Monday, August 31, 2009

Sister Georgina

Sister Georgina is so sweet. After church on Sunday, she invited several of us out to her house, in Mifkova, for a little get together later that afternoon. She is from Ireland with the order of the Infant Jesus Sisters.

What an international group she hosted! The countries represented were Ireland, Czech Republic, Poland, Indonesia, Romania, Cameroon, Bulgaria, the Philippines and the U.S. Go figure that about a third work for IBM. The food was great and so was the company.

Mifkova is outside of Brno...about 20 minutes from the city center on tram #8. I'll have to go back sometime and take pictures of the village. It was very peaceful. Some folks said that there is also a lake near by.
Over the past week the weather has started getting cooler. So the fire felt great. I'm not really looking forward to months and months of cold. But who knows? Maybe it won't be so bad.
Little Christian is the man! He's 21 months old and already dealing with 3 languages - Czech, Bulgarian and Polish. I doubt if my Czech will ever be as good a two year old's.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

House of the Four Titans

The architecture here is amazing. Every day I find something new to marvel at. Somethings you just have to come see for yourself because a camera can't do justice to the intricate details.

Sometimes I have to wonder if Czechs take all of this for granted? I guess when you grow up with it, it is not quite so amazing.

At Náměstí Svobody 10, you will find the House of the Four Titans. It was built in 1901-1902. Apparently, when it was first built, the four partially clothed men holding up the building caused quite a scandal. Now...not so much.

The Students Are Back

This past week I've noticed that the trams are more crowded. I've also seen more young people out & about. It looks like the students are returning to Brno. There are six universities here with a medical school.

Masaryk University
Janáček Academy of Performing Arts
Brno University of Technology
Mendel University of Agriculture and Forestry
University Of Veterinary and Pharmaceutical Sciences
University of Defence

There are about 85,000 students here. That's huge!! Brno only has about 400,000 residents.

The cool thing I heard yesterday is that when school starts the trams will run more frequently. The trams will come every 3-4 minutes instead of 7-10 minutes.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Wages, Taxes and VAT

When you refer to wages here, they are in monthly terms; not annually like in the U.S. The average gross Czech income is around 19.000 Kč per month (~$1,056 U.S). But about 2/3rd don’t reach the average gross wage. Like other places, the technical and financial fields earn the highest wages while agriculture and textile workers have the lowest.

The labor code sets the minimum wage here at 48,10 Kč (~$2.67) per hour or 8.000 Kč per month (~$444). How in the heck do people here make it on the minimum wage?
Income tax here is 15% but I’ve heard that this may go up, quite a lot, depending on how the upcoming elections turnout. Employees contribute 8% for social security and unemployment insurance while the employer contributes 26%. Health insurance is 4,5% for the employee and 9% for the employer. Basically, you give up 30% of your monthly paycheck to taxes. Oh yeah, you get paid once a month here. Not twice a month or every two weeks like back home.

We don’t have VAT (value added tax) in the U.S. but most other countries do. It is a consumption tax levied on any value that is added to a product. All this means to me is that the sales tax here is 19% on goods & services. A reduced rate of 9% is charged for food, medication, newspapers, books, heating & water.

EDIT:  In 2012, the VAT rate has increased.
EDIT:  In 2013, the VAT rate increased as well.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Albert

Albert is the closest grocery store to my flat. The chain is only found here, in Slovakia and Poland. So unlike Tesco, not much English. But it is just around the corner from me so I can just carry things home without having to get on the tram.

One thing different about Albert is that you weigh and price your produce before you get to the register. You just look for the picture of what you're buying, press the button and out comes the sticker. One time I didn't see a picture of a radish (and didn't know the Czech word for it) so I had to buy some that were prepackaged.

By chance I happened to see a guy weigh some tomatos the first time I went to Albert so I did the same. I bet the checkers would have lost their minds if I had gone to the register without having first priced my produce.

I've had requests for cost-of-living information so here's what I got today...

Tortillas, pepperoni, cheddar cheese, eidam cheese, sliced ham, strawberry jam, 3 yogurts, 3 bananas, chicken thighs, potatos, multivitamin juice, ice cream, 1/2 loaf of toast bread and 2 dinner rolls. The grand total was 335 Kč (~$18.60 U.S.).

