin then there would be no museums in the world.  Others claim that many pieces being cared for were illegally taken in the first place and that cultural heritage belongs at home.

And it's not just the Greeks.  Egypt wants the Rosetta Stone back.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Visting Nat in London

After our night in Doncaster, we caught the train to London's King's Cross station.  I've referred to Britain as "Harry Potter Island" and I was proved right.  At King's Cross is Platform 9¾.  Obviously there was a queue of people waiting to take photos.




On Saturday, we went to the British Museum.  There is so much to see that I could spend days there.  But after a few hours it was time to further explore London's West Side.
Krasimir as a constable

Later that evening we took a spin on the London Eye.  Europe's tallest Ferris wheel is on the South Bank of the River Thames.  It is 135 meters (443 feet) tall and from 2000 to 2006 it was the tallest in the world.


There are 32 passenger capsules and each can hold up to 25 people.  One full revolution of the wheel takes 30 minutes.  It does offer a nice view of Big Ben and parliament.  And although I'm not a fan of heights I managed to survive the ride.

On Sunday morning we went to the Columbia Road Flower Market.  The street market takes place in East London, near Shoreditch, every Sunday from 8 am to 2 pm.  The vendors start setting up around 4 am and you can find all sorts of flowers, bulbs, shrubs and plants.  It's a lot of fun to hear the vendors shouting out offers. 

About ⅓ of the world drives on the left side of the road.  Please note that I didn't write "on the wrong side of the road."  For many tourists, it can make crossing the street dangerous.  There are reminders throughout London as to which way one should look before crossing the street.  It's funny though when you see people look down at the "look left" but then still end up looking right just out of habit.

Tower Bridge is a London landmark.  Construction on the suspension bridge began in 1886 and it opened in 1894.  The bridge crosses the River Thames and there are nice views of the city and the Tower of London.

The HMS Belfast was the largest cruiser in the Royal Navy.  She is permanently moored on the River Thames and is a museum open to the public.  The Belfast was commissioned in 1939 and saw action in WWII and the Korean War. 

Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress is better known as the Tower of London.  It's on the edge of the square mile.  The palace was founded in 1066 it used to be the royal residence.  It was a prison from 1100 until 1952. 
Partial view from Tower Bridge

Front, west entrance to St. Paul's
After a late lunch, we made our way over to St. Paul's Cathedral.  It was consecrated in 1708 and it is the second largest church building in the UK.

The dome is 111 meters (365 feet) high and, until 1962, it was London's tallest building.  We were fortunate enough to visit at the right time because we were treated to a free organ concert in the cathedral.

We had a fab time visiting Harry Potter Island and it was lovely to see Natalie.  We hadn't seen her since Thanksgiving.  Now to start planning our next trip back for more adventures in England.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Overnight in Doncaster, UK

There is a Wizz Air flight on Friday nights from Brno to London's Luton airport.  Luton is actually an hour from London.  The goal was to be Nat's first Brno guests in London.  The original plan was to fly out Friday night, followed by a shuttle bus to London and then catch the tube to Nat's place.

It's about a 2,5 hour flight from Brno to Luton.  After about two hours the crew announced that we would start our decent.  Then a little later, we were told to hang on due to turbulence.  This was the worst turbulence I've ever been through.  It was scary but obviously I would have preferred a smoother flight. 

After a while we received an announcement that due to storms we were unable to land at Luton.  We were to land in Doncaster instead.  We were told that buses would be arranged to then take us to Luton.  So here's the deal...Doncaster, in South Yorkshire, is about a four hour bus ride to Luton.  Don't forget that Luton is an hour from London and then we still had to get to Nat's.  

So we landed at Robin Hood Airport.  And yes, there is a statue of Robin Hood in the airport.   

Since the UK isn't a part of Schengen, everyone arriving from continental Europe has to first clear immigration.  There are always two lines, one for EU citizens and the other for non-EU people like me.  Non-EU people have to first fill out a landing card before heading to passport control. 

It was clear that this wasn't an expected flight arrival and immigration agents had to be brought in to process everyone.  There were only two of us on the entire flight who weren't EU folk so our line was much shorter but it didn't go any faster.  As an American, I am allowed to be in the United Kingdom for up to 90 days without a visa.  I'm not sure if the border agent realized that.  She flipped through my passport three or four times and then came all of the questions.  Where did I fly from?  What was the purpose of my visit to the UK?  How long will I stay?  I had to pull out my boarding pass for the flight home on Monday.  Do I have sufficient funds to cover my entire stay?  My favorite question was..."Will you pay for your expenses or will your friend (Natalie) be paying?"  Have you been to the UK before?  When?  Where?  For business or pleasure?  This went on for some time.

Once I satisfied her that I had no intention of staying in England long enough for me to run out of money and need to look for a job, she stamped my passport and let me in.  I walked about five steps before I was approached by an undercover policewoman.  She explained to me that over there was the border but this was a random police check.  Random!?!?  I'm one of two non-EU citizens but whatever.  What's the purpose of your visit?  I'm here to visit a friend in London for three days before returning home to Czech Republic...She joked that I would probably spend most of my time on a bus and then let me go.

We waited in the airport for about 1,5 hours before we heard anything about the buses.  Due to the weather, the buses were taking longer than normal.  The first buses would be for women and children and then families.  First for the flight from Warsaw, then the one from Sofia and Brno passengers would be third.  If we were lucky, we would get on a bus around 2 AM.  Again, at least four hours by bus to Luton, and then another hour to London.

