Sunday, January 31, 2010

Döner Kebab

While in Berlin this past weekend, I made sure to get a Döner Kebap for lunch. It is a Turkish sandwich served in a wax paper sleeve. It is similar to a Greek gyro but döner are way better. Especially as a quick lunch or after a late night of drinking.

It consists of roasted lamb cut from a spit, with lettuce, red cabbage, tomatoes, onion, cucumbers and sauce. They are normally served on pita bread. But not in Berlin. Here, is the only place where they are served in warmed fladenbrot (thick flatbread).

Döner is one of the most popular fast foods in Germany. Probably because of the country's large Turkish minority. In the 1960s, huge numbers of Turks came to Germany, as guest workers, to fill the acute labor shortages that existed at the time.

The story goes that Döner Kebab was actually invented in Berlin in 1971 as the fast food version of a traditional Turkish dish. I don't know if it is the fladenbrot or what, but döner just seem to taste better in Berlin.

Update 2021:  Here's a YouTube video I found about the history of döner kebab in Germany.

©DW News

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Euro - €

The euro () is the official currency of the European Union, and is used by 327 million Europeans in 16 of the 27 member countries. After the U.S. dollar, it is the 2nd largest reserve currency and the 2nd most traded currency.

Inspiration for the € symbol itself came from the Greek epsilon (Є), as a reference to the cradle of European civilization, and the first letter of the word Europe. It is crossed by two parallel lines to ‘certify’ the stability of the euro.

€1 is divided in to 100 cents. The coins come in denominations of 1c, 2c, 5c, 10c, 20c, 50c, €1 and €2. One side of the coin is common and the other side is a national side that shows an image specifically chosen by the country that issued the coin. Kind of like how each U.S. quarter features a different state.

Banknotes come in denominations of €5, €10, €20, €50, €100, €200 and €500. Each banknote has its own color and is dedicated to an artistic period of European architecture. The front of the note features windows or gateways and the back has bridges.

Just like Czech money, the coins and banknotes get physically larger as the value increases.

Countries have to meet strict criteria in order to join the Eurozone. For example, a country's budget deficit must be less than 3% of it's GDP, its debt ratio must be less than 60% of its GDP, inflation must be low and interest rates must be close to the EU average. All new EU countries must work towards eventually adopting the euro. The only 3 long-standing EU countries that have yet to adopt it are the UK, Denmark and Sweden. It will be several years before the Czechs start using it. Slovakia switched to the euro 1 year ago. I think Slovaks are kind of proud that they switched before the Czechs could.

It is nice to be able to use a single currency in most of Europe. The problem is that, for the most part, I now think in Czech Crowns. So when I see something priced in euros, I first have to mentally convert the euros into dollars, and then convert the dollars into crowns so that I realize just how much I'm spending. Kind of crazy, I know. But at least I don't have to figure out marks, schillings and lire.

EDIT:  The following countries all use the Euro as their official currency even though they are not members of the Eurozone or the EU:  Andorra, Kosovo, Monaco, Montenegro, San Marino and Vatican City.

Update:  In 2013, the new €5 banknote was released in to circulation.

Update:  In 2014, the new €10 banknote was released in to circulation. 

Update:  In 2015, the new €20 banknote was released in to circulation.

Update:  In 2017, the new €50 banknote was released in to circulation.

Update:  In 2019, the new €100 & €200 banknotes were released in to circulation.

Friday, January 29, 2010


The Czech language has a sound that doesn't exist in any other language and it is driving me crazy. The letter "Ř" is a rolled R sound with a „zh“ sound.

Czechs seem to take pride in the fact that even Slovaks, quite often, can't make this sound properly. It's normally the hardest sound for Czech children to learn and the ones that don't get it are sent to speech therapy.

I was told that during WWII, the Czech resistance used passwords that contained the letter "ř" in order to root out German spies. Pretty clever.

I hope that my ability to pronounce this properly will come in time. But then again, the former Czech president Václav Havel, due to a speech impediment, can't properly say the letter ř. So if he can't then I guess I should not worry about it too much.

Here's my second MS Movie Maker experiment. These two tongue twisters are supposed to help me with my ř.

Tři sta třicet tři stříbrných křepelek přeletělo přes tři sta třicet tři stříbrných střech.