The sandwich bread is very dense here. So far, I haven't been able to find 'soft' bread. Eidam cheese is cheap but cheddar is more expensive.

You always see people on the trams or walking down the street with a bag of rolls on their way home for dinner. They are good (and cheap) but you had better eat them the same day you buy them. Try to eat one the next day and you will chip a tooth.

The potatos are tiny. You can easily fit 3-4 in the palm of your hand. But the green onions are HUGE! The biggest chives you've ever seen.

Multivitamin juice is good. It looks like carrot juice and is a blend of apple, orange, lemon, pineapple, passion fruit, grape, grapefruit, mango, guava, banana, apricot and peach juices. They sell multivitamin juice in cartons and small plastic bottles. The large plastic bottles look more like orange soda so I stick with the cartons.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Tesco

Tesco is like a British version of Wal-mart. You can buy clothes, electronics, housewares, groceries, etc. In the local shops most products are in 4 languages - Czech, Slovak, Polish and Hungarian. Not much help.

At Tesco, you have the same thing but a lot of the products there often have some English on the labels. I was finally able to find fabric softener at a Tesco because the label said "fabric softener". But that was it. I couldn't read anything else (instructions, ingredients, etc.) because the rest of the label was in Czech and Slovak. But hey, I'll take what I can get.

Grocery shopping takes me longer here because most of the time I have to figure out what I'm looking at. Here's what I picked up today.
Instant coffee, tea, butter, 3 croissants, rye bread, 1 liter of orange juice, 2 liters of skim milk, and 1 liter of apple & black currant juice. This was all I needed and it was all that would fit in my backpack. The grand total came out to 231 Kč (~$12.80 U.S.).

The apple & black currant juice tastes like cran-apple juice, but a little sweeter. I wonder if I will ever get used to buying milk that is not refrigerated?

Špilberk Castle

Špilberk Castle (pronounced Sh-pilberk), was founded in the second half of the 13th century. It played a role in the 15th century during the hussite wars. It helped the Czechs defeat the Swedish army in 1645.
At one point it was the worst prison in the Hapsburg Empire. Napolean's army destroyed the most important parts of the fortification systems in 1809. During WWII, the German Gestapo used the castle as its headquarters.

You can take a self-guided tour, including the casemates (dungeon), for 160 Kč (~$8.80 U.S.). At least 65% of the exhibits are available in English.

As you can see, the moat has been drained.


The lighting was not great down in the casemates but here is a shot of a room for 22 prisoners. But I wonder if the bat I saw in the dungeon was supposed to be part of the tour?

video
In the castle courtyard I caught kids practicing for some kind of performance. These kids sure can sing. Here's another one of my video captures.
To get to the castle you go through Špilberk Park. It is Brno's largest park at 17 hectares (42 acres). Who knew 1 hectar is 2.47 acres? Damn Metric system.
All of the pictures are already up on Flickr. And here's a link to the castle website, in English, that tells you all about it. http://www.spilberk.cz/index.php?lang=en

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Movie Theater

Last night I decided to try my luck with the movies. I went to see G.I. Joe at Velký Špalíček, in the city center, near Zelný trh. The theater was showing two versions of the movie - one in English with Czech subtitles and one dubbed in to Czech. Guess which one I saw?

First of all, time is always posted here in military time (24 hour clock), even on the movie schedule. The schedule was pretty cool so let's start there. It gives you the name of the movie, the screen number, the rating, audio and length of the show.

I only saw three different ratings - G, 12 and 15. I guess 12 & 15 = PG-13 and R in the U.S.

The audio column let's you know if the movie is in Czech or Slovak. Also if the movie has been dubbed in to Czech or if it is in English with Czech subtitles.

It doesn't look like they have matinée prices over here. The ticket was 159 Kč (~$8.75).

Your assigned seat is printed on your ticket. This struck me as odd at first but I can see where it has its benefits. If you come in late for a show, you don't have to try to find a seat. Of course, it probably sucks if you don't like your seat. When I bought my ticket, the ticket agent showed me a map and I picked the area I wanted.

