Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Czech Driver's License

Oh HAPPY Day!!! I finally have my Czech driver's license. I patiently waited my two weeks and went back to the Magistrát (city hall/DMV) this morning. I paid my 50 Kč (~$3) and they gave me my driver's license. But why in the heck is it pink?

My license is good for 10 years. I think a new adventure is in order. I'll have to give some thought as to where the first road trip should be. But at least now I can rent a car and drive.

I think this license here means more to me than the license I received when I was 16. Probably because it was easier to get a license in California than it was here with the lessons and the driving exam drama.

Update:  After 10 years I had to renew my license.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Katyń Memorial

In 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland. Germany controlled the west and the Soviets occupied the east.
Polish officers and soldiers, as well as civilian doctors, lawyers, priests and factory owners, captured by the Red Army were later executed by the NKVD (Stalin's secret police that later became the KGB).
The numbers vary but over 22,000 Poles were assassinated and buried in mass graves in 1940. Katyń Forest refers to one of the main execution sites near Smolensk in Russia. Though this was not the only site.
In 1943, the Germans discovered what had happened and told the world about the Soviet atrocities. Later the Soviets maintained that the Nazis were responsible for the killings. And so it went on for decades without any closure for the victim's families.
In 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that Stalin ordered the executions by the NKVD and confirmed two other burial sites. In 2010, the Russian State Duma approved a declaration officially blaming Stalin and other Soviet officials for ordering the massacre.
Last year the Polish president and other high government officials were on their way to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the massacre when the plane they were traveling in crashed near Smolensk. This just makes Katyń an ever bigger tragedy for Poland.
Many cities in Poland have Katyń memorials. In Wrocław, the memorial is in a park east of the city center. The "Matron of the Homeland" despairs over a dead solider while the angel of death looms over. Like the real victims at Katyń, the sculpture shows the soldier's hands tied behind his back and bullet hole in the back of his head.
Here's a clip I found on YouTube of Russia Today talking about the Katyń Massacre.


Monday, August 29, 2011

Wrocław Dwarfs

Back in the 1980s there was an underground, anarchist movement in Poland called Pomarańczowa Alternatywa – the Orange Alternative. They used sarcasm and satirical slogans to make fun of communist propaganda. In 1982, members of the group painted dwarfs next to some censured anti-communist slogans and from then the dwarfs became the group's symbol.
As the group became more popular with students they began organizing events in the streets. These street protests were organized as parties in order to avoid arrests.
In 1988. hundreds of people marched in the city center while wearing orange dwarf hats. There were lots of arrests this time but the image of the communist militia arresting people in dwarf hats was used to further ridicule the government.
In 2001, the city honored the movement by placing a dwarf at Świdnicka Street where a lot of the protest occurred. Since then more and more dwarfs keep popping up. Today, there are over 150 around town. Many companies sponsor their own dwarf and you can see tourists in Wrocław out dwarf hunting.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Wrocław, Poland

Back in '97, several of my friends opened a T.G.I. Friday's restaurant in Wrocław, Poland. They all said what a pretty little town it was so I knew that I wanted to check it out one day. It's about a six hour train ride from Brno and, with my In-Karta, a round trip train ticket is only €40 (~$55).
Sitting in the southwest, Wrocław (pronounced "Vrots-wahv") is over 1000 years old and through the centuries it has been a part of Poland, Bohemia, Austria, Prussia and Germany. At the end of WWII, the city was taken from Germany and became a part of Poland. With a population of +630,000 it is the country's 4th largest city. It's a major student city and it reminds me of a slightly larger Brno, except for all of the bridges. Wrocław sits on 12 islands and is connected by 112 bridges.

The main attraction is the Market Square; founded in the 1200s. It's huge, but after Kraków, is Europe's 2nd largest square. Around the square are some very beautiful buildings ranging in style from Gothic to Art Nouveau. In the center of the square is the New City Hall, as well as, the historic Town Hall. The Gothic Town Hall dates back to the 13th century. It is absolutely beautiful! Today, it houses Wrocław's City Museum and in the cellar is, Świdnicka, Europe's oldest beer hall.

Off of the main square is the much smaller Salt Square. It too dates back to the 13th century and got its name from the salt stalls that used to line the square. The salt has been replaced by flowers because now you can purchase them from outside vendors 24/7/365. I bet the flower stalls are popular with husbands, headed home to their wives, after a night at Świdnicka.

