Monday, February 23, 2015

Ukraine


Ukraine has been in the news quite a bit over the last couple of years.  The country sits between Europe and Asia.  It is positioned between the European Union (and NATO) and Russia.  Україна is the second-largest country in Europe; a little smaller than Texas or about four times as big as Georgia.  It is home to about 44.3 million people.  Kyiv is the capital city.

Between the EU and Russia
Ukraine is in Eastern Europe and sits on the Black Sea.  It borders Russia, Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova.  The Moldova part includes the break away republic of Transnistria

Over the centuries, the area of modern Ukraine has been ruled by Lithuania, Poland, the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Russian Empire.  It was an independent country for a few years following WWI but then became the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist republic and a founding member of the USSR.

Under Stalin, Ukrainian nationalism was put down.  Forced collectivization and unrealistic quotas for farmers caused Holodomor, the Great Famine, where millions of Ukrainians were starved to death.  Another 7 - 8 million more people died during WWII.

Hryvnia is the official currency
Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine gained independence in 1991.

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©NutshellEdu
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©The Daily Conversation

Ukraine sits on the border of the European Union.  This is part of the current problem.  In very simplistic terms, the western part of Ukraine wants to be part of Europe while the eastern part of the country wants closer ties with Russia.

The country's official national language is Ukrainian.  However many people also speak Russian.  In the east, Russian is an official regional language but not the national language.  Most people in the east can't speak Ukrainian. 

When the Soviet Union broke up Ukraine was a nuclear power.  In 1996, Ukraine surrendered all of its Soviet-era nuclear weapons to Russia.  This was under the condition that Ukrainian territory would be respected.  Yet Russia has annexed Crimea
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©CCTV News

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©Sky News
Terrible fighting has been going on in the eastern part of the country.  Ukrainian forces have been fighting Russian backed separatists and more than 5,000 people have died with many more people displaced from their homes.  

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Czech Republic has a large Ukrainian population and I work with a few.  One chap's parents live near Donetsk where fighting has been an everyday occurrence for quite some time.  I can't imagine what it must be like for him.  I just hope that a peaceful solution can be found soon.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Republic of Lithuania

The Republic of Lithuania is one of the three Baltic countries.  It sits on the Baltic Sea and borders Latvia, Poland, Belarus and Russia (the Russian exclave Kaliningrad).  Lietuva is a little bigger than West Virginia and has a population just over 3.5 million people.  Vilnius is both the capital and its largest city. 

The Kingdom of Lithuania was first established in 1253 under King Mindaugas.  The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, during the 14th century, was the biggest country in Europe.  It consisted of present day Lithuania plus Belarus, Ukraine, and parts of both Poland and Russia.

Lithuania over time


In 1569 the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was established and it lasted for over two centuries.  In the 1700s the Russian Empire annexed most of Lithuania.  At the end of WWI, Lithuania declared independence from the Russian Empire in 1918.  In 1940 the country was annexed and it became the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic.  During WWII it was occupied by the Germans and in 1944 the Soviets reoccupied the country.

In 1990 Lithuania became the first of the 15 Soviet Republics to declare independence.  A full year before the Soviet Union actually broke up.


Today Lithuania is a parliamentary democracy.  It joined the European Union and NATO in 2004.  It is part of the Schengen area and on 1 January 2015 it converted to the Euro.

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© Euronews

Lithuanian alphabet
Lithuanian is the official language.  Although, as a Baltic language, it is related to Latvian the languages are not mutually understandable.
Like the other Baltic countries, Lithuania does not allow for dual citizenship.  My friends Vilma (from Lithuania) and Marco (from Italy) just had their first child here in Brno.  Little Johan will only get an Italian passport since Vilma can't register her son Lithuanian if he also gets Italian papers.
In 2008 the country did away with mandatory military service.  However, due to Russia's annexation of Crimea and concerns over what's going on in Eastern Ukraine the country is reintroducing conscription.
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© Euronews

Friday, February 13, 2015

I'm Approved

This is my 1,000th blog post!  Who would have thought that this blog thing would still be going strong?  I guess it's appropriate that this is my 1,000th post because I got some great news today.

On 3 December I submitted my paperwork for permanent residency and today the Czech Interior Ministry called me to say that I've been approved.  Yeah!!  No more having to jump through hoops like a trained circus poodle every two years to request a visa extension.  This will give me almost equal status with Czech citizens except that I can't vote.  If I want to vote and get a Czech passport then I can apply for that in another five years.  And who knows what will happen in another five years?