Three hundred and thirty three silver quails flew over three hundred and thirty three silver roofs.

Přišel za mnou jeden Řek, a ten mi řek, abych mu řek, kolik je v Řecku řeckých řek. A já mu řek, že nejsem řek, abych mu řek, kolik je v Řecku řeckých řek.

A Greek came to me asking for how many Greek rivers are there in Greece. And I told him that I was no Greek to tell how many Greek rivers are there in Greece.

Update 2022:  Here are a couple of more Czech tongue twisters.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Tongue Twisters #1

I started Czech language lessons last week. I had classes last year but they just didn't work out. Claudia had a really good idea of putting up a flyer in the foreign language department at Masarykova Univerzita requesting a private instructor.

We found a tutor who is working on her Ph.D. in Czech to give us private lessons. Our classes are 90 minutes on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Lessons are even at my flat which is really convenient. I just hope now that with only two students in "the class", we can start making some real progress.

I'm really working to improve my pronunciation. But there are times when, I think I'll just break my tongue trying to pronounce certain words...especially the ones that don't have any vowels.

Here are a couple of Czech tongue twisters. They don't make much sense and it's not like these are sentences that I'll use every day. However, they are kind of fun. And look vowels!

This is also the first "movie" I created using MicroSoft Movie Maker so let me know what you think.

Strč prst skrz krk. Put your finger in your neck/throat.

Vlk zmrzl, prst zvlhl. Frozen wolf, wet finger.

Update 2022:  Here are a couple of more Czech tongue twisters.


Krtek, the mole, is the Czech version of Mickey Mouse. Zdeněk Miler created the animated character when he was commissioned to make an educational film for children in 1956. Apparently, he got the idea to use a mole as his main character when he stumbled over a mole hill while walking.

Krtek's first film was called "Jak krtek ke kalhotkám přišel" ("How the mole got his pants"). Further episodes started in 1963 and, to date, there are about 50.

Each episode only lasts a few minutes and attempts to teach children life's lessons and about becoming good members of the community.

Krteček, the little mole, is a cheerful and resourceful critter. Along with his friends - a family of rabbits, a hedgehog, a mouse and a cricket, Krtek finds solutions to problematic situations.

The cartoons have been released in +80 countries but were most popular in Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Poland. There are all kinds of Krtek memorabilia in almost every Prague gift shop.

In 2006, Zdeněk Miler was awarded a Medal of Merit, First Grade.

Here's Krtek a rybka - The mole and the small fish, that was released in 2000.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Czechs do not wear shoes inside of their homes. The first thing you do is take off your shoes and put on your bačkory...slippers (pronounced batch-kory). When you go to someone's flat there are normally guest bačkory for you to wear. Or you just wear your socks.

If someone comes to your flat, don't even bother trying to tell people that they can leave their shoes on. It just isn't done. When I first moved here, I went with a realtor to look at 12 flats in one day. We had to take off our shoes each time.

It's normal to even see people leave their shoes outside of their doors. Several of my neighbors have small stools in front of their doors so they can sit down to change shoes.
Czechs do this so that they don't track dirt in to their homes. I can certainly appreciate this now with all of the snow and slush outside. And you don't want scratch up the softwood floors because of a rock stuck in the sole of your shoe. Plus, it is way more comfortable.

I've been told that the bačkory thing extends to school too. Apparently, kids take off their shoes when they get to school and wear their slippers all day.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Old & New Bridges

Two of the four bridges in Bratislava that cross the Danube are the Old Bridge and the New Bridge.

Prior to WWII, there was the Štefánikov most (Štefánik Bridge). During the war the steel part of the bridge was destroyed. Then after the war, Soviet troops and German prisoners-of-war built the "new" bridge to replace the old one.

This "new" bridge is 460 meters long as is the oldest standing bridge over the Danube in Bratislava. The city has reconstruction plans for the bridge and wants to connect a high-speed tram to Petržalka. However, the cost of this project is around €18 million (~$25.8 million) and that's tough in today's ecomonic climate.

This "new" bridge used to be called the Most Červenej armády (Red Army Bridge). But today it is called Starý most (old bridge) because now there is a new, new bridge.

Formerly known as the Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising, Nový Most is the new bridge and was built between 1968 - 1972.