On the other side of the main square is St. Elisabeth's Church. It's a 14th century Gothic church. Now it's a minor basilica. The observation deck in the tower is open to the public and provides a great view of the city. Not far from the church is where the town's butchers' stalls used to be 700 years ago. The stalls are now galleries and in front of the them now are bronze statues to commemorate all of the animals that met their end there.

At the University of Wrocław it is possible to visit the ceremonial hall, Aula Leopoldina, named after Emperor Leopold I, when the town was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Baroque frescoes inside are great!

The Centennial Hall was built in 1911 - 1913. It was modeled after Istanbul's Hagia Sophia. The hall commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Leipzig where Napoleon was defeated. In 2006, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Near the hall is a multimedia fountain with regular shows. There is also a traditional Japanese Garden that was built for the 1913 World's Fair.

Panorama Racławicka is a huge painting (120 m x 15 m) in a rotunda that depicts the victory of Tadeusz Kościuszko and a group of peasants over the Russian Army in 1794. I really wanted to see it but wasn't able to. By 2 pm every 30-minute session for the rest of the day was sold out. I guess I'll have to get there earlier next time.

However, near the Panorama is a memorial to those Poles killed at Katyń by the NKVD.

And no visit to Wrocław is complete without the dwarfs.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Luhačovice, Czech Republic

Yesterday's adventure was a drive to the Czech spa town of Luhačovice. It is a little over an hour away from Brno by car; about 20 km (12.5 miles) from Zlín. Claudia, Norbert, Natalie and I went to explore the town and to sample the various mineral waters there.
In the Luhačovice area there is one sulfurous spring and 17 sodium hydrocarbonate acidulous springs. Fifteen thousand liters (~4000 gallons) of water flows to the top every hour. The water here is considered by many to be the most effective in Europe due to the high content of minerals, particularly sodium, calcium, magnesium, chlorine, bromine, iodine, carbonic acid and dissolved carbon dioxide. The most famous springs are Vincentka, Dr. Šťastný, Aloiska, Ottovka and St. Joseph.
The medicinal effects of Luhačovice's waters were documented back in 1669. The spas here use the different spring waters to treat respiratory tract illnesses, digestive issues, diabetes, metabolic dysfunctions and blood circulation diseases.
The town is cute and it was nice to just walk around. You can go to free fountains and try some of the various mineral waters and even fill up empty water bottles. One of the most popular waters to try is Vincentka and you could try it either cold or warm. Both ways were God awful!! I had actually tried this one before. A couple of months ago, one of my colleagues brought a bottle of Vincentka in to work because his stomach was upset. The water smells horrible and tastes even worse. But for some reason people here think it's wonderful. I just don't get it.
Later in the day we drove about a half-hour to Buchlov Castle but it closed as soon as we got there. We found a nice spot though where we could watch a hot air balloon festival. Another great little day trip. We'll have to go back to Buchlooundv again to visit the castle.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Morning Rainbows

Just a quick post and then I'm out the door this morning. I'm off to join Claudia, Norbert and Natalie on a little Saturday outing. Today's adventure will be the Czech spa town of Luhačovice. Then later there is supposed to be some sort of hot air balloon gathering. We'll go view those considering what experts we are now after last week's ride.

The weather has been a bit dodgy lately and we had a touch of rain this morning. However, it did make for a nice rainbow. These photos are from my balcony this morning. Not a bad morning view. But now I'm off on today's venture.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

No License Yet

Well, no license yet. So I took my paperwork and my passport photo down to the Brno Magistrát (city hall) in order to get my driver's license. I was so looking forward to having my license and putting this ordeal to rest. such luck.

Typical Czech bureaucracy. I went to the office first thing in the morning. I selected the option for a driver's license (řidičských průkazů) from the 'take a number' machine and waited less than five minutes to be called.

The clerk asked for my paperwork, my photo and my passport. I thought that this would be a good chance to try out my new biometric ID card. Nope. She would only accept my passport because she needed to see the stamp showing that I was registered with the foreign police for a minimum of six months. Never mind that my new ID card shows that I am registered. This defeats the purpose of not having to carry around my passport. Fortunately, I had a feeling that something like this would happen so I had brought my passport along, just in case.

I then signed her forms and she told me to come back in two week and not to forget to bring in 50 Kč (~$3). What!?!? Two weeks? Yes, come back in two weeks. The ČR is not like the USA where the DMV takes your picture and you get your license in a few minutes. Here you bring in your own picture and pick up your license at least two weeks later.

