Thursday, July 30, 2009

Personal Space

Czechs are more comfortable standing closer to one another than Americans are. Especially, on the trams. No where near what is was like in Tokyo...but still. Yet, while their boundaries of personal space are smaller, they are well guarded.

On the street, Czechs don’t acknowledge people whom they don’t know as we would in the U.S. The common U.S. “Hello” or “Good afternoon” while out and about is just not done here. When you approach someone on the street or sit near someone on a tram, people will avoid direct eye contact. It is also considered strange here to smile at strangers.

People here are just very private. It must have something to do with repeated invasions and foreign occupations. I’m told that it takes a long time to develop friendships here but that it is worth it once you do.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Franz I Monument & Petrov Musicians

This weekend I walked up near Petrov (the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul) and found a monument to Franz I of the Hapsburg Empire. The inscription read "Dem Vater des Vaterlandes" (the Father of the Fatherland). It's a good thing that my German works around here.

Some musicians came out and started playing. Here's my 1st video experiment with my camera. Not the best quality but you get the idea.

Zelný Trh

Zelný trh (the vegetable market) is an inside square in the city center. On Saturday morning, you will find the square filled with folks selling fruit, vegetables, spices and flowers. I’ve heard that the market is every day but I’ve only seen it on Saturdays.

In the center of the square is the Baroque Parnassus fountain built between 1690 and 1695. It represents three ancient empires – Babylonia, Persia and Greece. The basin is shaped like a four-leaf clover. From the center of it is a rocky cliff, dominated by the figure of Europa, resting triumphantly upon a defeated dragon. The figures on the three sides of the grotto represent the ancient empires of Babylon (a crown and a winged lion), Persia (a cornucopia) and Greece (a quiver full of arrows and a winged dragon). Inside the grotto, Hercules leads the defeated Cerberus out of the underworld. The fountain’s water is supplied by Brno’s oldest pipeline from the Svratka river.

The main building of the Moravian land Museum is the three-winged Dietrichstein Palace. It was built in 1614-1618 and is the largest of the Brno palaces. There are two permanent exhibitions covering paleontology and mineralogical aspects of Moravia and Silesia.

The Reduta Theater is the oldest theatre building in Central Europe. It was built at the beginning of the 17th century. In 1767, an eleven-year-old Mozart gave a concert here. Today the building is used by the Brno National Theater. I'll post pictures on Flickr later this week.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

A Haircut, the Tram Police & Clothes

So it was time to try the haircut thing again. I made an appointment at a place near the city center for 9:30 this morning. While on the tram downtown, a guy got on, said something in Czech, flashed a badge, and everyone starting digging in to their pockets and purses. So I figured that this was one of the infamous tram cops I've heard about. It took just a minute for him to walk through our car and then he went in to the next tram car. That's when the drama started.

A girl had to dig through her purse for a while but she finally found her pass. No problem. But there was a guy who didn't have a ticket or a pass. Big No No!!! The transit cops are authorized to fine you on the spot and it is around $55 U.S. Apparently the guy didn't have the money because the cop took the guy's Ukrainian passport and sat down in the seat next to him. My stop came up and I had to get off the tram. I guess the cop was taking him to jail? I'll have to ask at work on Monday where they take you if you can't pay the transit fine.

Back to the haircut... So I went to a different place but my hair ended up shorter this time than it it did the last time.  Even though it is way shorter I like this cut better than the last one. All for the low price of 200 Kč (~$11). The cut must make me look a bit more local because now I have people trying to hand me flyers in Czech.

After the haircut I decided to check out some clothing stores. This is going to be fun. We have sizes in the U.S. They have different sizes in the UK. Then there are the sizes they use in the rest of Europe. When you pick up a shirt you first try to figure out which size(s) are on the label. I did manage to get a couple of polo shirts on sale that were decent deals. However...what I woudln't do for an Old Navy and a Dillard's. Maybe I was at the wrong mall but clothes, even on sale, were tragically expensive. There is no way I was going to pay over $100 U.S. for a pair of cargo shorts that were on sale. I hear that there are two other big malls here so I'll have to check them out and see what the prices are like.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Google

So from the moment I arrived in Brno all of my Internet pages have gone Czech. The Google now comes up as Google Czech Republic. It's the same thing for YouTube. And Facebook now gives me ads in Czech.