So the new bridge became the old bridge when the new, new bridge was built.

With only one plylon and a single cable-stayed plane, it is the world's longest cable-stayed bridge of its type. It is also the only bridge in the world of this type to be a member of the World Federation of Great Towers.

The New Bridge has a flying saucer-shaped restaurant called "UFO". I'm told that the food is good but when you go there you're paying for the city view.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Primaciálny palác

So when Martin suggested that we go see the Primate's Palace I was wondering if it had something to do with monkeys. I wasn't thinking of the ecclesiastical definition of "primate" that means archbishop. It's hard enough trying to understand Czech (or Slovak), but it's a real shame when I can't even understand English.
The Primate's Palace was built from 1778 - 1781 and is in the center of Bratislava's Old Town. The neo-Classical palace was built for Archbishop József Batthyány.

On the east side is the Hall of Mirrors which was modeled after Versailles and has some historical significance. Here is where Napoleon and Francis I signed the Treaty of Pressburg (Bratislava’s former name) in 1805, after the Battle of Austerlitz where 50,000 Russian, French and Austrian troops were killed. In 1848, in the University Library, there was a congress where serfdom was abolished in Hungary. People can even rent the hall for weddings. However, they are very strict on zero photography. Maybe there is an exemption for weddings?
Other interesting features are the courtyard fountain & statue of St. George and the 18th-century St. Ladislaus chapel.
There is not much furniture in the palace but throughout are large oil paintings of Hapsburg royalty and huge crystal chandeliers.

But here's the coolest thing...In 1903, the city purchased the building and began renovating it. Hidden in the walls were six 17th-century English tapestries depicting the Greek story of Hero and Leandros. They were made in the 1630s of silk and wool. It is assumed that the tapestries were hidden away to prevent Napoleon from taking them back to France. There are three sets of tapestries in the world illustrating this legend, but Bratislava has the only complete set.

Hero and Leandros were young lovers who lived on opposite sides of the Hellespont. Hero lit a lamp in her tower to guide Leandros on his nightly swim to her. One night, a storm caused the lamp to burn out and Leandros was not able to find the shore and drowned. When Hero found out of Leandros' death, she threw herself from her tower in grief and died as well.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Blue Church

I spent this weekend with my friend Martin who lives in Bratislava. I've been to Bratislava several times but never had much of an opportunity to really appreciate it before. Fortunately, Martin is a big history buff and can give one heck of a tour. So I finally got to see the "Blue Church".

The Church of Saint Elisabeth was built in 1907-1908 and is an Art Noveau, Hungarian Secessionist Catholic church in the eastern part of Old Town. It is decorated with bright blue majolica tiles. Majolica tile is manufactured in Modra, Western Slovakia.

The church is consecrated to Elisabeth of Thuringia. She was the daughter of Hungarian king Andrew II and whe was born in 1207 in Pressburg (now Bratislava). She was engaged to Ludwig IV when she was 4 years old and they were married when she was 13.

She was dedicated to helping the poor and the sick her entire life. She died when she was 24 and four years later she was canonized by the Pope. Today, Saint Elizabeth is the patron saint of Hesse and Thuringia in Germany, patron of charity circles, widows, orphans and the poor.

Elisabeth is best known for the legend which says that whilst she was taking bread to the poor, in secret, her husband asked her what she had in the basket. Elisabeth opened it and the bread she was taking had turned into roses. Click on the pictures to see them better.
I'm sure this church does a huge volume of weddings. Especially since it kind of looks like a wedding cake. The only bummer when we went is that it was locked so we couldn't see the inside. Oh well, that just means another visit.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Rahnsdorf, Germany

While in Berlin, we stayed in Rahnsdorf, with Claudia's family. There are 16 counties in Berlin and Rahnsdorf is in the easternmost district of Köpenick. It is near the water on the Müggelsee.

It is about 30-40 minutes to the center of Berlin.

It was cold when we got there but it wasn't too bad. Then came the snow. In two days we got over 40 cm (~16 inches) of snow. Everything was so pretty covered in snow. It looked like a winter wonderland.

I can't remember the last time I had to shovel snow. It had to have been at least 15 years ago. Claudia's parents live near the woods and it was perfect for sledding. The neighbors were nice enough to loan us a sled one afternoon and we hit the hills.