I asked if there was any sort of paper that shows I have a driver's license but I am simply waiting on the permanent card to be issued. She looked at me like I had three heads. I don't have a driver's license because I haven't been issued it yet because it hasn't been two weeks yet. Ugh!!! Sometimes I wonder how things ever get done around here. Oh well, I guess the saga will continue for another couple of weeks.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Driving Exams's the story that everyone has been waiting for. My driving exam(s). I swear it was easier getting my driver's license on my 16th birthday than it has been trying to get my Czech license. Here are a few differences between how things are done here and back in the USA.

In the USA, you need to bring your own vehicle for the exam. There is no one in the car except for the examiner and the person taking the test. The examiner sits in the front passenger seat. You have to drive around for a while, park, etc. You drive on surface streets but one never drives on the highway.

In the ČR, you're there with the car from the driving school. You're driving instructor sits in the front passenger seat and the commissar sits in the back seat, all the while, telling you what to do. It's not uncommon to have other people in the car with you who are also taking the exam. You pretty much have to do through town, drive on the highway, go through several roundabouts, park, etc.

So in June, I had an appointment to get my Czech driver's license. I wasn't overly concerned with the driving exam. I was worried about the written exam, in Czech, but with an official interpreter. Well I got a 92% on my written exam, even with all of those funny European road signs. Then it was time to take the driving exam. My driving school instructor sat in the front seat. The commissar was in the back seat. The first person to take the test was in the driver's seat. Another applicant and I were in the back seat waiting our turns to drive. The first person drove around for about 20 minutes and then the exam was over. We pulled over and let the driver out. I listened in on the feedback and understood that it was a big deal that you must hold the steering wheel at "10 and 2", blah, blah, blah. Then it was my turn. I checked my mirrors like three times just to make sure that the commissar saw that I did it. I even made him fasten his seatbelt before we drove off.

We drove for oh...about one minute and I was told to pull over. I had not turned on the headlights so it was an instant fail. You always have to drive with your headlights on...even in the daytime. All of my practice driving sessions were at night so, of course, I turned on the lights. Out of habit, it just didn't occur to me to turn on the headlights at 10 AM when it was bright and sunny. I felt like such an idiot. I've had either a California or a Georgia driver's license for about 24 years and I failed my Czech exam in about one minute.

Later that day I went to lunch with a friend. I told her "I'm going to tell you something. You can laugh or say whatever for the next 30 minutes and then I don't want to hear anything about it again, for at least a month". I wasn't ready for this to be a funny story yet. Kamila wasn't surprised at all. She said that it normally takes people two or three times to pass the driving exam. Then she wanted to know what illegal thing did they ask me to do. What the hell!?!? Apparently, it's not uncommon to be asked to do illegal things, just to see if you'll do them, and if you do then it's an instant fail. That does not happen in the U.S. At least it made me feel a tiny bit better. Bottom line...I would have to make an appointment to take another driving test and pay 400 Kč (~$24).

About three weeks later it was time for my retest. Then right before I got to the meeting point I received a telephone call that we had to reschedule the test because the commissar was ill. Damn him and his illness.
My third attempt to get my license was on my 40th birthday. I figured I got my 1st license on my 16th birthday so why not get my new license on my 40th. Good karma, right? It was raining that morning but no worries. I would just drive slow and be extra careful. And definitely remember to turn on my dang headlights. So I trudged out into the rain and right before I got to the meeting point I received another telephone call. It was my driving instructor. The person who took the exam before me had an accident and wrecked the car. We would have to reschedule again. Ugh!!!

A few weeks later and I was back at the meeting point waiting for my instructor to pick me up. At 8 AM I called him and there was no answer. Remember...people don't use voice mail over here. At 8:15 he finally picked up and said that he was on his way. At 9 AM he showed up, in a minivan equipped for a handicapped driver. He was giving a driving lesson to a young girl and we had to go swap out the van for the car we would use for the exam. That's when I found out that the commissar was busy giving exams with another driving school and today's exams would be at 11:30. Ugh!!! Again, there were three of us who would take the exam. It was the first exam for a Bulgarian girl and the second exam for a Russian girl. The Russian girl failed the first time because she drove too slow.

