Sunday, February 26, 2012

Tea

Tea is very popular here in the ČR.  Or rather, hot tea is very popular here.  It is quite common to go for a tea break before lunchtime or in the late afternoon. 

In the USA, we drink more iced tea.  And in Atlanta, as in most of the South, they drink "sweet tea" (iced tea that was brewed with a kilo or two of sugar).  Over here, you can only get iced tea in bottles.  When I visit Atlanta in September I want to find a sun tea pitcher, to bring back with me, so that I can have real iced tea over here.


I've been told that back in the days of socialism, that there was only one kind of black tea available.  Some Russian brand and not very good.  It's a different world now and there are many different kinds of tea available.

Claudia jokes that you know you are dealing with Americans when they offer you a cup of tea because it will only ever be black tea.  Or maybe green tea.  I've stocked up on various kinds of tea so that when I have company I'm able to offer more than basic black or green tea.

Many Czechs take their tea "English style" which is black tea with milk.  I never understood putting milk in tea before and I fought it for a couple of years.  But in the last eight months or so I've gotten used to my daily black tea with milk.

Last year during Lent, I gave up tea for 40 days.  It was a lot tougher than I thought it would be.  I did it but, in all honestly I ended up drinking a lot more coffee.

Friday, February 24, 2012

IBM vs. AT&T Hockey

Ice hockey is a big deal here in the ČR.  I've been wanting to go to a Kometa game for the last couple of years but it just hasn't worked out yet.  Kometa is Brno's local club and the 2nd most successful team in the country.  Kometa fans are very loyal and tickets are tough to get even when they aren't playing well.

Both the IBM and AT&T offices here have local teams and the first match between the two was last night.  Since I haven't made it to a proper match yet, I decided to go with some colleagues after work and lend our support to the IBM team.

It started off well but in the end we lost to AT&T.  Dang it.  But I still want to make it to a proper match. 

No Beer for Lent

For those that don't know, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and lasts for 40 days until Easter.  For Catholics, it is a time when we give up something for 40 days.

Last year I gave up tea which was really tough, but I did it.  This year I've decided to try something very difficult.  I've given up beer which is unheard of in the Czech Republic - a place where beer costs less than water, cola or juice.  Let's hope that I make it.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Venice Carnival

Back in the 1980s, the annual Carnival of Venice was revived.

It starts two weeks before Ash Wednesday and ends on Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras).  It is very popular and the city is extra crowded. 

There are lost of people dressed up and Venetian masks are for sale everywhere.  On the last weekend of Carnival there is a contest for the best mask.

Many of the costumes are quite elaborate.  Here are some of the best ones I saw in Venice.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Murano and Burano, Italy

As part of our day trip to Venice, Miran and I toured the nearby islands of Murano and Burano.

Murano is a small series of islands about 1.5 km (~1 mile) north of Venice.  The population is a little more than 5,000.  Murano's claim to fame is its glass making.

Back in 1291, all of Venice's glass makers were forced to move to Murano due to the risk of fires.  For some time, Murano was the main producer of glass in Europe.  Today it is still the main industry on the island.  As part of our tour we were taken to see a glass making demonstration (and the opportunity to purchase souvenirs).

The island is also home to the Church of Santa Marie e San Donato.  It was originally built in the 7th century.  Inside a marble sarcophagus are believed to be the romains of Saint Donatus of Arezzo.

 
Burano is 6 km (~4 miles) north of Murano.  It is actually made up of four islands separated by 10 meter wide canals.  Burano has about 2,800 people.


Burano is famous for its lacework.  However, the town's charm is its brightly-painted houses.  The story goes that the fishermen's wives painted their homes such bright colors so that the men would be able to find their way home from far away.  Today, if someone wants to paint their home, a written request is made to the government and a notice is then received indicating which colors are permitted for a given lot.

Both islands were worth the visit.  The nice thing is that neither was as crowded as Venice was.  Granted it was the final weekend of Carnival but Venice was way crowded.  Or at least I thought so.  According to our tour guide, the crowds were much less than a couple of weeks ago.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Venice, Italy

Saturday was my first visit to Venice, Italy.  There were just two kickers to the trip.  The first was that it was a group bus tour that left from Ljubljana at 6 AM so we had to leave Murska Sobota by 4 AM.  Way too early for a Saturday morning.  The second thing is that the tour was conducted in Slovenian so I only understood maybe 20% of what was said.  I just tried to follow along and read my English guide book.