Here's one thing I did not count on...
I figured that if my favorite TV shows (Grey's Anatomy, NCIS, etc.) were not shown over here that I could at least watch them online at or Nope!!! I now get error codes that theses shows are only available to individuals in the U.S. Bastards!! I guess it makes sense if Cuba, China and North Korea can block Internet content, that the U.S. would do the same to protect copyrights. I've been told that there are things called torrents and some programs you can download to hide your IP address to watch U.S. TV online over here. I'll let you know how it goes.

Stará Radnice

This past Sunday I decided to check out Stará radnice (Old Town Hall) in the City Center. The captions have been updated on Flickr.Stará radnice is basically a house with a tower that was acquired as the town hall some time before 1343. The main building housed town council meetings and court sessions.

In the passage is where you will find the two best-known Brno attractions - the dragon and the wheel. The dragon is said to have devoured cattle and terrorized people. The town council offered a reward for killing it but no attempt was successful. Finally, a knight wrapped up a bag of quicklime in a calf's skin and it swollowed the bait. When it got thirsty, it drank water which triggered the lime until the dragon burst. The seam on its belly is still visible. Historians maintain that the stuffed dragon/crocodile was donated to the town in 1608.

The Brno wheel is said to be the result of a boastful bet made by a carpenter who, in a single day in 1636, made the wheel and rolled it from Lednice to Brno (about 50 km). Another story has it that the wheel was made by a wheelwright's apprentice who was unjustly imprisoned. Since he could not sleep he managed to make a wheel using the wood of his prison bunk. He then handed the wheel over in the morning as proof of his innocence. Not quite sure which version I prefer?

The best thing about Old Town Hall is the tower. For 40 Kč (~$2.20) you can climb up 7 flights of stairs to the top and look out over the entire city. The view was amazing!! Especially of Petrov (the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul) and Špilberk Castle. Each of these will be a future trip.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Quiet Sunday

I had a good day today. I went down to the city center and toured the old city hall. I'll post the pictures and descriptions on Flickr this week.

I also walked over to the Galerie Vaňkovka to check out the big shopping mall here. It is still weird to see people smoking in a mall food court.

I went to a lékárna (pharmacy) to buy some aspirin. Of course... that is kept behind the counter. Thank goodness the clerk spoke German so it was an easy purchase.

The Internet signal at the temporary flat has been really bad today so I decided to walk a couple of blocks to a patio bar that has Wi-Fi. I ordered a beer and a salad with chicken. I guess I need to learn about the different kinds of salad they have here because the waiter brought me a bowl of cucumbers, green peppers and grilled chicken tossed in oil & vinegar. At least it looked pretty.


The most popular soft drink here is Kofola. It is produced in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia and is the chief rival to Coca-Cola and Pepsi. You can buy it in cans or bottles at the store. In restaurants and pubs it comes on draft.

The marketing campaign focuses on a young, hip audience with the slogan Když ji miluješ, není co řešit (When you love her there is nothing to think about).

It is less expensive than Coke, Fanta and Pepsi which may be why it is so popular. It has 30% less sugar than Coke, so it is not as sweet, and it has a slight licorice taste to it. It has just a bit more caffeine and no phosphoric acid. It does take a little getting used to but the taste grows on you. I wonder if it would be good with Vodka? Hmmmm....
EDIT: A lot of people mix Kofola and cheap red wine together. It seems popular but I don't like it. Give me either good red wine or Kofola. Just not together.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Dining Out

Dining out takes time here. A lot of time. This applies to cafés and small restaurants. I haven't hit any of the nicer restaurants yet so they may it do it differently.

First, you find a table and wait for a server to greet you. Be patient because this can take a while. A long while. And good luck finding a non-smoking section because they don't exist.

When you order a drink the server places a 2" x 5" chit on the table and makes hash marks for what you order. The chit will stay on the table and the server will go get your drink.
  • All of the glasses are marked with a line for 0,5L so you know how much head you are supposed to get on a beer.