Fortunately, Nat is the best travel concierge ever.  While we were sorting out logistics, she found us one of the last hotel rooms only 50 meters from the airport.  That beer I had after checking in so hit the spot.  We got a good night's sleep, had our full English breakfast and caught the direct train to Kings Cross station on Saturday morning.  We wound up in London give or take the same time we would have had we crashed in the airport.  But this way we weren't dead tired and were able to spend some quality time with Nat.   

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Ireland

Ireland is an island in the Atlantic Ocean.  It sits west of Great Britain, separated by the Irish Sea and North Channel.  After Great Britain and Iceland, it is the third-largest island in Europe and the 20th largest in the world.

When looking at Ireland, things can get very complicated quite quickly.  So here's some info on the island of Ireland.

Ireland is divided up in to four provinces.  They are Ulster, Connacht, Leinster and Munster. 

These four provinces are divided up in to 32 counties.

Politically, Ireland is divided in to two countries.  26 of the counties make up the Republic of Ireland and six of the Ulster counties make up Northern Ireland.  Northern Ireland is one of the four countries which makes up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

So how did this all come about?  

Celtic tribes come to Ireland between 600 and 150 B.C.  St. Patrick brought Christianity in 432 A.D.  Then came the Vikings.

In the 12the century the Normans invaded and England claimed Ireland which began more than 700 years of Anglo-Irish difficulties.  

During the 16th-17th century Tudor conquest, northern Ireland was colonized by Protestants from Scotland and England.  Then in 1801, the Act of Union created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

The great potato famine lasted from 1846 to 1848.  Millions of people died and more than 2 million people immigrated to the USA.  By the end of the 1840s, half of all immigrants to the USA came from Ireland.   

The 1916 Easter Monday Rebellion failed but it kicked off several years of fighting and in 1921, the 26 southern counties became independent from the UK.  Then came the Irish Civil War which ended in 1923.  In 1949, the southern counties officially became the Republic of Ireland.

Here's a great little video I found out on YouTube which gives a pretty quick and comprehensive history of Ireland in only six minutes.

 
© John D. Ruddy

Ireland, the island, is home to about 6.4 million people.  About 4.6 million live in the Republic of Ireland and roughly 1.8 million live in Northern Ireland.

I've been wanting to visit Ireland for a couple of years now but I just haven't had the chance.  The first book I downloaded on my Kindle was Tony Hawks' Round Ireland with a Fridge.  The book was quite clever and while I'm not planning to hitchhike around the Ireland any time soon, I will finally enjoy a couple of days in Dublin next month.  

They since turned the book in to a movie.  Here's the preview.  The entire film is actually available on YouTube if you search for it. 

 


Friday, February 7, 2014

Medical Tourism

The Czech Republic has become the go to place for medical tourism.  This is due to a quality of care and low costs.

Czech Republic Ministry of Health

To become a doctor in Czechland, you have six years of university then spend two years as an intern before five years of residency.  There is then additional time required to specialize.

The average cost for a single, total knee replacement in Czechia is €7690 ($10,608).  In Germany it costs €11.450 ($15,794) and in the USA it would run €18.290 ($25,229).

Plastic surgery is what seems to bring in the tourists.  Breast augmentation is the most popular procedure; especially for Brits, Germans, Austrians and Russians.  Liposuction, face lifts, abdominal work and eyelid treatments are also popular procedures.

Given that anonymous sperm and egg donations are completely legal here, IVF treatments are very popular for couples wanting to conceive a child.

I suppose medical tourism makes sense.  For someone who wants to discretely have something done then a holiday in Czech Republic makes for a nice cover story. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

CEFR

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is the standard scale used in Europe to quantify foreign language proficiency.  According to the CEFR, there are six levels of proficiency.  A1 and A2 are used for elementary proficiency.  B1 and B2 are for intermediate ability and C1 and C2 are used to describe advanced proficiency.

It is quite common to see a language and proficiency level listed on someone's CV (resume) as, for example, A2 German or C1 French.

A1 - Beginner Level
  • Able to understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases 
  • Can introduce him/herself and others.  Able to ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has
  • Able to interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly
A2 - Elementary Level
  • Able to understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment
  • Can communicate regarding simple and routine tasks requiring simple and direct exchange of information about familiar and routine matters
  • Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in ares of immediate need
B1 - Intermediate Level
  • Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.
  • Able to deal with most situations likely to arise while traveling in an area where the language is spoken
  • Able to describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans
B2 - Upper Intermediate Level
  • Able to understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics
  • Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers possible without strain for either party
  • Able to produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options
C1 - Advanced Level
  • Able to understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts and recognize the implicit meaning
  • Can express ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions
  • Can communicate effectively for social, academic and professional purposes
C2 - Mastery Level
  • Able to understand with ease virtually everything heard or read
  • Can summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstruct arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation
  • Able to express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely while differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations
Approximate study hours required for each level

In July, I qualify to apply for permanent residence in Czechland.  However, one of the requirements is to pass a basic Czech language exam.  So I'll have to take the Czech Language Certificate Exam (CCE) in May or June.  I'm not too worried about this because for permanent residency only A1 proficiency is required.  Right now my Czech is in the A2/B1 range.

The required proficiency level increases for anyone applying for Czech citizenship.  To get a Czech passport, it's necessary to prove B1 level Czech, or higher.