The seats were very nice. Unlike in the U.S., the seats do not fold down.

The concession stand had the normal sodas, candy and nachos for sale. There were two different kinds of popcorn. Regular and cheddar-flavored. Everyone had the orange kind so I guess cheddar corn is the most popular. You could also buy draft or bottled beer and cocktails. Nice!

The movie was good...maybe I was just happy to hear English. I really enjoyed watching a movie in peace. No one's mobile phone went off during the show and people kept their conversations quiet. Czechs should teach manners to U.S. audiences.

Friday, August 21, 2009

40th 1st year Anniversary

Today is the 40th anniversary of the 1st year anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.

On August 20–21, 1968 Soviet forces, with East Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria and Poland invaded the country to end the liberal reforms taking place by the Czechoslovak communist party.

These photos were taken in Brno, August 1968.

Here's a video I found on YouTube that some may find interesting.
video


During the 1st anniversary, on 21.08.1969, thousands of people went out into the streets to protest the occupation. The army, police and militia were brought out against the demonstrators and it turned violent. During the following days, the participants of the demonstration were severely punished. The "truncheon law" went in to effect and allowed police/security forces to detain people for up to 3 weeks (instead of 48 hours) and allowed people to be dismissed from work or school. A total of 1.526 people were punished under this law.

This week, the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes put up three four-sided panels at Náměstí Svobody (Freedom Square). The panels are in Czech and English and detail the events of August 1968/1969. The panels also document what went on in Brno and shows photos of Brno residents that were killed.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Milk

Milk is just different over here. First of all, it is not pasteurized. The milk is labeled UHT for ultra-high temperature processing.
American milk is banned in Europe because most U.S. farmers inject dairy cows with rBGH to increase milk production. So milk here is more natural.

Milk is sold here in liters...so no gallons. Besides, who would have room in the fridge for a big gallon of milk?

Here milk is sold in either plastic bottles or in wax/cardboard containers. But, only the bottles are refrigerated before opening. It is so weird buying milk that is not refrigerated. The cartons normally have at least a one-month shelf life before you should open them. Once opened, the milk is good for about a week in the fridge.

Acidophilus milk seems to be very popular here. But so is kefírové mléko (sour milk) and this stuff is foul! I bought some kefírové milk here by mistake when I first got here. It looked like milk and tasted like sour cream. Yuck!!


Whole milk is around 4% and I've had the 1,5%. But the good news is...I finally found skim milk!!! Odstředěné mléko is skim milk. Well, it's actually 0,5%. Once the milk gets cold in the fridge it is fine. I really could not tell a difference between this and what I used to drink in the U.S. And I kind of like drinking milk that is not genetically-modified.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Historic Tram

Brno has a historic tram that runs only on the weekends. It's funny to me that for a city with so much history, the "historic" tram is only over 60 years old. Around here, 60 years is nothing!!

The historic tram runs on the #10 line from May to October. It connects Hlavní Nádraží (the main station) with Nové Sady and Stránská Skála. This tram just supplements the normal schedule because it only runs once an hour. There is no special ticket required. Just use a normal ticket or your tram pass.

I only rode the tram one stop down to Nové Sady so that I could experience it. Only four other people got on at the same time I did. As soon as the tram left the station, a conductor came by to check our tickets/passes. In six weeks that's only the second time I've see the tram police. Perhaps it's common to catch tourists trying to ride the old car for free?

Friday, August 14, 2009

VZP

By law, everyone here is obliged to participate in the health care insurance system which covers pretty much everything. Only certain cosmetic, acupunture, and homeopathic treatments are excluded. In general, services provided by GPs (general practitioner) are free at the point of use. People get to choose their own GP. But the GPs are not gatekeepers. They will refer patients to specialists, but patients can go see a specialist without a referal.

I've heard, from other expats here, that the Czech health care system is really good. That you can get right in to see a doctor and the fee, if any, is never more than 100-200 Kč (~$5.50 - $11 U.S.). But let's hope, except for the normal check-up's and such, that I won't ever have need of the Czech health system.