  • Soft drinks come in tiny 0,2L glass bottles which get poured in to glasses. No ice with sodas here and there are no free refills.

  • Tap water is not served at the table. You can order bottled water - flat or sparkling.
On most menus you'll find the size of the portions, written in grams, indicated to the left of the item. I've learned enough Czech to know if I'm ordering soup, chicken, fish, etc. So far I'm getting by and I'll talk about Czech cuisine in another post.

When you place your order it is written down on the drink ticket and the server goes off to place your order. The server has to remember everything because the ticket stays at the table. I don't know enough Czech to make any special requests but I don't think it is done here. Every one seems to order right off of the menu.

Before your food comes the server will bring you a glass and inside the glass is your napkin and cutlery. When your food arrives you are given a dobrou chut' (bon appetít) and that is the last time you will see your server. The whole checking back to make sure everything is OK hasn't made it over here yet. When your glass is empty they may come back to get you another round, but usually they come back when you're done eating. It is nice not to feel rushed but not to the point where you feel ignored.

An učet prosím (bill, please) will get you your bill. The server will add up every thing on your ticket, mark off the hash marks on the ticket, and tell you the total. When you give the server your money you have to say how much you want to pay...not how much you want back. For example, if the bill is 100 kč and you pay with a 200 kč note, you say 110 or 115 kč. This adds in their tip so they know how much change to give back. Apparently you can't just leave the tip on the table.
Here's the ticket for today's lunch/dinner - a soda, a chicken dish with potato pancakes and an espresso. You can see the crossed off hash marks and the math done at the table. The grand total came to 186 kč (~ $10).

Apartment Hunting

I took a vacation day yesterday so I could meet my real estate agent at 9 am to see some flats. Apparently, he tried Thursday afternoon to call my U.S. cell phone to confirm the appointment. But he never left a message because Czechs do not like voice mail. Since we had not spoken, he cancelled the showings. Ugh!!! Thirty minutes later and he had everything back on and we were off.

We wound up seeing eleven flats and I've got it narrowed down to my top 2 choices. Both would be great, but it will come down to each flat's pluses and minuses and price.

It was pretty easy to cross the others off the list. Way overpriced. The flat was ether not furnished or furnished poorly. The lift (elevator) was a death trap. No view. Horrible kitchen. The previous tenants had worn the place out. Located on top of a gay disco that cranks out the tunes until 6 am. Great for dancing...not so much for peace and quiet.

I will decide this weekend and have the agent set every thing up Monday. I'll post pictures of the winner later.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Apartment Basics

I’m taking tomorrow off to go look at 15 flats so here’s some background on what apartments are like over here.

The European numbering system considers the American 1st floor to be the ground floor. An American 2nd floor is the European 1st floor, etc. Yesterday I went to see an apartment on the 2nd floor which meant that it is the same as a U.S. 3rd floor...walk-up. The old buildings here don’t normally have lifts (elevators). If a building is over four or five floors then you can usually find a lift. Less than that and you can forget it.

All flats are listed in square meters; not square feet. Dang metric system! Then places are listed by the number of rooms, starting with the living room. You don’t go by the number of bedrooms. Your kitchen may be a kitchenette in the corner or it could be a separate room. So the studio I am staying in is classified as a 1 + kk, which means it is one room with a kitchenette in the room. If you go look at a 2 + 1 then that means there are 2 rooms (1 living room and 1 bedroom) plus a separate kitchen. All flats have a private bathroom.

Since I would prefer a place with two bedrooms I am looking for a 3 + kk or a 3 + 1. People here seem to find it really odd that a single person would want a place with 2 bedrooms. I guess the norm would be for me to have a either a studio or a one bedroom place.

I haven’t seen a place with more than one bathroom. Maybe you find those in houses but not in apartments. And speaking of bathrooms, there is always a bathtub with a shower wand but you don’t always have the opportunity to put up a curtain. In newer places, and some remodeled ones, you can also find a shower. I’ll probably end up in a newer place. I think it would be kind of cool to live in one of the old communist paneláky, but it’s doubtful since I really, really want a shower.