Venice is in northeast Italy and is one of the most beautiful and romantic cities in the world.  The city sits on 118 small islands, formed by 177 canals, and is connected by 409 bridges.  Inside of the city, you either walk or go by boat.  This is the largest urban car-free area in Europe.  Venice is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The city is best known for Carnival and gondolas but there is a bit more to it.

Piazza San Marco (St. Mark's Square) is the city's main square.  It is home to Saint Mark's Basilica which was consecrated in 832 AD.

The Campanile is the basilica's bell tower.  It is ~99 meters (323 feet) tall.  The current tower was rebuilt in 1912.


The Doge's Palace is a Venetian Gothic palace that became a museum in 1923.
The Clock Tower was completed in 1499.





The Grand Canal cuts through the center of the city.  It's basically like "Main Street".  The Rialto Bridge is over 400 years old and is the oldest of the four main bridges over the canal.

 
Travel Tip:  Lots of people want to take the traditional gondola ride in order to get the full Venice experience.  But it is really expensive.  A 50-minute ride can run you €60 - €100 ($78 - $100) and the prices go up a lot after 8 PM.  However, for just €0,50 (65¢) you can take a 2-minute water taxi to the other side of the canal.  You save an hour and a whole lot of Euros.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Italian Republic

Tomorrow I've got a day trip planned to Venice, Italy.  So here's a little bit about the Italian Republic.  Italy is easy to find on the map because it looks like a boot.  It also includes the islands of Sardinia and Sicily.  The population is over 61.25 million people and the country is slightly larger than Arizona.

Italy is also home to two independent countries.  San Marino is in the north and the Vatican is located within Rome, Italy's capital city.  There are no border checks, everyone speaks Italian and uses the Euro.

In 1861, the regional states on the peninsula, plus Sardinia and Sicily, became a nation under King Victor Emmanuel II.  In the early 1920s, Mussolini's Fascist dictatorship ended parliamentary government and eventually placed Italy as an Axis power.  Italy was defeated in WWII and a democratic republic replaced the monarchy in 1946.  Italy was a founding member of NATO and the European Union.

There is a big difference between the north and the south.  On average, people in the north earn more than the EU average while people in the south earn less.  The north is more industrial with lots of private companies driving the economy.  The south is less developed, is more agricultural, has higher unemployment and a larger dependency on government welfare.

Way cool that the Italian €1 coin features an image from Da Vinci.
Italy is part of the Schengen zone so there is open travel with the rest of the EU.  However, the country's long coastline makes it a target for illegal immigration from southeast Europe and northern Africa.  Other persistent problems for the country include organized crime, corruption, a large underground economy and a public debt that is ~120% of its GDP.  The current government is rolling out various austerity measures in an effort to turn things around.

But for all of its problems, Italy is still a major player.  It has the fourth-largest economy in Europe behind Germany, France and the United Kingdom (3rd in the Eurozone because the UK still uses the £).  Globally it is the seventh-largest economy and it holds the world's third-largest gold reserves.

The country is absolutely beautiful!  The food is amazing.  And how can you not love a country that produces the most wine in the world?  So far, I've made it to Milan, Florence, Pisa, Siena, San Gimignano and Rome.  But there are still so many more places to visit on the mainland, in addition to Sardinia and Sicily.  The country is rich in history and it is home to the largest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Squash

I miss racquetball.  They just don't play it over here in Euroland.  Here it is all about playing squash.

Last night, Tomáš and Annie invited me to join them for a match after work.  While similar, the games are different.  My racquetball racquet is shorter and wider than a squash racket.  A squash racket looks a lot like a badminton racquet.

A racquet ball is about 6 cm in diameter and very bouncy.  A squash ball is only 4 cm and no where near as bouncy as a racquet ball. The squash court is not quite as long as a racquetball court.  I guess because the squash ball doesn't bounce quite as much.

In racquetball the server gets two attempts to serve, just like in tennis, but in squash you only get one chance.  Squash has a red line on the front wall that is about a foot off the ground and you have to hit the front wall above the line.  In racquetball, you can hit the front wall where ever you want.

In racquetball ball we play to 15 points, but you must win by 2 points, and you only get a point when you serve.  In squash, you play to 11 points, must win by 2 points, but you get points no matter who serves.