I need to make an appointment with to visit the ministry for a new photo and submit my biometrics.  I should get my new Czech green card in a couple of weeks after that.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Republic of Latvia

In March I've got a week planned in the Baltics.  The first stop will be Latvia which will be the 50th country I've visited since moving to Euroland.  So here's a bit about Latvija.

The Republic of Latvia sits on the Baltic Sea and borders Estonia, Lithuania, Russia, and Belarus.  The country is a bit larger than West Virginia and has a population of 2.165 million people.  The capital, and largest city, is Riga.

Like Estonia and Lithuania, Latvia gained independence after WWI in 1918 when it broke away from the Russian Empire.  In 1940 it was forcibly incorporated into the USSR as the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic.  In 1941 the Germans invaded and the Soviet Red Army returned in 1944.  Although many countries never acknowledged the annexation, Latvia remained under Soviet control for almost 50 years.  When the Soviet Union broke up Latvia declared independence in 1991.  The last Russian troops left in 1994.

Today Latvia is a parliamentary democracy.  In 2004 it joined NATO and the European Union.  It is also part of the Schengen area.  On 1 January 2014 the country adopted the Euro as its currency.

Latvian alphabet
Latvian is the country's official language.  Although +35% of the population speaks Russian it is not an official language.

Latvian €1 coin







Latvian Passport
When Latvia gained independence it did not automatically grant citizenship to everyone living there.  People who were Latvian citizens prior to 1940 were granted citizenship (and their descendants too).  Non-Latvians from other Soviet republics were allowed to gain citizenship if they had been permanent residents for at least five years, could pass a history test, knew the words of the national anthem and could speak Latvian.

Non-Citizen Passport
About 13% of the population still doesn't have Latvian citizenship.  Mostly from ethnic Russians who can't speak Latvian.  These are non-citizens and they can't vote, are ineligible for some government jobs and are exempt from military service.  They can travel within Schengen but only for up to 90 days every six months.  Like the other Baltic countries Latvia does not permit dual citizenship.

Given Russia's annexation of Crimea and the terrible fighting in Ukraine all of the Baltic countries are nervous about further Russian aggression.  Russian involvement in Ukraine has been under the guise of wanting to support ethnic Russians.  Ukraine's ethnic Russian population is about 17% but in Latvia it is around 26%.  I'm sure that Latvia is glad that it is a NATO member.

© Radio Free Europe

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Uganda of Europe

This weekend Slovaks went to the voting polls to answer three questions.


1.  Do you agree that only a bond between one man and one woman can be called marriage?
2.  Do you agree that same-sex couples or groups should not be allowed to adopt and raise children?
3.  Do you agree that schools cannot require children to participate in education pertaining to sexual behavior or euthanasia if the children or their parents don't agree? 

Pope Francis has come out in support for three yes votes.  So sad.  Slovakia is now the Uganda of Europe. 

Only 21.3% (950,000 people) voted but ~90% voted "yes" for the first two questions.  I guess it's lucky that so many people went skiing this weekend because at least 50% of voter turnout is required for anything to pass. 

I have a problem with people voting on who is entitled, or not entitled, to human rights. 

Czechoslovakia decriminalized  same-sex sexual activity in 1962.  Today things are better for gay people in Czech Republic than they are in Slovakia.  While there is no gay marriage in Czechland, same-sex registered partnerships have been legal since 2006.  While not allowing for joint adoption, these registrované partnerství  allow for spousal privilege, inheritance, hospital and alimony rights.

Czech soldiers are not questioned about sexual orientation and gays are allowed to openly serve.  

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Weight and Volume

After more than five years in Euroland I've pretty much got the metric system down.  Distance wasn't too bad.  Temperature was the one that was confusing on a daily basis.  For everyday use I found that weight and volume were the most useful to understand.

Volume measures liquids and over here that means liters.  The one advantage I had was that all Americans do actually understand what a two-liter bottle is.  In the USA, soda is sold in two-liter bottles so it's one of the only things we understand about metric.

There are roughly 4 liters to a gallon.  A can of soda is 330 ml (milliliters).  Sometimes it is written as 33 cl (centiliters).  A bottle of water can be labeled as 1/2 liter, 500 ml, or 50 cl.  All of the measurements are equal.  I guess it just depends on marketing and which one sounds like more. 

1 ounce
  2 Tablespoons  
30 milliliters
4 ounces
1/2 cup
125 milliliters
8 ounces
1 cup
250 milliliters
12 ounces
1-1/2 cups
375 milliliters
  16 ounces  
2 cups
  500 milliliters 

When I buy cold cuts or cheese at deli, it's common to ask for amounts in deca(grams).  For example, if I want 7 ounces of salami, then I would ask for 20 deca.  It's the same as 200 grams but I noticed at the deli it is common for everyone to use deca.