If you get a washing machine it is going to be either in the bathroom or in the kitchen. Dryers are rare because they are expensive. Most people hang their clothes up to dry on a terrace or use a drying rack inside. I’ll be sure to take a picture of a drying rack if I end up with one.

Kitchens always have a sink. I don’t think that they have garbage disposals over here. You get a refridgerator, usually with a tiny freezer drawer. You may or may not get an oven. There’s usually a cooker (stovetop) or at least a plug-in hot plate. About 25% of the places I’m looking at tomorrow have dishwashers.

Your flat may or may not be furnished. It may or may not have a parking spot that you pay extra for. Newer places are wired already for cable and Internet but it can take a while to get it in older places.

They really don’t have short-term leases over here. I have one now but it is expensive compared to what I can get with a year's lease. Most landlords want a 12 or 24 month lease. In addition to the rent, the landlord will tell you how much you have to pay for inkaso (utilities). The two amounts are lumped together and that is what you deposit in the landlord’s account each month.

Hopefully, I’ll find a place tomorrow. It will be nice to actually get settled in. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Voice Mail

So this, to me, is one of the craziest things, ever! My new Avaya desk phone will let you surf the web but it doesn't have voice mail. How on earth can you function at IBM without voice mail?

Well you have an ID that you use to log in and log out of your telephone. If you don't log in then when people call you they get a busy signal. That means that the person should try you on your mobile phone (if they know the number) or they should try again later. Oh, and most of the cell phones don't have voice mail either.

I don't know if it is a hold over from the days of communism, or what, but Czechs don't like to leave voice mails. However, they do love to SMS. SMS = text messaging over here. So if it is truely important then you will get an SMS. I wonder how easy the text messages are to follow when the regular cell phones don't have all of the extra Czech letters on them? Hmmm...something else to figure out.

There's another IBMer from Atlanta in Bratislava, Slovakia. It's about 120 km (~85 miles) from here and he said that the voice mail thing applies to Slovakia as well. Makes sense given that they were one country less than 20 years ago.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Transit Pass

Well, I'm getting to be a pro at riding the šalina (tram). I can even jump between the trams, buses and street cars now. It is a little bit of a challenge still when I need to go some place I haven't been yet but that is part of the adventure. Full transit schedules are only available from the main office, from 9 am - 5 pm, Monday - Friday. I tried looking online but the links don't work. Oh well.

Regardless, last Saturday, I took my passport and a photo down to the transit office and purchased a 3-month pass. The clerk spoke Czech and German so we did everything in German. It cost 1.300 Kč (~$70.25) and it is valid from 11-07-09 until 10-10-09. All of the dates in Europe are written day-month-year. It can be a little confusing at times.

You must have your transit pass on you when you ride. At any time, an undercover transit cop and ask to see it. If you don't have then they can fine you 700 Kč (around $35) on the spot.

I don't have to fiddle around with getting tickets any more. And I can jump on and off as much as I want. A good buy, for sure. Plus it allows me to do a lot more exploring. But the cool thing is that now I have an official Czech picture ID, of sorts, so I can leave my passport at home instead of taking it with me all over town.

Grocery Shopping

I think that most Czechs go to the grocery store every one or two days because you buy what you can carry. You go to the local bakery, butcher shop, drugstore, etc. There are also corner grocery stores that carry more products. And then there are hypermarkets - big stores that are also department stores (like a Wal-mart).

The closest grocery store to me right now is Lidl. It is similar to an Aldi. You can get the basics - bread, milk, eggs, juice, beer... But you can also pick up whatever else they offer that gloves, bedding, slippers, ironing boards, etc. Lidl is convenient because it is close by and stays open until 9 PM. I haven't shopped yet at Albert, Interspar or Tesco, but I'm sure that the basics still apply. So here is how the grocery stores work.

In order to get a shopping cart you have to deposit a 5 Kč or a 10 Kč coin in to the cart. This will release the security device so you can take the cart. When you're done with the cart you put the security lock back in to the cart and you get your coin back. If you are just picking up one or two things then it appears to be OK not to take a cart. If you are picking up more than two things I recommend that you get a cart because if you don't then store security seems to watch you the whole time. It sucks when you don't have a 5 or 10 crown coin.