It was a lot of fun!  Especially after a long day in the office.  I still prefer racquetball but I think that squash may just be the substitute I need.  I guess I need to go buy my own squash racquet now. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Brno Cock Clock

This story is way overdue.  So back in September 2010, a new clock was unveiled at Náměstí Svobody.  A few think it is interesting.  But I haven't met anyone who thinks it is the coolest thing ever.  Most people don't care for it.  Probably because it looks like a dildo.  It is supposed to look like a bullet but there is no denying the rather phallic appearance.
 
The 5,5 meter tall obelisk is made out of African granite.  City officials hoped that it would help bring in more tourists.  The price for this thing was around 13.000.000 Kč (~ €520.000).  That's give or take $680,000.

During the Thirty Years War, Brno was besieged in 1645 by Swedish troops.  Swedish General Torstenson announced that he would be able to capture the city before the bells at Petrov rang mid-day. The leader of the defending army, Jean-Louis Raduit de Souches, had the bells ring an hour early, and the Swedish army retreated without a shot being fired. 

So every day at 11 AM the new clock chimes and a large marble is released to one of four openings at the base of the clock.  Anyone who has his or her hand at the right opening as a few seconds to catch the marble otherwise the marble returns inside of the clock.  If you catch the marble then you get to keep it. 

Now, here's the catch.  You can't tell what time it is.  Over half a million Euros and you still need to look at your watch to know what time it is.  The top of the clock rotates and if you stand at the right spot then you can tell what time it is.  The city even has instructions on how to tell what time it is.  In almost two years, I still can't read the clock.  It's just easier to look at my watch. 


Well this past weekend was particularly cold.  I guess someone was bored and decided to go play in the snow.  Again, it doesn't really look like a bullet to me.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Székesfehérvár, Hungary

Claudia's boyfriend Norbert was invited to speak at a Hungarian writer's conference this past weekend in Székesfehérvár.  Since Claudia can't speak Hungarian, Mohamed and I tagged along to keep her company in town while Norbert was doing his thing.

Székesfehérvár (Sey-cash-fey-heyr-vahr) means "seat of the white castle".  The city is about 65 km (40 miles) southwest of Budapest.  With around 130,000 people it is the 9th largest city in Hungary.  When it was known as Alba Regia it was the country's first capital city.  During the Middle Ages the first Hungarian kings were crowned and buried here.  The town was destroyed during the Ottoman Turk occupation that lasted 145 years.  It was rebuilt in the 18th century when it was again under the Habsburg Empire.

The plan was to do a bit of sightseeing and watch Norbert give his speech.  Well the sightseeing part didn't really pan out because it was super cold.  We did walk around the historic town center but most of our time was spent in various cafes trying to stay warm which wasn't always easy considering it was -15 °C (5 °F).

The orb in the town center reminds people of the 37 kings and 39 queen consorts who were crowned in Székesfehérvár.  István, the first Christian king, received his crown here from the Pope in 1000 AD.

The WWI memorial is at the crypt of the St. Stephan's basilica.




The WWII memorial was a hit harder to see due to the snow.



We didn't do so well at the Garden of Medieval Ruins either.  Here are the remains of an 11th century basilica.  Again, the snow got in the way.


The Episcopal Palace was built from 1780-1803.  It was built using stones from the former basilica.  I'm sure it would have been nice to check out but it was closed on the weekend. 


We had much better luck with the Ecclesiastical Museum.  It was quite interesting and it kept us out of the cold.

We wanted to visit Bory Castle which was built in the 1920s.  Unfortunately, we were too early and it doesn't open for tourists until Spring.

Székesfehérvár was a cute, little town to visit for a weekend but not one that I'm in a hurry to go back to again soon.  I'm sure that it's much nicer in the Spring or Summer but I'm not so sure it would be worth another four-hour drive.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Sabine's Going Away Party

So tonight was Sabine's going away party. Although she technically moved in December tonight was the farewell bash. She rented out a local cafe for the evening and everyone dressed up a bit for cocktails.

We started out with champagne and some small nibbles followed by our choice of four selected cocktails and a nice little spread of food. Claudia found some coffee table books that we hope will remind Sabine of her time in Brno.

It was a really nice time but of course it was still a little sad. The good thing is that Sabine has only moved to Vienna so it's just 1.5 hours down the road. So I guess we need to plan a few more trips to Vienna. But still...it's one more person who has left town.