The Bulgarian chica went first. Did I mention that there was a light drizzle? Anyway, we started. The speed limit is 50 kilometers per hour (31 MPH). The first thing she had to do was drive downhill . She went 52 and was told to pull over in about two minutes. Next was the Russian girl. She drove for about 10 minutes and everything was fine. Then we came to a red light and for some reason she used the handbrake. When the light changed to green she continued to drive but forgot to release the handbrake. The commissar asked her what the red parking light on the dashboard meant. She realized the parking brake was still engaged and he said well at least she got that right. But she still failed again.

My turn. I could tell that the commissar was feeling extra ornery today so I didn't press the issue about him not wearing his seat belt. I drove for over 20 minutes and everything was fine. And then it came. I came to an intersection and a red light. I was told to proceed straight ahead. But I said that I couldn't because there was no room and I would have blocked the crossway. I was told again to go straight ahead but there was still not enough room. Now he was getting loud that I needed to go so I went. The light changed and the back of the car was about a half meter (18 inches) in the crossway so I failed again. Even my driving instructor was angry and started arguing with the commissar that it wasn't right. Clearly I could drive well and already have an American license. The commissar said that it was an unfortunate thing but it was still a fail. However, I could still take the exam again. Have I mentioned before that my background is Mexican and German? In other words, I do have a temper and I was so over this country. Clearly, I'm just viewed as an ATM because they just want me to keep paying for additional exams.

Seven days later and I'm back to take another exam. This time it is just me, the instructor and the commissar. I drove for 30 minutes and everything was fine. I passed! It was about damn time. I was told that I didn't have to pay another 400 Kč. Maybe they both felt bad because of what had happened last week? My instructor gave me a document showing my passing mark and said that I could go to the city magistrate office the next day to turn it in. That paper, a passport photo and 50 Kč ($3) would get me my driver's license. The next step is going to pick up my license.

Monday, August 15, 2011

1st Balloon Ride

The time came to take the birthday hot air balloon ride. Sounds like a great idea for someone who's scared of heights, right? It was awesome!! By far, the best birthday present EVER!!

A couple of things did not work out as planned but, in the end, everything came together. Originally we were supposed to go on Saturday afternoon but the weather did not hold out so we were moved to Sunday morning. We were told that we would take off from Radešín and land in Brno, near Kraví hora. Radešín is about an hour away from Brno and not so easy to get there at 6 AM on Sunday. So Sabine ordered a taxi for 5 people. I guess the taxi company included the driver as one of the five people. Logczech. Half of us took the first car and a second taxi came about 20 minutes later.

We get there and everything is fine. Sort of. We then find out that we will land in Mirošov; not Brno. That's about an hour away and we had no clue about how to get from there back to Brno. But that's not anything that the five of us couldn't figure out.

The big surprise came when we saw the balloon. We thought we were going up in a small balloon with just us and the pilot. Instead, there were 30 of us going. It turns out that Kubíček, based in Brno, is the 3rd largest producer of hot air balloons in the world. They were giving a test flight to a potential buyer so we got to join in with them go for a ride in one of the largest balloons in the world. It was awesome!!

So at 7 AM we were high over the Czech country side. Claudia had brought some champagne for us. Then people started handing us beers and passing around a bottle of slivovice. Nothing says "Sunday morning" like 7 AM shots of booze. Another last touch was that one of the guys from Kubíček brought along his violin so we were serenaded during our flight. He even played "Happy Birthday" for me. The ride was incredible!! I even did OK with the whole fear of heights thing.

After we landed in Mirošov, they had to pack up the balloon and then drove us back to our starting point in Radešín where we had breakfast. After about an hour or so they wanted all of the first-timers to gather around. I thought it was for a group photo but then someone came up to each of us and blew into our hair and then put some dirt on our heads, followed by a quick flick of a lighter and some water...for the four elements. This was quickly followed by the pouring of champagne as part of our hot air balloon baptism. Apparently, I am now known as Christopher z Mirošova since that's where we landed.

After another hour, the company drove us back to Brno. So everything worked out perfectly. My only concern is that now I'm spoiled because the next time I go for a balloon ride I'll expect something huge with musical accompaniment. Between the five of us we managed almost 1,000 photos and videos of our outing and I've posted them all on Flickr. Big thanks to Vilém, Markéta, Adriana, Dalibor, Pavel, Tomáš F., Tomáš K., and Annie for pitching in on my birthday ride. And extra HUGE thanks to Claudia, Norbert, Sabine and Natalie for going on this adventure with me. Again, the best birthday present EVER!