It can be a challenge shopping in a country where you can't understand the labels. I know the Czech word for milk is mléko. So I picked up a bottle of 1,5% kefírové mléko. The bottle said "milk", the liquid was white and it had a picture of a cow & a coffee cup on it so I figured I was safe. Apparently kefírové means sour. This stuff was like trying to drink pourable sour cream. Yuck!!! It went straight in to the trash.

I found it easier to drink Lidl's generic yogurt than to actually use a spoon. But I did find a great name brand peach & passion fruit yogurt that is really good.

The eggs are all brown; not white. Juice comes in these nifty little 1 liter boxes. Bottled tea and water come in dozens of flavors. Water is also either flat or sparkling.
Anyway, when you're ready to leave you go stand in line to check out. When you get to the counter you unload your cart on the conveyor belt. The stores do not give you grocery have to use your own bags or pay for bags. Regardless of the bag's origin, you have to bag your own groceries quickly because when they give you the total they want the money then. And please have the correct amount or, at least, something very close to it because the grocery clerks do not like to make change. Paying for your purchase with a large bill will get you lots of attitude. Once they give you the change, they start ringing up the next person's items so you had better be out of the way. It looks like the custom is to reload your basket as the items are scanned and then move your cart out of the way so you can then bag up your groceries after you've paid.

Update: Food here is not packed with preservatives like it is in the U.S. I think that this is another reason why Czechs have to go shopping more often since food spoils faster. Another reason is that because a lot of flats have tiny refrigerators so there's not a lot of room for groceries to begin with.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Checking Out the Sights

Brno is the capital of Moravia in the Czech Republic. The city contains many squares so on Sunday I decided to start with Moravské náměstí (Moravian Square). Moravské náměstí is on the northeast outskirts of the city center. There are a couple of parks. One has a Red Army memorial for the Soviet soldiers who liberated the city from the Germans during WWII. The other is just your basic park with a fountain and some modern art. All of the day's pictures, with descriptions, are on Flickr, so look to the right of the blog.
Moravské náměstí is where you’ll also find St. Thomas Church. A one-time Augustinian monastery, founded in 1350, it was damaged during the Thirty Years’ War. The new Baroque structure was built from 1665-1675.

Next to St. Thomas Church is the Moravian Gallery. As you can see there is a lot of renovation work going on in the city; not to mention lots of road improvement projects.

Down the road at Jakubské náměstí (Jacob Square) is St. James Church, which was completed in 1592. This church is the most important Late Gothic building in Brno. The church tower rises over 92 meters (~302 feet). You can really see the church tower from Náměstí Svobody (Freedom Square).

Náměstí Svobodý is the biggest and oldest square in Brno. The origin dates back to the 13th century. The square has its original triangular shape. Many of the buildings were rebuilt, in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, in the neo-Renaissance style. The main attractions in the square are the baroque Plague Column, built to commemorate the dead & honor the saints who protected the living, which dates from 1679, and the House of the Four Titans.

Czech Lesson 1: Some Basic Expressions

The Czech language is HARD!!! But here are a few basic expressions so everyone can get a small feel for the phrases that I do know.

Dĕkuji....................................Thank you
Dobrý den..............................Hello; Good day
Ahoj.......................................Hi (informal). Think of a pirate's "ahoy".
Dobrý večer............................Good evening
Na shledanou.........................Goodbye
Já nemluvím český...............................I don't speak Czech.
Mluvíte anglický (německý)?................Do you speak English (German)?

Prádelna (Laundry)

There are only two laundromats in Brno and I found both of them this weekend. One is near Bratislavská street, which I was warned to be careful of because it is a Roma (gypsy) street. I have to admit that the area was very run down and seedy. Not my favorite part of town.

The other is much closer to where I'm staying right now. I stuffed my work clothes in to a backback, jumped on tram #1 and got off at the Hrnčířská stop and walked a block to the prádelna (laundry) at Skřivanova 1. The place is open every day from 2 PM until midnight. You can use their Wi-Fi or have a beer while waiting on your laundry. On Saturday, I opted for the 'leave your clothes' option and went back to pick them up on Sunday. It set me back 155 Kč (about $8.40) for two loads of laundry. But hey, at least I didn't have to wash my work clothes in the bathtub.