Claudia's family was awesome! Her parents only speak German but her sister Connie speaks English so we had an extra translator for Marcus. But he did start to pick up some German in just a few days.

Her dad is really interesting. I could listen to him for hours talk about history, economics and politics. And her mom is so sweet and can cook! She even sent us home with care packages filled with homemade preserves, green cabbage, potato salad, meatballs, sausages, honey, Rotkäppchen sparkling wine, and seasonings. I'm ready to go back for another visit soon.


The Trabant, or “Trabi”, was the most common vehicle in East Germany. Its main selling point was that it had room for four adults, plus luggage, in a compact shell. More than 3 million cars were produced over almost 30 years and without any significant changes.

The usual waiting time for a Trabant was 15 years and it cost about a year’s salary. The average lifespan was 28 years and used Trabis would often fetch a higher price than new ones because a new one took so long to get.

The Trabant was made of Duroplast - plasticized cotton waste treated with resin. This didn’t really provide much in the way of crash protection but at least the government didn’t have to import expensive steel. So this was the first car with a body made out of recycled material, and then mounted on a metal frame. So no rust…just look after the chassis.

Here's an old East German commercial for the Trabi.

Some of the car’s challenges…
The two-cylinder engine ran on a mixture of oil and gas. To refuel you had to lift the hood, fill the tank with a maximum 24 liters (6 gallons), add two-stroke oil and shake it back and forth to mix.
There was no fuel gauge. But when the light went on for the reserve tank you had better get to a gas station quickly.
There were four speeds but it took a little while to get used to the column mounted gear change.

No brake lights or turn signals.

Not many driving comforts…the rear windows were glued shut, no carpeting, no glove box. But there was a heater…a fan would blow hot engine air into the interior, along with exhaust fumes.
There is even a Brno Trabi Car Club.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Berlin Wall & East Side Gallery

By 1961, 3.5 million East Germans, about 20% of the population, fled to the west. In order to prevent the "brain drain", of educated professionals and skilled workers, the government put up a concrete barrier that cut off East Germany from West Berlin.

The DDR's "Anti-Fascist Protection Wall" had one purpose and it wasn't to protect the East German capital from the West. It was to keep its citizens from escaping.

The wall ran from for 156 km (97 miles) around West Berlin and for 43 km (27) which actually divided West and East Berlin. The wall was built slightly inside of East Germany territory so that it did not encroach on West Berlin.

Here's a video that shows how the city was divided.

Most everyone knows that the west side of the Berlin Wall was decorated with murals and graffiti. Well after the Wall came down in 1989, artists were able to paint the eastside of the Wall that had been untouchable until that time.

Berlin's East Side Gallery is a 1.3 km long section of the wall near the center of Berlin. There are around 106 paintings making it the largest open air gallery in the world.

Update 2023:  Here's a 7-minute animated history of the Berlin Wall that I found on YouTube.

©Simple History

Saturday, January 2, 2010

DDR & Stasi Museums

East Germany's official name was the German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republic or DDR). Near the Berliner Dom, is the DDR Museum, an interactive museum, covering the DDR's 40 years.

There are around 600 objects on display and the focus is on what daily life was like in the DDR. Themes such as work, school, shopping, leisure, fashion, culture, etc. are all featured. There is a replica of a typical East German flat and even a Trabant, the national car, that you can sit in.

The DDR Museum was very interesting. Entrance is 5,50 € and everything is in both German and English.

The Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, or Stasi, was the East German secret police. It was one of the most effective and repressive agencies in the world. The Stasi motto was "Schild und Schwert der Partei" (Shield and Sword of the Party).

They infiltrated almost every aspect of East German life. It has been estimated that there was one informer for every seven citizens.

The Stasi Museum has some fascinating exhibits but everything is in German. One of the better exhibits shows the array of surveillance equipment used to spy on the population. Everything from miniature cameras concealed behind button holes to listening devices in fake rocks.

One of my favorite movies is Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). The movie shows to what lengths the government went to spy on its own citizens. There is one scene in the movie where an interrogator collects and preserves a scent sample from a prisoner in order to have it available for the dogs. There is even a display at the museum showing how they did this for real.

Here's the movie trailer for Das Leben der Anderen.