A pound is less than a kilogram.  It's roughly 2.2 pounds per kilo.  So the good thing here is that when you get on a scale, the numbers in kilos are smaller.  Unfortunately it doesn't mean that you're skinnier in kilos but it's a nice thought.  

In the UK and Ireland, they are really screwed up because they don't measure body weight in pounds or kilos.  They still measure in stone which is 14 pounds (6.35 kg).  So if someone weighs 158 pounds, on the islands they weigh 11 stone 4 (11 stones and 4 pounds), while on the continent they weigh 72 kilos.

Weight and volume become an issue when I try to share American recipes with friends here.  American recipes will often measure non-liquids by volume instead of by weight.  So if an American recipe calls for 1 cup of flour I'm good because I made sure to bring American measuring cups with me when I moved here.

Here non-liquids are measured by weight.  So 1 (American) cup equals 120 grams of all purpose flour.  But that same cup should be 180 grams if it's packed brown sugar, or 190 grams of uncooked rice, or 240 grams of butter, or 150 grams of chopped nuts.  Since things are measured in weight here a kitchen scale is a must have item. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Quarter One Team Building Event

The team I have at work is quite large with most everyone located in Czechland, Slovakia, Poland, or Hungary, plus some folks in Malaysia.  So one of my goals for this year is to have quarterly team building events to get everyone (unfortunately except Malaysia) together.  With that I challenged the organizers to expand the invitees to include those colleagues we work closely with from other teams such as Finance or Compliance.

Braving the snow to get to the grill

What we got was a great mix of people that finally got to meet each other.  Thank goodness for the name tags.  We had well over 100 people who braved the snow and made it to Litenčice (about 45 minutes from Brno) for our first big bash of the year.

Piotr & Andrew showing how skittles is played
We fed everyone goulash soup, bread, and other snacks.  Then we had tournaments for darts, ping pong, and skittles.  I had never heard of skittles before but it is basically bowling, with smaller balls that don't have any finger holes.

There was also a baking/cake competition.  Later on we had people playing music and dancing too.   

Of course, you're never going to get Czechs, Slovaks, Poles or Hungarians together without there being plenty of beer and slivovice.  Another good thing was that we organized overnight accommodations so that people didn't have to worry about driving home.

Gary as grillmeister


While January in Central Europe isn't exactly the best time to organize such an event I'm glad that we did in order to build up momentum for the year.  And everything turned out really well.  

It's always good for people to meet up.  Some of the team have worked together for a couple of years but had never actually met up in person before.  So as far as I'm concerned it's "mission accomplished."



Now to start thinking about what to do next time.  I'm sure we'll have an even bigger turn out in May.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Animal Sounds

Animals do not sound the same in different languages.  Every language has its own way of describing the sounds that different animals make.  For example, in English, dogs go "woof" (or "bow wow").  In Czech they go "haf haf".  English speaking cats go "meow" while Czech cats go "mňau".

Here are few more examples of English vs. Czech.

Chicks - "cheep cheep" vs. "píp píp"
Cows - "moo" vs. "bú"
Donkeys - "hee haw" vs. "iá iá"
Ducks - "quack quack" vs. "káč káč"
Frogs - "ribbit" vs. "kvák kvák"
Geese - "honk" vs. "ga ga"
Mice - "squeak" vs. "kvik"
Pigs - "oink oink" vs. "chroch chroch"
Roosters - "cock-a-doodle-doo" vs. "kykyryký"

It's funny to me that Czech frogs sound like English ducks but whatever.  For some good fun, get an international group of friends together, have a few drinks and then challenge each other to make animal sounds.  It will be a laugh riot.   

Sunday, January 25, 2015

St. Agnes of Bohemia

Saint Agnes of Bohemia was a medieval Bohemian princess who gave up her social position in order to become a nun.

She was born in 1211 to King Ottokar I of Bohemia which made her a direct descendant of both Saint Ludmila and Saint Wenceslaus.  She was also first cousin of Saint ElisabethIt seems like a lot of saints for one family.

For political reasons, an arranged marriage was set up for her.  Since she wanted to devote her life to God she wrote to Pope Gregory IX for help and she was allowed to become a nun.  As a nun she personally cooked for and took care of lepers.  She lived out her life caring for others until she died in 1282. 

In 1989, almost 700 years after she died, Pope John Paul II canonized her as a Catholic saint.