They basically take your clothes out of a dryer and throw them in a clothes basket for you to pick up. I stuffed my clean clothes in to my backpack and headed home for some serious ironing. Speaking of which, I found this groovy ironing board for about $30. You plug the iron directly in to the ironing board and the board plugs in to the outlet, kind of like an extension cord. It makes ironing much easier since you have more room to move. It's amazing how little things can make you so happy.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Czech Currency

Even though the Czech Republic is part of the European Union, the Euro won’t be used here until 2015, at the earliest. The local currency is the Czech Koruna (Crown) and it is abbreviated Kč. A single crown is made up of 100 hellar. The funny thing is that they no longer use the 50 hellar coin so it’s just crowns. The coins come in 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, & 50 CZKs and the bills come in denominations of 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, 2000, & 5000 CZKs. The money gets physically larger as its value increases. Therefore, a 2 Kč coin is larger than a 1 Kč coin and a 500 Kč bill is larger than a 100 Kč bill. Kind of cool. Why is a U.S. dime smaller, but worth more, than a nickel?

Not every place here takes plastic and Czechs don't write checks so you pretty much pay for everything with cash. Here’s where it gets a little tricky...because the folks in the shops do not like to make change! Especially at the smaller grocery stores. Don’t try to pay for a 235 Kč grocery tab with a 1000 Kč note. You get lots of attitude!!! Restaurants and some of the bigger stores seem to be OK about breaking larger bills.

I try to keep some change on me at all times but sometimes it just doesn’t work out. IBM did give me this nifty little chip thing for my key chain that you can prepay & then just swipe it for drinks at the office vending machines. That way you don’t go through so much change.

Since making change is clearly such an issue here I wonder if the ATMs give out small bills or just large ones? Hmmm…

Update:  The 50 Kč banknote has been retired.
Update October 2022:  The old banknotes have expired.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Jan Hus Day

So I've been here almost a week and I get a holiday before I even start work tomorrow at IBM. Today is July 6th - Jan Hus day - a Czech national holiday. It will be interesting to see just how much stuff is closed today.

Jan Hus was a Czech Catholic priest who introduced diacritics into Czech spelling so that a single letter represents each sound. That’s why there are over 40 letters in Czech! He also spoke out against indulgences and was a key contributor to the Protestant movement. His heretical views got him excommunicated in 1411 and burned at the stake in 1415.

The Czech Republic is one of the most atheistic countries, with Catholicism leading at like 24%. Nevertheless Jan Hus is a national hero and we get today off.

It will be good to start working tomorrow. I found my way to the IDC (IBM speak for the Integrated Delivery Center) yesterday. It's about a 20 minute walk from my temporary flat to the #53 bus stop. Then it's about a 10 minute ride. Or I could walk there but it is around 45 minutes uphill. I'm more prone to walk home downhill. Wish me luck tomorrow!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Božetěchova Studio

Here are some pics of where I'm staying while I look for a flat in Brno. The studio is located on Božetěchova street, pronouced "Bo-zhet-eh-kova". Look at the entrance, my room is the first ground-level balcony on the left.

The vast majority of studios are leased but the landlord keeps a few units available for short-term folks like me. It is very clean & secure, with motion lights, cameras, and the fact that it takes 3 keys to get to my room. One key to get to the lobby (unless some buzzes you in), then another key to get to the rooms on my floor (ground level), then my room key. Better safe than sorry.