Všeobecná Zdravotní Pojištovna (VZP) is the biggest health insurance company in ČR. It covers basic treatments when visiting the doctor or going to the hospital. And it works in any EU country. If you are an EU citizen you get a blue health card. Citizens of non-EU countries, like me, get a green health card. So this is what I show when I go to a doctor or a hospital.

Here's a link, in English, about VZP. http://www.vzp.cz/cms/internet/en/Vseobecne/index.html

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Numbers 1-10

One of the most important things to learn, when you go to another country, is how to count. While not a permanent fix, you can always get by with saying numbers one at a time..."3-0-5" instead of "305". Most people will smile and humor you this way.

I'm still working on getting the bigger numbers down but the pronunciation is a killer. For those of you wanting to come visit, you can get by if you know 0 - 10, 100 and 1.000. So here you go...

0 = nula "noo-la"
1* = jeden / jedna / jedno "yeh-din, yehd-na, yehd-no"
2* = dva / dvě "dva / d-veh"
3 = tři "t-rzh-ee"
4 = čtyři "ch-ty-rzh-ee"
5 = pět "pyet"
6 = šest "sh-est"
7 = sedm "sedum"
8 = osm "osum"
9 = devět "devyet"
10 = deset "deset"
100 = sto "stoh"
1.000 = tisíc "tee-seets"

*It depends on what you are counting. Yes, the grammar is that complicated.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Sokolská Flat

For those of you who have waited patiently, here are the pictures of my flat. It is on Sokolská street in Brno's Veveří (Vuh-ver-Zhee) district, about a 10-minute walk to the city center. It is around the corner from the botanical gardens and a police station. My building is the one in the middle. It was renovated a few years ago and my flat was built on top. My flat is a 3+KK which means it has a living room, two bedrooms and a kitchen. It is 80 m² which is just over 861 sq. feet and that is huge over here.

When you walk in to the building you find the mailboxes on the left. Very tiny. I'm told that you have to go to a post office to pick up packages. Subtle, huh?




Straight ahead is the elevator. Just open the door and get in. When the door closes behind you then push a button. The elevator goes up to the 4th floor (a U.S. 5th floor) and then you just walk up one flight of stairs.



Here's the front door and now let the tour begin...





When you walk in there are wardrobes on the left and right. Straight ahead is the kitchen. On the right is a hallway leading to the toilet and the bathroom.


So going down the right hallway we come to the WC (water closet). Of the flats I saw with a separate toilet, ½ had a sink and ½ didn't.

After that we have the bathroom. It has an electric skylight, sink, groovy heated towel bar, and my shower! Love the shower!!

It also has a combo washing machine/dryer. Dryers are very rare over here. Everyone just hangs clothes up to dry. The loads are small and take a really long, long time. But I don't have to schlep clothes, on a tram, to a laudromat any more.
Straight ahead from the entry way is my dining table. The kitchen is to the right and the living room is to the left. The kitchen is big for Europe. It has both an electric and a manual skylight. Here's the microwave I bought at Tesco this week.

The electric kettle is neat. Hot water in less than a minute. I've got a cooker (stovetop), an oven, and a dishwasher. Dishwashers are not too common over here.
I have a fridge and a freezer. The freezer has one big drawer on top and a small drawer below.
Now on to the living room. That isn't a phone on the wall. That's the buzzer for the main building door.
I've got a sectional couch and a TV. I only have basic service but pick up stations in Czech, Slovak, German, French and two English-language news channels.
The white sofa folds down to a double bed.

The flat is a duplex. There are just two rooms upstairs.



Here's my study/guest room. There is a skylight in here too. The single bed is a box with a padded top to sleep on. It lifts up to store your bedding.
My room has a double bed. But Czechs put in two single mattresses. Go figure. There are two skylights and a walk-in closet. This was the only flat I saw that had a walk-in closet.


From the balcony, looking down, is a common garden shared by the building.


My cheap, little camera can not do justice to the view from the balcony. I've got clear views of Petrov (the Cathedral of St. Paul and St. Peter) and the Špilberk Castle. It is amazing at night when they are lit up.
So there you have it.
Who is going to be the first guest from the U.S. to visit?