St. Agnes was shown on the Czech 50 Kč banknote.  However, the banknote was replaced by the 50 Kč coin in 2011.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Stans

Central Asia stretches from the Caspian Sea to China and from Russia to Afghanistan.  This area has been a crossroads for many, mostly nomadic, civilizations.  It is most noted for the Silk Route which connected the Middle East with Europe, India and China.

It is also home of "the Stans".  -Stan means "land of".  When most people speak of the Stans, they refer to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.  All five countries are former Soviet republics that gained independence when the USSR broke up.  Sometimes people try to include Afghanistan and Pakistan in the club but they are South Asian countries; not Central Asian.

Kazakhstan is the world's largest landlocked country.  It was the last Soviet republic to declare independence.  Kazakhstan is home to 17 million people (not including the fictional character Borat).  A little over 70% of the population is Muslim.  The country is rich in fossil fuel reserves, uranium, copper, and zinc.

Kyrgyzstan is home to 5.7 million people and 75% are Muslim.  It is a poor, mountainous country that relies mostly on agriculture.  Until a few years ago, it was the only country in the world to host both American and Russian military bases at the same time. 

Tajikistan is the smallest of the stans but is home to 8 million people.  Over 90% are Muslim.  It was the poorest Soviet republic and today it is the poorest country in Central Asia.  Over 1 million Tajiks work abroad, 90% in Russia, and send money back home.  This makes up almost half of the country's GDP.

Turkmenistan is mostly desert.  It has a population of 5.2 million people of which 89% are Muslim.  Turkmenistan is sitting on the world's 4th largest natural gas reserves.  It isn't exactly an open society.  It is considered to be one of the 10 most censored countries in the world and its freedom of the press ranks just above North Korea and Eritrea.

Uzbekistan has 30 million people and roughly 88% are Muslim.  Nearly half of the entire population of Central Asia lives in Uzbekistan.  There is lots of history here as it is home to many cities that were main stops on the Silk Road.  Even though about 10% of the labor force works abroad, mainly in Russia and Kazakhstan, the country is considered one of the world's fastest growing economies.

Aside from Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek, the most commonly spoken language is Russian.  It is a co-official language in a few of the countries.

During communism, atheism was encouraged.  Since independence there has been a huge increase in the practice of Islam.  Several countries are working to balance secular societies with an increase of religion while preventing radical Islam from taking root. 

Visiting the Stans isn't exactly easy because all of them, except for Kyrgyzstan, require most people to obtain tourist visas.  Some are expensive, some are less so, but they all require a hell of a lot of paperwork.  For Americans, a Kazakh or Uzbek visa costs $160.  A Tajik visa is only $25 but you need an invitation letter before you can even apply.  The only way to get a tourist visa for Turkmenistan is to purchase an entire tour in advance.  Again, for the most part, Kyrgyzstan doesn't even require a visa so it's the easiest of the Stans to visit.

However, Kazakhstan is currently running a one-year test until 15 July 2015.  During this pilot program, citizens of the United States, the Netherlands, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Malaysia, Japan, and the UAE are allowed to visit without a visa for up to 15 days.

I've been wanting to visit Uzbekistan since I was a teenager.  Ever since I read a magazine article about the Soviet Union and it talked about how the capital city Tashkent was home to camels and pineapples.  However, thanks to "no visas required", my first trip to the Stans will be to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan this June.    

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Antonín Dvořák

Antonín Leopold Dvořák is one of the best known Czech composers.  He was born in Bohemia in 1841, when it was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and died in 1904.

Dvořák's musical gifts were apparent at an early age.  He was known for incorporating Czech folk music from Bohemia and Moravia in 19th century classical music.  He was the first Czech composer to achieve worldwide attention.  In 1892 he served as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York before returning to Bohemia in 1895.  

Dvořák wrote 10 operas, 9 symphonies and numerous pieces of chamber music.  His best known opera is probably Rusalka.  However, my favorite piece is his Slavonic Dance #2.  Here's a clip I found on YouTube of it performed by London's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

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Sunday, January 11, 2015

Karel Čapek

Karel Čapek was born in Czechoslovakia in 1890.  He was a well known journalist, playwright, essayist, publisher and art critic.

Čapek was very vocal against the Nazis and of Germany's annexation of the Sudetenland.

In 1938, the Gestapo named him Czechoslovakia's Public Enemy #2.  Yet he never fled the country.  A few months later he died of double pneumonia.

Although he wrote in many different genres, both fiction and non-fiction, today he is best known for science fiction.  His biggest international success was Rossum's Universal Robots.  Thanks to this play he gave the world the word "robot".  Who would have thought that "robot" was a Czech word?