When you first enter there is a small landing. On the left is a wardrobe (free-standing closet) and the bed is straight ahead. The bed converts to a couch but who wants to flip it back and forth every day? There is a desk and chair to the left of the bed.
To the left of the doorway is my bathroom. The toilet is kind of groovy because it has two buttons. Depending on how much 'flush' you need, press either the big silver button or the little silver button. As you can shower. Here is the bathtub with a hand shower. Not completely terrible but I'm glad I'll only have to deal with this until I find my flat. And it will have a shower!
On the wall, next to the tub, is a heated towel bar. This I dig. When it's cold, it makes your towels nice and warm. And since I'll probably have to do some laundry in the sink, you can use it to help dry your clothes. I can not wait until I find a laundromat around here.
Here is the bed, nightstand and desk. I've gotten everything put away with the exception of the stuff on the desk. Czechs love their lace curtains so I'm lucky not to have them hanging up here. The door to the balcony is cool - it opens out like a door or it pulls down from the top so it is still secure but open enough to let in a small breeze.
Across from the bed is a dresser, a table and some chairs. Then to the right is the kitchenette.

I've got a 2-burner cooker and a refrigerator. That's the small cabinet on the right, below my iron.

Just your typical small European refrigerator. This is one reason why the big warehouse clubs like Sam's and Costco don't do well over here. There's just not enough space for big, bulky items. No freezer to speak of, but there is enough room so that I can make two trays worth of ice cubes.
I see folks here buy the 1/2 liter bottles of beer. What I don't get is how they fit more than 2 or 3 bottles in the fridge along with anything else? In another episode I'll describe my visits to the grocery store.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Foreign Police

The foreign police is basically Czech immigration. The relocation agent from IBS, Iva, who handled my work permits here, met me at the foreign police office yesterday. Thank goodness, I had someone there who could speak Czech because the place was very confusing. For a place that deals with foreigners I would think that things would be posted in other languages. Especially since most people there were applying for work visas. Nope. I saw lots of people holding Ukrainian and Vietnamese passports waiting to apply. Our appointment was for 9 AM but at about 9:05 we found out that as of July 1, the department we needed was at another building. We jumped in Iva's car, went in, walked right up to the window, presented my approved visa and that was it. Not quite sure what I expected. Iva said that it's really just a formality because my work permit/green card had already been approved by the government. I do have to update the police when I find a permanent place to live. In one year, I have to apply for a visa renewal. I can apply for a 1 or 2 year renewal but I have to show a lease that is for 1 or 2 years respectively.

Since the foreign police took so little time I decided to get a haircut. Again, I have got to learn Czech. The whole sign language thing really didn't work out too well. It's not a bad cut but it is very Euro short. My heart sank a bit at first but it will grow back out. Let's just say that my hair hasn't been this short since my Air Force days. Oh well...scalped for about $8.

Getting Around Town

Brno has a public transit system that, so far, seems very thorough. From my temporary studio at Božetěchova, in the Královo Pole district, it’s about a 5-minute walk to the Tylova stop for tram line #1. It takes about 15 minutes to get to the city center. Now that I’m getting the hang of the tram I think I will start experimenting with transferring between trams, city buses and trolley cars to really get around. In Czech, a tram is a tramvaj. However, in Brno, the local dialect for tram is šalina (pronounced shalina).

Here are some basics on getting around on the šalina…

A tram comes about every 8 minutes Monday to Friday during rush hours and then every 10 – 15 minutes thereafter. Buses run every 7 – 15 minutes during the week and every 10 – 30 minutes on the weekends. The buses operate 24 hours a day but the special night buses leave every 30 -60 minutes depending on the line. Hlavní nádraží is the main railway station and the central interchange point for all of the night trams & buses.

The length of time you travel and the number of zones you cross determines the price of a ticket. As long as you stay within your time limit you can transfer as many times as you like between trams, buses and trains.

You buy tickets at the railway station, at newsstands, tobacco shops, or at outdoor coin-op vending machines. You can also buy a ticket directly from the driver but there is a convenience charge when you do this.

When you get on the šalina you have to time stamp your ticket in the yellow box by the door. It prints the time, date, and zone you entered on. You do not stamp it again if you transfer but you must keep your ticket until your ride is over. Most of Brno is in zones 100 & 101 which all of the tickets cover. You have to buy pricier tickets in order to hit the suburbs.

So far, I have been using 10-minute and 60-minute tickets to get around. The prices are 14 kč and 22 kč (right now $1 USD = 18.5 kč) respectively. There are 3, 7, 14 & 30-day tickets but I do not know if I can get those at the newsstand. Once I know where I will be living at then I will go to the railway station to buy a long-term ticket. You need a passport-size photo and your identity card/passport but it is cheaper to buy a pass for 1, 3 or 12-months.
Apparently, there are plainclothes inspectors who can ask for your ticket at any time. If you do not have a valid ticket or a pass then they can fine you €33 (around $46) on the spot.

You have to listen for the name of the upcoming stop because not all of the trams/buses have the digital display board showing what the next stop is. When you hear your stop coming up you have to press the button to let the driver know you want to get off. Of course, during rush hour it’s really a moot point because there are people getting on & off. Nevertheless, during the slow times…push the button so that the doors will open.
People here always give up their seat for the elderly, handicapped and pregnant women. It seems to just be understood who gives up a seat to whom. I tried being chivalrous and offered my seat to a rather thin woman in her late twenties yesterday and through sign language she let me know that it wasn’t necessary because she isn’t pregnant. She kind of giggled so I don’t think I offended her. With a little more people watching I should get the hang of things.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Czechs Don't Write Checks

I now have a Czech bank account with Raiffeisenbank. I have my main debit account which IBM will set up for direct deposit and then a savings account that earns interest. But it's weird as an American to open a bank account without checking. If you set up direct deposit over 25.000 Kč (Czech crowns) then there are no monthly maintenance fees -- 25.000 Kč is about $1,200 USD. Europeans use periods for thousands and commas for decimals. 

A few things were kind of different about opening the account. Besides showing my passport and Czech work visa (green card), you have to have a cell phone to open an account because a temporary PIN code gets texted to you in order to activate the account. Good thing I still have service on my U.S. cell phone for a few more weeks. I was able to set up a dual currency account for both crowns and dollars. I'm getting a Visa debit card in 7 days but it's not mailed to you. You have to go back to the opening branch to pick it up. Extra security I guess. 

I get two free withdrawals from my bank's ATMs per month. Then it's 9,90 kč (about 50 cents) per transaction. It's also 9,90 Kč everytime you use another bank's ATM. 

Here's the kicker for my Equifax friends...despite having worked in the credit industry for the last nine years, I have no Czech credit history. LOL!!! Once I have collected 3 monthly pay statements from IBM then I'll go back to my branch to apply for a credit card. I'll need a Czech credit card over here because everytime I use a U.S. card, I get charged a 2%-3% foreign transaction fee by the U.S. banks. Bastards!

At least the bank agent had some basic English which helped. But it still took a couple of hours to get everything set up. When I go back to apply for a credit card I'll also open an investment account. Well enough about banking. Tomorrow's adventure begins with my 9 AM appointment at the foreign police (immigration control) and possibly a haircut.  More to follow later...

Finally in Brno

Well, I finally made it to Brno yesterday morning after three travel days. I got in to New York at 6 AM but my ČSA flight didn't leave until after 4 PM. But the kicker is that the ČSA ticket counter doesn't open until 12:24 PM. So I had all of my luggage (3 bags - 69 lbs, 67 lbs, & 45 lbs plus 2 carry-ons and a big wool coat) for almost 7 hours. Fortunately, I was in the elite lounge. Highly recommended!

Our plane sat on the runway at JFK for an hour before we took off. Eight hours later and I was in Prague. The flight to Brno is only 35 minutes but it is a real puddle jumper.

Yesterday's goals were to check in to my room, find something to eat, and get caught up on sleep. I did manage to make it to Tesco (a British version of Walmart) to buy an iron.

Here are my immediate impressions of Brno:
1. More humid than I expected but there is a nice breeze.
2. Very cool mix of new & old architecture but way too much graffiti in places.
3. I have to learn Czech. So far, no one speaks English, German, French or Spanish. A couple of cab drivers spoke Russian but they had an attitude about it.
4. People are very coridal on the trams and you always give up your seat to older people and pregnant women.
5. Smoking is everywhere. Even inside the mall at the food court. Good thing I quit.
6. There are some drop dead gorgeous women here. A lot of the men...not so much.
7. May guys here wear capri pants. I don't see myself adopting this trend to fit in.
8. Czech beer rocks!